An Argument for the Exercise of Natural Law
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Article ID: 5352
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,950
Times Read: 3,363
Author: Lili Fugit
Posted: February 16th. 2003
Times Viewed: 3,363
Is nothing profane? Or is that the actual question? The real question, when directed at Pagans, Wiccans, and Witches, seems to be "Do you have any absolute moral values?" After all, most of us left organized religions that told us what was right and wrong and struck out on our own to figure it out for ourselves.
The bigger question could be this: does the value we, as members of the Pagan community, place upon free will act to the detriment of moral standards? In other words, just because we generally choose to live our lives without much in the way of a superimposed moral construct, does this mean we cannot discern the absolutes that do exist? Does not having a Bible or Koran, written by other people from other times with other values, mean we are incapable of figuring out what is right and what is wrong?
During the time of the framing of the United States Constitution there was a revival of interest in the old Roman concept of Natural Law. Its precepts are simple-- a human being can determine what is right and what is wrong without legislated laws or organized religion. Natural Law does not assume there are no absolutes, but it does assume that people can determine for themselves what precisely those absolutes are. Natural Law also assumes that a single person can come to a universal truth.
Now here, in the twenty-first century, the emphasis is no longer on self-determination, but on "bringing moral values back" to classrooms and media and the legal system, without any regard for how those standards are determined and whether or not they are right for everyone.
When examining the question "is nothing profane?", the question of absolute morality must come into play. Debates over culture, religion, lifestyle, and politics all have, at their core, the conflict between imposed values and self-determined values. Fundamentalist Christians rant and rave about the moral relativism of modern society, and yet each and every church contains within it all of the expected contradictions of human endeavors. I would also posit that no matter the elaborate sophistry of the Pagan lady or gentleman, they believe in some absolute form of right and wrong. The real issue is, how do people reach those conclusions?
Most societies indeed agree upon basic things-- wanton killing, for example, is considered wrong no matter where one goes in the world. After that general rule, however, social mores and consensus vary wildly. Within our own society a person who advocates the death penalty may oppose abortion, and vice verse, and within those groups some people will be pro-war and others will be pacifists. Some people think it is all right to kill in self defense, whereas others believe it doesn't matter if one is being attacked or not-- it is always wrong to use lethal force. And yet it all hinges on the same question-- is killing wrong? And clearly people, no matter what creed or belief they follow, determine for themselves what the proper boundaries are, while acknowledging the basic premise. For this reason it can be safely said that wanton murder falls into the realm of the profane. This can be seen whenever an army commits mass murder and then scurries to hide the evidence, even when no one is watching them and punishment is a remote possibility.
Then there are issues which seem to have no consensus at all. In the United States, if a twelve year-old girl is handed over to a man to have sex with him, that would be molestation and child rape-- in parts of India and Pakistan it would be marriage. In the vast majority of the world if a group of men got together and each chose a prepubescent boy from their town and had sex with him on a daily basis, they would be considered pedophiles-- in several tribes in New Guinea they would be considered tribal elders doing their duty and making the boy a man. Does the ritualization of pedophilia or the wedding preceeding the child rape actually change, at its essence, what the act is?
This is where the term "cultural relativism" rears its head. Supposedly one should have respect for the values of other cultures, even if those values praise cannibalism or require female genital mutilation. There are things that are part and parcel of a culture, the logic goes, and how can, for example, a Westerner claim it is wrong just because it is not part of Western culture?
And of course that is true-- that is not what makes something wrong. What makes something right or wrong, at its core, revolves very closely around choice. Can children knowingly choose to have a sexual relationship? Is a woman choosing to mutilate the sacred, private parts of her body, or is someone else choosing for her?
