The first thing you learn in the Pagan community is that nothing is ever straightforward or, gods forbid, easy. After learning the maxims “Question everything” and “Create your own reality,” you begin to wonder where this creating and questioning will eventually lead.
Take the subject of ethics. Many folks, especially those within Wiccan traditions, will likely quote the Rede (yes, folks, that’s always a capital “R”) or at least, the last line “An it harm none, you what thou will.” That sure leaves the door wide open for all sorts of actions, reactions, and interpretations! It may seem at first glance that Pagans are a pretty lax and hedonistic bunch (and I can’t deny that to a certain extent). Our ethics, however, are not as simple as those eight words would make it seem. Not to mention the fact that there are many Pagans who do not consider themselves Wiccan, thank you very much.
I am one of those. We are a motley lot, honor bound to uphold some type of ethical behavior to our fellow living creations and the earth on which we live. Yet we do not have a standard that we can all agree upon. And so, with our two touchstone maxims in hand and in mind, each of us begins to examine our lives, reflect upon our values, consult our history books, and chat with our gods to create our own thoughtful code of ethics. I went through this process about a year ago and created my Ethical Foundations for general life situations and Ethical Guidelines for my work as Pagan clergy.
You would think that living according to one’s self-created ethical code is easy. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ethical behavior, by its very nature, demands something more of us: that we be thoughtful of our actions. We create a code to remind us to do the “right” thing during those moments when we would either prefer to do the “wrong” thing, or just not think about what we are doing at all. Recently I have found myself reviewing my statement of ethics to remind myself of the way I have said I want to live and act. I am thankful I have taken the time to reflect upon and write down the guidelines by which I want to live my life because know that it has stopped me from doing things that, while they would have been evilly delicious at that moment, would have gone against the person I truly want to be.
But what happens when ethics collide? I’m not talking about when your code disagrees with someone else’s, but when two or more parts of your code are brought into conflict in a particular situation. How do you decide which standard takes priority? How do you decide what action to take? Which is “right” and which is “wrong”? What is the ethical course to take?
There is no cut-and-dried, easy, “either/or” answer to these questions within the realm of contemporary Western Paganism. Everything is a delicate balance. We actually have to weigh the conflicting values we hold and view them through the context of the situation we are faced with. Once we make a decision and act, we must be willing to take responsibility for whatever consequences fall upon us. But this is the same for any action – conflicted ethics or not.
To illustrate my point: I carry a secret that was entrusted to me many years ago by someone very close to my heart. This secret may be the defining ethical decision of my life for I do not endorse the activity of which I know through the secret. Before we go any further, I should clarify that this secret does not hide any illegal actions, nor could one argue that anyone was harmed by the activity to which I refer – there was no stealing, no physical or mental abuse.
One of the ethical foundations I adhere to is honesty and integrity:
I find this particular secret too ethically gray for my taste – it is laced with deception about who and what one is. It feels like lying and I don’t lie about important things (I am not counting the occasional tall tale or polite white lie here). Keeping this secret is sometimes unbearable, and I wish the other person would stop so that the secret could become a thing of the past.
However, I understand the motivations of the person who engages in the secret’s activity. Part of my ethics is seeing with both eyes, “to remember that each individual embodies multiple dimensions, that everyone has the potential to do good and ill, and that all stories have multiple perspectives.” I understand the subtleties of intent when contemplating ethical action. Also I seek to have empathy, “to understand the situations, feelings, and motives of others, to act in accordance to this understanding, and to not unfairly judge others without this empathic consideration.” I seek to remember that my own view is tunnel vision when compared to the wide range of reality. My way of seeing things is only a way, not the way.
I get it! But I don’t like it.
So what’s stopping me from not keeping the secret? Why not unburden myself? If I don’t agree with the activity, why continue in the deception myself?
Here’s where the real ethical conflict raises its ugly head. I also have an ethical foundation of commitment:
I made a commitment to keep this secret when told to me. I also have a personal commitment of loyalty to the person who entrusted me with the secret. I would do nothing to sully this person’s reputation. Heck, I won’t even tell my therapist!
So what do I do in such a situation, in which part of my ethics outweighs the other – stay loyal and keep my word and the secret, or be honest and not hide the secret? It is here where I understand that ethics are not absolute; at least, not for me. But before I resign myself to the idea that ethics are of no help and decide to throw them out completely, I remember my last ethical foundation and the only one that can guide me through this situation: personal responsibility.
Whether I keep the secret or tell it to the world, I am responsible for my part in the consequences. Nothing releases me from that hard, cold fact of reality. It is not really comforting, but I don’t think that ethics are supposed to be easy or comforting. Ethics make us think about those places in life that are not clear-cut. They make use weigh our actions and make tough decisions.
They make us question everything and create our own reality. As a good little Pagans should.
Blessings from a full heart