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Ethics of a fight...
Is there such a thing?

By: David K. Every
(C) 1997 - All Rights Reserved

This article came from my book (student guide) on Martial Arts. It is related to self-defense, however, like "The Book of 5 Rings", or "The Art of War", the concepts can be applied in a broader sense to your life. The best Martial Artist is the one that can avoid harming others, as well as defending himself.

To understand ourselves, we must explore the consequences of our actions (or potential actions), and decide what path we would take -- before we come to the fork in the road.

Ethics of a fight

If you don't understand someone, or where they are coming from, you are more likely to accidentally provoke them. So it is everyone's responsibility to try to understand others (and themselves) and to try to be tolerant of others and their points of view.

The best way to avoid damage to yourself and an opponent is to not get in a fight. Since nobody wins a fight, the best way to avoid loosing one, is by not getting in one.

Understand beforehand that an argument can escalate into a fight, and a fight into combat (life & death), and combat can end in death or incarceration. Think of that BEFORE you let your temper get the best of you, or you take it on yourself to chastise that lousy driver, loud mouth at the restaurant, etc. The consequences of your actions may be more severe than you realize.

There are different ways that a fight can happen --

Unprovoked aggression - When without any justifiable reason someone attacks another person, this is unprovoked aggression. The attack may come physically or verbally, the only difference being the degree of aggression.

Provoked aggression - When someone attacks physically or verbally for no justifiable reason (probably venting frustration on an innocent), and the other person retaliates -- the response is provoked aggression.

Provoking someone into aggression and then attacking him (or responding to his returned aggression) is also provoked aggression -- and the provoker is at fault even if he doesn't throw the first punch. This is the antithesis of everything that the spirit of the martial arts stand for.

Martial arts stand for sincerely attempting everything reasonable to avoid a conflict, while doing everything possible to be prepared for all possible outcomes. Upon being unable to avoid a conflict, a Martial Artist ends the confrontation quickly as possible, and is willing to accept the consequences. Since conflict involves humans, each person must make his own choices and decide if he has done everything reasonable to avoid the conflict. This includes trying alleviate the escalating tension, and leaving if possible. Since almost every conflict could be avoided, it is the martial artist responsibility to use forethought and foresight to avoid these conflicts and to learn from each conflict (how to avoid future ones).

The point being, that if the aggression is unprovoked, then you would be righteous in your response. But this is by far not the norm. Usually, there is something going on, and some provocation, and you have a responsibility to figure out what.

Responsibility - Some believe that you are your brothers keeper. While that is not necessarily true, and you can not be responsible for others actions, neither is the opposite true. You do have a certain responsibility to other human beings, and must remember that they are human beings. So while you must react to a situation and protect yourself or your family and friends first, you must secondarily have some responsibility for the damage you cause. In other words, you must do whatever it takes to protect yourself, but you must also do avoid doing unnecessary damage to the attacker.

This is an individual decision, based on risks and fears at the time, and will be made on a case-by-case basis.

Also, it is very rare for a "fight" just to break out, or an attack to end in serious harm without escalation. Usually a fight (verbal) starts over something minor, and then keeps getting bigger and bigger, and worse and worse, until someone ends up bludgeoned (or dead). So we have a responsibility to recognize escalation, and avoid it (diffuse it).

Escalation - Escalation is caused by both parties not backing down, and often by not backing down, the opposite happens and things heat up. When you are arguing or fighting you must be aware of your point of view, and your opponents'. If you have the ability to prevent escalation, you should take it. An example might be in an argument saying, "I don't agree with your opinion, but I don't want to discuss this further." You don't have to be dishonest, but you don't want to provoke the situation further.

If you are escalating a fight (verbally) then YOU are provoking the other person into fighting -- and you do not have the right to claim that it was "unprovoked" since you helped pick the fight (or contributed to it). You can walk away (or try to) at almost any time, you can diffuse the situation at almost any time. The person that throws the first punch is ultimately responsible -- but with enough effort, we would sucker someone into doing that, and give ourselves an excuse to vent our frustrations on them. That is why we have a responsibility to NOT escalate things.

The Law

This next section is based on the my personal observations and opinions. I do NOT imply any of these attitudes or views are ethical or correct either legally or morally. These are observations, personal opinions and some alternate points of view, not to be confused with moral, ethical or legal advice.

