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DATE : 14-11-27 12:38
Pacifism and the Eastern Martial Arts
 WRITER : usmai
HIT : 987  
In this article we wish to claim that, despite the paradoxical appearances, there is a positive relation between pacifism and the Eastern martial arts. We shall argue that all moral agents, even absolute pacifists, have a duty to learn how to fight. Further, after making some observations about the peculiar way in which the consciousness of the practitioner of the Eastern martial arts is supposed to be related to his acts of violence, according to the tradition, we shall claim that it is morally preferable to learn to fight in such a system rather than in one without such features.


It is obvious that a decision whether to learn how to fight and a decision to fight or not to fight on a certain occasion or in general are moral decisions. One would be asking what one should do, and the decisions commit one to a certain course of action, regardless of whether one is resolute enough to carry out his decisions. Further, these decisions are ones that everyone makes, either by taking a specific stand, or by declining to consider the issue. Everyone, then, has ~a moral position on fighting. For everyone is faced with confrontations with physical force, or the possibility of such confrontations, in everyday life.

Let us be more specific about the meaning of fighting'. Here we primarily mean by fighting the exchange of direct physical force between individuals with the intention of coercing the opposition to behave or refrain from behaving in a certain way.1 The~efore, if I decide to fight, I am deciding to act violently toward another while being aware that he might react in kind. 1ff strike a dead body, I would not be fighting; if I strike a sleeping person, I would be fighting, for the person who was sleeping might wake up and retaliate. However, insofar as the person is asleep, he could not be said to be fighting. In this way, I may choose to fight someone who has added not to fight back; however, such a nonaggressor would not be fighting me. Later we shall make some remarks on institutional fighting, as in war. But at present we shall be concerned only with personal violence and fighting.

There are many possible moral positions that one could take with regard to per.onal fighting. One way of categorizing them is on a pacifist-non-pacifist continuum. On one extreme it is morally wrong to commit any act that might endanger any living being (even an ant or amoeba can fight back) or to refrain from any act that might prevent an occurrence of violence. On the other extreme, fighting per se is considered a good, and one ought to wallow in blood and violence. We are not aware of any instantiation of either ideal extreme: the first seems to lead to annihilation shortly, and the second is reminiscent of the circle of the wrathful in Dante's Hell. But there are actual cases near the extremes: the early Jams and other Indian religious sects on the one hand, with the theoretical view being perhaps represented by Christ's a advice to turn the other cheek; on the other, Attila might be a plausible candidate, with Thrasymachus and the hard Nietzsche providing the theory.

There are, to be sure, many varieties of pacificists and nonpacifists, such that many people believe that killing is justified when done for good reasons, with considerable variety of opinion about what constitute "good reasons. People are even described as contingent pacifists if they are not opposed to killing in principle but think that, at least in the cases of modern wars, there is no good reason at present that would justify killing.

For our purposes, though, we may divide the moral views into those that consider it possible for a situation to arise for a moral agent in which it would be justifiable for him to fight, and those that consider it impossible for fighting ever to be justifiable. The latter view we shall call absolute pacifism. Glover defines an absolute pacifist as one who believes "that it is never right to kill another person, regardless of the consequences. 3 As there is always a possibility of death or serious injury in fighting (not playing or sparring), it is not too presuinptious to use absolute pacifism' as we shall be doing.

Let us consider the case of those who believe that they ought to fight in certain foreseeable circumstapces. For these there are two grounds on which they might be said to have a moral duty to learn how to fight. The first is based on prudence. lf prudential considerations are morally relevant, then one ought to take care of oneself, and one way in which one can protect oneself is to learn how to defend oneself from the violence of others. There is, however, considerable disagreement over whether prudence is a moral virtue. We think that prudence, conceived as self-regard, must be a moral virtue, at least to the extent that one should consider ones s own interests and needs just as much as those who depend heavily on him. Just as one is responsible for a baby who cannot feed or defend itself, so one is responsible to feed and defend oneself. Further, one is in an even more privileged position to do vital things for oneself, such as breathe or exercise, and hence it is not unreasonable that one ought to spend more time and effort for one's own benefit than for the benefit of other moral agents. Therefore we believe that prudence is a moral virtue. Even if it is denied that one's own case ought to be given special weight in moral deliberations, it must be admitted that one has just as much rights as any other moral agent. Further, as one is in a privileged position in one's own case, spending a disproportionate amount of time one one's own interests is not unwarranted.

