I found a simple definition of degrees and the degree system on About.com
"A Degree shows that the student has spent time learning, studying and practicing...the initiate studies and typically follows a lesson plan designated by the coven's High Priestess or High Priest. Such a lesson plan might include books to read, written assignments to turn in, public activities, demonstration of skills or knowledge obtained, etc."
Usually, traditions will have 3 Degrees and my focus in this post will be on the First Degree.
You might be wondering what degrees have to do with ethics.
I have found that the First Degree in wiccan circles of conversation to be grossly misrepresented and misunderstood.
The First Degree is not, or should not be in my humble opinion, merely given to someone because a coven or tradition wants that person to be a part of their group. It is not an honorary degree or one that should be taken lightly.
I state this in ethics because to give someone a first degree status is to not only lessen the status in those that are working for it but to also fail to give that person with that honorary status no chance of truly learning or attaining the knowledge that they could have.
I think this article taken from sacred-texts.com states it best even though they are not of the same tradition as myself:
What is a First Degree?
Many persons feel that the first degree initiation is something
that a person receives simply because this group or that wishes
to accept a person into their circle.
In the my tradition, as a first degree, you ARE a priest/ess, and
as such you carry responsibilities. In some traditions, the
knowledge you have gained during your first degree studies will
qualify you for a third degree in that tradition. But let's look
at it a minute.
As I have stated, as a first degree, you ARE a priest/ess. What
does this mean? In other faiths, you must go to seminary or its
equivalent for a period of at least 5 years to obtain this goal.
When you leave there, you are knowledgeable in not only the
beliefs of your faith, but also it's history, sects, and
doctrines. You have been trained to be a counselor, helper, and
friend to your parishioners. You have had training in dealing
with problems within your church, your community, and "the
enemy". Basically, you have been given the trust of your church
to be knowledgeable, loving, caring, and trustworthy.
Should a Priest/ess in the craft be expected to be any less? As
an Isian, the answer is a resounding NO!
During your first degree studies, you are the equivalent of an
Associate Pastor/Minister/Whatever. You are now in training to
eventually have your own coven, or if you wish to be solitary,
you are in training to be able to defend your religion to the
outside world if the need arises.
What are the responsibilities of a First Degree in my tradition?
As always, in the this tradition, you are required to constantly
be learning and growing. This does not mean that you have to be
constantly be learning about the craft, but about yourself, your
community, Mother Earth, etc. This responsibility does not cease
even when you receive your third degree. This is a
responsibility to yourself.
Last amended June 11, 1989 -- Page NEXTRECORD
Some of your responsibilities to the coven are listed below:
1.) To grow within the craft.
2.) Observe and participate in all circle functions of your
degree or lower.
3.) To assist in preparation for all circle functions of your
degree or lower.
4.) To assist any student of a lessor grade in his/her studies
when asked by this student for assistance.
5.) To contribute at least one research paper of 10 pages (5 if
single spaced) or more on the craft subject of your choice.
6.) Contribute in some manner to each sabbat or public gathering
either by time, monies for supplies, or bringing something to
share either during or after event. Time could be by arriving
early to help set up, staying a little later and helping to clean
up after, preparing and sharing a workshop (if open workshop is
scheduled), making phone calls to remind people of the event,
7.) Contribute to ideas for coven gatherings and help arrange
same. (Remember, all things do not happen at Covenstead!)
8.) Be aware of any conflicts within Circle, and bring this to
the attention of the HP/HPS (even if that's where the conflict
9.) Be prepared to accept the responsibility of a circle or
ritual should something happen to your HP/S.
To some people, this may seem like a lot of expectations, but
keep in mind. We are not are not training "week-end witches."
You are in training to be a Priest/ess of Wicca.
Your first degree is something to be proud of. You have worked
hard and long to receive it, and your HP/S has found you worthy
May the Lord and Lady smile on your efforts.
Last amended June 11, 1989
I am proud to be training hard to attain my First Degree in the Correllian Tradition of Wicca.