Friday, December 9, 2011

Thoughts About Magickal Ethics

I should also entitle this article - “What to do when virtue fails!”

Recently, there was a hotly discussed topic concerning ethics and magick between various blog authors in the blogosphere. I was busy at the time and didn’t really have time to respond to the various threads that were out there. I won’t bore my readers with the details or name any of the individuals who were engaged in this discussion (it was just the usual suspects anyway). The real crux of the issue is whether or not ethics is important in the practice of magick.

Some have stated that there should be a course in magickal or occult ethics that goes with any book or course on how to practice magick. Ethics do impact such disciplines as the hard sciences, soft sciences, business colleges (although one would think that such tropes would be quickly dropped once in the real business world), and even large corporations and professions. A lawyer can be disbarred for unethical behavior, and a doctor can lose his medical license for a similar lapse. The company I work for has annual training sessions in ethics, and requests its employees to report unethical behavior whenever it occurs. I would assume that this is rigidly enforced to ensure that the company retains its good reputation and avoids costly legal battles where possible. So if ethics seems to be important in the exoteric world, then it must be also important for the esoteric world as well.

Yet when it comes to working magick, ethics is a very subjective quantity. Witches are supposed to align themselves with the Wiccan Rede, written by Ms. Valiente, however, she never wrote this slogan with the idea that it was to be used as some kind of law. For those who might be unfamiliar with this slogan, it has been variously quoted as “Eight words hath the Wiccan Rede - And it harm none, do what thou wilt.” Some have compared this law with the similar sounding slogan derived by Aleister Crowley from the “Book of the Law,” but they are quite different. Even so, the slogan about not hurting anyone was always taken as a suggestion or guideline by Ms. Valiente and not put forth as a defacto law. Of course, if you think about it, abiding by this law takes the teeth out of being a witch in the first place, so many, especially the old guard (such as myself) will tactfully ignore it.

If there is any kind of ethics to be used in witchcraft proper, it would be to keep oaths of secrecy, don’t cheat, curse or steal from coven members, and don’t get caught by the authorities doing malefic workings. Otherwise, witches have always been known as being outside of the laws of the land, so as “outlaws,” they are free to do whatever they wish to do. The only caveat is that they take responsibility for their actions, and if things go wrong in their magickal operations, then the only one to blame is themselves. This is based on the folk tradition of witchcraft, and is often the place where one goes to determine a realistic approach to working witchcraft outside of a strict tradition. Some traditions of witchcraft are rather strict about performing what would be called “black magick,” but other traditions rely on the common sense of the operator.

I believe that anyone who calls themselves a witch should have the ability to defend themselves and to use whatever means necessary to protect themselves from the predation of others. Working malefic magick isn’t always the answer to a problem, and sometimes solutions can easily be found using one’s common sense or what I call the direct approach. When wronged, I always use the direct approach to getting justice, and when that fails, only then would I resort to magick, if indeed, it is warranted. You see, that is the key to this whole issue, which is what I call justification. If you are justified in working magick against someone, and you have exhausted all other approaches, then you can perform your malefic working with a clear conscience. If it fails or backfires, then it’s completely your fault, and only you will reap the consequences. Perhaps the easiest way to find out if you are indeed justified is to talk to someone who is not involved with the situation and see if they agree with your opinion. If they strongly disagree, then you should seriously rethink what you are about to do.

When I say exhaust all other possibilities, that’s exactly what I mean. If someone threatens you or any of your loved ones with physical violence, then contact the local constabulary and get a lawyer. If someone is threatening you with a lawsuit or claims that you owe them money (and you don’t), then contact a good lawyer to guide you and protect your interests. Same thing if someone has cheated you out of money or taken something from you. You can also work magick to ward yourself, your home and your loved ones in addition to using more direct methods of self-protection without having to resort to cursing someone. Still, if the direct methods fail to protect you, or if you are unable to get the justice that you deserve, then more extreme magickal methods are open to you. Of course, this assumes that you are justified, since working negative magick to force unjust results could readily backfire. This caution also applies to what I call a guilty conscience. If you aren’t sure of yourself or if you feel any regret about doing something wicked to someone, then you shouldn’t do it. Otherwise, as a witch, you may proceed to “puttin’ a hurtin’ on someone.” The key to the ethical consideration is that you are eminently justified in taking this kind of action (others think so), and you feel very, very strongly that it is both right and good.

