Introduction to Pagan Ethics

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

First of all, thanks for dropping by!  If you have any questions or comments, you are enthusiastically welcome to leave a comment or send me a message!

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.

Complicating things further, sometimes Pagans use the term incorrectly.  Heathens – those who follow Norse traditions – don’t always self-identify as Pagan – but I’ve been guilty of calling them Pagan.  Or a Christian might label Buddhists as “Pagan,” but the Buddhists might not think of themselves as Pagan.

Sometimes people associate non-traditional sexual practices as Pagan.

So now that I’ve thoroughly confused the issue for you, I’ll just say this – when I use the term “Pagan,” I mean someone who follows the seasons of the Earth and the cycles of the Solar System.  Someone who draws spiritual inspiration from Nature.  Someone who believes that there’s more to our existence than science can measure.

I promise, I’m not asking these questions to confuse you.  I just want to start by acknowledging there are a lot of options out there.  It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes, all we have is a question!  But by asking these questions, and really thinking about them, we can make better and more ethical decisions in our path.

Where do ethics come from?

Or, how do we know it’s wrong to murder someone?

For most of us, our ethics are just automatic.  Somehow, we just know that it’s wrong to murder someone.  We know it’s right to protect kids from danger.

But when you start to dig a little, it can get pretty complicated.  You may want to have sex with a person, and to you it’s ethical to approach them and invite them to do so.  But to them, it is not ethical for a random stranger to ask for sex.  If you ask that person for sex, they might throw a drink in your face and say no – and now you have a dilemma!  Are your ethics right, or are the other person’s ethics right?

In most modern American groups, ethics tend to be a blend of the region you live in and the religion you practice.  For example, if you go to a hospital, the doctors and nurses are going to do everything in their power to keep you alive.  Part of this comes from the Christian belief that we are only born once, have one life to live, and have only one chance to “do the right things” so that we can go to heaven.

But what if your brand of Paganism believes in reincarnation?  Is it still ethical to keep someone on life support, preventing them from incarnating into their next life?

That makes it tricky!

I follow an Earth-based Pagan path.  I work with an eclectic mix of spirits and deities.  Some are from ancient Greece, like Hekate.  Some are just local land spirits, like a river spirit I met near my home town.  I believe that Nature tells stories – a coyote hunting a rabbit, or a field mouse fleeing a housecat.  I believe the cycles of nature have meaning, from the waxing moon to Mercury (and Venus!) retrograde.

I’ll tell you a secret – one day, when I was a teenager sitting in church with my family, I had a sudden moment of clarity.  I remember it was a hot, summer day in the desert, and the church didn’t have air conditioning.  The preacher was rambling about a Bible verse or something, and I remember thinking it just didn’t make sense.  And I suddenly realized that if I were a god, I wouldn’t put a set of rules and guidelines in some complicated, self-contradictory, hard-to-read book like the Christian Bible.  I’d put them somewhere anyone could find them – if they looked.  Even if they couldn’t read.  Even if they lived in some remote jungle, isolated from modern society.

So that’s the root of my Paganism.  (And, if you’re paying attention, my ethics too!)  I look to Nature for guidance when I’m struggling – with life, or with a difficult decision, or even for the next step on my path.

But Nature can be kind of a dick…

Remember Hurricane Katrina?  The 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean?  Tornadoes that tear up trailer parks?  Even my own desert community got wrecked this winter with lots of snow, which melted and flooded the area.

Not only that.  For every cute and fluffy animal like a bunny or a panda bear, there’s at least one terrifyingly vicious predator.  Mountain lion attacks still happen, and humans have died as recently as 2008.  Coyotes are becoming more bold, stepping up attacks on pet dogs.

In a time when we use the term “predator” to refer to a person who attacks vulnerable people (think sexual predator), how can we honestly use Nature as a guide for our ethics?  Is it ever OK to act like a predator?  If we’re not being a predator, are we making ourselves prey for other predators?

There’s a path through this.  I’m sure of it.  And no, I don’t think it’s helpful to always think in terms of predator-prey relationships.  Sometimes shitty things happen, because Nature is pretty indifferent to you and me.  Or there are bigger things at play than our little lives.

But we can still look at the stories we wrap around natural events for inspiration.  Many cultures write stories, for example, about how the sun chases the moon.  Native American stories are different from Filipino stories, which are different from European stories.

In these situations, it’s the story – the meaning we wrap around Nature – that gives us a model for our ethics.

And nature’s lessons aren’t always obvious.

In my experience, you can’t just settle on the first thing that comes to mind when you look at Nature.  Sure, the new-fallen snow brings a silent peace and tranquility that you can’t find anywhere else.  And there is absolutely some wisdom in that!  But if you get caught in the cold, you could just as peacefully fall asleep and never wake up.  Or if you try to walk (or drive!) on that snow, you could be injured in an accident.  So yes, the new fallen snow is quiet and peaceful, but it can be a seductive and treacherous peace, as well as a calm one.  And that peace is best experienced with a safe, warm fire to come back to.

