In our daily lives, certain words carry the same meaning across all social, economic, racial and spiritual boundaries.  We know a dog when we see one, and we know what a spoon is and how to use it.  These are words for physical items.

But then there are words that carry individual definitions developed by life experiences.  "Ethics" and its companion, "morals," are example of these types of words.  The dictionary definitions are ambiguous at best, stating that ethics are a set of values defining right from wrong.  The dictionaries further define ethics as a guide to decisions relating to moral duty and obligations.

Societal Standards
Ethics are generally perceived as a set of societal standards that encompass the norms of the community.  For many in Western societies, ethical and moral behavior is based upon Christian teachings, the primary principles being the 10 commandments.  This standard then becomes the established guideline by which all action is judged.

But even under such strict criteria, ethical behavior is not black or white, right or wrong.  Examples of this are shown daily as society struggles with issues pertaining to abortion, religious tolerance, homosexuality, and population growth.  Then there are the technology driven issues of cloning, gene therapy and manipulation, and nuclear energy.

The fanatics at either end of the spectrum of a single issue claim that their viewpoint is the only correct one.  They can usually spew forth biblical passages to support their stance.  So, who is right in such cases?  Do societal values supersede individual values, especially when both sides claim moral superiority?

And what about the buzz phrase, "situational ethics?"  Is this merely a concept used to justify behavior when actions donít fit neatly into the established norms?

For all the hue and cry about acceptable behavior of right and wrong, it is applicable only if the individual is in full agreement with societal moral standards.  But that is not to say that such standards do not have their place.  They most certainly do!

Moral standards developed by a community are useful to the extent that they define a set of acceptable rules as they apply to the majority.  These standards are usually found in the form of laws.  Laws are necessary to help guide a community as a whole.  Laws strive to ensure fairness and to assess guilt (and punishment) based upon generally accepted principles of behavior.

Societal standards are useful in helping communities determine the way in which people will live together as part of a collective group.  As the group grows and changes, moral standards may also change.

These standards come from the group mindset of the majority.  As such, the majority has an obligation to allow for rational actions taken on the part of members of the minority.  The rights of the majority are to be enforced only to the extent that they do not infringe upon the rights of the minority.

But societal standards vary.  Impacts upon such standards include : community, language, religion, economics, politics, stability, government, education, culture, history, race, and gender.

And societal standards also reflect the cultural consciousness.  And when those values are at odds with neighbors, the resulting strife can be reflected in ethnic cleansing, religious wars, or extremist views of religious doctrine.

Ethics and the Individual
So what, then, are ethics?  Ethics are a personal set of values used by an individual to guide their actions, and to recognize any obligation.  Ethics are not objective, but are subjective to the individual.  Ethics are a continuously evolving code of conduct dependent upon circumstances and the life experiences of the individual.

The Individual.  There, then, is the most important component to be used when discussing ethics and morals!

On a whole, ethics are relative to our perception of reality, and are based upon a specific point of view.  As such, ethics are not a natural set of values.  If this were true, except in the cases of abhorrent behavior, we as human beings would operate on a more animalistic level.  For example, wolves instinctively care for their young and injured.  They work as a cooperative group for the good of the pack.  If one wolf acts in a manner detrimental to the pack, it is driven away by the others.  For the wolves, their moral code is a fundamental part of their nature.

But as human beings, moral order is defined by the individual.  It begins when children are taught acceptable behaviors based upon societal norms and parental values.  These norms and values are used to provide a framework for the development of individual values.

No one viewpoint can seek to define ethics.  It is impossible for any one individual to claim total universal awareness and objectivity.  Humans are not omnipotent and infallible.  Some may strive for perfection, but our very humanness will ensure that perfection is not obtained.

Given that ethics are an individual set of values, they should not be used to make broad statements of right or wrong without allowing for dissension and discussion.  Ethics should be used to help each of us define our life so that we live according to the highest ideals that we, as individuals, prescribe to.  Ethics, and an adherence to our ideals, are the guidelines we use to judge our actions.  It is a form of self-measurement of growth, of commitment to the ideals we strive towards.

Though factors in our life may justify some action, or mitigate its severity, we are still responsible for our choices.  Options should be explored before an informed choice is made.

