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Morality and the Wiccan Rede
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Posted: September 9th. 2012
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"An it harm none, do what ye will"
This is, to be honest, more of a philosophical exercise than a spiritual one. I believe that most people (and I am no exception) have an intuitive rather than a logical approach to morality. Most of us feel our way through life rather than apply a set of rules to a given situation. So in writing an analysis of the oft quoted "An Ye harm None, Do What Ye Will, " I am seeking more to explore my own thoughts and reactions inspired by the Wiccan morality than I am in trying to denigrate its usefulness to those who follow it as a creed.
So just to underline that: this is in no way intended to be a criticism of anybody, Wiccan or otherwise. My interest lies in whether or not I can use the Rede to establish a consensus on personal morality and whether it can actually be of use in shaping my view of how to act in the world.
If I can draw any conclusion at all from my somewhat convoluted musings, it is merely that (to shamelessly paraphrase poor Oscar Wilde) morality is rarely pure and never simple. I believe that morality will always be too complex to be reduced to mere words.
The key difference between the Wiccan Rede (and I stress when I refer to the Rede I am specifically relating to the summarizing final eight words) and the explicit morality of other religions is that the Rede is meant to be interpreted by its followers. This differs markedly from the commandments of the Christian faith where the commandments are more clearly intended to be an imperative. Christians are (rightly or wrongly, I make no judgment) expected to follow the rules set down as part of their faith. The guidance in the Rede is merely a tool to stimulate the individual Wiccan conscience. It is the personal definition of harm, the personal definition of the concept of whom is potentially to be caused harm and the personal definition of what actions are therefore appropriate that bring the morality into the Rede. Without this interpretation there is no morality.
(As an aside) I would note however that interpretation is intrinsically a concern for all faiths. Consider the example of the Christian commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." Ostensibly this appears pretty straightforward. But upon applying a little light analysis it becomes harder to comprehend. Thou shalt not kill what? Is it always wrong to kill? How about if you have to kill to prevent somebody else being killed? Euthanasia? Abortion? Help!!
So, having established that the Rede is reliant on interpretation, this raises the question of who exactly is doing the interpreting. My definition of harm is likely to differ from that of my fellow witches, my friends, my work colleagues, etc. Let us suppose my personal definition of harm is simply lifted from the OED: "physical injury, especially that which is deliberately inflicted: " I may believe on this interpretation that I am causing no harm with verbal abuse. Another person, with a wider definition of harm, may believe that verbal abuse can be the cause of actual harm. Herein lies the problem with the morality. Both my verbally abusive friend and myself are completing the same action (verbally abusing our hypothetical mutual friend, the victim) . I believe I am doing something that causes no harm; my friend believes they are doing something that causes harm. In my eyes, I am adhering to the spirit of the Rede. Does that make me any more moral a person? Put simply, if I do a bad thing but don't believe it is a bad thing I am doing, am I as culpable as I would be if I knew what I was doing was bad?
So as a key point, does there need to be a universal definition of harm for the Rede to be of use? Possibly. But sometimes the same act can have different moral value depending on the circumstances. So having considered the personal interpretation of the person viewing the situation, it is also important to view the situation itself. Lets take the simple act of stabbing a biro through a person's throat (I think you can see where I'm going with this...) By my OED definition of harm (and indeed by most people's definition of harm) , this act can be said to warrant the term "harm" to be used. But taking that same act (and introducing our poor choking to death individual) the same act takes on a completely different meaning when I perform my emergency tracheotomy and save the individual's life. Strict adherence to the Rede would actually have prevented my impromptu surgery. The context here is why I choose to cause harm. So there is clearly a conflict as to whether causing harm can be considered, in some contexts, to be a moral behavior in itself.
Possibly the difficulty can be resolved with the answer that it is sometimes acceptable to cause harm when it is a clear means to a good end. But this creates difficulties in itself. What if I kill a man because I believe he is about to open fire and cause numerous casualties and then I find out I was mistaken and I have in fact, albeit accidentally, committed murder. Is my initially laudable act any the less moral for being the result of a mistake?
And that is not to mention degrees and consequences of harm. A simple thought experiment (I believe created by John Stuart Mill; don't ask for references; I'm a witch not an academic...) has a man forcibly given the choice between shooting 20 people dead or shooting just one person dead, the caveat being that the single person will go on to find a cure for cancer. Granted this is a thought experiment rather than a plausible happening but it suits our purposes for illustrating the principle that sometimes and under some circumstances it could be argued that choosing to cause the maximum harm could be the most moral thing to do.
This is a slightly simplistic way of viewing this experiment as it could be argued our heroic cancer curer will go on to save significantly many more lives than the 20 men who were shot. However, it does not negate the clear argument that sometimes there are circumstances where some people would perceive the short-term harm to justify the long-term end results. And possibly even circumstances when the decision to cause the greater harm could be the most moral choice.