Legalities are different than realities. Laws vary from state to state, and sometimes city to city. It is hard to prove "your intent" or the intent of "the other guy". The laws in some states are so unjust, that if someone punches you and then stops hitting you, and you retaliate, YOU could be considered the aggressor. The legal attitude is, "well he stopped hitting you, so by hitting him, you where continuing the fight, when you could have just let it end". There is almost nothing the law, or a good lawyer, can't twist against you. So your best defense is to not be involved in the first place.

If you are ever forced into fighting, it would be in your best interests to leave the scene as quickly as possible. Returning there in the days or weeks after the "incident" would probably not be prudent. The law will seldom see the Martial Artist as the peaceful one. In the eyes of many, Martial Artists are semi-crazed lunatics who smash bricks with their faces for fun, and are aching for the chance to prove themselves. There are many legal cases where a "whacked out Karate Killer" supposedly beat on "some poor innocent", when the "innocent" was the aggressor and the martial artist was attacked first. Wasting time and money defending yourself in a law suit, that you may lose, is a steep price for vanity. If you are in a fight, don't look for any medals, don't wait for the reporters, and don't expect to be a hero. If you were a really good martial artist, you would have avoided the fight.

James Mitose -

Roughly the story of James Mitose after World War II is as follows. He collected contributions for a Memorial to be built in honor of American-Japanese relations. While collecting enough money for the memorial he put the money to use by loaning it out to Japanese emigres to help them start businesses. The memorial idea fizzled, and many businessmen that contributed wanted the money back. Mitose dealt with people on the honor system, which has little value in American Courts, and was unable to collect on many of the loaned out funds.

One of the persons that had been loaned money to, had since done quite well in business, but angrily refused to pay any money back. Mr. Mitose had complained about this, and the lack of honor associated with that act. One of his students took it upon himself to talk sense into the man. During the discussion, the businessman became enraged and attacked the student, who defended himself and accidentally killed the businessman.

Mr. Mitose was charged with complicity in the murder. During the trial the student was asked about Mitose, and, when replying the student always used the honorary "Master Mitose". Not understanding Japanese culture or Martial Arts etiquette, and being that this was only a short while after the Manson slayings, the prosecuting lawyer and the jury took this to be an admission of the student that he was controlled by James Mitose.

Both Mitose and the student expressed that Mitose had not told the student to kill the victim. When Mitose was asked if he felt responsible for the death, Mitose replied in the affirmative, as it is customary in Japanese culture for the instructor to feel responsible for the students actions. This was interpreted by the jury to be an admission of guilt, and the defense attorney was denied bringing in an expert to testify on oriental culture and what was actually meant.

Mitose was sentenced to life in prison, and later died in Folsom State Prison in California. While the student spent 3 years in prison. To further the irony, people that knew and understood James Mitose and his philosophies, knew that he was a pacifist and believed in the law. Even while he was imprisoned he stated that he understood how the system had made this mistake, and he was not embittered by the error that stole his freedom from him.


The aggressor is not the one that throws the first punch, but the one who insists on fighting.

If you ever get into a fight, it should be because you are "forced into it". That means that you have taken every opportunity within your power to get out of it. Leave if you can, fight only if you must! If you do get into a fight, it is usually because you missed many opportunities to get out of the situation or to properly assess the situation.

On the other hand, as a defender, I do not believe that you have to wait for the opponent to punch you (or punch at you). If the opponent is determined to fight, even though you have been doing your best to defuse the situation (or leave), I believe you may defend yourself first (I doubt the law sees it the same way). The best defense is a good offense, and vise versa. This does not mean you can bludgeon someone because they are yelling in your face -- but if someone is determined to fight, and it is inescapable, then I may not wait for him to hit me (or try) -- I might stop the fight in the quickest way I know how (and he might not like what that is). In a fight situation the catalysts might be something like a grab, or just moving at me too quickly (the telegraph of a punch or other attack). But keep in mind all the issues of escalation, provocation, and responsibility.

I would also recommend against hitting someone once and thinking "its over", with that attitude it soon will be, but it will be over for you. If you are forced into fighting, you must hurt the person to the point that he realizes that he made a mistake and does not want to further the conflict -- seldom is one blow enough. For some people that will be a couple of punches, or simply locking up a joint (and threatening to hurt it) -- for others it might take serious injury. A safe idea (for you) is to hit the person (stun), then hurt the person, then take him down to the ground or knock him out of retaliation range, and then leave. All done as quickly as possible.

