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Symbols of Tarot

On certification, the codification of ethics, and reading Tarot

by Jean-Michel David

[The following article is essentially one I wrote some years ago (here with only very minor editing) in response to a request for some clarification with regards to my views on tarot reading certification and the increased usage of so-called ‘codes of ethics’. At that time, various discussion threads on’s tarotforum had been rather intense, with my own contributions included amongst these. The article that follows was also constrained to two A4 pages, due to its then printed version, making the whole rather condensed as well as presuming that this formed but part of an ongoing discussion, with most readers aware of both the ‘certification’ debacle that had previously taken place in the USA and the then online discussions.]


The ‘codification of ethics’ on the one hand, and the ‘certification of practitioners’ on the other, are all too often, though not by necessity, linked. In our case, what is also of central consideration is how these relate to the reading of tarot: this last can certainly take its form as vatical or mantæic art or, instead, as something akin to a psychologically oriented counselling session.

I have at various times been asked to write in more detail then the posts I have contributed to Aeclectic’s TarotForum my views on both certification and the codification of ethics. Quite frankly, I find the task challenging, as much that forms the basis of a worldview that favours either reader certification or the promulgation of a ‘code of ethics’ must be fundamentally at odds with what seems for them to be an alternate way of understanding the world.

It should also first be mentioned that amongst the many who disagree with reader certification stand some who nonetheless support some form of ‘codified ethics’. As may be apparent, I stand clearly against each of these, for different reasons. That I am lead to include both in this brief discussion is partly because every instance of groups wanting to certify individuals – something that fortunately currently remains insignificantly small in the broader world of tarot and also solely internal to the organisations promulgating such – unfortunately also imposes that a ‘code of ethics’ be adopted.

There also needs to be recognition that since the broader adoption and codification of interpersonal relations in the medical profession since the end of the second world war (with its attendent atrocities), numerous other professions have increasingly followed what I would consider an erroneous train of thought: in a bid to protect, neither ethical conduct nor ethical considerations are carefully considered, but rather referenced to the regulatory codified document.

But let’s separate each for now.


At one level, ‘certification’ means no more than having obtained a certificate for something or other. Anyone offering a course or equivalent may want to issue what amounts to a paper memento of the course attended, for which satisfactory participation and completion of work required has been submitted. Though I generally do not see the value of such memento, as long as the recipient does not wave it as a flag that promotes one’s supposed proficiency in reading tarot, fine: mementos are personal items, not something that suggests some level of professionalism or that a tarot reading about to be undertaken will in any manner embody accuracy. Only the reading at hand embodies this, not the acquired certificate nor endorsement of the reader by some well known individual or some organisation.

To in any manner suggest that certification is legitimate further inadvertently gives the public the impression that only particular styles of readings are legitimate: the styles determined by the certifying agency.

So what are my qualms with certification? in the first instance, precisely the above.

In addition, unless one uses the setting of a tarot spread as a means to engage in a psychotherapeutic session – and in such a case within a particular type of psychology (whether behavioural, cognitive, experiential, Jungian, or any other) – then the ‘accuracy’ of a reading will be a combined reflection of the reader, reading at hand, and readee, and not whether the individual reader has in the past performed adequately.

Unlike other professions, divination is something that takes place afresh at each instance. A person who reads for the first time may provide a more accurate reading than someone with years of experience. Divination is, in this sense, unlike a profession, and no certification can, nor, I would suggest, should claim to, ever provide an indication for a reading that is about to take place.

Certification gives the public the false impression that the reader is somehow going to provide a ‘better’, ‘more accurate’, or more ‘legitimate’ reading than someone without the certification. In that sense, a lie is perpetrated. In our society, which is seemingly increasingly enamoured by certificates and other forms of accreditation, it becomes even more imperative to assist in an accurate perception with regards to reading tarot: no person can be ‘certified’ as reader.

