Tag Archives: Pagan ethics

Morality: Societal Dictates vs. Societal Consideration

On Wednesday, I tackled how morality can be influenced both by the advice of deities and the individual’s application of reasoning and consideration.  Today, I’d like to consider how society fits into the development of one’s morals – in this case, my own.

Understanding how society influences morality is primarily understanding the very nature of morality as a matter of relationships.  To put it simply, morality comes into play when my actions affect my relationships to friends, family, my gods, the world in general, and even myself.  If my actions do not affect anyone,[1] then there is no question about morality.

The importance of morality rests on the importance of those relationships.  To put it simply, people need relationships to survive, both individually and collectively.  The Randian notion that a person can be completely self reliant is a quaint fantasy with no basis in reality, as mmy beautifully demonstrated not so long ago.  We all need the support and help of other people from time to time.

At it’s heart, I think morality is a way of developing and strengthening relationships with mutual trust and respect, relationships that ensure that when we – both collectively and individually – need aid and support, we are certain to have some place to turn.  This support might be extreme, such as the case mmy describes in the blog post linked in the previous paragraph.  However, it may just be the knowledge of knowing that other people “have your back,” knowing that you don’t have to spend all your time and energy protecting yourself and what you value.  This social support enables you to take risks, seek new adventures which may lead to new benefits and gains, both for yourself and those around you.

As a devotee of a Norse goddess, I am deeply inspired by the Icelandic sagas, whose heroes often find themselves doing a careful balancing act between the deep-felt call to being a rugged individual of great accomplishment and meeting their obligations to their families and the greater society they find themselves in.  I personally consider learning to find this balance the greatest endeavor and purpose of morality.  For me, it has led to a finely nuanced and carefully considered framework on which to determine what my best and most moral next action in a given situation will be.

[1]  Admittedly, if any such actions exist, they are truly few in number.

Morality: Divine Dictates and Reason

The Former Conservative recently offered a critique of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry’s homophobic “Questions for Homosexuals” a while back, to which CARM leader Matthew Slick replied.  The Former Conservative offered a second response, and I encourage anyone who has not followed the exchange to go read it in its entirety.

One of the things that came up in the protracted discussion was CARM’s strange beliefs about morality.  It seems that CARM understands that there can only be three sources for morality (and only the first one is valid in CARM’s mind):

  1. A Supreme Being offering inviolable declarations of what is right and what is wrong.
  2. A societal system that offers near-inviolable declarations of what is right and what is wrong.
  3. Individuals who decide for themselves what is right or wrong based on what feels right.

This list demonstrates that the folks at CARM might want to invest a bit more into the “Research” part of their organization’s name.  There are a multitude of diverse bases for developing a moral framework, as evidenced by the number of philosophers, both ancient and modern, who have explored the topic of morality and offered many different methods for determining morality.

As a devotee o the Norse gods, I would actually suggest that my morality is loosely based on more nuanced versions of all three above points.  For example, my gods have a lot of advice to offer as to what actions and what virtues and actions are considered noble and moral.  However, these are offered as advice rather than inviolable commandments.[1]  Instead, they offer advice, suggestions, and reasons why certain courses of action are preferable and more worthy of praise.

This offers something for individual reason and reflection to work with.  This does make morality somewhat individualistic.  This is appropriate as morality is itself individualistic.  I am responsible to make sure that I act in a manner that is moral.  I am not responsible for anyone else’s morality or lack thereof.  So I need to reason through what right action is based on the understanding of my situations, the virtues that I and my gods deem noble and valuable.

This sort of individual consideration of morality is not the narcissistic “do what I want” attitude that the folks at CARM or like-minded people consider it to be.  It is possible to use one’s own reason and thought processes, yet start with some sort of basis that leads you to a rugged moral framework from which to act in an appropriate manner.

In reality, CARM’s knee-jerk rejection of the application of personal reason and reflection on matters of reality suggests an anti-reason bias in their approach to the world.  Of the three above versions of morality that they perceive, I suspect the last is the one they trust least, as it affirms the individual’s need for an external absolute authority to dictate right and wrong to them.  They simply believe that human beings are incapable of such moral reasoning on their own.

That suggestion is almost as insulting as it is frightening.

