In our discussion of the Golden Rule, I intentionally did not mention the Wiccan Rede, a principle which states:
An it harm none, do what ye will
Or less colourfully:
Do what you will, so long as it harms none
‘Rede’ is a Middle English word meaning ‘advice’
or ‘counsel’, and the Wiccan Rede is usually interpreted in ethical terms.
Because it insists that ‘no harm is done’, the rede all but requires an
outcome-focussed interpretation. The most famous wording of the rede is
attributed to Doreen Valiente, a member of the “original” Wiccan coven led by
Gardner was a British civil servant, considered either to have founded, or at least to have popularised, Wicca in 1954. He claimed that the practices were based upon the pagan religion practiced in Britain in earlier times, which gives rise to its claim as being ‘the Old Religion’. However, while some neo-pagans believe in and assert the antiquity of their practices, most historians ascribe more influence to the work of Aleister Crowley earlier in the twentieth century.
Crowley is occasionally erroneously characterised as a Satanist, he is best understood as a mystic; his lifestyle would probably offend many Christians, but it is a grave error to suggest that he ‘worshipped Satan’, just as it would be a mistake to equate Wicca with Satanic practices.
Other influences on the rede may include John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, and the medical precept “First, do no harm” (Primum non nocere in the original Latin), often mistakenly assumed to be part of the Hippocratic oath. There is also similarity with Saint Augustine of Hippo’s 4th century A.D. phrase “Love, and do what you will.” Since Augustine is considered to be one of the Christian ‘church fathers’, the rede can be linked to Christianity, albeit tangentially.
The Wiccan Rede is difficult to interpret
except from an outcome-focussed perspective. Outcome-based ethical systems of
all kinds suffer from severe problems, not least of which is the limited
capacity we have to anticipate all the consequences of our actions. This
critique of Consequentialism is worth exploring as a separate issue.
I am not a neo-pagan, except in so much as
some pagans consider Discordianism (one of my five religions) to be an
affiliate of neo-paganism, and I do not practice the Wiccan Rede; I found my
ethics on my Christianity, with influences from my other religions. However, I
am friends with and have considerable contact with pagans (including Wiccans)
and must say that, pragmatically, the Wiccan Rede has not yet provided any firm
foundation for ethical conduct among the practitioners of this religion. In
fact, the neo-pagan communities in
However, this practical failure of the
Wiccan Rede is not sufficient to indict it in principle; after all, a great
many Christians do not seem to follow the Golden Rule, but this is at most an
indictment of those people, not of the principle itself. Many treat the
rede as a restatement of the Golden Rule, others enter into arguments on the
issue of harm caused by action versus harm caused by inaction, demonstrating a
general problem with outcome-focussed ethics.
On the whole, I believe it may be safer for Wiccans to interpret the rede in the context of the Golden Rule, while recognising the uniqueness of their principle in terms of an explicit rejection of any notion of consensual sin (the only thing that can be considered ‘evil’ under the rede being harm). However, on the basis of my observation of the pagan community, I must conclude that the rede is as insufficient a foundation for an ethical system as the Golden Rule – at most, it contributes valuably to an ethical frame of reference. An individual practicing the Wiccan Rede must still derive their own moral system if they wish to be an ethical individual.