Having just got out of my business ethics class, I had to sit down and write about the ethical culture of paganism and polytheism, especially in light of the Kenny Klein controversy and the storm of criticism, finger-pointing, and blame games. This is because we (my class) touched on some very good points about the individual’s place in an organization/culture and what it takes to create an ethical culture.
What it boils down to is that no, it’s not enough to be a good person.
In my experience, ethics is a subject glossed over by much of mainstream Western culture, and even more so in the greater pagan community; yes, that includes the recons and devotional polytheists. Why? The answers are many. On one hand, you have an intellectual culture today that, for some reason, is based around the idea that everything is relative. Small pockets of traditional “judgmental” ethical philosophers exist, mostly within the framework of conservative theological schools, but these groups are increasingly marginalized. Our legal culture has also become more shaded, where rich white kids can get off for murder (while poor black kids get the chair) and lawyers frequently circumvent the just will of the people. This is, of course, exacerbated by unscrupulous scientists who use both the nature and nurture sides of human psychology to say, “You can’t blame the criminal, he was born that way/brought up to be a monster.” We, as a society, have accepted these things. If we didn’t, we would surely put our money where our moths are. We have come to value personal liberty over any kind of real responsibility. Many I’ve seen take a libertarian (not necessarily the political) attitude that, hey, I’m a good person, I’m not hurting anyone, and what other people do or think is no business of mine.
Well, that’s certainly untrue, unwise, and unethical.
What we do and what we don’t do will always have an impact. Oh, your next-door neighbor is dating a rather seedy looking guy, and while you’d like to ask about him, it would be impolite, and besides, it’s none of your business, right? Well, just so happens the guy is a criminal; maybe he hits the girl or deals in stolen property. Let’s say this guy isn’t even a bad guy; he may have a shady past, but it’s all behind him now, and he’s a pretty upstanding guy. Well, just because his past is behind him doesn’t mean he’s behind his past. You’d certainly want to know why your house was mistakenly graffitied or gods forbid shot at. If this sounds far-fetched, watch the local Detroit news. That sort of stuff happens all the time here.
Even if it doesn’t happen in your local community, it can spill over. Back in 2005, we had a grisly murder in my town, which is one of the safest in the state, where a whole family was executed in a mafia hit at Christmas. What would have happened if the gunmen were sloppy? I live in a very affluent, tight-knit area at the moment, but even in Boringsville, USA, these things happen. It’s not enough to simply say, “Well I’m a good person, and that’s enough.”
Part of the problem with the Klein case has already been pointed out by others: the Rede is not conducive to creating an ethical culture. If you give an inch by saying a little pot is okay, or public nudity, or whatever, that’s fine, but it will often invite bad people to take a mile. Personal accountability is not enough, and our communities do little to encourage public accountability, sometimes even deliberately so.
Let’s not just pick on the Wiccans, though. Hellenic Polytheists have the Maxims of Delphi, which while certainly more complete than the Rede, at least theoretically, still has many holes and is certainly up for interpretation. Take, for example, the instruction “Benefit yourself.” One could argue cheating on a math tests benefits oneself, especially if it’s just a filler credit required by the college and you as a fine arts major have no use for differential equations. Others would say no, you’re cheating yourself, too, and therefore are not really benefiting yourself. This is why the Greeks of old fought ALL THE TIME. Still do, really (all the rioting, all the time, right media?).
So what can we do? The status quo isn’t working, as we can plainly see. Some of you may cringe at being compared to Catholics, but like them, it’s time for us to address the fundamental structures that have–and most likely will continue to–enable abusers and other ne’er-do-wells to plague the community. Well, I have some ideas myself. You may debate them at your leisure, but I’ve found through my experience as an Airman and a student journalist who has covered sex abuse that these steps are important:
Step One: Acknowledge the problem
The military has had a huge problem with sexual abuse in recent years, and probably has before that I’m sure, it never hit me until I helped a female colleague carry 15 or so 10″ combat knives to distribute to the females deploying from my unit. Why did they need them? Because every female on deployment was, from that point on, required to carry the blade on her at all times to protect her from her brothers in arms. That’s a huge problem, and the military is only beginning to address it, even though politicians want to make hings harder for them to do so. Thankfully, despite the awful impetus for such, we are now beginning to widely acknowledge that yes, Houston, we have a problem.
Step Two: Bystander education
In cases of sexual assault and abuse, there are often people known as passive enablers or bystanders that know an assault or abuse is occurring, but they choose not to intervene. This may be due to a perceived lack of power to render aide, an assumption that someone else has or will stop the act, or even more insidious reasons. Like the notorious murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, people assume someone already called the police and therefore they do not have to take any responsibility. While you may not be held legally culpable as a bystander, you are ethically culpable, and it’s important that we as a community hold accountable the evil of good men doing nothing.
Step Three: Setting standards
It’s obvious to me that the current standards, or lack thereof, within our various communities is not sufficient. You can seek priesthood, chaplaincy, or the erection of temples and tax-exempt status as an organization, but in the end, it does no one any good if no one is accountable to anyone else. One responsibility of any board, leader, or other governing body is to have a firm ethical policy; this may seem obvious to many, but realize that most corporations and NGOs in the US weren’t required to have ethics programs or officers until the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. WRITE THESE STANDARDS DOWN, and in the case of a group, make sure everyone knows they exist. Not everyone has to agree to the standards, but the leaders should, and they should be enforced.
Step Four: Standards are not enough
Standards are great, but standards are like a skeleton: they aren’t going to move unless they have the muscles to do so. While this may only be truly applicable to groups (and only legally so to formal, recognized groups), all standards need to addressed with a plan when those standards are transgressed. If Joe Pagan is repeatedly showing up to festivals drunk and is making a mess of things, what are your methods of sanction? Do you tolerate behavior that is illegal but most people consider ethically grey, like the use of marijuana or other controlled substances? If you don’t, do you take Joe aside and try to correct the behavior alone or as a group? Do you send Joe to rehab or narc on him to the cops? What if you’re okay with Joe using pot on his own time, but he’s constantly pressuring others to incorporate it into ritual? While it’s not feasible to plan for every occasion or transgression, you should be fairly able to cover the big stuff or tailor your plans to issues that exist in your group and community. Don’t forget: WRITE IT DOWN!
Step Five: Acknowledge you are responsible for and to others
This may be the hardest thing for a lot of people today, but everything you do and don’t do will affect someone else. This is tough lesson I learned in the Air Force, where my actions or lack thereof could get people killed. While most decisions we make do not involve life or death, even the smallest, most innocuous action can cause an unintentional ripple effect. Now, we can debate the merit or harm of certain actions, but the point is to acknowledge that yes, I am responsible to you as a human being, and I am responsible to you if you slip and I refuse to catch you. I’m also responsible for you and the people you hurt if I know you’re doing something wrong and I don’t make any effort to prevent it. Is it fair? Maybe not. But it’s Just, and that’s what the gods require of us.