A Question of Ethics - Where Do We Start?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Ethics in Heathenry is a subject that comes up fairly often, but it is a difficult topic to discuss. This blog post is not meant to be the definitive guide to morality under the Heathen view, but is instead meant as a primer to this subject. This will be the start of a series on Heathen Ethics, and will lay out some of the groundwork before diving in deeper. With that said, let’s get started.
Heathenry, like most religions, does have a moral component, but as Heathenry is not Orthodoxic, there is no prescriptive moral guide or divine moral command. Heathenry is Orthopraxic, and as such any beliefs stem from the practices and foundational experiences of the Heathen framework. This is where the concepts of Wyrd, Orlæg, Luck, and Frith come into play, but before we dive into those ideas, we first need to discuss the ideas of ethics. Morality and Ethics, the two words are often used interchangeably, as they are tied together, but there is a distinction between the two: to be brief, Morality is the amassed group of beliefs (moral norms) held by many people that are used as guiding principles. Ethics are the established groupings of judgment-making structures (ethical frameworks) that are used to inform correct decisions. Simply put, morals control our views, ethics control our actions. In Heathenry, we have both morals and ethics, but as Heathens put action above all else, Acta Non Verba, Heathen ethics are what we are focusing on. Talking about Ethics can be a monumentally large task, as it has been cultivated for millennia, but thankfully we can grasp the basics quickly. Let us begin with a cursory glance at the three most common Ethical frameworks:
1. Consequentialist Ethics place the moral judgement on the outcomes of an action. The person (or agent) making the action, the action itself, and the intention behind the action are all secondary concerns; what matters is the effects of the action. The most well-known approach under this is Utilitarianism, which seeks Utility. Utility is often defined as the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people, which philosophers refer to as the maximum aggregate. Every action must be judged on its potential to increase or decrease Utility. Some variants of Utilitarianism also weigh harmful effects, referred to as pain, so that each action must be judged on how much good it will bring about, as well as how much harm it will cause. While presenting utilitarian ethics can seem complicated, it boils down to an idea that we are all familiar with, and we can summarize this framework as The Greater Good.
a. The distinction is that actions’ outcomes are Good or Bad, and consequences are the focus.
2. Non-consequentialist Ethics place the moral judgment on the action itself. The person making the action must only determine the morality of that action alone, the consequences and the circumstances do not matter. One of the more well-known frameworks here is called Deontology, or Duty-based Ethics. When trying to decide on the right course of action, one needs to consider all the possible choices, and then consider their own obligations. Under Deontology, some actions are Obligatory, which means that one must do these actions whenever possible; these actions are Right. Other actions are Permissible, which means that they are allowed, and most often are neutral. Last, some actions are Prohibited, which means that the person must not take these actions, for any reason; these actions are Wrong. There are many different methods to determining the nature of potential actions, but the commonality is that the actions themselves are the end-all be-all of morality. Another framework that uses Non-consequentialist ethics would be Divine Command Theory, wherein a divine power assigns rightness and wrongness to certain actions.
a. The distinction is that actions are Right or Wrong, and rules are the focus.
3. Agent-oriented Ethics place the moral judgement on the person themselves, and the moral weight of a person is decided not by their actions or their effects, but by the type of person they are. While this might seem extreme, it is quite common today, just as it was centuries ago. The most well-known framework here would be Virtue Ethics, wherein a person is judged by their virtues and vices. Agent-oriented ethics are how we decide if someone is a good person or a bad person, as they will naturally act according to their own nature. A person who possesses more virtues than vices (in degrees) will be virtuous, and their behavior will be exemplary and righteous. A person who possesses more vices than virtues would then be unvirtuous, and their behavior will be vile and evil. Virtues can be cultivated, and vices can be fought, but both depend heavily on social and cultural contexts. Ideas like Truth, Justice, Honor, Nobility, Courage, Bravery, Gluttony, Wrath, Cruelty, Cowardice, Greed and so on are weighed differently in different times and places.
a. The distinction is that people are inwardly moral/immoral, and characteristics are the focus.
Without going into the minutiae, we can see the major differences between these approaches, and we can probably pick out various fictional heroes who embody them, social norms and laws that use them, or instances in which these approaches happen in our day-to-day lives. We can also see that these approaches could be rather strict and inflexible, especially when put to the test in real, everyday situations. In trying to understand which framework one should follow, we see that the Utilitarian, concerned with the best outcome, and the Deontologist, concerned with the right action, both use virtues to guide their behavior. The Virtue Ethicist acts on their character, but still tries to affect a positive outcome, and the Deontologist believes that making the right actions will always lead to the best end. Actual moral and ethical choices involve all three frameworks, in varying amounts. This particularism led to an additional framework, developed in the 20th Century: Care Ethics. Brought about due to the increased social, political, and philosophical changes under Feminism, Care Ethics proposes a new way to view morality, and this features very strongly into the ethics of Heathenry.