[1]  To put it bluntly, a bumper sticker that said “Freyja said it, I believe it, that settles it,” would not be a highly marketable product.

Pondering Justice, Reincarnation, and Wyrd

justice-reincarnation-cluster-map-resized.pngMy own theological explorations can be quite focused.  Specifically, I tend to focus on theological issues that are pragmatic and reflect on the here and now.  Of utmost importance to me now is what it means to follow my gods today, to be a conduit for their blessings in the world around me, to build the proper relationships with others in my family, and similar such concepts.

This focus on the hear and now means that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what happens when someone crosses the threshold of death and walks out of this life.  I’ve thought about it enough to know that I believe in virtually endless reincarnations that serve as a way to celebrate life and contribute to the unfolding of creation multiple times.  I’ve thought about it long enough to ponder the nature of the soul and to wonder if a soul is an irreducible, cohesive unit or more of an ethereal essence.  But that’s about as far as my thoughts on these matters have gone so far.

As a result, I was caught somewhat unawares when Matt Stone asked me about my beliefs on these topics over on his blog.  He particularly focused on how I understood justice as it related to the next life:

I would ask though, what do you do with all the injustice in the world? What do you do with the fact that many people do not find justice in this life? What’s your response when a child abuser dies without repentance for his wrongs or restoration with those who he has wronged? Is there any consequence for our actions?

To be honest, I don’t feel that I can answer Matt’s questions at this
time.  There are too many questions and theological concepts that I
would need to explore and come to understand — both individually and
in terms of how they relate to one other — before I could hope to
answer the particular questions Matt raised.  So rather than answer
those particular questions, I will begin to do the necessary reflection
and exploration that I believe must come first.  This post is my first
attempt to try and record that process of exploration in a way that
someone might be able to at least follow even if they don’t completely
understand it.

I have taken some time to consider my understanding of justice as it
applies to the here and now.  As such, I will choose that as my central
starting point and work outward from there.

The heart of the concept of justice is the idea of right order.  As the
universe continues to unfold, there are certain directions and ways in
which this unfolding takes place that is deemed good and proper.  I
would characterize this right order by saying that when it is followed,
the basic dignity and well-being of all living things is honored and
upheld.  Justice is the process or collection of processes by which
this right order is maintained.  It also includes the process by which
that right order is restored when it has been violated.

Injustice, by comparison, would include any act or series of acts which
lead to the violation or break-down of this right order.  In practical
terms, it would mean a situation in which the basic dignity or
well-being of someone is violated or denigrated.  The examples of such
action are countless and can vary by the particular nature and general
degree of deviation from right order or the injury of the victims’
dignity and well-being.

The just response to injustice is to restore the right order.  This
involves helping the victims of injustice to restore their dignity and
well-being.  It also means taking right action in regards to the
purveyor of injustice.

That last statement deserves some consideration.  What is the right
action in regards to those who would visit injustice upon others?  The
most obvious answer is that they should be prevented from doing so. 
This is especially true if there is reason to believe that they are
inclined to intentionally(1) continue to act as an agent of injustice. 
In such a case, potential future victims must be protected, possibly by
isolating the agent of injustice from them.

Ideally however, agents of injustice should also be restored to the
right order of things as well.  After all, they are as much a part of
this creation as anyone else.  And in many ways, this restoration of an
agent of injustice is about healing as much as helping their victims
reclaim their dignity and well-being is.

Truth be told, disrupting the right order of things and hurting others
— especially when done intentionally and repeatedly — does terrible
things to a person.  This includes soul-injury and the lessening of
themselves a human being.  A proper understanding of justice cannot
ignore this fact, nor can it refuse to offer those who have degraded
themselves in such a way an opportunity to heal this damage they’ve
done to themselves.(2)

Ideally, injustice is dealt with as soon as it happens.  The victims
are identified as well as how they were injured so that those around
them can help with the healing process.  Those who are responsible are
also identified and prevented from doing further harm.  If possible,
those responsible are also healed and restored so that they may again
become a part of right order and agents of justice.(3)