Aikido believes that you have a responsibility to NOT hurt the opponent. While I don't disagree completely, I think your first responsibility is to yourself, your family, and your friends -- you need to get home in one piece (with as little risk to yourself as possible). If you make a mistake in a street fight, and the person knocks you down or knocks you out, there is no guarantee when he will stop. This person has proved his intent is to do you harm, by not letting you back out of the fight. So he may be one of the "sick" sub-humans that gets his kicks out of hurting others. If you give this type of individual the opportunity to pummel you, he may not stop until you are seriously injured, possibly even fatally. A fight is not a game, it is a possible life and death situation and should be treated as such. No individual is so good that he can't get sucker punched or make a mistake. So playing (showing off) or being "too nice" (trying not to hurt the opponent) are dangerous ventures. End it, end it fast (which often means violently). Being too nice, is good for your soul -- but may be dangerous to your body. I am not that good a person (that I'll risk harm to myself for the sake of a stranger with an anger problem, who probably needs a lesson anyway) -- I believe in ending it with as much safety to me as possible (which may mean more risks or damage for the opponent). I can sleep fine knowing that any injuries he incurs will be lessons to remind him not to attack others, and were the results of his provocation -- you are going to have to make those judgments for yourself, but do it before hand. Know how you will respond, plan for how you will respond (and what you expect of yourself) -- and program yourself to respond in the way you desire to.


These are my views on Pacifism. Some other people don't like them -- tough. I don't like some of theirs either.

The pacifist is not a person who won't fight. A pacifist seeks peace, but that does not mean he won't defend himself. A pacifist is a person who could fight (and win), but will try every other possible alternative before being forced into fighting. If you have no ability to fight, so you don't fight, you are not being a pacifist; but a person choosing the only reasonable option available to you (if you fought you would get beaten so you don't fight). So to be a true pacifist you should be capable of fighting, and then choose to avoid it at all costs -- otherwise you are a wimp with an excuse. Pacifism is not always about the outcome, but about the effort.

Would you consider Iraq pacifistic by not attacking the U.S.? However the U.S. is being somewhat pacifistic by not attacking Iraq (and exhausting other possibilities before resorting to "attacks) -- especially when the other side is initiating hostilities.

If you choose not to fight, no matter what the other person does, you are not being a pacifist because you are not stopping violence -- you are promoting it. By letting someone to attack you, your friends or your family, and doing nothing about it, you are letting this sociopath know that people are willing to let him use intimidation to get what he wants (or get away with violence). That is not a service to society, or to yourself. This may preserve the short term peace (you didn't get into an immediate fight), but causes a continuing threat to the long term peace (he got away with it before, so he will continue to try to get away with it in the future). You can not preserve the peace by sacrificing peace.

To pacify is to calm, appease and avoid hostilities; not to allow someone to infringe on your or other peoples rights. In letting someone infringe on yours (or others rights) without doing something to prevent the person (physically, intellectually or legally), you allowing hostilities to be promoted without doing anything about it. This does not mean you have to take responsibility for everyone in the world, or get involved in things you have no understanding about. It is just explaining that inaction can be almost as bad as doing a hostile action. We even have laws against inaction.

To be a pacifist there must be things you are willing to fight for. The famed pacifists Gandhi and Martin Luther King fought hard for their ideals -- they just didn't use physical means; preferring to use social disobedience to get points across. If there is nothing in the world you are willing to fight for (even peace), then you are not a pacifist, you're just showing total disregard for the world around you.

If you have to fight for what you believe in (whether they be personal rights, life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness), and you choose to do it physically, that does not mean that you are not a pacifist. Pacifism is personal interpretation, choosing to exhaust every other possibility before resorting to violence, shows the will to keep peace. The ends does not justify the means. However neither does the means justify (or nullify) the ends, or the ends automatically discredit the means.


Many people run through life on "auto-pilot" and are not doing most things consciously or maliciously (they are just unaware), you must forgive them (like an errant pet, or a child). Trying to fix them will do little, and you are becoming one of "them" if you vent your frustration (at their actions) out on them. Their actions are their problem, but your reactions are yours.

When that guy cuts you off on the road, feel pity for him -- he is in such a hurry through life, that he is allowing himself to be a callous or reckless person -- that is sad. When the person tries to puff up and get in a fight because he has no control over his emotions, again, that is a sad thing. Distance yourself from your anger reaction, and don't always feel you have to prove your right -- don't let anger get the best of your reason. Animals feel anger, but animals can't control it with reason. Do you want to be an animal, or a human being. The only thing that should get you into a fight is violence (or a crime) against another human (or yourself) -- then it is too late to do anything else, but up to that point, you have lots of options.