The second ground is based on commitment. It has been repeatedly emphasized, perhaps overemphasized, by many moral philosophers, that to make a moral assertion is to commit oneself to a certain course of action.4 For example, if one says, "I should not murder my spouse, one is committing oneself to a course of behavior. - Now a person who is not an absolute pacifist is saying, "I ought to fight in certain - situations, and such a situation might arise. To what is he committing himself? Of course, he is committing himself to act in a certain way in certain possible _ situations in the future. The crucial question is whether he is also committing himself to courses of behavior that would improve his performance in those situations; that - is, is he also committed to learning how to fight better?

We think that indeed such a person does have a prima facie moral duty to engage - in those activities that serve as means to improve the efficiency of his actions. Consider parallel cases. Suppose someone said, "I ought to know how to swim, but I don't know how, and I do not plan to take time to learn. We tend to suspect his _ sincerity. Or again, if someone intended to run in a marathon and had no experience running, we would doubt his intention, his intelligence, or both. In both these cases, it is presumed that training is a necessary means to the end to which one has cornrnitted oneself. If fighting is an activity for which training greatly improves one's - performance, then here too in committing oneself to the ends one also has cornrnitted oneself to the means. Now we think that it is firmly established that some _ training at least greatly improves performance in fighting. Therefore, the person who is not an absolute pacificist has a prima facie moral obligation to learn how to fight.

By this conclusion we do not mean that he has an unqualified moral duty to learn - how to fight. There may be other demands on his time, involving moral duties with - more importance. Further, the return on the amount of time spent learning fighting - techniques may diminish in proportion to the amount of time spent. Still, we think that he has a prima facie moral duty to learn how to fight. 

What about the absolute pacifist? These preceding considerations do not apply to him, if we discount weakness of will, since he has decided never to fight.

Let us take inspiration from Kant and Nietzsche. Kant remarks that there may - have never been a purely moral act:

In fact, it is absolutely impossible to make out by experience with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of its action, however right in itself, rested simply on moral grounds and on the conception of duty. Sometimes it happens that - with the sharpest self-examination we can find nothing beside the moral principle of - duty which could have been powerful enough to move us to this or that action and to so great a sacrifice; yet we cannot from this infer with certainly that it was not really some secret impulse of self-love.

Nietzsche is even more emphatic, and subjects systems of moralities like Kant's to the same criticism: "What else are they but suggestions for behavior adapted to the - degree of danger from themselves in which they as individuals live; recipes for their - passions, their good and bad propensities, insofar as such have the Will to Power and - would like to play the master.. "6 For Nietzsche an absolute pacifist would be one who has either rationalized his weaknesses, or has been duped by those who are weak, in their bid for power. "The inoffensiveness of the weak man, even the cowardice of which he has so much... are even called virtue itself, Nietzsche compares the ideology of the weak, pacifist by necessity, to the ideology of lambs with respect to birds of prey: the lambs do not want to get eaten.

Now these remarks suggest that it is often quite difficult to disentangle one's motives for choosing a course of action, and that an absolute pacifist may be deluding himself about his reasons for acting as he does. Although one can give explanations about his conduct that convince himself and others, often there are more plausible and less morally relevant explanations for it. For example, I may have a convincing account of why it is morally praiseworthy or at least acceptable for me to have a luxurious standard of living when some people in the world are starving. But a better explanation of my conduct might be that I have grown accustomed to a certain way of life, am indolent and selfish, but feel guilty enough to offer explanations. A more detached and objective observer may be better able to gauge my motives than I. We are finite, have needs, and receive benefits and disadvantages from our decisions and actions. It is difficult to suspend consideration of what we suppose the results of our decisions will be in making moral judgments, even if these considerations are not morally relevant.

Let us consider the case of the absolute pacifist. He has decided that it is wrong to fight, under any circumstances. So he has committed himself to a certain course of conduct. But consider what other motives there might be for the same course of conduct. The most obvious and universally applicable alternate motive is one where the person is afraid to fight, is ashamed of being afraid, and seeks excuses that will convince others and himself that he is not afraid. Rather, he thinks, he is acting from superior moral beliefs, and has even more courage than one who fights. Of course, an observer who sees the proverbial 200-pound bully and the 97-pound weakling might be skeptical about the pacifist position of the latter. We claim that even the pacifist should be skeptical.