Unfortunately, as Matt points out, justice doesn’t always happen in the
lifetimes of those involved — victims and offenders alike.  So it’s
natural to wonder if there is such a thing as justice beyond this (or
the current) life.  And this is where I delve into shakier (for me at
least) territories, surrounded by partially answered and unanswered

Does an act of injustice live beyond the deaths of those involved? 
Once those involved are dead, is there anything left that can be and
must be restored?  Does the damage done to the victim somehow remain
beyond death to be healed?  Does the damage the purveyors of injustice
caused themselves remain beyond death to be healed?  Is there such a
thing as restoring someone to the right order posthumously?  Is it

I don’t ask these questions rhetorically.  Matt’s questions assume that
the answers to some or all of those questions are yes.  If the answers
to those questions are all no, there’s no point in talking about what
happens when people don’t find or are brought to justice before death. 
So I find it necessary to search for answers to those questions myself.

So what happens when we die?  Personally, I’m inclined to believe in
reincarnation.  I believe that our soul is infinite and continues
beyond death, being born again in a new body with a new identity and
personality.  I also believe that this is a virtually endless cycle,
with the rebirth in a new body being the desirable outcome.(4)

Since the soul continues beyond death, it is entirely possible and even
likely that some of the damage caused by injustice may live on in that
soul.(5)  I have implied as much when I used the term “soul-injury”
earlier to describe the damage that an agent of injustice does to their
own soul through their actions.  Such damage to a soul would manifest
itself during subsequent incarnations.  As they surfaced, they could be
healed, remedying the consequences of the injustice.

Bonds between souls may also suggest a way that injustice may still
need to be resolved beyond the deaths of those involved.  Injustice
often creates an unhealthy sort of bond between victims and those that
hurt them.  This is why forgiveness and restoration of the agent of
injustice is so important.  These acts provide a method for healing or
dissolving that unhealthy bond in the here and now.  If that process
does not take place in the lifetimes of those involved and those bonds
are on the soul level, they may be carried over by those souls into
future incarnations.  When this happens, they may create problems in
those subsequent lives.  Again, these bonds can then be identified and
healed or dissolved at that time, remedying that consequence of

A consideration of how wyrd relates to justice and injustice is also
appropriate.  Every act contributes to wyrd, continuing to build and
shape our reality.  As such, an act of injustice gets woven into wyrd
and the very fabric of our reality.  This suggests both another avenue
for injustice to continue and a method for bringing it to resolution in
lifetimes beyond the one that introduced it.

It is entirely possible that the wyrd one weaves directly effects the
soul’s future incarnations.  This could mean that two souls may not be
bound by an unhealthy soul-link forged in a previous life, but by a
wyrd-link forged in a previous life, or both.  Again, this may require
addressing the past injustice in terms of once again removing this
intertwining of two soul’s respective parts of the fabric of wyrd.

It is also noteworthy to consider that wyrd is not individual, but
universally shared.  There is not “my” wyrd, “your” wyrd, or “his”
wyrd.  There is merely wyrd, the common reality that we are
collectively shaping through our individual actions.  The implications
of this fact are important when discussing justice and injustice.

When an injustice occurs, it becomes a part of wyrd and therefore a
part of everybody’s reality.  This means that on the level of wyrd, an
injustice ripples outward along the fabric of reality, effecting more
than those victims and agents of injustice that are immediately
involved.(6) The longer that the injustice goes unanswered, the further
those ripples travel.

In order for an injustice to truly be rectified, these ripples must
also be addressed.  Until all the negative implications of an injustice
have rectified, full justice has not taken place.  This provides
another way in which an original injustice may live on after the death
of those originally involved.

It is entirely possible that some mechanism could effectively place a
reincarnated soul of someone involved in the original injustice in a
position to rectify a ripple that has traveled long and far.  This
could offer further opportunities for both the restoration of a soul
that was previously an agent of injustice and healing for soul that was
previously victimized.

Wyrd and reincarnation both offer many ways in which injustice may
outlive those who were involved in it.  They both also offer ways in
which the reincarnated souls involved in a past injustice could be
healed, restored, and otherwise involved in the process of ultimately
rectifying all aspects of the injustice.  I do not claim to know
exactly which of these mechanisms actually come into play or how
exactly they work.  That will take much further reflection and
consideration.  However, I hope I have described some directions that
reflection and consideration may follow.

