Heathen Ethics, Part 9: Accountability

Talking about how things went down at HUAR, as well as how things are going forward with HfSJ, made me reflective about something that’s a cornerstone of Heathen ethics, but rarely gets brought up as such.   You see, there are many important keystones in Heathen ethics, and many of us have a great degree of familiarity with a vast assortment of them; we know about how upholding your word is important, how one needs to have a strong understanding of honor, “we are our deeds”, and so forth.

Critical to these, however, is accountability; the ability to be responsible to and for the consequences of your actions.

That it’s rarely talked about in Heathen circles is rather bizarre, because it ends up being the philosophical cement that holds many of our other ethical bricks together.  It’s within the sentiment behind the “Cattle Die, Kinsmen Die” stanza, because how well can our triumphs be remember after our death if we couldn’t also take responsibility for our mistakes in life?  It drips from the “Lay of Loddfafnir”*, for every piece of advice that directly speaks to consequence is indirectly speaking about accountability as well.  It can be found in the margins of the Nine Noble Virtues (both versions), the Nine Charges, the Six Fold Goal, and in the Ten Guiding Tempers that I wrote myself.

Of course, one way to not need to have to account for yourself is to not be a jackass in the first place.

Of course, one way to not need to have to account for yourself is to not be a jackass in the first place.

Did I intend it to be there?  Honestly, no…but that’s sort of a demonstration of how fundamental it is; an ethical perspective which does not, by accident or design, consider accounting for one’s self simply cannot function.  At such a point, it can no longer even be considered ethics; it’s just long-winded braggadocio with a pretension towards moralizing.

Now, accountability is one of those things that’s pretty easy to explain, but understanding it isn’t the problem or how it’s determined; it’s having the strength of character to act upon it that’s key.  In many ways it is the shadow that is cast by the light of honor, and it is just as ineffable as it’s counterpart.  Perhaps more so: while it can be hard to figure out the right action is in a given situation, figuring out how to repair things after you’ve already messed up can feel absolutely impossible.

Surprisingly, accountability can be hard for us, as Heathens, to deal with.  While we have strong, ethical obligations in matters regarding honor and frith, we also regard the recognition of an individual and their accomplishments as a healthy thing.  Additionally, many of us have an excessive amount of Christian baggage, which can lead to some very dour ideas about how shame interacts with consequence.  All of this is to the side of simple lapses in judgement, and incorrect assumptions about who or what is to blame.

Regardless of what gets in the way, however, there are times where the onus will be on us to make amends for the actions we have taken.  It’s about as certain as death and taxes.

Accountability is, by it’s nature, a personal thing, and how each person goes about it needs to be something they determine for themselves.  The only thing that I will say I feel is ironclad, from a Heathen perspective, is that accountability cannot be practiced exclusively towards other Heathens.  If one gives only Heathens the respect afforded by accountability, then we are not truly accounting for ourselves; we are accounting for the perceptions of others and making sure our little club stays well attended to.  It becomes a situation devoid of meaningful morality, turning instead into a game of perception and public relations.

That’s not laying the foundation for good ethics, and it’s certain not honorable.

Again, this is a personal thing; it is up to each individual person, Heathen or otherwise, to decide how they account for themselves in social situations.**


*Stanzas 111 to 137 of the Havamal.
**I’m intending to revisit this topic again later; for the moment, I’m putting this out there in the hope of encouraging discussion.

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One thought on “Heathen Ethics, Part 9: Accountability

  1. Doug Freyburger says:

    In Linden Oak Kindred any time we made an oath we worked out together what the activity was, how to measure completion, and the shild to pay if you failed. It was all written together and then given as an oath.

    I’ve written an article for the Troth quarterly journal Idunna for failing to live up to one of my oaths. Turns out that shild payment wasn’t unpleasant enough on me. Lesson learned. I’ve served a group a feast in celebration of one of my oaths completed.

    Accountability is strange. If you don’t describe the success criteria and the shild price for failure it tends to turn into pride or shame. And that tends to move us towards what gets called “Viking penis honor” dramatics. Thanks for the topic!

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