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Paganism & Wicca >> The Wiccan Rede
magic eight ball, decision models, religious writings, levels of abstraction

The Thinking Rede

Author: Shea Thomas
Material granted to public domain as long as attributed to Shea Thomas.

It would be much easier if the Rede acted like a giant Magic Eight Ball. Ask it a question, shake the ball, and wait for "yes," "no," or "absolutely!" to float to the top of the murkey window. Unfortunately, the deceivingly simple Rede is much more complex in application, and like all golden rules, operates in a very cognitive way. That is, the Rede requires a degree of thought and imagination to reduce it to a specific yes/no decision given any particular circumstance.

For instance, the complete process of a Rede-decision may require an actor to identify and evaluate potential harms and benefits, how those harms measure against benefits, the likelihood of those harms/benefits occurring, and the consequence and scope of those harms/benefits in the instance they do occur. Any of this would require at least a few moments of deliberation.

This isn’t to imply that the Rede is cumbersome. Like all over-arching decision-models, the Rede can be readily applied to questions that fall into a similar pattern once an initial decision is evolved. For example, should one initially evaluate love spells using a Rede analysis, and come to the decision that they are coercive (and thus harmful) all subsequent questions on whether or not to perform such spells can likely be disposed with more easily.

Thus while requiring some initial up-front work, it’s entirely possible that the Rede can later give rise to a whole family of subset decisions that offer clear and quick guidance. Simultaneously, by operating at a higher level of abstraction, the Rede may be flexible enough to avoid the entrenched dogma problems that can attach to specific ethical codes, especially when they are incorporated into permanent religious writings. (Levels of abstraction can be illustrated by the difference between an overarching constitution and a specific law that has been judged constitutional. The Rede resembles a constitution. The decisions that flow from the Rede may more closely resemble the laws).

One advantage of an ethic system implemented this way (on an individual basis using a thought process as a universal starting point) is that Rede-based decisions may be uniquely positioned to adapt and provide the greatest social benefit even as cultures and circumstances change.

At the same time, it should also be stressed that reliance on individual judgement does nothing to diminish prohibitions against obvious harms. The Rede is certainly not a free license, and universally understood evils would never be acceptable under the Rede absent extraordinary circumstances. This is not only because rational determinations tend to lead (hopefully) in the same direction, but also because critical evaluations of harm do not arise in a complete vacuum. Our culture also provides guidance on what may or may not be harmful, as does family, friends, and Pagan peers. Any of these would play a potential role in the formulation of a Rede-based decision.

To take it to an extreme, and draw comparisons between the Rede and more traditional ethic statements, it could even be said that there might be little difference in behavioral result as between the Rede and a more externalized code. The primary difference may instead be one of process in that the Rede begins with a pragmatic consideration, while a concrete rule starts with a pre-set wisdom. All things being equal; and assuming healthy deliberation and a truly relevant rule, it may not be surprising if the moral results between a Rede-based decision and a concrete-rule-decision were ultimately similar.

For the Craft of the Wise however, (and those that may borrow from it) the fact remains that the Rede is, in part, an admonition to think and relies heavily on the critical evaluative skills of the one using it. Thus the final effectiveness of the Rede may ultimately depend on the diligence of those that abide by it, and the wisdom they bring to bear in using it. Certainly not a responsibility to be taken lightly.

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