Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ethics, Magic and Power Claimed and Disclaimed: for Frater R.O.

Magical ethics continue to be a hotly debated topic in the blogosphere, with comments coming in from several of the regulars. Among the many worthwhile statements in an excellent post, Fr. Rufus Opus offered this:
The fact is, you don't know right from wrong, and you're really not capable of figuring it out. You might think you know right from wrong, but you don't. You just think you do.
I see R.O's assertion and raise him one: most people want to be told right from wrong.  In an upcoming piece I wrote for the TI42 Initiative, I wrote about the terrible responsibility associated with freedom.  Kierkegaard considered freedom to be the root of The Concept of Anxiety for a reason.  Freedom is scary: if we can do whatever we want, what's to stop us from any atrocity that catches our fancy?  

I think this is one of the reasons why self-righteous moralistic pronouncements have become such a big part of modern Paganism. If we can do magic, we gain access to tremendous power. We can maim or kill our enemies with no repercussions: it's been quite some time since the justice system punished people for burning poppets or calling on demons. We can make our desired lust objects fall madly into bed with us: Rophynol may be banned but love/lust spells are still perfectly legal.  We can do all sorts of wonderful and horrible things to the deserving and undeserving alike. 

Instead of claiming that power and responsibility, some would rather disclaim it. And so we hear that no real Witch would ever cast a curse or try controlling the will of another, that the Threefold Law will wreak triune vengeance on anyone foolish enough to do evil magic, that their cosmic power sources can only be used for "the highest and greatest good."  Some hope that by doing so they can placate their detractors. Others hope to resist the temptation to fall into immorality. And still others shun curses and love spells because they fear failure rather than success: if your mojo doesn't rise to the occasion, it can wreak havoc on your self-image as a Great and Powerful High Priest/ess. 

Taken at its simplest meaning - and few of the Rede-Thumpers ever go beyond that - the Wiccan Rede can be summed up as "do whatever you want so long as nobody gets hurt." It allows you to feel good and righteous and moral simply by avoiding curses, negativity and general bad vibes.  It provides a structure against which you can weigh your actions and declare them virtuous.  (To be fair, this is not unique to Wicca and its spin-offs - plenty of folks use the Bible, Q'uran, etc. not to guide their actions but to justify them).  Alas, as R.O. rightly points out:
But here's the fucking thing: there is no right or wrong, there's only what you do, and the consequences, and whether you're happy with them or not. 
Everything else is motherfucking bullshit, a lie to keep you bound to the feeding trough like the good little fat piggy you are, until they're ready to eat you. Smoked, salted, fried, chopped, baked, diced with asparagus, red potatoes, and alfredo sauce. That's right, you're a ham slice. In shrink wrap, sitting on a shelf waiting to be consumed, staying carefully in the boundaries you have to stay in until someone gets hungry.
Moral and ethical codes are there for a reason - and most often that reason is "to preserve the existing order of things." When we disclaim our power, we disclaim our relevance. Giving up our right and responsibility to cast curses and "malevolent magic" will do nothing to pacify the Fundamentalists who think us servants of Satan.  Neither will it make us better, more loving people.  (Don't believe me? Take a look at a typical online witch-war.  In lieu of curses, you'll see innumerable comments about "legal actions" involving the FBI, the court system, your ISP's upstream provider and various other manifestations of the Avenging God wielding his Terrible Swift Sword against the scoffers and mockers).  

Magic works best in liminal states: it exists on the fringes of society and in the shadowy areas where science, rationality and consensus reality can no longer be trusted. Any attempt to harness it or tie it to some ironclad list of shalts and shalt nots is doomed to failure. We can offer our thoughts on why something is or is not a good idea: we can look to history in an attempt to determine what does or does not work in the short and long run. But in the end we are left with the responsibility to reshape our world in our own image and to accept the consequences of our actions.