Having looked at the problems involved in deciding when to take action, it is equally problematic to consider when not to take action and whether any blame can be attached to the aptly named ‘sin of omission’. To take a common example – I walk by a lake and see a young child drowning. Agreed, the moral action to take is to leap in and drag the child to safety. But how about if I choose to do nothing? I am not committing an act of harm. I am still following the implied advice of the Rede. Yet there is a drowned child whom I have done nothing to help.
The morality here is whether I have an obligation not just to not do, but also to do. The letter of the law interpretation of the Rede allows me go about my daily business with no impetus to take any positive actions, merely to avoid negative action. But is that enough to substantiate morality? Does not the very fact that I share the earth with other people also lay upon me a sense of responsibility to take positive actions to bring about the best solution? Am I more or less morally culpable for walking by and letting the child drown than I would be if I had actually chucked him in there in the first place?
Is it okay to do what you want in a vacuum and tiptoe through life taking care not to tred on anybody's toes? Isn't morality not about what you can do and what you should do?
I think the most interesting part of the Rede is – the concept of "none." As with the Christian commandment, we looked at the difficulties inherent in interpreting "Thou shalt not kill" and questioning whom the killing actually refers to. Here in the Rede we encounter similar problems. Does the "none" refer to humans? Humans and animals? Humans and animals and plants? Humans and animals and plants and bacteria? Are there different levels of moral culpability on the spectrum? Is killing a human worse than killing an animal? Is killing a dog worse than killing a rat? Is there any moral dilemma at all involved in killing the bacteria on my kitchen surfaces?
To the evangelistic vegetarian, I am making the wrong moral choice when I choose to eat meat. I am choosing to harm the animals I eat. To a meat-eating animal activist, I am fine to sit down to my steak dinner but completely wrong to spend my Sunday afternoons hunting foxes (I don't. I actually spend them playing Farmville) . Again, a question of interpretation. Let us say that I decide to take the most extreme position I can: I become a Fruitarian and I choose to only eat what falls off a tree. I stop cleaning my house. I wear natural fibers. Now what?
Well, for a start, I am house bound, I can't even have a quick walk through the woods without crushing hundreds of little insects underfoot. If I want to cause no harm at all, to nobody and to nothing, I had better get used to the idea of sitting on my own sofa for a long time. It’s all a conundrum, of course. We all have different views on where our own morality sits on the spectrum. And once again, does the same act take on differing levels of morality just because interpretation differs between individuals?
The concept of "none" also raises the question of whether the "none" embraces your own self. Apart from the ethical dilemma of suicide, there are simpler, closer to home, issues that involve harm to yourself. Is overeating morally wrong? Smoking? Drinking? Does a person have the same moral obligation to him/herself that society would perceive he/she do to others? Can I offset the "harm" of knocking back a bottle of red wine with the justification that the momentary tranquility (pre-hangover, of course) will be of more benefit to me than the minimal harm done to my liver by my single moment of indulgence?
I'm moving to the final few words of the Rede now. "Do what you will." This can be read in two different ways – "Do what you want" or "Do what you should." The first interpretation reads along the lines of: "If you do no harm, then its ok ayto do what you want." The second interpretation is more "If you take the action that brings no harm, you will be doing the right thing." This reminds me greatly of a maxim from John Robinson (a Christian Bishop writing about God in the early 1960s) who stated: "Love God and do what you will." This caused any amount of controversy that the liberal Bishop was advocating the belief that it’s ok to do whatever you want, providing you love God. Trendy!
Unfortunately, the actual intention was to mean - If you love God in everything that you do, you will be guided to do the right thing. And it’s the same thing here with the Rede. Is it saying ‘live your life in a bubble and don't hurt anyone’? Or is it saying ‘consider the implicit harm in every act you take – think about the effects your actions can have on others and through this thought process your will be guided to being the right one’?
Concentrating on the concept that I do what I will.. Who is the I of that sentence? Is it the I who wants to have a merry old time tonight and stay up all hours of the night or the I who wants to impress my boss by being bright-eyed tomorrow morning? My will differs whether we are talking about my long-term desires or my short term needs. Fundamentally, there is no person standing at a specific moment of space and time who I can quantify to be absolutely me. It follows from this that it is nigh on impossible to determine my own will.
I said at the beginning that morality is always too complex to be reduced to words. I stand by this statement but I also want to add that morality is also too important to be reduced to words. Each of us, as thinking human beings, has the choice and the chance to create and evolve our own morality. The Rede, the commandments, the religious laws across all cultures can only take us so far. In the end, our own intuition and our own inherent understanding of what is right or wrong can only guide us.
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