Criticizing Wicca: Magic is Unethical

[This is part of a series looking at atheism and Wicca.]

Many Wiccans practice magic.  Skeptics, rationalists, and naturalists may all be tempted to try to use science to refute the effectiveness of magic.  Although such refutations do persuade some people, they often fail to accomplish anything: despite the best efforts of scientific debunkers, magical thinking persists and flourishes.

Another way to think about magic is ethically.  Wicca contains an ethical maxim known as the Wiccan Rede: if it harms none, do what you will.  The most reasonable way to interpret the Rede is this: if an act causes no harm, then it is permissible; if an act causes harm, then it is forbidden.  It will be argued that Wiccans cannot ethically offer or use any type of magic that has not met the highest standards of empirical justification.

As a term of art, say a practice is sound if and only if its reliability has been certified by evidence which meets the same epistemic standards as the evidence used to make our best technologies.  A practice is unsound otherwise.  Since magical spells are practices (they are procedural activities intended to produce external effects), they can be evaluated for their soundness or unsoundness.  Our best technologies are sound; when we use them, they sometimes fail – they cause damage.  But that damage is not moral harm.  Moral harm is damage done by an ethically impermissible or forbidden act.

If there were any sound spells, then they would just be examples of our best technical practices.  They would not be spells anymore (except perhaps through historical association).  For instance, if some herb were used in some Wiccan ritual, and the herb reliably did produce the claimed effects, at the same level of reliability used for any ethically permitted medical treatment, then the practice of using that herb would simply enter into standard medicine.  I am not aware of a single Wiccan spell that has ever been tested for its effectiveness or reliability; there are no known sound Wiccan spells.

Offering Sound Spells.  Suppose, contrary to present fact, that there were some sound Wiccan spells. If a writer offers a sound spell, then that offering meets the highest standard of rational practice.  Offering such a spell is merely describing one of our best technologies.  To offer it is consistent with the rationality of the writer, so that it causes no harm to the writer as a rational animal.  If somebody suffers some negative consequences as the result of using a sound spell which the writer offered, then the writer could not have done any better – the writer has met the highest epistemic standards – so the writer is not morally responsible for that suffering, and has caused no harm to others.  Since offering a sound spell causes no harm, it is permitted by the Wiccan Rede.

Offering Unsound Spells.  As far as I know, there are no sound Wiccan spells; all Wiccan spells are unsound.  Now consider the ethical aspects of offering an unsound spell. If a writer offers an unsound spell, then the writer is causing harm both to himself or herself and to others who may perform it.

Harm Caused to the Self.  First, consider how the writer is causing harm to himself or herself.  If the writer offers an unconfirmed spell, then he or she is violating his or her obligation to his or her own rationality; he or she does violence to his or her own reason.  But reason is that which is most sacred within any person; to harm your own reason is to harm the sacred depth of your own nature.   To do violence to what is most sacred within yourself is to cause the deepest possible harm to yourself.  It is to cause yourself ontological harm.

Harm Caused to Others.  Second, consider how the writer of an unsound spell causes harm to others.  If somebody suffers some negative effects as the result of using an unsound spell which the writer offered, then the writer is responsible for that suffering, so that the writer has caused harm to others. The negative effects can include everything from mere disappointment to loss of life.  Because the writer did not do his or her best to prevent possible negative effects, the mere possibility of negative effects is sufficient for this harm.

Since offering an unsound spell is harmful both to the one who offers it and to the ones to whom it is offered, it is forbidden by the Wiccan Rede.

As an illustration of the harm caused by offering an unsound spell, consider the spell for attracting money offered by Cunningham (2004: 23-24).  By presenting and advocating magic like this, Cunningham is putting people in harm’s way.  He is exposing people to risk and ruin.  His money spell might tempt a weak-minded person into spending money that he or she does not have, on the unconfirmed belief that playing with candles and herbs will bring needed funds later.  Such weak-minded person has thus been exposed to financial risk and perhaps led to financial ruin.  It is immoral for Cunningham to present his spell without any evidence for its effectiveness.  It causes harm by exposing people to risk.

