When is it okay to use divination to learn something about a person without their consent?
I kind of touched on this in my last post when I wrote that the question I most commonly ask when reading the Tarot is: “What does So-and-So need from me right now?”
To me, this question is perfectly sound on an ethical level. I’m not asking for any information about my loved one. In fact, they’re not even really the subject of the reading. I’m asking about me, and what I need to do.
But writing about that got me thinking about divination and privacy. And since I’m being drawn to write about divination a lot lately, let’s talk about that.
The topic of this post is part of the much larger topic of magical ethics in general, but since that’s a huge subject and I have many thoughts, I think I’ll just stick to the divination question. We’ll save the Big Discussion for another day.
Can you do it?
Before we tackle the ethics of using divination on someone without their knowledge, we should probably talk about whether or not it’s even possible.
According to some people, in order to get an accurate reading on someone, that person needs to actually be present in some way. For some practitioners, this means physically present, so it excludes any sort of remote or distance reading.
Other practitioners don’t have such a restriction, and they perform readings over the phone or over Zoom all the time. However, they still believe that it’s the client’s presence that drives the reading. In this case, the client is “spiritually” or “mentally” present, not physically.
On a more “metaphysical” level, many diviners believe it is the client’s intention to be read for which opens the reading. That is, until the client deliberately asks a question in the context of a reading, there can be no true divination.
All of these viewpoints firmly close the door on our discussion. If you can’t read for someone without their knowledge at all, the ethics of doing so are moot.
Personally, I disagree with these positions.
It’s my observation that any question sincerely asked will always get an answer, no matter who is doing the asking. Or, at least, this seems to hold true for me no matter which divinatory system I use.
This makes sense when you consider how we go about answering questions involving two or more people.
Last week, I wrote about a hypothetical couple, Alice and Bob.
To briefly recap our example, Alice and Bob started dating six months ago. Before she really began the relationship, Alice came to us and asked if she had a future with Bob. We threw the cards, the cards said “yes,” so she dove in. Now, though, after six months, it seems Bob has reconnected with an old flame, and Alice is worried the relationship will soon be over. We throw the cards again, and her fears are confirmed.
I said in that post that Alice’s first question was really about whether or not she would get into a relationship with Bob, and her second question was about whether or not she would stay in that relationship.
There’s another way to look at both of these questions, though.
Alice’s first question: “Will Bob get into a relationship with me?”
Alice’s second question: “Will Bob break up with me?”
When you look closely at what Alice is asking, you can see that it’s not she alone who is the subject of the reading. When we throw the cards for her, we’re also asking about Bob. And he probably has no idea at all we’re doing this.
Relationship questions, by definition, always involve reading for at least two people. And almost always, at least one of the people involved are unaware of the reading.
If you think of other, common questions, you’ll see this again and again.
“Am I going to lose my job,” is also the question: “Is my boss going to fire me?”
“Am I going to get the role I auditioned for,” is also: “Will the casting director choose me?”
So, is it possible to divine for someone without their knowledge or consent?
Yes. I think we do it all the time.
Should you do it?
If we agree that divining for someone without their knowledge is possible, the next question we have is should we? In other words, is it ethical?
Let’s consider Alice and Bob again. We’ve already covered our example from the perspective of doing a reading for Alice which she specifically asked for. We’ll call that “Situation One.”
Now let’s look at another way this relationship question might come up.
Let’s say again that Alice is a friend of yours, and six months ago, over coffee, she mentions that she met a man named Bob, and they’ve gone on a couple of dates. Her attitude seems to imply that she’s about to make the emotional plunge and begin treating their relationship seriously.
Your interest is piqued, and when you get home, you decide to throw the cards and see if Alice and Bob have a future.
We’ll call this “Situation Two.”
Now, most of the Tarot readers I know won’t even pretend to have an ethical objection to performing a reading in Situation One, but they’ll balk at least a little at Situation Two. Why is that?