So we argue that, as it is so easy for human beings to rationalize their failures into triumphs, the absolute pacifist has a prima facie commitment to learn how to fight. If he thinks that he ought not to fight and that he ought to act from moral reasons rather than out of fear, he has a duty to seek those courses of behavior that make his actions moral ones. If he knows how to fight reasonably well, then the probability of his acting out of fear when he affirms pacifist views is as least diminished. Refraining from fighting will no longer be motivated by fear.

This point can be more simply stated. If I believe that I ought to turn the other cheek on moral grounds, the significance of my turning the other cheek will vary, depending on my knowledge of how to fight. ff1 do not know how to fight, turning the other cheek, that is, offering no resistance, is my best chance of defending myself, regardless of my moral views. ff1 know how to fight and yet do not fight, my motivation is less suspect. To fight or not to fight become two practically viable alternatives.

A major objection against this view is that by learning how to fight the absolute pacifist will be engaging in precisely that activity which he is pledged to avoid. Thus, it would be contradictory to his moral beliefs to say that he ought to learn how to fight.

This objection assumes that there is a necessary connection between learning how to fight and engaging in violence. Later we shall discuss considerations that suggest that there is no such connection, in the Eastern martial arts at least. But if there is no inconsistency between being an absolute pacifist and learning how to fight, then the absolute pacifist has a prima facie moral duty to learn how to fight.

The same argument seems to apply to institutional violence or war, mutatis mutandis. A state that knows how to defend itself and chooses not to do so is a pacifist nation in a much stronger sense than one that cannot defend itself. Further, a person who is opposed to institutional violence is on firmer moral ground when he knows how to fight than when he does not. But in the latter case, in particular, this prima facie moral duty might be overridden by external circumstances: the only way to learn how to fight in modern warfare might be actually to fight a war in an army. Still, people tend to take more seriously veterans who have become pacifists than those who have never fought nor do not know how to fight.


There are two main grounds on which engaging in an Eastern martial art, or something with a similar approach, is particularly suitable for a pacifist seeking to learn how to fight. The first is that the training aids in the sublimation of aggressive impulses ; the second is that one may become detached, in a peculiar way, from aggressive impulses altogether.

In an earlier article we have argued that there is some justification for the claim that is commonly made in the Eastern martial arts, that engaging in such an art promotes nonviolent attitudes and behavior.8 By nonviolent' is meant non- aggressive', and not necessarily absolutely pacifist' or abstaining from all acts and attitudes of violence'. The main causes for the occurrence of sublimation are, first, the confidence created by knowing that one knows how to defend oneself, and, second, the shift in interest from a martial art as a fighting skill to it as an art form, via increasing emphasis on the forms (katas). A person engaged in this activity would have less emotional need to be aggressive, although he might think it justified to fight on certain occasions.

Unless he is a saint, the pacifist will have aggressive impulses. As a means of increasing his self-control and decreasing incidence of those impulses, martial arts training may be beneficial. The main alternative is to try to ignore one's violent impulses, and seek to avoid situations in which they might arise. We confess that we are not too sympathetic with this monastic choice. This course of action is similar to the one which a monk adopts in order to avoid having sexual impulses. He seeks simply to have nothing to do with situations that might arouse them. We think that
adjustment is preferable to suppression. The person who seeks to avoid sexual thoughts in a normal life is doing a more honest job of it than the monk. Similarly, the pacifist who does not suppress part of his nature but instead tries to face and deal with it is a more honest and authentic pacifist.

But will the absolute pacifist hav.e to engage in violent acts in martial arts training, when he is committed to avoiding such acts? It must be observed that the training in the Eastern martial arts is not as violent as it is depicted in the media. Still, even the very language used in training denotes violent acts: head punch'; eye poke'. The absolute pacifist seems to be entering an arena of violence. Just as he may object to violent movies, he may object to at least playing at being violent in the martial arts.

Still, if the pacifist is human, he will have violent impulses anyway. In a martial arts class he can give vent to them in a controlled environment, with the laudable purpose of facing up to and trying to overcome violent aspects of his nature. Again, let us stress that Eastern martial arts classes tend not to be as violent as those of many Western forms nor as popularly depicted. Much time is taken up with drills and forms.

Moreover, there is commonly said to be a feature of Eastern martial arts training that detaches the practitioner from violence altogether. Here is supposed to be not merely the sublimation of violent aggressive impulses, but their complete eradication. We shall claim that there is some emotional detachment from violence in the state of mushin, but we shall remain somewhat skeptical of the more grandiose claim of eradication. Nevertheless, we claim that if practicing an Eastern martial art leads to sublimation and some detachment from violent impulses, the absolute pacifist can hardly claim that engaging in such activity is engaging in fighting, in the normal sense of engaging in fighting'.

