Introduction to Pagan Ethics by DM Koffer

So – what are Pagan ethics? Where do they come from? How do we decide what’s ethical behavior for Pagans, and what isn’t?

That’s a lot of questions. I promise, I won’t try to answer them all in this post! But just to set the scene, I want to touch on some of the basics that will guide this blog going forward.

What brand of Paganism?

I use the term “Pagan” to refer to a lot of different things. Wiccans can be lumped into the umbrella term “Pagan,” as can Neopagans, Druids, etc. Sometimes Pagan means “non-Christian,” or “actively rejecting Christianity in favor of something else.” Sometimes it means “pre-Christian religion.” Sometimes the term Pagan refers to a reconstruction of a belief system that competed with Christianity a long time ago, or that existed before Christianity.

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  1. Alright, I’ll be the first fly on the horse 🙂 Ethics is a big topic, but I start from the premise that any religion or spiritual practice must contain within it the tools to guide moral and ethical reasoning. If it does not, it is really just a lifestyle accessory or a sort of aesthetic.

    Much of the modern Pagan movement has emerged as a reaction against dogmatic morality and authoritarian religion. At its extremes, that reaction has given rise to a kind of individualism and relativism which holds that we cannot or should not render judgment on anything because everything boils down to a person’s “own truth.” I’ve said before that I believe if this is the case, then we are, as our Christian detractors say, just LARPing in the woods in Renfaire garb.

    If, on the other hand, we have some sort of cogent theology, then there is something to hold roots for ethical thinking, and ethics will tend to flow naturally from that. Before we can discuss ethics, or, I would argue, have a meaningful experience in Pagan religions, we must consider what our theology, and personal gnosis tell us about the fundamental questions. What is the nature of the gods, if any? What is the nature of humanity? What is the proper relationship between us and the gods and the rest of nature? Not everyone will arrive at the same answers, but you will arrive at substantive answers if you trouble to engage with the questions.

    Observing the natural world offers some insights into concepts of inter-connectedness and sustainability, but ethics as a framework for “right action” requires us to utilize our particular form of sentience and consciousness to probe these “big picture” questions of theology and cosmology. For me, Pagan ethics guide actions, and hopefully a way of life which will tend to honor and strengthen my relationships with my gods, my family, my community, my ancestors and the world.

    Ethics should be rooted in virtues – a vision of what a good life is, and excellence of character. Ethics should drive us to strain after these things. They should challenge us rather than simply affirm whatever we wanted to do in the moment. I have found a great deal of inspiration and learning from the writings of Brendan Cathbad Myers. I cannot recommend his book “The Other Side of Virtue” highly enough. Going on a decade since it came out, it is still the best and most comprehensive treatment of ethics in a modern Pagan context that I have found, and it has much to offer in discussions like this. I am especially struck by this quote from Myers taken from a 2008 interview on The Wild Hunt.

    “A new morality would have little to do with rules and laws. For the heart of the idea of virtue is the idea that ethics and spirituality is a matter of who you are, not just the rules you follow, even if you follow an unobjectionable rule like “harm none”. Indeed a fully virtuous person isn’t interested in rules at all. She’s interested in becoming a beautiful and complete human being, able to lead a fulfilling and worthwhile life.”

    1. I’d like to suggest you post this on the original post as the author may not see it here and respond.

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