When a group of students from Boston University went to Egypt recently the males in the group had, they stated, preconceived notions about the approachability of Egyptian women and girls-- one said that seeing a group of women with veils made them believe they could not go up to them and talk, or that the women would not walk up to them. They quickly discovered they were wrong-- Egyptian women would talk to them, sometimes discussing politics and religion in unabashedly loud voices. And one of the things this group of American students learned was this-- in Egypt, unlike in other Arabic and Middle Eastern countries, women choose whether or not to veil. Choice is empowering, and doing something out of respect for ones religion does not exclude self respect. That is when cultural relativism is valid-- there are people who believe all Muslim women who veil are disempowered, weak, and enslaved. This is only true when someone is forced to veil.
Slavery is practiced throughout the world to this day, and certainly America is no stranger to its dehumanizing and violent effects-- slavery was considered acceptable, legally, for several hundred years. But slavery was challenged from the very beginning of this country's origins as a blot upon the nation's moral character. Why did it carry on so long?
The ability to rationalize is a great human gift. But rationalization is like an herb that can heal in one dosage and kill in another-- rationale is never, in and of itself, right or wrong. People rationalize, on a daily basis, removing choices from other people ["Its for your own good"]. They rationalize making bad choices ["It was just a few drinks, and I couldn't leave my car in the parking lot because it would have been towed"]. So rationale alone is not the lighthouse in the storm. It can be the compass that may or may not get us there.
To return to the issue of slavery, there is one worldwide truth about it-- no one wants to be enslaved. Why does a slave owner not care? They can rationalize. "This person is not from my tribe." "This person is better off as a slave-- they are fed and clothed." "This is not a person-- they aren't really human." "Slavery exists because it is necessary." And so on. In some ways the very rationale that is used to justify slavery contains some of the greatest profanities that can exist within a human being-- entitlement, racism, and cruelty. It also shows how these attitudes can spill over into attitudes towards other people-- women, making up over half of the world's population, for example, even in supposedly enlightened and educated countries, are so often seen as or portrayed as "the other" that it is possible to rob women of choice, equality, and freedom without taking too much trouble about it. And with the help of religions that denigrate the value of choice, many women aid and abet this robbery.
Choice is what makes us human. Robbing people of choices dehumanizes them. Choice is sacred, and lack of choice is profane. Sometimes a person will make a bad choice, and the fact is most of the time, no matter how much we want to stop them, they should not be stopped. There are times when stopping someone is a sacred duty-- taking keys from a drunk friend is a good example. But these times are [hopefully] rare-- there are far fewer absolutes than fundamentalists think there are, and there are few situations in which one should interfere with another person and their decision-making capacity. Just because those situations are few, however, doesn't mean we cannot figure out for ourselves what those situations are.
Some people condemn what is often called "moral relativism" or "situational ethics". But the truth is everything is a situation. Fundamentalists can talk about absolutes and moral values, etc., until the cows come home, but even within their rigid frameworks they too have to make judgment calls on issues not covered in their bibles. This is how someone can advocate the death penalty and oppose abortion-- the theory of the sanctity of human life is being applied selectively.
Pagans are not much different from anyone else when it comes to morality. The main difference is Pagans do not rely upon much more than one principle-- "If it harms none, do as you will." Because of this there are no elaborate doctrines and dogmas and theologies to hide their perceived inconsistencies behind, and this makes Pagans and their ilk look flaky, morally questionable, and ethically challenged to the mainstream, which desperately wants rules to absolve them of their responsibilities in making their own decisions and judgments. The mainstream is uncomfortable with the notion that acknowledgment of moral complexities does not mean one is without moral values.
Natural Law resides within moral frameworks like Christianity, and within less rigid constructs like the Craft-- this is our common ground when it comes to determining that which is truly sacred, and that which is profane, and that which is neither one or the other.
Location: Unknown, Iowa
Bio: Lili Fugit is the nom de guerre of a writer who lives in Southern California with her small white dog. She has been a witch for ten years, and practices Chaos Magick with a dominant strain of Hoodoo. She can often be found making trouble in the forums at Modernwiccan.com, at The Witches' Voice under an even more-assumed name, and fraternizing with the enemy at local bars. She is fond of the following quote-- "If you don't believe in abortion, don't have one."
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