The state in question is mush in, which is the state which one has when enlightenment (satori) is attained. A person in this state, effect becomes unaware of the foe before him. He dismisses all thought of winning or losing, of bravery, of fear. All things such as revenge, ambition, aggressiveness, and all mistaken ideas are eliminated from his being. He allows his spirit to flow, not stopping it anywhere, and entrusts everything to the body.

The state of mush in, like satori itself, cannot be induced by a set procedure, but can be prompted to occur by engaging in the training of the Eastern martial arts. At any rate, this is the description of mushin by Mas. Oyama's school. This account of mushin fits in well with the traditional accounts. Suzuki summarizes the traditional view.

In Buddhist phraseology, it (mushin or no-mindeness) means going beyond the dualism of all forms of life and death, good and evil, being and non-being.... (It) may be regarded as in a way corresponding to the concept of the unconscious. Psychologically speaking, this state of mind gives itself up unreservedly to an unknown "power~~ that comes to one from nowhere and yet seems strong enough to possess the whole field of consciousness and make it work for the unknown. Hereby he becomes a kind of automaton, so to speak, as far as his own consciousness is concerned, it ought not to he confrscd with the helpless passivity of an inorganic thing, such as a piece of rock. I-ic is ~unconsciously conscious or "consciously unconscious.

It often sounds as if such a state of mind can be realited without any training iii something like the martial arts. Yet the samurai, who were devotees of Zen, did not neglect their normal training. Suzuki himself hints that martial training is a necessary condition for the attainment of mush in in violent contexts. We shall assume that many Zen stories have their significance exaggerated through poetic licence, and that experience aids performance in the state of mush in.

What is relevant for us, and for the absolute pacifist, is the-claim that the state of mushin eliminates aggression, and that the occurrence of this state is fostered by Eastern martial arts training. This claim which is advanced by samurai and karatekas, some of whom are professional fighters, has its paradoxical aspects. They claim that while they are fighting, assuming that they are adepts, they are not being aggressive.

The basis for this doctrine associated with mush in seems to be as follows. The student of a martial art typically begins to study it in order to learn how to fight. He has committed himself to fighting in the future. The training that he undergoes, if it is successful, will condition him to respond in fighting in certain ways, without conscious reflection. It is as if he has learned new instincts with which to replace the old.'2 So when he fights he does not have thoughts of being aggressive,of winning or losing, or of how he is acting. He simply is acting in response to the conditioning previously gained in marital arts training.

However, if the foregoing is an adequate account of mushin, it will not satisfy th pacifist that he can rid himself of aggressive thoughts and behavior by studying an Eastern martial art. For he would have made a moral decision that it would be permissible for him in certain situations to fight, prior to beginning the training. He would have judged it morally unobjectionable to turn himself into a fighting machine that needs no conscious direction. After all, samurai may not care about winning and fighting while they are fighting, but they have committed themselves to learning how to act in such a way as to maximize their chances for winning in fighting.'3 A samurai wants effective techniques, and his prowess is judged by victory.

So at the very least there is something exaggerated or misleading about the claim that the adept in the martial arts has left behind aggressiveness and violence. Yet there still are some features of the doctrine of mush in that serve to recommend Eastern martial arts training to the absolute pacifist.

First, there is a sense in which one could be said not to be fighting, when one fights in the state of mushin. Suppose that you are captured by terrorists, and thrown from an airplane into a crowd of people, and kill three. It might be said that you have killed three people, that is, that your body did, even though you did not kill them, that is, you are not responsible for their deaths. In the same way, in Eastern martial arts training, if fighting were to become a matter of reflex, one could be said not to fight, even while being observed to fight.

However, this analogy is imperfect, since the samurai have made a commitment to learning how to fight, or at least to committing acts of violence, and so should be held morally responsible for their decision. Similarly, someone who had decided to get a lobotomy is responsible for deciding to cease being a moral agent. The claim of Nobunaga, who destroyed the Tendai monastery and its twenty thousand residents, that "I am not the destroyer of this monastery. The destroyer of the Monastery is the monastery itself' is not convincing. Even Suzuki admits,

Although it (Zen) has never actively incited them (the samurai) to carry on their violent profession, it has passively sustained them when they have for whatever reasons entered it Morally, because Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon....14

So Zen appears to be a religion without a moral code. It ignores, and even deemphasizes, moral considerations. It even claims that one is not morally responsible for one's decisions and acts:

It is really not he (the swordsman in mushin) but the sword itself that does the killing. He has no desire to do harm to anybody,but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatcially its function of justice, which is the function of mercy.