These kinds of actions are typically called “black magick” by the masses. I see them as the kind of magickal workings that seek justice and self protection and the protection of one’s loved ones. These represent what any witch must consider when virtue fails. When your back is against the wall, you come out swinging, using whatever tools are at hand to get justice, retribution and to retain your personal honor. I know that some folks will be dismayed at what I am advocating here, but if you are engaged in a life or death struggle, adhering to Queensberry rules (and fighting fair) is a complete waste of time.

My approach to ethics is to use common sense, a dispassionate analysis of the problem, ask other people’s opinions about the matter, search out other ways to resolve the issue, including talking, writing letters, engaging a lawyer and/or contacting the authorities. I reserve the use of forms of negative magick when all other means have failed. So far, I have very seldom had to resort to performing any kind of malefic magick in nearly four decades of being a witch. So now that we have gotten that issue covered, we can move on to other more interesting topics.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. Frater, it have been implied by others that my stance is that every book on magick should have ethics section. So, you may be referring to me in that part of your post. I never said that nor would I agree.

    I agree with you that malefic workings are perfectly appropriate but, imo, only in rare cases. Most of the time, honest discussions work just fine to solve disputes. I also agree that when under attack everyone has the right to defend themselves.

    As far as justification, I have seen many people justify horrendous actions to themselves. The ego is a powerful thing. Telling another your story isn't really a protection either as I have seen people spin stories to get whatever reaction from the listener they want.

    Therefore, in workings designed to harm someone, the default answer should be no, no and no. Only when you can no longer justify not doing it should you go after someone.

    Now, in complete contradiction to the above. I also believe that if I am attacked magickally in anyway, I have the right to kill that practitioner with my magick. My reasoning is that once I know you're willing to do me harm, there is no way for me to know how much and when you will stop. My defense can include their death. In reality, in the rare cases I have ever had to go after someone, I have been able to stop far short of that extreme.

    The discussion,however, started with dropping magickal rufies in someone's drink. This crossed my ethical line as it had nothing to do with defending oneself.

  2. Can I get an "AMEN." And I want to add that I do not believe that using magickal means for right defense (after mundane means have been exhausted or cannot be obtained) is unethical; nor does it violate the Rede (which of course means "counsel, advice" rather than "law").

    For those who would say, "but you are harming someone by violating their free will--" if someone is breaking into my home and I call the police, I am violating the burglar's free will to continue to break into my home; and what is jail time but a binding? Same thing with a restraining order. If I go to a lawyer to sue someone, I am violating that person (or company's) free will to engage in the behavior that wronged me.

    I really see no difference between magickal ethics and mundane ethics. Love spell? If you would dress nicely, boost your own self-esteem, let it be known that you are "available" and go out looking for a date or a mate, then do a spell that supports that. However, you would naturally not stalk someone and force yourself upon them physically; by the same token, it is inappropriate to do a binding love spell on the object of your affections.

    I view the Rede as a koan of sorts that leads to the paradoxical realization that I, as long as I live, can do *nothing* without harming someone or something, including myself, in some small way -- even to breathe air or walk on a piece of grass means that some small bits of life are getting destroyed. Yet, I must breathe, or else I harm myself and by extension, all who depend on me.

    So it forces me to think deeply about what I choose to do, and to consider consequences, and to take responsibility for my choices; but it never stops me from justifiable defense.