Ethics and Reading

There are some who consider that the moral act is determined by whatever is deemed to bring the greatest amount of pleasure or ‘good’; others who view the moral act as that which can be generalised to a general rule or guideline; yet others who somehow see in morals no more than a reflection of personal feelings. The first of these is a corruption of utilitarianism, the basis of which, in any case, seems to me flawed. The second is examplified in various deontological ethical views, and seems in essence to be underpinning a view consistent with those who argue for ‘codes’ with regards to moral considerations. The third seems to assume a reductionist framework and relegates all behaviour to the psychological realm. These last two seem increasingly prominent in our modern world, and a diminishment of that which is essentially spiritual.

Let’s return to the deontological ethical position. I am perplexed by the pervasiveness of Kantian thought in many areas of life, and even more so in the area of ethics. In a nutshell, Kantian ethical views suggests that a moral act is one for which we can take the situation and universalise it. In other words, by looking at the situation at hand, and determining its ethical dimension, a prior reflection is invoked, generalised, and applied.
Either an individual is able to ascertain the ethical dimension of the situation at hand, or they are not. If they are, no rule will add insight. If they are not, the rule will simply be applied mechanically, without reference to ethical considerations inherent in what is actually presenting itself.

Charles VI Tarot Justice

This is equivalent to the shift that has occurred with regards to images of Law over the past few centuries. Fortunately, Tarot has on the whole maintained the earlier form of the image: that of Justitia or Themis. Justice faces us with her eyes open, able to see the situation at hand in order to determine what is required. From around the turn of the 16th century, the image increasingly became blindfolded. Though this supposedly indicates a move from the injustices of favouritism to the application of the law irrespective of social station, it also, more significantly, indicates a shift from Justice to Law – and that irrespective as to whether or not the law is just. A specified ‘rule’ can certainly reflect where one stands with regards to general arrangements. For example, I personally do not want to engage in readings for minors. I recognise this as simply a personal preference that, in any case, may in some areas of the world also have legal ramifications. It does not where I live, however, and even it it did, would reflect the law, not the ethical dimension of the situation.

If I were to ‘codify’ my preferences, they would become ‘codified personal preferences’, not a ‘code of ethics’. To seemingly justify a ‘list of personal preferences with regards to how I work with tarot’ as though this was a statement of ethical insight is at best disingenious, and at worst confuses on the one hand ethics and justice with, on the other, codes and law.

I am reminded of a relatively recent incident (2006 – there have been numerous other such examples since) of a Chinese official who applied for asylum in Australia, with the Chinese embassy responding that China is a country with a ‘rule of law’. My immediate thoughts were certainly that here was an instance of covert threat: ‘we catch you and you will be subjected to whatever instituted laws are in place, whether this be torture, incarceration, or death’. Of course, no claimed ‘codes of ethics’ are rules of such magnitude. The similarity is that whereas in this example there is an implied equivocated slippery slide from justice to law, in the ‘code of ethics’ there is a similar slide and equivocation between ethics and rules or ‘duty’ on the other.

Writing ‘duty’ reminds me of the manner in which Kant elevates this term to sublime heights advocating rules and law to which we must all submit, something his English contemporary, Bentham, also carried. I find the section expounding such in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason one of the most dangerous statements and against the opposite impulse of love and freedom. And it is these qualities of Love and Freedom that are necessary when engaged in reading.

Love becomes the open-ness that accepts and sees into the cards at hand the pertinent reading – and that, no matter how some may try, cannot be codified.

From whence this rush to codes?

In the opening paragraphs I mention the apparent spread of a codification of claimed ethical considerations as a consequence of some of the atrocities of WWII, including those by, unfortunately, some in the established medical profession (one would like to think in only Nazi Germany, but unfortunately far more pervasive). It is also seemingly the medical establishment that consequently were the first to broadly adopt ‘codes’ as though they were in themselves ethical considerations.

blind justice

Despite this, the waters of time quickly flowed, for it seems a major change only occured broadly over the past twenty or so years following the introduction of such publications as the Journal of Business Ethics. In fact, Mark Frankel’s ‘Professional Codes: how, why and with what impact’ in the Feb/March 1989 issue of that Journal seems to be a rather strong seed that made this plant virulent.