(The image include in this post is a scan of the cluster-map that I
drew out when I originally began to think about this topic.  I included
because comparing it to this post may prove interesting and even

(1) It’s important to note that human beings are imperfect and that
even the most well-intentioned, loving person is bound to cause some
(hopefully small) amount of injustice at times.  A proper understanding
of justice cannot ignore this and focus only on the “big” instances of
injustice or even those instances of injustice that were intentional.

However, it’s also important to note that a moral person who hurts
another even intentionally is most often an effective, willing, and
even eager agent of justice in such situations.  That is, they are
quick to do what they can to repair the damage that they have done. 
This is different from someone who hurts others with no regard for what
they’ve done (sadly, this includes those who would use the fact that
they “didn’t mean to hurt anyone” to excuse their actions) and would
continue to do so.

The thing to remember here is that one cannot heal or restore one
who does not want to be healed or restored.  Some people simply want to
remain as they are, soul-debilitating pock-marks included.  In such a
case, no one can ultimately help them unless and until they change
their mind.  It is merely our job as just people to always be open to
the possibility that they will change their mind and be ready to offer
and even help with their restoration should it ever happen —
protecting ourselves and others from the harm they might bring about in
the meantime.

(3) In my opinion, one of the most powerful tools of the restoration
process is to actually have those who caused the hurt to help be part
of the healing process for those they have hurt.  It is one of the most
powerful ways to take responsibility for ones actions and even directly
rework the contributions to wyrd they have made through their unjust

As a tangential aside, this is why I often feel there is more real
justice in America’s civil tort system than in its criminal justice
system.  While the latter’s only real merit seems to be in separating
wrongdoers from society so they can’t do any harm, the former gives the
opportunity for those injured to get monetary compensation, which can
then be used to seek help in emotional healing, pay medical bills, and
otherwise try to “pick up the pieces.”

(4) Indeed, Gerald Gardner wrote in his books that the central point of
the witches’ rituals was to influence the reincarnation process,
ensuring that those working together would again be reborn in the same
time and place as one another.  Personally, I think Mr. Gardner was on
to something there.

I do want to take a moment, however, to make one thing perfectly
clear.  I find myself with a similar outlook to Gardner and Gardnerians
in general on many different topics.  As such, I often reference what
he or other Gardnerians have written and said as a way of communicating
my own ideas.  However, it would be a mistake for the reader to assume
that I am a Gardnerian witch myself — as some people have in the
past.  I am not.  I wish to clear up that possible misconception, as I
do have many wonderful Gardnerian friends who I respect deeply, and I
would hate for them to hear (however incorrectly) rumors that I am in
any way claiming to belong to their tradition.  They have enough people
doing that as it is, and I know how angry it makes them — and
understand why!

Also, I also value my own integrity too much to allow people to get the
idea that I’m something I’m not, even if unintentionally.

(5) One of the other things that I have considered is the nature of
souls.  At times, I often wonder if souls are not quantum units, but
pools of an essence.  The latter suggests that one dies, rather than
one’s whole soul moving onto another body, the pool of essence could
actually split into many rivulets and/or co-mingling with other pools
and rivulets.  The idea here is that one doesn’t have so much a soul as

I bring this up because the idea of damage to a soul seems to assume
the quantum unit view of souls.  I’m not sure that a pool-of-essence
model lends itself as well to the idea of soul-injury.  As such,
further consideration of the nature of the soul could require renewed
examination of the ideas I’m exploring.

(6) The most obvious examples of this rippling process when one pays
close attention to how a person’s past experiences color their present
choices and relationships.  I know I’ve personally made some bad
choices in life based on unhealed past hurts.  And I have no doubt that
those bad choices have in turn affected how other people affected by
them have made choices in their own lives.

All acts of love and pleasure…?

…all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

Most people who have any experience with Paganism are familiar with this phrase. Most of us have heard this phrase invoked when justifying any sexual orientation or practice — including some practices that make most of us shudder. In fact, some people consider this one of the most troublesome phrases ever encountered in the Wiccan and general Pagan community because of some of the activities and behaviors it has been used to justify.