  3. 93

    Indeed, the question of magickal ethics come up again and again, but the entire concept of magickal ethics is such an oximoron; why should our magickal and mundane ethics differ? As an occultist I live in the world, and have a personal ethical stance. I would self identify as a thelemite, and as such the occult ethics of thelema are also social ethics, and the most mundane of things can be made conscious as acts of will(magick).
    I enjoy the idea that ethical statements like the law of thelema and the Wiccan rede are more akin to Buddhist Koan's in their significance. Certainly in trad witchcraft there is the saying 'one must be able to curse in order to be able to heal', a very pragmatic statement that is inclusive of all measures we may be called upon to take. Magick does not live in a moral bubble, and people who have magickal ethics as opposed to just ethics run the risk of becoming the Christian phenomena of the 'Sunday Christian'.
    I saw a wonderful sign recently "'Good' because i want to be. No superstition required"
    Frater Docet Umbra

  4. Whether magical practitioners realize it (or acknowledge it) or not, magic is based on a certain world view, and this view has an intrinsic ethical dimension to it.

    At the very least, magic requires an orderly, rule-governed Cosmos, in which things happen for a reason. What Buddhists and Hindus call "karma" can be (and often is) translated into English as "the law of cause and effect". Many English speaking Buddhists put it even more colloquially: "nobody ever gets away with anything."

    This ancient view of an orderly Cosmos is found in the Western Tradition going back to Pythagoras (and probably earlier) and is also quite prominent in the ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, all of whose ideas were synthesized by the later Platonic tradition (so-called "neo-" Platonism). And as Ioan Culianu explains very nicely in his book "Eros and Magic in the Renaissance", the "learned" magical traditions of Europe carried on this intellectual lineage. But as many others have shown, there is in fact no bright line separating "learned" magic from folk magic, a point which is well illustrated by the fact that so-called "sympathetic" magic is a mainstay of European folk-magical traditions, and this concept of "sympathy" is derived directly Stoic cosmology, which, in turn, is based on Plato's Timaeus.

    Understanding these things marks the difference between Magic as an Art, and magic as a mere bag of tricks.

  5. Another fascinating subject! I agree with the use of ethics on magickal workings. However I need to get a point better clarified. It is mentioned that the use of black magick may backfire to its user. I would love to believe that's true, but how, and is this always the case? If someone tries to kill someone else with 'conventional' methods like shooting, poisoning etc. it is more likely that he/she will be tracked down by the police, especially today with the advances of science in forensics etc. However if he's a professional hitman, with connections to the mob etc, there is a good chance that he might get away with it. In this case there is no backfire in his act. There were some probabilities to be caught and punished by the society, but in some cases this does not happen. So, by analogy, how should there be a backfire to someone adept in black arts who could, say, kill by sorcery? What are the 'mechanisms' which could trigger this backfire and why they don't always affect the professional hitman who kills with his 'conventional' methods?
    I would appreciate your feedback.

  6. @Nik64 - blow-back can occur in two ways - a guilty conscience or forgetting to disconnect the operant link. A professional sorcerer would never make such a mistake, but then if he or she is working for a client, the client may relent and tell the authorities anyway.

    @Robert - all is fair in love and warfare. In order to judge someone you need to have all of the facts. Did the person who dropped a "rufie" into someone's drink do so because he was being teased and simultaneously refused. In order to accurately judge the situation, you would have had to have been there. That's why I believe that ethics is subjective when it comes to magick. As a witch, I don't feel that I am ruled by ethics, more like common sense.

    Thanks everyone for your comments and opinions. I think that this is a topic where anyone's opinion is valid and represents their own personal perspective. I am not surprised by the variance of opinions on this matter.


  7. This is great, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I totally agree with the ethics for witches that you propose.

  8. "Did the person who dropped a "rufie" into someone's drink do so because he was being teased and simultaneously refused."

    Excuse me? Are you justifying rape because someone was "teased"?

    We have a problem here.

  9. @SP - good point. No, I am not justifying rape. The comment above stated "magical rufies", which are not illegal and probably not effective, either. If someone used an actual drug put into a drink to impair a woman or a man to dominate them, then that is illegal, unethical and completely wrong. My whole point is that if someone is doing something that is not a legal action (from the standpoint of the law) then it is also unethical from a magical perspective. However, I did use a poor choice of words. I should have been more explicit that I was referring to "magical actions" and not criminal behavior.