I stumbled over this curious blog post about Wicca this morning. Apparently it’s part of a fairly long series on Wicca and atheism, which I may look into more later. The author, one Eric Steinhart, claims that there’s no ethical way to use magick since it hasn’t been scientifically tested and evaluated for effectiveness.
As you’ve likely guessed, I disagree with him on several points. First is that quite a few spells have been tested and found to be lacking in any effect at all, barring some psychological placebo effects. Not strictly relevant to what I want to talk about but not exactly trivial, either.
Second is that he seems to be exclusively talking about spells meant to help someone. Mostly healing spells, or mystic treatments for real ailments. In the comments he repeatedly talks about offering a cure that hasn’t been shown to work, and I think he’s making a category error here. The problem with this isn’t that it’s magic, but that it’s medical advice.
Of course, by focusing on spells meant to help people, he’s ignoring spells that are intended to do anything else. What about a curse meant to torment your enemy? It’s hard for me to think of a more ethical way to get a little cathartic revenge than that. I’m assuming that you don’t actually tell your enemy about it, since that potentially brings the placebo effect into play, of course.
Think about it, some jerk cuts you off in traffic and gives you the finger. You go home angry, you perform a ritual ceremony, which will probably help you calm down, and curse the hell out of that asshole, which satisfies your vengeance. You feel better, and you haven’t actually hurt anyone. Everybody wins.
Now the obvious flaw in this construct is if you manage to find a curse that actually works. I’m pretty confident that’s never going to happen (unless you’re actually poisoning someone or something) and I’ll tell you why. Curses don’t work.
This is one of those cases where I imagine two worlds, one in which curses don’t work, one in which they do. The one where they do work looks very different from our world.
Consider that military concepts such as counter-intelligence and electronic warfare are well known, but there is no division for curses, scrying is not part of any intelligence operation, and soldiers are not issued protective charms. I start with the military because it’s usually very practical, but look elsewhere. Politicians may pander to various religions and talk a lot about the power of prayer, but they don’t regularly employ witches to protect them and curse their opponents.
In Africa soccer teams frequently employ juju men to give them a little magical help. In the U.S. you’ll see sports teams wearing plastic bracelets with holograms on them. (I’m sure actual sports fans could think of more examples, the only other one that comes to my mind is the Haka of New Zealand rugby, which I don’t think is superstition so much as just awesome.) If any of this stuff worked it would stop being local superstitions and quickly become standard practice around the world.
Which brings me to something Eric Steinhart and I appear to agree on: Almost by definition, magic doesn’t work. Once we’ve tested things, the ones that work stop being magic, they become technology. Aspirin is an example, the practice of chewing willow bark as a remedy for pain predates the discovery of acetylsalicylic acid by thousands of years. (Since Hippocrates wrote about a pain relieving powder made from willow bark, it might even be fair to say that it was a folk remedy after it was a medicine, before it became medicine again. Weird)
Finally, a minor quibble that implies interesting things. Mr. Steinhart says that if any spells had been tested and found to be sound and worthwhile, it would be ethical to offer them as a service. I’m sure he meant that it would not necessarily be unethical, because they would still be power that must be used responsibly. In fact the more I think about it, the more it seems that practitioners would have to be tightly regulated, and that the magical community would have a disproportionate amount of influence in world events.
Clearly, if the White Council from the Dresden Files didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.