An Attempt at Personal Articulation on Pagan Ethics (Part One)

As I have noted before, I am reading “Paganism 101: An Introduction to Paganism by 101 Pagans” from Moon Books, and I have found it to be a wonderful, detailed starting point for those Seekers wanting to know more about the various aspects of the Pagan Path. I am not completely sure whose idea it was to put a book like this together (my guess would be Trevor Greenfield, the editor of the book) , but this little tome is pure genius. I have found many writing prompts throughout the book – and the current section I am reading in Part-II is no exception. Entitled “Ethics” it covers an area of Paganism that I have always been careful to tread lightly around. The initial essay is written by Emma Restall Orr, a Druid that I respect highly. Her book on Animism, “The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature“, has had a profound influence on how I look and think about my place within my local environment. So, naturally, I was quite intrigued to read her take on this area that I have been semi-effective in dodging for some time.

Emma starts her point by noting that “…Paganism is not a single religion” but

…is an umbrella term for a vast number of traditions, each one the accumulation of countless years and stories, formed by particular places, people, events, and memories. These traditions are further subdivided into groups, groves, hearths, covens, for which the acknowledgement and celebration of local heritage, the stories of a town and its surrounding landscape, are a crucial part of what forms and identifies that group, whether it meets for ritual, for teaching or purely for social purposes. (p. 131)

At first, I was slightly miffed at the thought that this essay would approach things from the perspective of groups only. After all, even solitary (solo) Pagans would have a set of ethics and values based off of their own individual areas, and their own experiences. But apparently, I jumped the gun on that thought process, as Emma notes a few paragraphs later that “..many Pagans acknowledge that each subject, each individual, perceives the world differently, and that it is through one’s own perception that one’s own truth is formed.” Which mirrors my own thought process as exactly as possible (at least in my own mind).

All of that leads me to a point of asking:

Q:  Just what do I think Pagan Ethics are?

Now that’s a heady perspective to tackle. And it really brings me back around to the beginning steps of my thought process. Essentially, I was purchasing the cart before I knew whether I had a horse, a donkey, an ox or a dog to pull the cart with. So, time to take a step back – and find an initial spot to start from. And in the area of being honest here – I am not a theologian of any sort – nor do I really desire the idea of being one. In many ways, I have always attributed questions such as these to be the domain of people that prefer to discuss and debate such matters. But in being so dismissive of the aspect of discussing and debating theological matters, I have missed the point completely about learning about such issues for one’s self. In essence, I put on my own set of blinders and then declared my singular view as being “just fine”. Thus its time to remove the blinders and look out on the countryside as I walk along.  🙂

So, I find it is likely appropriate to start at the bottom and work my way up. Looking at the online version of the Merriam Webster dictionary, the term “ethics” is defined thusly:

      1.  the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.
      2a. a set of moral principles :  a theory or system of moral values.
      2b. the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.
      2c. a guiding philosophy.
      2d. a consciousness of moral importance.
      3. a set of moral issues or aspects.

So, its a fairly good guess that a set of Pagan Ethics are the moral principles that guide Pagans toward a perspective of what conduct is good or bad. And looking back on this sentence, all I can think is “Whoa. That’s a setup for an empirical statement. So not cool.”

Seriously, I do not get into the notion of making empirical statements relating to things such as Personal Beliefs. In my experience, saying that “…all [insert belief here] adherents must believe [insert empirical statement of belief here]”, typically brings about several exceptions to this empirical statement of belief. Even in a statement as simple as “All Christians believe in the sanctity of Jesus Christ as the risen Savior.” In my opinion, it boils down to how an individual or certain group may define the terms of “sanctity” and “Savior” in the context of the statement. Then, from that one empirical statement begins the rise of hard, set-in-concrete dogma – and thus begins the exclusion of individuals that just don’t believe [x] – and you have the start of branding individuals as heretical. I just do not adhere to the idea that something as personal as Spirituality and Belief must be so rigid and dispassionate to not take into account differences in the way individuals may personally interpret key words or phrases that comprise such statements. I know, I am sliding a little off-track to the entire idea of what Pagan Ethics are, but please, allow me that little latitude with this paragraph. I truly believe that this statement is necessary to correlating what I believe is my personal interpretation of “Pagan Ethics.”

In trying to formulate my perspective of my Pagan Ethics, I wanted to share one more passage from Emma Restall Orr’s essay – which I believe reflects a major perspective of how I see and interact with my environment.

…nature is not an authority that must be obeyed. Nature is instead a teacher, and one of its crucial lessons is that of context. Everything exists within an ecosystem, ecosystems being layered within ecosystems, each a complex pattern of interaction, influence and relationship. Nothing is isolated, nothing is alone. Every atom, organism, sentience, is connected within the whole, unfolding through time and space, moment evolving into moment. Upon this foundational premise, not only is it accepted that every thought and action has an effect, but every decision that is made consciously must take into account its specific context. Different circumstances, available resources, language culture and comprehension, different biological and emotional states, all suggest that our actions may result in different effects, different consequences. What can be reasoned as ethically correct in one situation may not be justified in another. What may be life-threatening there may be harmless here. As the Pagan’s primary teacher, nature appears then to sanction ethical relativism. (p. 134)

In understanding that each action I take, every decision I make will have some effect on my environment around – will cause some ripple throughout my connected perspective to the ecosystems I touch, I have come to understand that I must be more conscious about the “whys” of what I do in my Life. That, in essence, my choices are made based on the knowledge of what I understand of the connections that I have in the ecosystem around me. If I am unaware that a particular choice I make or a particular action that I take adversely affects some part of an ecosystem connected to me – my decision or action remains an ethical one, provided I made that decision or took that action while trying to understand the effect that would take place on the ecosystem or environment immediately within my area of knowledge.

But, this still does not approach the perspective of what I would consider to be “good” versus “bad” in the choices I make and the actions I take. Furthermore, if I follow the aspect of relativism, it seemingly sets a perceived boundary around those actions and decisions. For instance, when looking for a quick meal while at work, I may choose to eat at a fast food business. I recycle the products that I can and place the other into the appropriate waste bin. In consuming the food, I made the choice to actively ingest fried foods that are harmful to me, as well as the large amounts of sodium and sugars that are contained within those. As a diabetic with high-blood pressure issues – those were not the greatest choices in the world to make, but I am only harming myself with that choice of meal. Perhaps not. The production of the containers that were utilized once for my consumption may have been made elsewhere in the world, under a company that works its employees long hours for very little pay – merely to keep up with the massive desire for products for consumption here in the very material-oriented West. My choice to get fast food bought another of these one-time use products, and thus enabled the business processes that occur at this factor. My consumption had a ripple effect of keeping such a company in business.

Armed with a little better knowledge of where my products come from – I can now see that my choices, along with the choices of many millions of others, has a ripple effect far beyond the ecosystems that I am aware of. And with that knowledge, I hopefully make better choices on my lunch-time consumption habits. But this still leads me back to trying to decide between what is “good” or “right” versus what is “bad” or “evil”…

…and that will be the continuation of this post for tomorrow.

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