Magical Ethics and Pseudo-Metaphysics

By John J. Coughlin

(as published in The Witches Voice)

There are many theories as to why one should not use magic to cause harm or influence others against their will or without their consent but these theories are not really ethics, they are metaphysical rambling.

Ethics are a set of shared values or moral principles that modify our behavior in social situations. Ethics attempt to set a standard form of conduct which we can all reasonably follow. The etymology of the words ethics and morality relate to “custom” or “manner” in both Greek and Latin respectively. As popular Christian religion began to stress morality these words took on a more religious connotation but ethics need not be tied to religion.

The complication of defining ethical behavior comes when we start to dig deeper. What are these “shared values?” How do we decide what is right and wrong when there are so many ways in which to view a problem? The more specific we try to be the more likely we are to come across disagreements. It would be difficult, for example, to find exception to placing value on such qualities as “truthfulness” and “avoiding harm to others”, but which is more important when these values are in conflict? For example, if faced with lying to protect someone’s well being, which value should take priority? Chances are this will depend on the context of the situation, but even then there is always the possibility that our views will differ. There are a number of factors which may make up the context of a situation – too many in fact to be able to plan for them all.

What is needed then is not just a set of shared values, but a framework on which to judge the weight of these values in the context of the current situation. There are many ethical systems in place to provide us with a framework, some of which – but not all – are tied to religions. Each system has its own way of looking at a problem to determine the direction of one’s decision.

For example, in making an ethical decision, there are many ways to consider the consequences of your options; each ethical theory takes a different, but viable, approach to the decision.

  • Which of the alternatives will generate the greatest benefit – or the least amount of harm – for the greatest number of people? (Utilitarianism)
  • Does the “good” brought about by your action outweigh the potential harm that might be done to anyone? (Mills’ Harm Principle)
  • Will anyone be harmed who could be considered defenseless? (Paternalism)
  • To what degree is your choice of alternatives based on your own best interest? (Objectivism)

While above the consequences are considered, other approaches consider the nature of the choice or action itself:

  • Are you choosing the alternative that demonstrates a genuine concern for others affected by your decision and/or are you responding to a perceived need? (Ethic of Care)
  • Are you willing to make your decision a rule or policy that you and others in your situation can follow in similar situations in the future? (Kant)
  • Are you sure the intent of your decision is free from vested interest or ulterior motive? (Kant’s “good will”)

These are just a few examples to show the plethora of ways one can look at an ethical issue. I strongly recommend that you read several books on the philosophy of ethics so as to better understand the nature of the various ethical approaches. It is not enough to use such systems as they are convenient. Inconsistencies leave room for abuse through our biases, be they conscious or unconscious.

Pagans may argue that their religion provides a complete ethical system to use in magic but is this really true? We often see a taboo on “black magic” which is vaguely defined, but is this truly enough on which to base an ethical decision?

Wiccan ethics for example centers on the Wiccan Rede: If it harms none, do what you will. This simple phrase is actually rather complex in practice, and while I will not analyze the specifics in this essay, I would like to examine its weakness to further explore the complexities of true ethical thinking.

“Harm” is a very subjective concept. The more we explore it the more complex it becomes. We constantly make decisions that directly or indirectly not only affect us, but countless others around us. These choices not only include our actions, but also when we choose to not act. Sometimes the greatest harm is caused by not acting when we could have.

One might then argue it is our intentions which matter, but good intentions are not enough justification for our actions either. Countless atrocities have been performed under the guise of good intentions, and often the perpetrators were sincere in their desire to “do good”. The Inquisition, Nazi Germany, the death camps of Pol Pot, these are extreme examples of the same principle we see every day; fundamentalist Christians mean well in their attempts to persuade government to work according to their own sense of ethics, despite the fact that they condemn anyone who does not share their views. Terrorists see their attacks on the innocent as being for the “greater good” of their cause and are willing to die and kill for their beliefs. New Age “fluffy” Pagan extremists mean well when they ignore or condemn aspects of their religion that could be misinterpreted as “evil” or “dangerous” by non-Pagans and newcomers in hopes of getting on the good side of those who condemn Paganism or to avoid mistakes, yet they can go to such extremes that they sacrifice the balance of their religion and deny its roots. They unintentionally become Pagan fundamentalists, truly thinking they have found a better, safer way.

I would argue that the Wiccan Rede is not a complete ethical system, and this is important to understand because this is the most often overlooked aspect of Wiccan ethics. The Rede provides a foundation based on Wicca’s core principle of the sacredness of life – yours, other humans, and all life. It provides a reminder as we make decisions to allow us to live as responsible humans. It offers a starting point for your own inner dialogue about how to conduct your life. But that is where it ends. The Rede does not provide specific practical rules, or a detailed structure to work with – that is left to the individual to discover.

In essence Wicca has no ethical system, just a reminder of the life-affirming nature of the religion itself. To be Wiccan is to respect life, and to respect life is to not intentionally harm it needlessly. We therefore must seek our own ethical stance based on those principles, and as mentioned earlier there are many ethical systems with which to work, most of which do not conflict with the Rede.

