Let me say unequivocally that ethics is not some arcane and boring subject that we study in school and promptly forget as soon as we walk out the door. Ethics is the way we honor the Divine in ourselves and in others. It is a way of behaving that is at the core of our beliefs and the basis for how we chose to live our lives. You can call it by many names; good manners, the Ten Commandments, The Golden Rule, the Wiccan Rede...all are essentially a way of describing the same thing. Without ethics, civilization as we know it would cease to exist. Without them, we would lose the connection to the Divine that we treasure.
Let us look at the Wiccan Rede. "An it harm none, do as ye will." It is a simple and elegant rule on the surface. But people tie themselves in all sorts of knots trying to live according to its precepts.
First, and most importantly, the Rede is generally misinterpreted, and from this misinterpretation all sorts of problems arise. Taking all of the archaic language out of the Rede, what it is really saying is that any action which does not cause harm to yourself or to others is OK to do. In most of the Wiccan community, however, this meaning has been stood on its head and stated as any action which MIGHT cause harm to another is not acceptable. These are very, very different rules of ethical behavior. And herein lies the problem; because the second interpretation is impossible to fulfill.
The common misinterpretation of the Rede says we must harm NONE...no exceptions, no excuses...no harm to the Earth, our fellow creatures, the people around us, or to ourselves. Is this possible? No, of course it is not. We are living beings who require the resources of our planet to survive and to maintain ourselves. Unless you have learned a way to live on air and sunshine, you must cause the death of other living beings in order to eat. We build our homes out of trees sacrificed to provide us shelter. If we get the job we wanted, it means that someone else did not. By the standard interpretation of the Rede, we should have neither food, nor fuel, no electricity, nor shelter, nor even modern medicines because each of these involves causing harm in some form or another.
By the standard interpretation of the Rede, harming someone in your own self-defense is a violation of the Rede. Yet you would also violate it by allowing harm to come to yourself or to another through your lack of action. No one who is a policeman or a soldier could be a Wiccan as well..at least according to the generally accepted interpretation of the Rede; yet both are necessary for our society to survive. Is this reasonable?
When we first come to the Wiccan path and we are taught the usual interpretation of the Rede, it sounds so simple and clear-cut. And then we start seeing the inconsistencies...and we start rationalizing to make the Rede fit situation it was never meant to fit. We may begin to say that the Rede only applies within a cast circle or in regards to magical workings. Or perhaps we come to look at the Rede as a quaint piece of doggerel which really is meaningless. And when we do that, we leave ourselves without an ethical framework on which to build our beliefs on right living.
So, let us go back to the first interpretation; that any action which does not cause harm is OK to do. That is simple, straightforward, and fairly easy to live by.
But what about actions that may cause harm? The Rede says nothing of these. It leaves us to make the judgement on our own as to whether we want to pursue a course of action or not. What this involves is considering each decision you make very carefully before you commit yourself to a course of action. You do this by looking at all the possible consequences of that action and whether that will cause harm to any, choosing the path that causes the least harm and (THIS IS THE KEY) accepting the responsibility for the consequences of your actions whether intentional or unintentional. That is what our religion is all about PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. You can't stand before the Gods saying, "I didn't mean...", or "I didn't think...", or "the Devil made me do it"...it won't wash! Your answer MUST BE, "I chose to do this".And if you did it, it's all yours to deal with. OUCH! That can be pretty uncomfortable to face up to. We all like to shift the blame away from ourselves. But taking the difficult path is the way to spiritual growth.
And here is another hard pill to swallow. If you take a course of action which you felt initially (or which you managed to convince yourself) would not cause any harm...and harm does come of it, you are still responsible for the consequences. Part of that responsibility then becomes trying to make right the harm which you inadvertently caused. We all make mistakes, we are after all only human. But being willing to acknowledge our mistakes and repair the harm we caused brings us closer to becoming one with the Divine.
We are also taught early in our spiritual journey as Wiccans about the Three-Fold Law, that whatever we do for good or ill returns to us three-fold. . And again it becomes a concept rife with misunderstanding and misinterpretations. We behave because we are afraid of being smacked with the Karmic paddle. Being good little Witches because we fear punishment if we break the rules does not make ethical beings, just clever ones. There is no Karmic scorekeeper out there keeping a list of who's been naughty or nice. There is no Divine retribution, or something like the Christian Hell for violations on the Rede. What the Three-Fold Law is telling us is choices of action have consequences for which we alone are responsible. And if our choices are consistently negative or harmful towards others, then the energy which tends to return to us will also be negative and harmful. To live our lives full of anger, guilt, and negative thoughts can lead to both physical and mental illness right here in this lifetime. In effect, we become the tools of our own Karma. So, what kind of energy would you like to wake up and find on your doorstep one morning??
Ours is a religion of personal responsibility, not a religion if rules and strictures. This is both a liberating and an extremely difficult path to follow. The biggest obstacle to living rightly is ourselves. For man is not so much a rational being as a rationalizing being. We are often apt to confuse WANT with NEED. We mistake that which will bring us happiness. We pretend that a course of action will not bring any harm, when we truly know otherwise. And out of these wrong choices we cause great harm and evil in the world. In other faiths you might chuckle to think that you broke a rule and no one saw. You might feel that you had successfully gotten away with something, or you might have managed to make excuses, to put the blame on someone else. Wicca does not allow you that freedom. In Wicca, you and only you are responsible for your choices. And you, and only you will stand before the Gods to make answer for your deeds.