4. Care Ethics places the moral judgement on the interpersonal effects our actions have, brought about by our relationships. Unlike Utilitarianism and Deontology, Care Ethics tries to view morality through the lens of individual responses, not generalizations or universals. Interpersonal connections are the most significant human factor, and as such should be the basis of morality and ethics. We all have varying levels of interdependence and codependence on each other, thus the (human and non-human) people whom we are connected to deserve ethical consideration. If we are to consider them and their needs, we must be aware of them, we must be informed of the contexts, and then having understood their situations, we must respond accordingly. In order to act accordingly, we must approach ethical concerns from an empathetic position, while striving to recognize the circumstances in which decisions must be made. The moral prerogative is on the individual, but the ethical responsibility for the collective is on the collective.
a. The distinction is that moral values are found in responses, and interpersonal connections are the focus.
This ties into Heathenry precisely because Heathenry is a community-centric religion. To understand why, let’s look into the cosmology. Two terms that are central to Heathenry are Wyrd and Orlæg; these are the cosmic forces that connect all things in an ever-growing web of causality. Orlæg is the set of circumstances at the beginning of a thing, in the instance it begins. For a person, that means their location and the time of their birth, their socioeconomic standing, their familial relations, their genetic makeup, et cetera. These characteristics are beyond our control, because they come about before we have agency, but they need not remain permanent descriptors; Orlæg only describes the state of things at the beginning, it does not pre-determine one’s life. The decisions that led up to Orlæg, and more importantly the decisions that follow, are Wyrd. Wyrd is the everchanging course of things, influenced by the decisions we make, as well as by the decisions of other, past and present, and all of these decisions influence all things, in a never-ending tapestry of causal relations. This functions not only on an immediate and personal level, but throughout the cosmos as well. The water in the Well nourishes the Tree, and the dew from the Tree falls back into the Well. Heathenry, because of the forces of Wyrd and Orlæg, and because of its Orthopraxic character, is necessarily Community-centric, and we will address that shortly. The Heathen view of action understands the eternally rebounding effects of causation: what we do will influence Wyrd, forever and for everyone.
With this view on cosmology, we turn to one of the most important concepts in Heathenry: Frith. Frith is, simply put, the appropriate behavior expected from close interpersonal bonds. This behavior is certainly contextual, but it is also explicitly beneficial and reciprocal. We have close and personal ties to people, and due to that bond, certain behaviors and actions are necessary. They are also expected in return. Without discussing Inner- and Outer-yard (a topic for another day), Frith functions person to person, but it exists primarily in a community. Whereas the Iron Age peoples lived in small holdings and homesteads with a couple dozen people, modern Heathens exist both in small, localized communities as well as in massive transregional and even transnational communities. What’s more is that these communities and our places within them are more interconnected and codependent than anytime previously. The web of Wyrd is woven tighter, and our actions have immeasurable causal power. We can see how that might be, as those people whom we are bonded to are in turn bonded to others, and the massive communities that we belong to no longer have hard or even definable borders. This fits in perfectly with Care Ethics because we exist in a world of connections, and as such we must consider the effects that our actions have on those around us. Following this, there are two basic categories for Heathen behavior and action, and we can label them as follows: hospitality and community service. Hospitality governs the actions taken in the home, both in our homes as a Host, and in another’s home as a Guest. This can also extend to any explicitly define space, not just a domicile. We must always be aware of what space we are in, and to whom it belongs. Hospitality guides us toward non-consequentialist ethics; behave appropriately and make the right actions. The second aspect, community service, governs all actions taken that influence the community. Because our communities define and shape us, and we in turn shape them, Heathen ethics concern our effects on the people around us. Our actions must be measured by their outcomes, whether they help or harm those around us. Following from the earlier section of global interconnectivity, those outcomes reach the whole world, present and future. This leads us to consequentialist ethics, wherein there are good and bad actions. In analyzing how we should act towards others, we must consider the effects our actions have on the world around us, while also considering what the people around us deserve. What do we owe to the human and non-human people that we share our world with? Both of these features are enforced by being virtuous, by choosing the qualities that make one a better Heathen and a better member of one’s communities. Heathen Ethics, as it is based on the foundations of community, behavior, and causation, take the best pieces from the major ethical frameworks and apply them contextually to our lives. All of this is rolled into a form of Heathen Care Ethics, which is founded in the interpersonal connections between us and our neighbors, be they human animals, non-human animals, those below, or those above.
I understand the desire to have a dogmatic moral theory, which tells us how to behave, what to do, how to think, and so on, but that is not how our cosmology works, or even how our world works. We exist in a complicated, far-reaching, and interdependent world that shifts and changes every second. We exist in a world that is not set out to follow a smartly designed system, but instead grows and builds and expands on that which came before. The Tree grows ever larger, and the Well goes deeper still. We have to analyze every moral situation contextually, and then we must make contextually informed actions. There may be many right choices and many wrong choices, and it is our responsibility to figure out which is which. If Heathenry is the religion of homework, that applies to our morality too. To summarize Heathen Ethics: the actions we take, the outcomes of those actions, and the virtues we hold must all be measured through our interpersonal connections, through how they affect those around us. There is no absolute right and wrong, no absolute good and evil; what there is, is a chance to be better, and a chance to be worse. Sin does not feature here; we all make mistakes, and nobody is perfect. Perfection might even be unachievable. If we cannot be perfect, then let us be imperfect, let us strive not for perfection, but for betterment, the betterment of ourselves and of each other.
We can always be better.