The specific ethical system you choose will help you better answer more complicated questions such as how to view competition, or how to view such controversial moral issues as polygamy or polyamory, drug use, euthanasia, and abortion which don’t necessarily have one ethical answer. I have, for example seen arguments both for and against abortion based on the Wiccan Rede. Both arguments were morally sound! This is the dilemma of ethical thinking; ethical systems do not always produce the same results. Some religions, like Christianity claim their rules are ultimately from a higher source and take precedence other others; hence they pressure politicians to accept their views when deciding even for non-Christians. However, the reality is there is not always one answer. What is requires is critical thinking.

As an example let’s consider for a moment the ethical concern of asking permission before working magic on someone else. The issue of requiring permission is a topic of much debate in the Craft. From the point of view of etiquette, it is common courtesy to ask first before providing magical assistance since such an operation could be perceived as an intrusion of personal space.

Likewise, it is quite possible that the person does not want help for any number of personal reasons, or is not yet ready to be helped. For example, after the death of a loved one, some require more time than others to mourn, and attempts to “pull them out of depression” are both unwarranted and unwelcome. Such suffering is part of the healing process. Catharsis is rarely a pretty site, yet when the smoke has cleared we tend to be the better for it. There is also always the possibility that a Christian or other non-Witch may not want a “witch” working magic for them as it might compromise their own beliefs.

It is of course honorable to want to help, but such help should never be assumed to be welcomed or forced upon them without good reason. This is also not to say there are not exceptions.

Since there are no cut-and-dry answers when it comes to asking permission, let’s take a few examples and examine the various perspectives. I won’t offer an answer but rather offer various alternative approaches to point out the hidden complexities. Try to consider all perspectives. Often, contradicting perspectives are both morally justified!

Example 1: What if your closest friend was hit by a car and rushed into surgery? Is it then fair to work magic to help them recover without first asking permission?

Some would argue that the accident may have been a part of some “master plan” or the result of one’s Karma and so interference with this natural process would be unwelcome. Of course one would also have to question whether their help would also be part of such a process or “plan”! Perhaps your friend would rather die than face the results of the accident, such as paralysis or deformity. This alone opens up a whole new debate over the right to force an unwelcome life, as we see in cases of euthanasia. Another issue of concern is the intention itself; are you helping your friend for purely selfish reasons? For that matter is the fact your intentions are selfish even an issue of concern? As you can see at first glance what seems like an obvious example of when helping without permission might make sense, it becomes much more complex when you begin to contemplate various perspectives.

Example 2: A close friend is addicted to drugs and you wish to intervene. Again we have many of the same perspectives as above; perhaps this is a needed lesson in life which does not require outside interference. It is also quite common for addicts to not want help despite the fact that their life is going downhill fast. Do they truly not want help or is that just the addiction talking? Are we truly going against their Will, or is this self-destructive behavior their true Will? Is it our place to even make such a decision for anyone other than ourselves?

As these examples show, making an ethical decision can be complicated! Since there are many perspectives in determining what is right or wrong, it helps to be able to relate the issue to various such perspectives. We’ll always have our preferences but for the sake of maintaining an open mind we must recognize that others involved may not share your perspective, and this is why making ethical decisions with Magic can be so difficult! Of course at some point we need to stop pondering the issues and make a decision.

Making an ethical decision always carries the risk of error. We often do not know if a decision was correct until long after it has been made. The point is not so much to make the right choices, although obviously that is the goal, but rather to take the responsibility of such decisions seriously. When conflicting ethics are concerned, there is rarely a “right” answer, but in taking the responsibility to consider the issues as best possible, at least you can take comfort in knowing the decision was justified and not based on a whim, assumptions, or false logic. Should you ultimately find yourself not satisfied with the results of your decision, you will be able to draw from this experience in the future to hopefully make a more sound decision. This is truly the mark of wisdom.

Fear of karma or the three-fold law has manipulated many Wiccans and Pagans alike into doing the right thing for the wrong reason, and thus would technically not make it an ethical principle either. Ethical thinking is about the desire to determine and do what is “right” not the desire to avoid punishment.

What I often find in both Paganism and modern occultism in general is that the reasons offered as justification for a given ethical stance in regards to Magic is not based on true reasoning but rather on a form of pseudo-metaphysics. Pseudo-metaphysics is the assumption of truth based on what sounds as if it could be true. Ask a child or someone who has not yet taken a physics class: If I were to drop a 100-pound and a 10-pound weight from a building at the same time, which would hit the ground first? One could say it sounds right to claim that the 100-pound weight would hit the ground first, but in reality both would hit at the same time! If not for the air resistance even a feather and a hammer would hit the ground instantaneously. This was proven by astronauts on one of their visits to the moon, where air was not in the way. Just because something sounds true does not mean it is!

While such explanations may make sense, at least at first glance, relying on such logic skirts the true issues at hand. Such pseudo-metaphysical explanations don’t offer valid arguments but rather provide a quick excuse from giving the issue any thought.

