Magic and Ethics - The Ways of the Life Force - The Foundations of Druid Magic

The Druid Magic Handbook: Ritual Magic Rooted in the Living Earth - John Michael Greer 2008

Magic and Ethics
The Ways of the Life Force
The Foundations of Druid Magic

Intentionality also underlies the ethics of magic. This is controversial territory, because there is no consensus in the occult community about what magical ethics should be, or even whether they exist at all. Some traditions and teachers claim that using magic for anything but pure spiritual advancement is a fatal fall from grace, while others insist that the sole point of magic is fulfilling all one's most selfish desires. From a Druid perspective, this is simply another binary, and practical ethics provide the third factor that resolves it into a ternary.

The phrase “practical ethics” may seem strange, but this shows just how confused today's culture has become. Ethics have nothing to do with the pie-in-the-sky idealism and obedience training too often marketed under that label. Rather, ethics teach practical rules of behavior that explain what works and what doesn't. It's not idealism to point out that if a stove burner is hot enough to cook your dinner, it's hot enough to burn your hand, and there's no freedom to be gained by breaking the rules of sanitation. Ethics work in exactly the same way.

This is especially true of magical ethics. Consider a curse meant to bring misfortune on someone. This sort of magic has a long and ugly history behind it, and it works by setting up an intentionality that turns everything in the target's environment into a source of harm. Done with skill and intensity, it can have highly unpleasant results. The risks are just as unpleasant, however, because magic is like raspberry jam; you can't spread it on anything without getting some on yourself. Thus it's proverbial that people who make a habit of destructive magic end up poor, despised, and marginal, because their workings have predictable effects on their own lives.

This happens because intentionality doesn't just affect the target of a magical working. It defines a whole system that includes the mage, the target, and the whole environment. In a magical curse, the intentionality defines the target as a person who suffers misfortune, but it also defines the environment as a source of misfortune, and the mage as a person who causes misfortune. As a result, the mage becomes more likely to cause misfortune even when he doesn't want to, and the environment becomes more likely to be a source of misfortune to the caster as well as the target. If the mage keeps doing such workings, the object may be different each time, but subject and environment stay the same, and eventually the mage starts having trouble causing anything but misfortune, even in her own life, or experiencing her environment as anything but a source of misfortune.

The same process shapes the results you will get from less obviously corrupt forms of magic. Prosperity magic of the sort mentioned in the previous section makes another good example, because many magical novices think of these workings as a way of getting an unearned financial windfall of some kind. The problem with trying to get something for nothing, in a world of limited resources, is that for somebody to get money and not earn it, somebody else must earn the money and not get it. This intentionality defines a whole system, and the keynote of that system is economic unfairness. People who do magic of this kind thus routinely end up on the receiving end of various kinds of economic unfairness, and quite often lose more than the windfall they hoped to gain.

Of course intentionality works the other way just as effectively. This is one reason that so many traditional occult schools encourage students to study and practice some form of healing. The intentionality of healing, like that of cursing or getting something for nothing, defines a whole system, but it defines the healers as people who bring healing rather than misfortune or unfairness, and it defines their environment as a resource for healing. This helps bring healing to themselves as well as to others.

The moral to this story, so to speak, is that the muchmaligned Golden Rule—Do to others what you would want them to do to you—makes a useful touchstone for the ethics of your magical work. If you object to having a particular kind of magical working aimed at you, it's rarely if ever appropriate to aim the same sort of magic at anybody else.

If, as many Druids believe, the principles of magic are ultimately the same as the laws of ecology, one of the lessons of today's environmental crisis also has a good deal of relevance here. You can only dump so much pollution into the biosphere before it shows up in the food you eat, the water you drink, and the air you breathe. From this perspective, unethical magic is simply one more kind of pollution, and the things that usually motivate it—ignorance, arrogance, and shortsighted greed—are the same factors pushing our industrial civilization into a bruising collision with ecological reality today.