Using Sound Spells.  Now consider somebody who uses the spells presented in Wiccan books.  Suppose that, contrary to present fact, there were some sound spells.  If a person uses a sound spell, then that use meets the highest standard of rational practice, including the highest ethical standards.  To use the spell is ethically permissible; any damage that arises from using it is morally acceptable (it is not moral harm).  The use of a sound spell is morally equivalent to the use of some technology that has met the highest standards of testing.  Sound technologies sometimes fail; when they do, those failures are unfortunate but not morally harmful.  The use of a sound spell is consistent with the rationality of the one who uses it; there is no violation of rationality.   And if others are damaged by the failure of a sound spell, the person who performs it is not responsible for that damaged, so that the person performing the spell has not morally harmed others.  Since using a sound spell is not harmful, it is permitted by the Wiccan Rede.

Using Unsound Spells. As far as I know, there are no sound Wiccan spells; all Wiccan spells are unsound.  Now consider the ethical aspects of using an unsound spell.  If a person performs an unsound spell, then the performer is causing harm both to himself or herself and to others who may be affected by that performance.

Harm Caused to Self.  If a person performs or uses an unsound spell, then by that use that person does violence to his or her own reason.  To use the spell is to do violence to that which is most sacred in any rational animal.  If you use such a spell, you do violence to the sacred depths of your own nature; you therefore cause yourself ontological harm.

Harm Caused to Others.  If a person performs an unsound spell, and if others are harmed by its failure, then the one who performed that spell is responsible for that harm, so the performer has harmed others.  The mere possibility of failure is sufficient for this harm.

Since performing an unsound spell is harmful both to the one who performs it and to any others affected by its performance, it is forbidden by the Wiccan Rede.

On the one hand, if a spell is sound, then Wiccans (and others) are permitted to offer it or to use it.  Such a spell is merely part of our best technology.  On the other hand, if a spell is not sound, then Wiccans (and others) are forbidden to offer or to use it.

Since at present there are no sound spells, it is inconsistent for Wiccans to either offer or perform such spells.  It is unethical and it ought not to be done.  It must be stressed that the mere possibility of harm makes the offering and use of spells unethical.  Those who offer or who perform such spells place people in harms way.  And that’s wrong.

References

Cunningham, S. (1988) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Ariel

    It must be stressed that the mere possibility of harm makes the offering and use of spells unethical.

    I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense. “Mere possibility” of harm doesn’t make anything unethical. “Mere possibility” of my car hitting someone on the road doesn’t make my use of the car unethical. “Mere possibility” of someone using a hammer to crush somebody’s skull doesn’t make the production of hammers unethical. One could go on and on like that. “Mere possibility” of harm is everywhere. You would paralyze all human activity arguing in such terms.

    All in all, your arguments are very weak. Indicating a possible harm is not enough; you would have to show rather that actual harm prevails over actual good (and will probably prevail in the future). And your arguments don’t show it; period. You don’t even try to weight the good results against bad outcomes; you just restrict yourself to sketching some (possible) harms. I’m very sorry, but you don’t seem to have anything substantial here.

    A few more detailed comments.

    But reason is that which is most sacred within any person; to harm your own reason is to harm the sacred depth of your own nature.

    I must try this line with my students after they flunk a test. “You immoral bastards! You harmed the sacred depth of your own nature!” Nice, I will give it a try!
    On a more serious vein: is your inner world really like that? Do you really treat reason as the most important (“sacred”) thing in the people close to you – I mean real people, not philosophical constructions? In your wife, in your child? If so, I can tell you only this: evidently we inhabit very different worlds and I don’t think I would like to inhabit yours.

    If somebody suffers some negative effects as the result of using an unsound spell which the writer offered, then the writer is responsible for that suffering

    Yeah, and if someone has a lot of fun when using the (unsound) spell, or finds himself an amazing spouse in the community of witches, then the writer is responsible for that as well. You see, the problem is that you don’t even try to weight and compare the outcomes (positive and negative ones). And that leaves you with empty hands, nothing cogent and persuasive. In my opinion you have produced not even a single good argument for your claim that magic is unethical.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      The mere possibility of harm is harm when you are advertising an unreliable and untested procedure as if it were tested and reliable.

      You’re exposing people to risk without their informed consent; indeed, anyone who offers an untested spell as something that works is unethically exposing someone to risk.

      When you offer to somebody a spell for curing a disease, if that spell has not been found safe and effective according to the best medical standards, the mere possibility that it will fail is an unethical exposure to risk, and thus it is harmful.