And while I certainly agree that people who have used this statement to justify some rather reprehensible behaviors, I do not agree that it is right to blame it on the above phrase. Instead, I argue that the fault should be placed where it has belonged all along: with those who have misused such a declaration without truly understanding it.

To truly understand it, we must look at this statement in context. “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” is not a complete quote in and of itself. In fact, it’s not even the full sentence that clause appears in, at least not in the source I’m using. (1) This is a clause in a single sentence taken from “The Charge of the Goddess,” a piece of Wiccan lore generally attributed to Doreen Valiente. The full paragraph (again, according to the way my source divides the Charge into paragraphs, others may vary) reads as follows:

Let My Worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

Notice that the sentence immediately following the well-known phrase begins, “And therefore let there be….” This phrase makes it clear that this following sentence is a continuation of the same train of thought rather than the beginning of a new subject. In essence, it indicates that the virtues listed in this new sentence are directly related to “all acts of love and pleasure.” In effect, the charge is listing characteristics that are essential to “acts of love and pleasure.”

This is the major flaw in many arguments where the “all acts of love and pleasure” clause is used to justify dubious behavior. Those who propose that argument are attempting to define “acts of love and pleasure” by their own superficial, self-serving, and ego-centric definitions. The problem is that the rest of the charge does not permit this, because it clearly says that in order to be an “act of love and pleasure,” a given act or behavior must possess and uphold these virtues. Indeed, any act that does not demonstrate these virtues cannot by definition be an “act of love and pleasure.” So let us take a look at each of these virtues and their implications.

The first virtue called for is beauty. This means that each act — and its results or consequences — must be something that will be found to be pleasing to behold. During and after the act, all people involved with or affected by it must be able to look and take pleasure in it and see the beauty in it. Ugliness — be it physical, emotional, or spiritual — that comes from such an act immediately disqualifies it.

The next virtue is strength. All acts must come from and support a place of strength. The person who draws on “acts of love and pleasure” as a way to cover or make up for their own weakness — or worse, to engender weakness in another — has turned away from love and twisted pleasure into something it was not meant to be. In this sense, strength is antithetical to neediness. A true act of love and pleasure is not done out of neediness, but from a position of mutually empowered desire.

Power, the next virtue, is related to strength. In this sense, I would argue that the “power” here is one of choice. A true “act of love and pleasure” involves choice, and a person performs such acts by their free will rather than through coercion or inner compulsion. In this sense, acts involving more than one person are about equality and mutual choice. The person who emotionally manipulates another into such an act is no better than the person who does the same with physical force.

The next virtue, compassion, is about mitigating one’s own power when dealing with another. This is about taking the other persons needs, desires, rights, and general well-being into account. Acts where one is only concerned about one’s own strength, choice, appreciation of beauty, and any other virtue still falls short of being truly about “love and pleasure.”

The next virtue, honor, is equally important. My own experience has taught me that if we do not keep our integrity intact, then we become nothing. Because of this, it’s all too clear to me that without integrity in our relationships, they too become nothing. The person who cannot maintain their character cannot know love, so how can they commit an act of love?

Humility, like compassion, is about the other person. Whereas compassion reminds us to think of the other person, humility goes one step further and reminds us that it’s also about the act itself. A true act of love and pleasure (2) is about a bond between two souls. Unless we are willing to take our proper place rather than allowing our egos to bloat, there can be no love shared in any real way.

It’s strange to think of mirth as being an important aspect of love and pleasure, it’s nonetheless important. Mirth is about being able to lighten our hearts and enjoy the love we share. Perhaps if we as a society learned the value of mirth in all aspects of our relationships, there wouldn’t be nearly as many tales about “performance anxiety” and similarly distressing problems.

The final virtue, reverence, again brings us outside of ourselves. It’s about respecting oneself, the other person, and the act itself. It’s an understanding that if we are going to truly declare this an “act of love and pleasure,” it is indeed sacred. Reverence teaches us that sacred things should be treated as something special.