Ethics are re-interpreted usually at times of crisis or an internalized change.  This happens because a viewpoint has been shown to be inaccurate or when the belief fails to take into consideration a very specific set of circumstances.  At such times, the individual should rationally view their beliefs, and make internal inquiries as to the experiences that produced them.  Reflection is needed to determine if a new set of values is necessary, or if existing values need only be modified to reflect the situation.

Ethics should not be used to pit one set of dogmatic beliefs against another.  The divide created by such practices becomes one of rigid adherence to a set of specific values, and teaches intolerance for differences in anotherís set of values.

Ethics should not be followed blindly.  Nor should societal morals dictate the ethical norms for all individuals.  In instances where this has happened, the masses have blindly followed like sheep, following the rigid viewpoints of a select few.  Recent examples were demonstrated in Nazi Germany, communist countries, and even religious zealots who seek to dictate the values for the whole.  But ethics should not intrude upon the private lives of other individuals who are not harming anyone.

Ethics in Spiritual Living
"An it harm none, do what ye will."  If Wicca has a commandment, this is it.  Notice, however, it is not of the "thou shalt not" variety.  It does not prohibit behavior that can cause harm.  What is implied is the responsibility of personal choice and free will.  The Rede is the ideal that we strive towards.

Wicca recognizes that each of us has three aspects to our lives.  Our physical life, driven by the need to meet physical wants and desires.  Our mental life, which seeks to interact and understand our surroundings.  And our spiritual life in which we seek to connect with the divine and the life forces around us.  All three aspects should be in harmony and present in our daily lives.  True, at any one given moment one aspect will be dominant, but that doesnít mean that the other aspects arenít there as well.

Unfortunately, there are more than just of few people who think that the Rede applies only in ritual or when doing magick.  But ethics should not be something that you turn off and on like a light switch.  Make a decision - either stumble in the dark, or turn the light on and leave it on.  Spirituality should be part of your daily life, and not something you do for an hour on a Sunday morning.  If thatís what you want to do, watch football or some other program that gets you excited.  Because obviously youíll be more involved there than you are in your spiritual development.

So, back to the Rede.  Some define the term "harm none" to mean only conscious living things.  However, Wicca (and most pagan belief systems) are based upon animism.  This requires that we do not prejudge or dismiss parts of creation based upon recognition of what is alive, what is conscious and aware.  All of creation is life itself.  This view should affect our actions and perceptions.

And then there is the phrase "do what ye will."  Some see this as an excuse to do whatever they want.  They fail to ask if they should do something just because they can.  They donít take the personal responsibility to judge the cause and effect before they act.

But ethics, in most cases, requires forethought before action.  We are free to act so long as we donít interfere with the freedoms of others.  And while we may not, personally, agree with the choice made by an individual, it is not our right to determine the ethical impact of such action.  Ultimately, it is not the action that causes harm, but the will, the intent, behind the action.

So, what is harm?  Iíve seen more than one writer deciding that an individual cannot take any action if it interferes with the will of another or if it will harm someone else.  But sometimes you need to act, and harm another, since not acting will allow greater harm to occur.

Some of these same writers advocate that you canít do anything that would harm a living thing.  For them, this is justification for their point of view as to why we should all be vegetarians, heavily into recycling, and living as simply as possible without the conveniences of electricity, motor vehicles, etc.  Excuse me?

If you hold to that extreme, than youíd better not eat!  Science has shown that plants react to light, sound, and death.  The act of breathing kills micro-organisms too small for human eyes to see.  And donít even wonder about what you harm by walking barefoot on the grass!

Living is a cycle of birth, life, and death.  We are part of that cycle, and it is for each individual to determine what is meant by harm.

Ethics can be defined as the "Conscience" of an individual, the keeper of the moral standards by which the individual reacts to the world around.  Ultimately, it is YOU, the individual, who will chart your ethical course.  It is you who must determine right from wrong.  It is you who must decide if youíll follow a group mindset or strive towards a value system based upon your experiences and beliefs.

Whatever you decide, may the Lord and Lady guide your in your journey in this life.

© 2001 Mother