      You’d avoid ethical liability by offering a warning: this spell is untested, it has never been shown to have any effect whatsoever, as far as we know, it has no effects at all. That would be ensuring informed consent. Otherwise, you’re ethically liable, maybe even criminally liable.

  • Denise Thomas

    Magick does not exist. Ethics does not apply.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Of course ethics applies.

      It applies if you offer somebody a magical cure for their cancer, and they accept that alleged cure instead of seeking real treatment, and they die.

      That’s unethical.

    • Denise Thomas

      Ethics does not apply to magick. Magick is BS, thus if you claim to being doing it, you are automatically a fraud, thus the question of ethics is moot.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Being a fraud is unethical.

  • amelie

    Wiccans do not advertise. Actually they are quite secret. If someone makes a choice to try a spell, no one has coerced them or tried to convert them as do other religions.

    When I was Wiccan, it was made very clear to me that we were not allowed to influence others with our spells. And any harm we did to others would come back to us.

    If someone does a financial spell, then finds themselves with money, it is their responsibility to spend it wisely, just like if they win the lottery. Anyone who spends money before they have it is an idiot.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Good points.

      Yet I have on my shelves several Wiccan books that offer spells for the purpose of achieving money, love, and healing.

      Those books are all advertising those spells and some of them are pretty explicit that the magic works, that it is effective.

      That’s false advertising. It’s fraudulent.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      Wiccans do not advertise. Actually they are quite secret.

      16.8 million Google-hits on “Wicca”, 5148 Amazon titles.

      Doesn’t seem to be much of a secret to me…

  • had3

    Is there a recipe book for spells that someone can reference? Are the spells empirically tested? If not, how does one know if the consequences are as a result of a spell and not merely a coincidence? Does one know if a secret counter spell has been issued that the secret spell isn’t the cause of the problem? If I offer a spell to cure cancer to a person on chemo and they are healed, is that as a result of the chemo or the spell, after all, many chemo patients don’t survive. Do I get a free “woooo” with each spell? How does any article starting with the premise that magic is real get past the laugh test?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      How does any article starting with the premise that magic is real get past the laugh test?

      What article are you referring to? Did you just look at the title of this one assume that it started with the premise that magic was real and decide to comment on it? That’s pretty arrogantly ignorant of you.

  • Beth

    It seems to me that Wiccan’s who disagree with your premise regarding the assumption of soundness of spells will not have any sort of ethical issue with using them. Of course, that is unrelated to ethical argument.

    I am not convinced that the use of an unsound spell is harmful. I don’t see how using a spell that isn’t known to be sound is any more harmful than singing a song or saying a prayer.

    You say that If a person performs or uses an unsound spell, then by that use that person does violence to his or her own reason. To use the spell is to do violence to that which is most sacred in any rational animal. If you use such a spell, you do violence to the sacred depths of your own nature; you therefore cause yourself ontological harm.

    What is this ontological harm you are speaking of. How does it negatively impact a person?

    Regarding your argument about harm caused to others. Why is the possibility of failure enough to cause harm? What negative impact does the possibility of failure have on others?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I don’t see how using a spell that isn’t known to be sound is any more harmful than singing a song or saying a prayer.

      When used in lieu of real world measures, because one truly believes in it, it is harmful.

  • Makarios

    A bit of a nitpick, but FYI:

    “Wicca contains an ethical maxim known as the Wiccan Rede: if it harms none, do what you will. The most reasonable way to interpret the Rede is this: if an act causes no harm, then it is permissible; if an act causes harm, then it is forbidden.”

    Actually, the bolded portion (my emphasis) is an incorrect interpretation. The Rede simply does not say that. It is fairly generally accepted amongst British Traditional Witches that there is an asymmetry in the Rede: it states that all harmless actions are allowed, but it provides no guidance regarding acts that may be harmful. There is an unfortunate tendency amongst “fluffy” Wiccans to use the phrase “Harm none” as a form of verbal shorthand for the text of the Rede, but this is wrong, and it leads them to all sorts of wrong conclusions.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Good point. But if harmful acts are permissible in Wicca, then it’s even worse.

    • Makarios

      Not necessarily. For example, acting in self-defence, or in defence of one’s family, might involve doing some form of harm to an attacker. The question is not whether or not harmful acts should be performed, but which acts, and under what circumstances.


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