The proposal undoubtedly paved a path filled with good intentions: wanting to advocate positive aspirations; seeking to broaden understanding of the offerings and limits of a profession; and advocating the provision of some kind of regulatory framework within which its members are seen to operate. The problem is that the code is simply a set of rules, even if initially arising from reflections of the moral dimension of specific and individual situations, but, of course, these are not in itself ethics.

The Ethical dimension of the situation at hand

If Kant can be said to have presented the most pervasive form of deontological ethics, W. D. Ross can be viewed as having made them more forcefully common amongst those who draw from the philosophical body of published thought, with recourse to what he calls prima facie duties. Yet here, in cases where the situation at hand presents conflicting ‘duties’, he has recourse to the moral intuition of the individual. Truly, deontological ethics seems rather an unstable beast without the backbone of something far more sensible: that of the insight into the moral dimension of the situation at hand via the moral reflections of the concerned person at task on the individual situation at hand.

One of the most astute criticism of Kant’s deontology, and by implication on ‘codes of ethics’ in general, is from Rudolf Steiner’s most important book Philosophy of Freedom. Of course, he there provides not simply a critique of the thinking involved in Kant, but also makes a positive contribution…

…and shall close on a quote from that work:

[…] On closer inspection it will at once be seen that at this level of morality driving force and motive coincide; that is, neither a predetermined characterological disposition nor the external authority of an accepted moral principle influences our conduct. The action is therefore neither a stereotyped one which merely follows certain rules, nor is it one which we automatically perform in response to an external impulse, but it is an action determined purely and simply by its own ideal content. […]

Such an action presupposes the capacity for moral intuitions. Whoever lacks the capacity to experience for himself the particular moral principle for each single situation, will never achieve truly individual willing.

Kant’s principle of morality — Act so that the basis of your action may be valid for all men — is the exact opposite of ours. His principle means death to all individual impulses of action. The standard [must] be what, for me, is to be done in each individual case. […]

People vary in their capacity for intuition. Situations in which men live are varied. Conduct will depend on the manner in which his faculty of intuition works in a given situation. The sum of ideas which are effective in us, the concrete content of our intuitions, constitutes what is individual in each of us, notwithstanding the universality of the world of ideas. In so far as this intuitive content applies to action, it constitutes the moral content of the individual. To let this content express itself in life is both the highest moral driving force and the highest motive a man can have. We may call this point of view ethical individualism.

The decisive factor of an intuitively determined action in any concrete instance is the discovery of the corresponding purely individual intuition.

R. Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom (1894)

2 comments to

On certification, the codification of ethics, and reading Tarot

  • Patronized and POed

    Dear M. David:
    I am new to tarot and I have a question:
    I just came from a reading at which the card reader intentionally avoided reading MOST of the cards in a spread and proceeded to give me unsolicited and unwarranted advice based on things that I had told her about my past. I say the advice was unsolicited because it was: I had only brought up my past because I was correcting her faulty memory of things I had casually mentioned in a past reading, not because it had a direct bearing on the question I was asking. I say the advice was unwarranted because I already know and practice the things she was adamant were part of the “lesson” of her reading. This is “editing” of the cards was something she had done in our first reading together, but I had been able to coax her into reading all the cards and she didn’t do it the next time. But then, she also hadn’t remembered me from before and I said nothing about my past to give her any clues.

