Ethics of Violence

The most fundamental thing that separates a martial art from other forms of art is the focus on training in the use of violence. If this single factor is absent then it cannot be considered a martial art. This central link to violence thrusts martial arts into the realm of ethics. In this article, I present three ethical questions relating to violence. I follow every question with my own thoughts on the matter, but I should make it clear that they are just that, my own thoughts, and nothing more.

Violence Defined

Violence is defined as behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. This definition is important to understand in regard to martial arts. It highlights an important distinction between what takes place in the training environment and the actual use of violence.

The use of violence does not exist in the training environment. Although training can sometimes closely resemble violence to the casual observer, there is no intent between training partners to actually harm each other. A culture of mutual respect is maintained. This ensures a level of relative safety. At times there is a certain amount of discomfort associated with training and accidents do occasionally occur. However, practitioners consent to the level of discomfort they receive and knowingly assume the risks of training.

Violence: Good or Evil?

In practicality, violence can be thought of as a tool. It is not inherently good or evil. Just as with any tool, its use is a reflection of the user and not necessarily the tool itself. All violence must be considered in context of the circumstances of its use.


When should violence be used?

This is a complex question. A common answer we hear is that it should only be used as a last resort. The problem with this answer is that, while you hold out for the "moment of last resort", you may have a whole lot to lose in the meantime. There is no "one size fits all" answer to this question. It can only be answered on a personal level. You must ask yourself: If you are attacked, how much danger, pain, or injury are you willing to endure before you act? How much are you willing to see a friend or family member endure before you act? As a martial artist, do you hold a greater responsibility or obligation than others to act or do you expect others to use violence in your defense? In any of these circumstances your action or inaction carries consequences that you must consider. Perhaps you are beginning to see how context can drastically change your answer.

What level of violence should be used?

In relation to the previous question, this one assumes that you have decided to act. How much violence should one bring to a violent situation? I have encountered two main philosophies here: 

All or Nothing

The first is what I call the "all or nothing response". People who adopt this attitude are those who have decided that, if they are physically threatened, they will not hold back in defending themselves. The logic behind this is simple. You don't how dangerous this person is. You don’t know if he is concealing a weapon or if he has friends waiting to jump you. You don't know what their full intentions are or how far they are willing to go. The safest immediate option is to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible with overwhelming, possibly lethal, force. This is the martial arts equivalent of going straight to the nuclear option.

This might be the most logical option when it comes to the short-term consequences. However, there are long-term consequences as well. Here, it is especially important to consider the legal ramifications of your actions. While it might be legally permissible to use deadly force when faced with an attacker trying to kill you, it is doubtful that a court would forgive the same level of force against a rude drunk that bumped into you at the bar. These are two extreme examples, but they are useful in putting things into perspective.

Scaled Force

The second philosophy is what I call the "scaled force response". The concept of scaling force is basically considering that violence exists along a spectrum and the level of force should be scaled appropriately for the situation at hand.

| De-escalation |----------| Empty-hand restraint |----------| Non-lethal force |----------| Lethal force |

In this continuum, the logic is that it is better to de-escalate than to restrain, better to restrain to injure, better to injure than to kill, and better to kill than to be killed. In essence, it is bringing only as much violence to the situation as necessary and is adaptable as the situation changes. Scaling force requires a more nuanced understanding of the logic of violence, but it is is useful in mitigating long-term consequences of the use of force.

Violence is very complex and this article barely scrapes the tip of the iceberg. If you are interested in learning more about the subject in a broader sense, I highly recommend reading "Facing Violence" and "Meditations on Violence" by Rory Miller. In both books, he takes a direct and no-nonsense approach to the subject of violence and self-defense. In my opinion, it is highly valuable reading for martial artists and anyone serious about self-defense.

In conclusion, it is impossible for me to answer all of these questions definitively. These are issues that ultimately have to be sorted out on an individual basis and at a personal level. I hope that, at the very least, I have provoked some thought on the subject and shed some light on the complexity of this issue.

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Luke Pecor