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Home > Temple Questions > Wicca

Ethics? Oh yeah, you said something about that before. So what are this "Wiccan Rede" and "Threefold Law" all about? Do they mean all Wiccans are pacifists? Vegetarians? Anti-abortion?

Some are, and some aren't. It depends on how they interpret those principles. The Wiccan Rede — "An it harm none, do as ye will" — seems simple on the surface, but is actually very complex, and paradoxical, if you really think about it. Remember, in a mystery religion, nothing is ever as simple as it seems...

Certainly, there are some who interpret it as "You may only do as ye will if it harms none" ("an" being an archaic version of "if") and thereby do feel that it constrains Wiccans to be pacifists, and there have been a few Wiccan writers in the last decade who have left out the "do as ye will" entirely, giving their version of the Rede as simply "harm none".

Others consider this to be a distortion of the Rede, and point out that if Wiccans were really forbidden to harm anything, we'd all starve to death (vegetarian or not; plants are alive too!). They also note that "An it harm none, do as ye will" doesn't translate to "harm none" any more than "If you go to Wic-Can Fest, say hello to my friend Bob" means "Go to Wic-Can Fest";. Both statements tell you what to do if a particular condition happens to be true, they don't tell you what to do if it isn't.

So what does the Rede really mean? Well, that's a subject we can debate for hours, preferably at the local pub. But here's one interpretation worth considering: the Rede says, essentially, that you have complete freedom if your actions do not harm anything or anyone else — but if they do, the implication is that you no longer have complete freedom. Why not? Because as soon as you act in a way that affects another, or the world around you, you are embedded in a web of cause and effect, connecting you to the others who were affected by your actions, and causing you to be in turn affected by their reactions, and so on. You are bound by the consequences of your act, and find yourself having to act again, and again, in ways that are constrained by the initial act. Thus, you can no longer simply "do as ye will"...

And of course, all this talk of cause and effect brings us directly to the Threefold Law: the principle that "What you send returns three times over". Similar to the Eastern concept of karma — and in fact, the word karma is often used as shorthand for it, even though the two concepts are not entirely the same — this is another principle that is more complex than initially meets the eye. At first glance, it seems simple: if you do something good, three equally good things will happen to you, and if you do something bad, three equally bad things will happen to you. But it should become obvious after a little observation that the laws of cause and effect do not operate in nearly as simplistic and mechanistic a manner as that. If I were to punch you in the nose, thereby causing you to punch me in the nose three times, thereby causing me to punch you in the nose nine times, thereby causing you to punch me in the nose 27 times, thereby causing me to punch you in the nose 81 times — well, we wouldn't have time to do much else, would we?

Most Wiccans believe that the Threefold Law refers to the effects of actions taking place on three different levels, or in three different ways: on the physical, mental and spiritual levels; in the realms of nature, humanity and the gods; or by virtue of the person who performs any given act becoming, in a symbolic sense, the actor, the act itself, and the acted-upon. Again, it's a reinforcement of the idea that all actions have consequences, and that the foundation of ethical behaviour is being as aware as possible of all the potential consequences of one's actions, and taking full responsibility for them.

Obviously, that's a deeply individual process. Every serious Wiccan will think long and hard about the nature and consequences of any action they take, especially any action that has a chance of harming someone or something. Some Wiccans are ardent pacifists, others serve in the military or police force because they believe they can prevent greater harms from taking place that way. Some Wiccans are vegetarians, others are hunters who believe that all living things have some degree of sentience, and that one should at least take responsibility for killing whatever it is that one is going to eat. Some Wiccans are anti-abortion, others are pro-choice because they feel that forced pregnancy is an intolerable infringement on free will. But the one commonality underlying these differences is that none of us come to the positions that we take on these or any ethical issues without long and careful consideration.

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