Magical ethics and consent

In the fall, I was in a class where the topic of magical ethics was being discussed. The idea was proposed that energy (in the metaphysical sense) can be sent to another person on a higher plane, and the other person (or the person’s “higher self”) might accept that energy, even in the absence of explicit consent. Another student characterized this situation as “the physical body says no, but the higher self says yes.” That statement deeply disturbed me, and it’s only recently that I’ve put together why.

That phrasing is scary because it sounds a lot like a certain kind of rape justification: “She really wanted it, and I could tell. She was lying when she said no.”

The idea that something not normally perceptible can be a source of consent or justification scares the bejeebers out of me. The rape justification is one aspect of it; any claim that I know better than you do what you want or need runs a serious risk of compromising individual autonomy or free will or whatever you want to call it. The other aspect is that since things-not-normally-perceptible aren’t subject to the same kind of intersubjective critique and validation (“That’s not a giant rabbit, that’s a kangaroo!”) they can spin out of control pretty quickly, especially if you’re talking about something like “saving souls.” It’s easy to get into the area where anything physical pales in comparison to ideas of eternity, so atrocity gets justified easily.

The comparison to the idea of rape made me think about the ethics of consent surrounding sex. Feminist thought on this has generated an ethics of consent that says not only “no means no” but preferably the standard should be “yes means yes!” That is, of course if someone says no, you have to stop, but also, implied consent alone isn’t enough. This approach to sex – which I explicitly, wholeheartedly support as the standard that respects everyone’s rights – means that you need to have explicit, freely given, continuing consent for sex acts. If the other person (or persons) is asleep, too drunk to consent, too young to consent, too drugged to consent, or if there is an imbalance of power that makes it questionable whether the consent is freely given, don’t do it. And if you do, it’s wrong.

Applying this ethical standard to magical action on another person would lead to the conclusion that without clear and explicit permission, I shouldn’t do magic relating to someone else. And some people do take that stance; Ellen Dugan is one, among authors I’ve read recently. Many justifications I have encountered for a cautious stance like this is the idea of “free will,” as in, “It’s wrong to act magically on other people without their consent, because it interferes with their free will.” That’s a nearly meaningless justification; we interfere with others’ free will on a regular basis in daily life to greater and lesser degrees. Most of those interferences come in the form of making some choices undesirable by imposing consequences: sure, you can decide to have an argument with me, but if you do so when it’s your job to be my waiter, you might get punished or even fired. Sure, you can decide to drive down the freeway, but if you run your car into mine, well, bad things happen. (This argument degenerates into the libertarian fight pretty quickly.) Now, if that argument on free will is based on the idea that changing someone else’s mind for them (that is, reshaping their desires from the inside, rather than just imposing consequences) is wrong, then I’m more likely to agree; messing about with someone else’s head/heart/mind/soul/insides is extremely questionable.

But in the end I think the stance of requiring explicit permission for any and all magical action relating to other people is a lot like pacifism: when taken as a principled stance, I can understand and even admire it, but it’s not the stance I take. I have seen too many examples where pacifism would have made the situation worse, rather than better, and I would have been willing to stain my soul with the ethical wrong of hurting or killing someone else in order to prevent that greater wrong. I also see some situations where magic may be used without explicit consent. But there’s usually a better way.

How do I reconcile that with my ethics of consent relating to sex and preventing rape? Well, some magic is just as intimate as sexual contact – certainly messing around with the contents of someone else’s head is. But some isn’t. Some is as impersonal as the daily interactions we all engage in that limit others’ choices or impose consequences. The best rule of thumb is that if the physical-world counterpart to a magical action would be unethical or illegal, it’s definitely unethical as a magical action without explicit consent. What if there is no physical counterpart? Well….there generally is, and if there really isn’t, then you need consent.

The other way I handle this, ethically, is through using prayer instead of magic. My previous post suggesting that there may be a continuum between prayer and magic doesn’t go into the details, but the short version is that the more I’m addressing my concerns and sending energy to deity, and asking deity to mediate the change in the real world, the more of a prayer and the less of a magical action it is. Since I conceive of deity as ethical, by asking deity to take a hand, I’m asking for an ethical safety valve. Sometimes I resort to prayer instead of magic because I don’t see how the change can be made to happen, and I’m also asking deity to find a way. Sometimes I resort to prayer instead of magic because I don’t know what the best physical outcome is, and I’m also asking deity to mediate that. But for all those reasons, in those situations where magic would be extremely iffy or unethical, I turn to prayer. But in so doing, I also accept that I’m no longer working directly on the situation; I accept that by asking deity to mediate, I might not get what I want, or I might get it in a totally different way, or something else. But sometimes, sometimes….that’s the only right way to spend my energy.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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