Ethical guidelines

Pagan ethics tend to the libertarian. There are no commandments revealed by a deity or list of precepts recommended by an enlightened teacher. Decisions are very much up to the individual and there is a faith in human ability to behave well when free to do so. Pagans tend to dislike notions of sin and guilt as having negative effects on human flourishing. Life is to be enjoyed, in ways that respect the rights of other beings to enjoy their lives too. Michael York (2003) characterises Pagan ethics as based on ‘honor, trust and friendship’. The Pagan perspective that all life is a connected part of the sacred, including all human life and all of nature, has implications for ethical thought about how Pagans interact with the world.

Some Pagans will quote what is known as the ‘Wiccan Rede’: ‘an it harm none, do what thou wilt’ (possibly coined by Doreen Valiente in 1964, and perhaps a response to Crowley’s ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’). However, harming none (which has echoes of the ahimsa of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist traditions) can put considerable limits on the notion of doing what you like. Some Pagans are vegetarian or vegan to avoid harming animals or exploiting them in any way, whereas others think eating meat is natural, but that we should be fully aware of and thankful for the life that has been sacrificed to give us nourishment. An ethic not based on codified rules is actually quite difficult as it involves making constant judgments about what is the most loving and least harmful course of action in any given case.

Some Pagans believe that there is a natural justice in the way the universe is organised, and that ‘what goes around comes around’. They may even use the Indian term karma for this idea. Some Wiccans talk about the ‘threefold return’ that applies to magic – everything wished for others will come back to the practitioner three times as much, which is a deterrent to using magic for negative ends. Others dismiss these ideas and hold that we should behave well towards other beings without any thought of reward or punishment.

There have been a number of books published recently, that examine ethics from a Pagan perspective. Two good examples are:

Myers, B., 2008. The Other Side of Virtue. Alresford: O Books.

and

Restall Orr, E., 2012. Living with Honour – a Pagan Ethics. Alresford: O Books

Most Pagans also strongly believe in taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, and that taking personal responsibility should be highly visible as an indication of an ethical approach to life.

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