Bad Morality: The Flaw with the Threefold Law
`Ever mind the Rule of Three,
Thrice shall acts return to thee.`
Neopagans, particularly eclectic Witches and neo-Wiccans, across the world are familiar with the concept expressed by this rhyme and others like it. It’s often presented as a universal moral precept. It claims that whatever one does, especially magically, will return to the source of action, i.e. the caster, three times as beneficial or harmful. It is taught and often spoken of as a moral code by which all witches should abide because if a witch were to misbehave, her negativity will return to her three times as worse than she had sent out.
No information is given as to whom or what is dispensing the amplified justice. Perhaps the Gods, but then, the question is begged: why three? Why should anything one does return to him or her three times over? Is that even fair? Is it just to deliver a punishment three times worse than the crime? And, what of all those do-gooders who live in dire straits who have yet to reap this threefold reward? Not to mention all the questions about the mechanisms by which this threefold return occurs: is it a natural occurrence in the universe? If so, why is it not seen in the natural universe? Why does the universe (and many neopagan religions) tend towards balance and not threefold?
Nevermind all that. It’s really irrelevant because the real problem is that the Threefold Law doesn’t really teach morality or ethics. It doesn’t provide insight on how a witch might come to a moral course of action nor does it provide the witch with an authoritative framework upon which he can judge what is right and wrong or good and evil. According to the Cambridge Dictionary morality is “a personal or social set of standards for good or bad behaviour and character, or the quality of being right, honest or acceptable.” Many of us would agree with this definition or offer another that would closely approximate the meaning of the word. We might even all agree that morality is the concern for the propriety and justness of our actions as well as how those actions may affect our lives and the lives of others. Indeed, for many–if not all–pagans, a moral decision must necessarily consider the welfare of others–human, animal, or planet. And yet, there is no hint of what is right and wrong or good and evil within the warning of the “Law”.
In fact, the Threefold Law addresses only one concern: whether the action may benefit or harm the witch. It speaks only to the happiness and benefit of the witch without any concern to the effects his actions may have upon those around him. Furthermore, being that the Threefold Law offers no statements about the nature of good and evil or right and wrong, it, unintentionally but necessarily, implies that an action is only inadvisable because of the harm it will reap for the witch, himself.
The entire crux of the lesson the Threefold Law gives its believers is that one should behave, otherwise, one will be punished exponentially. It doesn’t even say that unjust or heinous actions are wrong on their own merits, but, simply, that you shouldn’t do them because some-one/thing will wrong you thrice as bad. It reveals nothing about the importance of a single person and his actions within a macro-cosmic dynamic; it speaks nothing about our responsibilities to each other and the universe, itself; and it teaches nothing about sympathetic relationships.
I could even argue without much stretch of the imagination that the Threefold Law is hedonisitc in nature, being concerned only with the happiness and well-being of the self. But, that’s an argument for another day, perhaps.
Personally, I prefer a tiny excerpt from the beautiful “Charge of the Goddess” by Doreen Valiente:
For mine is the ecstasy of the Spirit,
and Mine also is joy on Earth;
for My law is love unto all beings.