Wiccan ethics

by Sarah Howe

With the interplay between the Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law, Wiccan morality and ethics is a far more complex subject than a casual glance would have you believe.  Once the additional ideal of Perfect Love & Perfect Trust comes into play, it is obvious that the complexity of the issue of Wiccan morality and ethics can only increase.

“Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfil.
An it harm none, do what ye will.”

The Wiccan Rede is an interesting concept and whilst simple at first glance, it is far more complex in practice, especially when you take into account that the Rede doesn’t mention the concept of unavoidable harm – the ending of an unhealthy relationship for example, which may cause harm to the person involved, but will prevent a greater harm in the long run.  A great deal of thought must be put into an action as to whether harm would be caused, whether it can be avoided and, if not, whether the harm caused will negate a greater harm.

This is very in keeping with Gardner’s own description of the Rede in explaining its origins.

“They [the witches] are inclined to the morality of Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”.  But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm”.  This involves every magical action being discussed first, to see that it can do no damage and this induces a habit of mind to consider well the results of one’s actions, especially upon others”.

(The Meaning of Witchcraft – Page 108)

 In my experience, I have known many people on a variety of spiritual paths, to have taken the Rede to be a law (often seen shortened to “Harm None”); however it is clear that such a law would be impossible to follow.  The word Rede actually means ‘advice’ and it is therefore a more sensible approach to look at the Rede as a guideline and an ideal to strive for rather than a hard and fast rule.  I like to think of it like the bumpers you have down each side of a bowling alley.  The ball may veer off course but the bumper helps it back on track.  This is how I believe the Rede works:  as a bumper to keep us from veering too far from our paths.

The Rede is a positive way of thinking, giving freedom of personal morality rather than imposing a set of strict religious rules.  Quite often, when we are told we aren’t allowed something or are told we can’t do something, it makes us want it even more; as the saying goes – forbidden fruit tastes sweeter.  Where certain religious laws seek to suppress and contain those elements of human nature that they find distasteful or undesirable, the Rede gives freedom of personal expression in a healthy way.  So long as you are not causing harm to others or to yourself, then your morality and individuality are yours to express.

I have heard it argued that such freedom of personal expression would allow for the breaking of non-religious laws and criminal activity but I would argue that not only is the Rede intended for operation within the law (as would be common sense), but that there is no such thing as a victimless crime and that any such activity would constitute harm in any case.  Aside from this, I am of the opinion that any person given to break a law is going to do so regardless of any religious guidelines or commandments.

Vivianne Crowley makes a wonderful point in her book, Wicca:  A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World:

“This moral sense is developed by seeking to adhere to certain basic ideals of love, joy, truth, honour and trust, and making decisions which are in accordance with them.”

When you consider three of the main ideals within Wicca – The Rede, Threefold Law and Perfect Love & Perfect Trust – it makes sense to make your decisions both magically and otherwise based on the concepts cited by Vivianne.  That being said, we are also only human and not every decision we make will take all or any of these things into account.

The Law of Threefold Return

I have noticed a tendency to use the word “Karma” in conjunction with Threefold Law but it is often a westernised view of Karma, which is applied. In doing this the idea of Karma is interpreted as some sort of universal power that hands out punishments to those who do bad things and rewards those who do good things. The Eastern view of Karma, though, is simply that actions have natural consequences.  By being mindful of them, you can earn “good Karma” and thus earn a better future.  However, failing to take into consideration the results of your actions will earn “bad Karma” and lead to some sort of hardship as a result.

If the Rede has been (as often occurs) mistaken for a law and is applied to everything, in conjunction with Threefold Law in its misunderstood form (i.e. “westernised” karma), it would be difficult to see how a person could even get out of bed in the morning for fear of causing harm!

In my opinion, Threefold Law is actually closer to Karma as it was intended in the East or to the Biblical maxim “You reap what you sow”. It is an easier concept to accept if it is not looked at in terms of whatever you send out comes back to you times three, but instead is considered in terms of how our choices are made.  In numerology, the number three is representative of divine trinities and of completion (birth, life, death; beginning, middle, end; past, present, future).  This lends itself to the idea of Threefold Law representing a completion of our choices, i.e. Course of action decided upon, course of action taken, results of action taken.

Combined with the Rede, it is essentially a method of keeping us mindful of our actions and ensuring that we are fully aware of their potential outcomes and impacts.  This applies not only to our spiritual lives (such as when performing a magical working) but also to our daily lives.  It reminds us that whatever choices we make, there are repercussions and that we must take responsibility for our own choices and deeds.  There is no “big bad” to blame when things go wrong, we are responsible for everything we do, good or bad.

Perfect Love and Perfect Trust

 I feel that when it comes to Wiccan morality and ethics, this concept is often greatly neglected.  But what really happens if you incorporate into your life the “highest ideal” of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust?

It is easiest to apply this concept to our coven mates, and it is reasonable that this should be the case; after all, it is with our coven that we first experience perfect love and trust, in the form of initiation.  Their trust that we are the right person for their group and the love everyone bears for each other as friends and as part of the wider Wiccan family.  Then there is the trust and love that we ourselves express in putting ourselves in a vulnerable position with them, by undergoing initiation itself.

We could even apply the concept to our family (however you define that) with whom we share a bond of unconditional love and trust.  It is sometimes possible to apply it to friends and lovers, although here, love and trust may not be unconditional.  Often, trust must be earned and love is given but not without a certain amount of fear of betrayal or rejection.

So, the question becomes, should the concept of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust be applied outside of the coven environment?  Is it even possible to apply it those people we don’t know closely?  Perhaps we leave ourselves open to all kinds of mundane and spiritual problems if we try to define our morality further by including this idea away from the environment where it is most often encountered.

Is it even possible to have any love or trust for people whose motivations we don’t actually know, let alone perfect love and trust for them?  It becomes a little like the commandment, “love thy neighbour as thyself”.  It’s a nice idea in principle, but does it actually work in practice or does it become something unachievable, which we still strive for?  Perhaps the best step we can take is to be good people and to treat others with respect and in turn, earn respect through our actions.

In summary, it very difficult anticipate the outcome of any decision we take but by being mindful of our actions and accepting of their consequences, we can take a great step towards living our lives according to the ethical principles of Wicca and to strive ever onwards towards our highest ideals.  I believe this quote from Fred Lamond’s book, Fifty Years of Wicca serves to best sum up what I have attempted to discuss here in his direct quote from Gardner:  “If you concentrate on helping others, your spiritual development will take care of itself”.

Sarah Howe, 2008