Such an amoral stance borders on the sophistical.

Yet, even in the perhaps truncated version in which we have described mush in, there is something attractive in this state for the absolute pacifist. The state of mush in seems to be a state in which the noumenal self, the autonomous moral agent, is divorced from the activities of the phenomenal self. An absolute pacifist, who seeks to divorce himself from violence, might well consider engaging in that behavior which fosters the development of this state. Moreover, self-control and mush in are not incompatible, at least in practice. The samurai are not mere fighting machines, whose violent reactions are triggered by certain sorts of stimulus. Self-control is another result commonly claimed to follow from martial arts training.'6 What exactly is the theoretical relation between mush in and self-control is difficult to say, yet it is not obvious that the two are incompatible. In any case, most of the pronouncements about martial arts training are generalizations from experience. So there may be in the literature many theoretically misleading claims, without there being incompatibilities in the behavior.

Second, the absolute pacifist would be engaging in marital arts training for reasons unlike those of the typical practitioner. So he need not be committed to fight in order to win, just because he is learning how to fight in a pmoficient fashion. Rather, he would be confronting and resolving the violent part of his nature.

Third, the detachment in the midst of violent situations would give the pacifist the opportunity to control his reactions and make a moral decision not based on extraneous considerations. There may be other ways to promote detachment, but none that do so in the context of fighting. The pacifist, qua pacifist, is essentially concerned with situations involving fighting. So a system that promotes the development of self-control in violent situations is the one that the absolute pacifist should learn.

Therefore, there appears to be no inconsistency for someone to be committed to absolute pacifism and to learning a martial art. Rather, the absolute pacifist can sublimate and detach himself from violent impulses by such training. Consequently, an absolute pacifist has a prima facie moral duty to learn a martial art or arts in the Eastern style, given the argument in the first section of this article.

It should be noted that the sort of training that we are envisaging is not available at every school that calls itself a school of the Eastern martial arts. American-karate styles, for example, are, in general, oriented more to fighting and violence simpliciter. Yet we think that suitable training is available in many of the more traditional styles.


So we have argued that everyone has a prima facie moral duty to learn how to fight, at least in the way taught by the Eastern martial arts.What significance does this conclusion have? That an action is a prima facie moral duty may not provide sufficient grounds for anyone to engage iii it

We shall restrict ourseivcz ~.., ... : ~ hrsi. a prima f~cie moral duty contains a good tli~. ght to be sought, unless there isa conh1icLiIt~ gr.~tcr good. It is easy to make excuses about how one is unable to pursue a certain good. But many excuses do not provide moral justification. Further it should be observed that engaging in martial arts training is consistent with a good many other important prima facie moral duties-personal physical fitness, protecting others, having self- control, being able to do what is just. Excuses need to be weighted with respect to just what one is doing with one's life. Again, let us emphasize that we are not advocating spending one's whole life in the Eastern martial arts as a duty.

Second, it might be asked, just what sort of martial arts are being talked about. For the same argument appears to require carrying a gun or being a fighter pilot as prima facie moral duties. To many people this objection might constitute a reductio ad absurduni of this argument. Yet we think not. What fighting skills are important varies with the technological level and fighting proclivities of a society. Being skilled at hand-to-hand combat is not of much use against a rifle or bow. The prima facie moral duty for which we have argued is concerned with being able to defend oneself against those sorts of aggression that one has the greater probabilities of encountering. This duty does not require becoming a weapons specialist, since the more extensive the training the less likely it will satisfy the moral duty involved in learning how to fight. However, it must be emphasized that the sort of training given in the Eastern martial arts could be given for any sort of fighting. But the basic fighting skill is still hand-to.hand combat, since one's body cannot be mislaid. Moreover, modern society, outside of contexts of institutional violence, or war, is tending to become more and more weaponless. So, weaponless fighting would proportionately become that sort of fighting that ought to be learned.

Thus we claim that the moral duty which we have been discussing is neither absurd nor trivial, but that the particular sorts of fighting skills involved will depend on the social situation of the individual. Rather, the duty of knowing how to fight is important morally, without qualification.

This article was published in the East-West Philosophical Journal in 1982, authired by Dr. Daeshik Kim, and Co-authored with Dr. Allan Back.