    At the “end” of her reading, I confronted her about what she was doing and pointed out that she was ignoring cards and had done it before. I could tell that like before, she was doling out advice based on things I’d said in response to her incorrect assumptions, and in this most recent case, her failed memory. When I pointed out her “editing” of the message, she blatantly refused to address the rest of the cards, claiming that they were “inconsistent”. I let her know that I didn’t want to hear what *she* wanted to say rather than what the cards say, and that I don’t mind hearing a balanced reading (She had tried to ignore what she thought was ‘negative’ in the prior edited reading. It turned out to be pertinent and spot-on, when I finally got it out of her). In response, she pretended to appease me by offering to explain the cards she had now piled up from the spread into a single stack and “talk about what they mean.” As in, individually;, as in, “this card represents the idea of _____;” as in, things you can read about each card and their meaning in any tarot book.

    In the end, she justified her actions by telling me that it was her right as “the reader” to *interpret* and insisting again that all 8 of 9!! cards in the spread were “inconsistent” (presumably, with her message) and therefore irrelevant. I was not posing any questions about legal or medical issues, or third parties. I was only asking for a reading on the general area of relationships –all relationships, not romantic ones. Yet, she assumed that I meant romantic relationships and started a discussion, giving out her own self-help/self-esteem oriented lessons, admittedly and adamantly based on her own experience and her assumptions about mine, and refused to stop and just finish reading the cards!! At least she didn’t charge me when she kicked me out, but the question still stands:

    Was this ethical behavior? Or is she just conveniently deciding what is and isn’t her prerogative, as opposed to what is the querent’s prerogative, and hiding behind a position of power to justify her preferences? Is it commonplace for a reader to keep significant portions of a reading from their client (arguing with them about their life history and give out unsolicited advice aside)?

  • jmd

    Thanks for the comment and questions.

    I’ll assume that this related event did in fact happen to you – and simply mention here that similar scenarios have in the past been described in the context of the issue I present in the main article. So firstly, having had those events happen is of course regrettable, and wonder why, given your past experience with her, you returned to the same reader – and I of course respect your decision to so do, and infer that the insights you may have gained were worth more than the misgivings also accompanying the reading-at-hand.

    I’m not going to here write the equivalent of a whole article on the situation you present, but rather a few remarks pertinent to the article, and to your questions.

    The reader, as mentioned in the scenario, has a particular style of relating, and she uses, it seems, part of the drawn cards in order to engage in some form of dialogue with her readee, bringing to light past situational life-circumstances. Given your experience with her, it also seems that she is not too adept at so doing, despite her implied apparent knowledge of the individual cards and their possible symbolic meaning(s).

    There are times when a reader faced with a spread may be unable to easily weave the presented imagery into a coherent whole: the disparate cards remain ‘inconsistent’. At another time, the very same cards may, for the same reader, easily cohere into a developing narrative. I cannot of course be sure what occurred for the reader in question, nor indeed why she specifically spoke in the manner described. Perhaps a few cards drew her to reflections into her own insights on what you have described as ‘self-help/self-esteem’, and from which she then became unable to emerge and look afresh at the spread.

    In terms of ‘reading ALL the cards’ in a spread, some readers (and possibly most at least some of the time with certain spreads) do not ‘read’ each and everyone, but rather it becomes the integrated word-picture that is allowed to become insight centred around some of the cards: in such a case, it may appear that some cards are not ‘read’ (something akin to the apparent ‘non-reading’ of the ‘g’ and the ‘h’ in the word ‘fraught’).

    So, was her engagement ethical? It would not be, it seems, ethical for me to answer this question without a fuller understanding of the whole situation at hand. Certainly on the surface, and with your description and questions solely instructing the picture, the impression is that she neither entered the reading, nor the engagement with yourself, in a manner that is entirely appropriate – and yet I can also very well imagine how this is the kind of reading-style that may be entirely apt for someone other than yourself.

    I trust I have addressed at least some of the concerns you have raised, yet also realise that there are some who shall be reading this who would prefer definite rules-and-regulations about how and what to do, and from that determination find themselves in one or the other side of the fence when answering your question.

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