The most obvious difference between these two situations is that, in the first, one of the parties involved has specifically asked for your involvement. Alice has invited into the picture, and while Bob may or may not know or approve of it, you still have at least some right to be there.
It’s sort of like when your roommate invites a friend over to your apartment. You might not like that friend, or appreciate the intrusion, but the apartment is just as much your roommate’s as it is yours. Absent the friend engaging in some sort of wildly inappropriate behavior, or some similarly-special circumstance, you probably have no reasonable objection to their visit.
In Situation Two, however, things are different. No one has asked you to be there at all. It’s akin to your roommate’s friend coming over some night, and peeking in your windows without either of you knowing.
This idea of invitation sits at the heart of most of the questions about divinatory ethics. And it’s usually best practice to stick with only those divinations where you can credibly claim you’ve received an invite.
There is another wrinkle to consider, though.
The “kid’s room” analogy
Let’s say you’re the parent or guardian of a teenager. And let’s say they’ve been looking and acting…differently lately. They look haggard, are tired all the time, are losing weight, and have started wearing long-sleeve shirts when they always used to wear tees.
After watching their behavior for a couple of weeks, you begin to suspect that they’re using drugs. And since, like many teenagers, they spend nearly all of their free time in their room, you think that’s the most likely place they would keep their drugs if they’re using any.
So, do you search their room?
This is an ethical problem which many parents and caregivers face. If you believe someone is harming themselves or someone else, and you believe you’re responsible for that person, do you have a right or even an obligation to invade their privacy?
In a divinatory context I call this the “kid’s room” analogy, but we obviously don’t have to stop the comparisons there. Family, friends, partners—I could write a hundred different “what-if” scenarios, but the real question remains the same:
“If you suspect someone may be harming themselves, or someone else, is it ethical to use divination on them without their knowledge or consent?”
Putting magic aside for the moment, many of us are faced with at least one situation like this at some point in our lives. We suspect someone we know has become a danger to themselves or others. And often we are told that in those situations we should appeal to the help of some “authority,” whether that’s the person’s parents, the paramedics, or the police.
Regardless of your intent, taking such a step is an intrusion into the person’s life. You are inserting yourself into their situation, probably against their will, because you believe that doing nothing could be even more harmful.
But what does this have to do with divination?
Simple. If you are faced with a situation where you feel you must materially insert yourself into a person’s life situation without their consent, why not insert yourself metaphysically?
When you’ve already decided to search your kid’s room, throwing the cards can look like small potatoes.
Though maybe it shouldn’t.
Magic versus the mundane
I know I said I wasn’t going to write about the broader subject of magical ethics, but I wanted to close this post by making a brief soapbox speech.
Treating the magical as somehow fundamentally different or more special than the mundane is something which has never made sense to me. And in many ways, it strikes me as kind of dangerous to do so.
If you suspect your partner may be cheating on you, and so you read through their text messages when they’re in the shower, is that really any different than throwing the cards and asking: “Is my partner being unfaithful?”
Is it better? Worse? Why?
Most every ethical question you can raise about the use of divination can be asked and answered in a purely mundane context.
Worried your child is doing drugs? Why not snatch a urine sample from the toilet?
Wondering who the “efficiency consultant” is going to recommend your company lay off? Why not bug the conference room before their meeting with the boss?
Want to know if the cute guy in your class is seeing someone? Why not follow him for a few days, see where he goes, and who he hangs out with?
To me, there’s really only one difference between stalking someone physically versus metaphysically: it’s less likely that you’ll be caught.
Magic is subtle. It’s done “in the dark,” where no one can see you, and it leaves no evidence—at least none which someone could use in the U.S. court system.
John Wooden was an American basketball player and coach, and there’s a quote attributed to him which I think I’ll use to wrap up this post.
“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
I’m not a fan of the gendered language, but the sentiment is worth thinking about.