For example, occasionally one will hear a pseudo-metaphysical explanation as to why one should not work Magic on someone very ill or in surgery, especially when they do not know about it. The argument is that since the person may be on the thin edge between life and death, any sudden “jolt” of energy could “shock” their system and throw that delicate balance out of whack, possibly killing them. This may seem to make sense, but let us not forget a few things: we are talking about healing “life energy” and the “energy” we work with in Magic tends to be subtle. We are not talking about electricity here! The word “energy” is but a poor metaphor for the natural forces with which we are working.

This is not to say it is necessarily justified to work magic in such a situation, but that this pseudo-metaphysical explanation is avoiding the moral issues one should be considering, and which we discussed briefly above. It is the easy way out — a poor excuse for not getting involved.

Another interesting pseudo-metaphysical excuse which seems to be a more recent creation (or at least has become more widespread in recent years) has to do with asking permission on the astral plane. In healing circles one will occasionally find a group leader who will stress the importance of having the permission of the recipient of the healing but when such permission has not been obtained, it is ok because we can just go on the astral plane and ask now! While astral communication is not without possibility, it is not the most reliable means of communication and requires much practice. Simply telling someone to close their eyes and “ask” the person as the group waits for an answer is unrealistic. First of all, not everyone practices astral projection and to assume one can do this “on the fly” is silly, and secondly even the experienced will find difficulty reaching such a state under pressure! Again, we find a reliance on a convenient “escape clause” which has no basis in practicality other than to allow us to feel justified in taking action without permission from the recipient. In practice, astral permission is more likely cheating or kidding oneself; “let’s pretend we are not compromising our ethics.” Visualizing that we are asking our friend does not mean we are truly in astral communication with that person. Asking a mental image of the recipient if it is ok to work Magic for them and “hearing” that image accept, does not mean the person has actually agreed. Wishful thinking, assumption, and peer pressure all need to be considered.

Such pseudo-metaphysical thinking can be found embedded in many of our beliefs, such as in conjunction with the Law of Return. On a public newsgroup, someone once asked the question of whether children who were too young to know any better were still subject to the Law of Return. Many of the responses offered rather complex metaphysical explanations as to how energy is directed with intention, and delved into how the Law “knew” the difference or how parental punishment compensated for the Law having to “kick in”. What resulted was an anthropomorphism of the Law of Return into a very complex and conscious system, rather than an ethical discussion.

In trying to work backwards, starting with opinion and customized theory in order fit that opinion, the pseudo-metaphysical explanations brought us no closer to an understanding and only confused the issues opening the way to arguments and further complex pseudo-metaphysical mumbo jumbo to prove their points over the others. Honestly I am not quite sure the discussion should even have included the Law of Return to begin with as the question itself already assumed a literal stance towards the law, which is but one interpretation. Part of the basis for such a question lies in the current trend towards fundamentalism and over emphasis of ethical summaries not intended to be the end-all for ethical discussion. The question was unintentionally biased towards such a fundamentalist approach.

To be fair, any metaphysical theory will lack a solid foundation in scientific fact since we are attempting to describe the behavior and interactions of unseen and immeasurable forces. Until such theories are proven false they can often be useful tools in the right hands. The problem with pseudo-metaphysics is in how they were developed. Metaphysical explanations are derived from observation, experience, and intuition. These experiences shape the theory. Pseudo-metaphysics, on he other hand, are based on assumption, speculation, and hearsay with the intention to make a point or justify an opinion. For example, in the case of asking permission using astral projection as a substitute for asking in person, we started with a problem: how can I do this healing without permission? The theory of asking “astrally” was developed to resolve that problem, and was not the end result of true metaphysical thinking. Perhaps it could work even to those who never practiced astral projection, and perhaps it did work for someone at some time, but to assume it will work for everyone regardless of their background betrays it as a poor excuse rather than a viable or practical theory. Just because a theory sounds like it could work, does not mean it has any basis in fact.

Perhaps some clarification is in order here. The issue of pseudo-metaphysics comes down to acceptable moral justification. For example, if your best friend was rushed to the emergency room and your reason for working healing magic despite not having permission was something to the effect of “I care about my friend and know her children depend upon her. I am confident that she would want anything possible done to keep her family together,” then you have reasonable moral justification for your decision. If however you ere attracted to someone and who recently got out of a bad relationship and your reason for helping was something such as, “I hate to see him suffer and I really want to date him, but he needs to get over that relationship before he would even notice me,” well… I can only speak for myself, but from the perspective of moral justification for working magic without permission of the recipient, it would seem a bit weak.

Pseudo-metaphysics provides a false sense of moral justification. Such excuses sound like they could work and therefore are accepted as convenient truisms to justify one’s preferred choice. This same twisted logic is what fuels such statements as, “the negative backlash of the Law of Return can be cancelled out with a good action of equal or greater character.” With such logic I could say, if I kill someone I can make it up by saving the life of someone else. Regardless of whether such is true, from the perspective of ethics this logic is flawed!

If you wish to make a decision which lacks moral justification you are free to do so, and such a decision need not make it wrong. However, hiding such decisions behind a pseudo-metaphysical excuse robs us of our moral responsibility and fools us into false sense of morality. True ethical systems require commitment and critical thinking. It is not something that can be summed up neatly in a catchy phase and it is not something that can be hidden behind metaphysical mumbo jumbo.