Now that we’ve looked at the virtues listed — those which must absolutely exist, lest an act fail to truly be about love and pleasure — it’s time to look at the beginning of the first sentence. Before declaring all acts of love and pleasure to be rituals of the Goddess, the Charge first calls for the Goddess’s praise to be “in the heart that rejoiceth.” This is equally significant. Immediately following this clause and as a lead-in to the well-known clause comes the connecting phrase, “for behold.” This tells us that a rejoicing heart is also significant to all acts of love and pleasure. Indeed, for hearts that rejoice are the end result and direct effect of a true “act of love and pleasure.” As such, one who truly wishes to evaluate whether their proposed “act of love and pleasure” should not only consider how well it reflects, possesses, and upholds the virtues we’ve discussed, but should also consider the resultant state of the hearts of those involved.

While some may find the suggestion that “all acts of love and pleasure” discomforting due to the behavior of some unethical people, I still find it a truly liberating and profound statement. However, it is important to understand what actually qualifies as an “act of love and pleasure” to truly appreciate the concept. Otherwise, one risks profaning the profound through ignorance.


(1) I’ve copied all quotes from The Charge of the Goddess from an online copy hosted on the Starkindler Website.

(2) It’s obvious I’m referring to sexual activity between two people. I’ve tried to be vague about it in most places, as I firmly believe that there are other “acts of love and pleasure” rather than just sex. I also believe that this phrase is also talking about our platonic and familial relationships and how we handle them, too. Most of what I am saying can be applied to such situations equally well. However, most people who abuse the “all acts of love and pleasure” clause are doing so to justify sexual activity. As such, I felt it equally important to cover sexual relationships directly to some degree.

Ethics and “Harm None”

You know, when it comes to ethics, I’ve never liked the whole concept of “harm none.” Personally, it’s always bugged me that so many Neo-Wiccans have held the phrase up as the definitive word on ethics. But it wasn’t until I got thinking about it this morning that I really was able to express my beef.

Now, there are a number of reasons to have a beef with “harm none” as the ultimate guideline. For example, it’s easiest to point out that when you get right down to it, 100% harmlessness is rarely possible, if not downright impossible. In fact, this is the one that I see get tossed up a couple times a year in Pagan chatrooms. And while it’s a valid point, it misses one of the more fundamental problems with this idea. In fact, it’s the same fundamental problem that haunts other systems of morality that are based on a series of prohibitions. And that’s the problem that it’s trying to define ethical considerations solely in terms of negative guidance.

Ethics are meant to guide activity. A person tries to determine what course in a given choice through his ethics. And an ethical system that only tells you what not to do or what results to avoid is severely limited. After all, once you weed out all the things you shouldn’t do, you’re still left with the question of what to do.

Consider for a moment this analogy. One should always drive safely. One can safely say that driving safely boils down to driving in such a way where one does not cause or become involved in accidents. In fact, an accident-free driving record is one of the two major factors insurance companies use to determine whether a given driver should qualify for a “safe driver discount.” And yet, if you attended a driving safety course, you would expect the instruction of that course to include more than “don’t get into any accidents.” While the advice is perfectly valid and a commendable goal, it gives no indication on how to achieve it. It’s a dictum based on negative action and not very helpful when applying it to the positive actions you must take. For that, you need positive advice, such as “always obey the speed limit” and “check your mirrors and blind spots regularly.”

The same is true of ethics. Positive action must be taken. One cannot simply “not harm anyone,” but must find guidelines for acting in a way that will bring about the goal (insofar as that goal is desirable, but that’s another issue for another entry). In effect, the ethical system must be expanded offer positive guidelines that can be applied when considering positive action.

However, unlike my analogy, I don’t think that “harming none” is a sufficient goal for ethics. Because we are creatures of positive action rather than negative action (it is more natural to “do something” than it is to spend much time “not doing something”), our ethics should lead us in this. Ethics should lead us to not only avoid wrong behavior, but to lead and even goad us into right behavior, which should be expressed in terms.

“Harm none” does not give us this. It keeps us in that half-ethical state of telling us to avoid wrong — without actually giving practical advice on how to do so — without leading us into action that we know is right. This is why I personally prefer to base my ethics on a set of values, those things that I see as right, honorable, and worthy of being upheld. In this sense, I think that people like Asatru with their Nine Noble Virtues (though I’m not entirely on board with them, either, though I still have yet to put my finger on why) are more on the right track when it comes to a matter of ethics.