Fighting Spirit

I do not condone fighting, in fact quite the opposite. I feel that if there is ANY opportunity to get out of a fight it should be taken. But if there is no choice, and you have to fight, then you damn well better be good at it. To be able to defend yourself, and harm another, you had better let loose your fighting spirit.

Many people use anger as their fighting spirit, this is dangerous because anger often denies or ignores control and intellect. The person that is fighting with pure anger is easier to beat than a person that is fighting with his wits.Your fighting spirit is everything in you that is capable of self preservation, at whatever costs necessary to survive. While fighting, you let this little intelligent monster loose, and it will do everything possible to minimize the hurt to you, while maximizing the hurt to the other person. The more the other guy hurts, the less likely he is to continue the fight, or pick one in the future.

After a fight a person may not remember how much they hurt you,
but they will remember how much you hurt them.

If you have done everything you can do avoid a fight, then there should be no regrets after a fight (and certainly not during one). A person that has picked a fight, ignored every warning you have tried to give him, will not let you back down, and has instigated aggressions, deserves whatever he gets. This does not mean killing or maiming a person is okay, and if you can minimize the permanent damage to another with no risks to yourself than do it. However if you can not get away from some sociopath, who doesn't have the ability to control his own emotions, and forces you into a confrontation that is dangerous to himself; then why be worried about the damage this person made you cause him?

Do everything you can to avoid a fight,
if you can't avoid it, do everything you can to end it quickly.

Psychologist agree that merciful people seldom commit violent crimes. Assaults, rapes, muggings, are such acts of violent aggression that they demand a violent response.

Fight or Flight

"Fight or Flight" is the mode our bodies get into right before we rip the head off something, run like hell, or both. If you have been pushed to this point you know what it feels like. If you want to avoid fights, it is good to be able to read the warning signs.

Our bodies have a few natural things that happen when we go into, or are preparing for, fight or flight. The skin goes pale. This is caused by blood rushing away from the surface of the skin into the muscles. This is especially apparent in the extremities; fingers, toes, hands, and feet. Pupils contract. Adrenaline is dumped into the system and the bodies metabolism accelerates. This adrenaline can cause things like shaking or trembling, sweating, pain sensors being shut down. Tensing of muscles, jaw, back, fists are other indicators. This is right before "all hell breaks loose".

Many people confuse these warning signs with "fear", and it may be fear causing these symptoms, but don't think that people can't fight when they are afraid. This person is more likely to go overboard, and beat the crap out of someone, and not know when to stop. There are different levels of fear, no one wants to get hurt, and everyone with an ounce of sense gets at least a little afraid before a fight. But fear can be controlled and used. All these "Fight or Flight" symptoms have a reason, and that reason is to preserve the body and to do as much damage to the cause of this fear as possible, and/or to get out of the area of danger. Blood going to the muscles, oxygenates them and primes them for use. Blood flow is drawn away from the extremities, this is the bodies defense in case something is bitten or cut. Adrenaline is an oxygen supercharger, things are about to move very quickly. Muscles tense to get ready for action. Even extreme reactions, emptying the bladder or bowels, may be associated with fear, but they help protect the body from internal damage (1). When you see a fear reaction going on, and the obvious physiological changes, then something "big" may happen.

(1) Actually the extreme reaction of emptying your bladder is a good way to "scare off" multiple attackers, possibly deter a rapist, or a weaponed attacker. The aggressor(s) will be forced to think twice about the sanity of picking a fight with you; if you get a homicidal look or a maniacal grin, while emptying your bladder (on the other hand, if you look like a deer when you do it, you will probably become humiliated prey). This not only protects you from a ruptured bladder and a hospital visit, but it reminds the attacker(s) that no one wants to fight a lunatic (or molest someone that soiled themselves). Soggy pants are a small price to pay to get out of a potentially life threatening situation.

Other symptoms are after the "Fight" and/or the "Flight". It is seldom shown that after the incident the winner often has the tremors and can't stop shaking. Many people who have come close to (or had) serious car accidents can attest to these reactions. Vomiting and nausea are also quite common.

A physical fight will usually last about 1-30 seconds once the blows begin. Do not be tricked by movie scenes where the hero and the villain bludgeon each other back and forth for 5 minutes. A fight is an explosion; fast, hard, and over before most people had time to really react. The body, and more importantly the mind, can't take the damage that can be dished out in a few short minutes.

Fights are not pleasant, and they are not like the movies. They are violent acts that happen in an instant, seem to last forever, and have ramifications that last for lifetimes.

Created: 12/01/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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