It’s not always wise to romanticize or idealize Nature.  We don’t want to pretend it’s something that it’s not.  We humans have a terrific capacity to delude ourselves.  Sometimes, that’s not necessarily bad.  (One more cookie isn’t going to hurt me.)  But sometimes it can get in the way of our spiritual growth.  (It’s not my fault that I wasn’t prepared for that ritual I agreed to lead!)

So it’s tricky, like a balancing act.  Between finding stories that inspire us, but don’t delude us.  Between truth that helps us grow, versus truth that just beats us into submission.  And we’ll make mistakes, we’ll screw up, we’ll misinterpret the signs.  But as long as we keep looking, and we don’t just take Nature for the first thing we think of – we’ll keep growing.

Like that stubborn tree in my back yard that started growing in a crack in the pavement.  I keep cutting it out, dumping weed-killer on it.  It keeps sprouting new leaves and shoots.  When a tree is damaged, it usually just finds a way to grow around the damage.  It might not look the same.  It might end up twisted, or wonky, or lopsided.  But those don’t matter to the tree, as long as it gets clean water to drink, and bright sunshine on its leaves, and good black earth to sink its roots into.

A few final thoughts.

Thanks for dropping by.  If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve got some ideas for thinking about your own Pagan path.  Not just what to do, but why do you do it.  Or what you could do differently, if the cycle of the Moon is important to you.  Or if Wolf is your totem animal.  Or any other aspect of your Pagan practice.

You are enthusiastically invited to leave a comment with your thoughts, ideas, or questions.  If you have a question or comment, or an ethical dilemma you want my input on, hit me up at dmkoffer at gmail dot com!

About the Author

I live in the sagebrush desert of southern Idaho, in a little town perched above a deep, rocky canyon. I've been pagan for a little over two decades. I've dipped my toes in Wicca, Rosicrucianism, Yoga, Reiki, and Qabala, only to settle into an Earth-based Neopagan Buddhist path. My credentials (if you care about such things), include an MA in English, an apprenticeship with Jason Miller, and a few publications here and there. I run a small Pagan group with my lovely wife, where we encourage people to show up, do pagan stuff, and live empowered and ethical lives.

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8 Comments

  1. Great article. Pagan ethics need to be much more of a ‘thing’, and I’m glad our communities are giving this topic more attention. Just sitting around together challenging each other with ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ discussions can lead us all to a deeper and more transparent understanding of our beliefs and path. It’s not enough just to be told something is right or wrong, we have to be willing to explore the why of it. Looking forward to your next writing!

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Wendy!

      Wow – I agree. The Pagan community has become really big, and there are a lot of people out there who seem to be struggling. Either with predators, or even just with questions like “what would a good Pagan do in my situation?”

      And I agree with you – this is not meant to be the be-all-end-all lecture on Pagan ethics. I intend for it to prompt a discussion – the real ethics happen as a result of the challenges and conversations we engage in with other Pagans.

      –David

  2. 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. First of all, thanks Kenneth for the well-reasoned reply, and for the book recommendation! I’ve never read Myers, so I’ll be sure to pick it up.

      I completely agree with you that “the modern Pagan movement has emerged as a reaction against dogmatic morality and authoritarian religion,” and that “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 noticed in my own group (and in online groups), it’s become something of a taboo to challenge or question someone’s claims. While we definitely want to create a space in which people can express their individuality, I’ve seen 2 cases in the past year alone in which a person’s credulity has been exploited. Once for attention, and once for profit. And that’s something I’d like Pagans to start talking about.

      I agree with you that ethics are a framework for “right action,” but I’m not sure I agree that the gods have to be included in that. They can be, sure, and that is definitely a topic I’ll be exploring in future posts. And I mostly agree with you that our ethics should challenge us and not simply validate our desires. The caveat I would add to that, is that those challenges should not lead to disempowerment (such as blindly submitting oneself before a god), or accepting an abusive situation (such as obeying every command of a group leader). Like many things, there’s a grey area between an appropriate challenge and coercion. And it takes learning and practice to tell the difference, I think.

      Finally, that is a lovely quote from Myers. And I completely agree, it’s an excellent goal to aspire to. It reminds me a little of the “self-actualized individual.” I think there are a lot of Pagans who just aren’t ready to be there, and who don’t really have a roadmap for getting there. Hopefully some of the things we talk about here will inspire them, and give them a stop-gap set of ideals while they’re deciding on their own set of ethics.

      Thank you again for your thoughtful reply. I look forward to hearing your ideas on future posts!

      –David (D.M.Koffer)

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David! You’ve packed a lot of ideas into this post, and it will keep me thinking for some time! It’s nice to see someone tackle the bigger issues right off the bat, and share personal anecdotes as well. Looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Jack! It’s great to hear from you (again)! I look forward to hearing your thoughts as this blog goes forward.

      –David

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