A while back I posted an article by Russell Blackford where he complained that "religious organisations and leaders...seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die". Complaining that religious organizations want to tell us how to live our lives is like complaining that "Cooks Illustrated" wants to tell us how to cook. The function of religion is to tell us how to live our lives. (That is not to say I want a religious organization pushing me around.) Our religion tells us what is worth doing, what actions are right and what actions are wrong. Our religion is our values. Literally, our religion is what we value.
Why Be Good?
In the same post I quoted from an article by Bill Muehlenberg, where he said:
"Instead of a creator God who stands outside of us, and places expectations and demands upon us, in the new Easternised spiritualities of the West, people are free to call the shots and determine what is right and wrong, true and false.
Indeed, they get to be God. That is the real attraction of the New Age worldview. Instead of a transcendent God with whom we must do business, and bow to, we in fact are all a part of the divine already. We just need to realise that we are already God, that we are already divine."
To me, the ethics Muehlenberg describes are the ethics of a child. He is arguing that we only eat our vegetables and go to bed because Daddy says so and if we don't, Daddy will get mad and punish us. When we say "we are god" he thinks that means we eat ice cream for dinner and stay up all night playing video games, because that is what children would do if parents didn't stop them. But adults know that we eat salads with low fat dressing because we are watching our cholesterol and have to get to bed by 10 because we have work in the morning. Even though there is no one to make us do it. Being god means being a responsible adult. It means mowing the lawn, fixing the house, taking out the recycling, walking the dog, and changing the baby's diapers.
The ethics of Wicca are based on personal responsibility not following orders. We have to decide what is right and we have to live with the consequences of our decisions. We can't blame our behavior on our gods.
We can't say "I was just following orders". That is no excuse. No matter what anyone else says, you are responsible for what you choose to do. "Do as you Will is the whole of the law." All actions come from Will. "So long as you harm none" is just advice because the threefold law works.
I choose to be cheerful and pleasant to people around me because I feel good when I'm nice to others, and usually it makes them feel good when people are cheerful and pleasant to them, very few people enjoy being around angry and unpleasant people. When one has been treated well one is more likely to be cheerful and pleasant to others. As that old pagan philosopher, Socrates, said “am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him” When we are good, just, and kind to others, we benefit by encouraging them to be good, just, and kind to us. It is better for all of us to live in a world where people are good, just, and kind.
Are we all Sinners?
Knowing that we do not always live up to our own standards of good behavior is my interpretation of the Christian idea that "we are all sinners". None of us is perfect. We all have bad days and weak moments when are not as good as we know we could be. We need to forgive ourselves for that and try to do better in the future, knowing that we will never be perfect. But as Voltaire said "The perfect is the enemy of the good".
What is Good?
It is not always so easy to decide what is the right thing to do. Sometimes, like choosing between paper and plastic bags at the grocery store, none of the options seem good. (People in my area have started using reusable plastic bags.) Generally we know that "harm" is bad. But it is very hard to live without doing any harm to anyone. Life is full of compromises. Being god means living with compromises.
To be good we must "first do no harm" or at least try to minimize the harm we do. But sometime it is hard to tell what is harm.
When it comes to dealing with other people I like to use the standard of "consent". Generally speaking, don't do things to other people without their consent. They are likely to take it as harm.
This can also get complicated. The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins, but what about the right to smoke a cigarette, or the right to play the drums at 2am, or the right to get medical care even though you can't pay for it. Sometimes it is hard to know where one person's rights end and another person's begin.
Ethics is not easy. Sometimes I feel that the only truly moral position is one of doubt.
To read more about Wiccan Ethics try:
When, Why ... If by Robin Wood
An' Ye Harm None: Magical Morality And Modern Ethics by Shelley TSivia Rabinovitch
Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff (This is not particularly Wiccan, but I found it very informative.)