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A holo-deck for the philosophy of ethics

I was talking to a student after class the other day, someone who has been training with me off and on since the school opened. I happened to mention that for me, one of the primary uses of the art we study is that it is a holo-deck for the philosophy of ethics. Because we are not expecting to use our skills in earnest any time soon, we are free of the constraint of knowing we must be willing to use them. (This is my core moral objection to the idea of arming teachers to defend students against those sad evil little wankers who try to compensate for their utter inadequacy by murdering the defenceless. Giving the teachers guns would not help at all, without training them to use them, which would inevitably require those teachers to train to be willing and able to take life. That is a profound and utterly life-changing moral and emotional step, and it is simply not fair to ask the average teacher to make it. My practical objection is simply that kids are great at improvising, and having more guns in schools will inevitably lead to more guns in childrens' hands, and so more likelihood of fatal shootings, accidental or otherwise.)

For us, the salle becomes a simulator, a holo-deck if you will, in which we can examine violence and degrees of violence, and pose questions such as

“Is this action ever justified?”

“In what circumstances would cutting off someone's head be ok?”

“How do I feel about the idea of fighting to the death over a point of honour?”

“What was it about this culture that made this response acceptable?”

It is moronic to suggest that violence never solved anything: for the entire history of life on earth it has solved the problem of hunger: I kill to eat. Rory Miller makes this point well in this podcast. So the question then is “in what circumstances is violence acceptable, and to what degree?” Current martial systems, such as police training, military training, and such must have clearly defined answers to all such questions. In these  circumstances, I can use a baton. In those, I must shoot. In these, I call for an airstrike, etc. Martial arts teachers and parents both must be able to teach their students/kids a moral framework in which to place violence. One interesting point of view on this, that of a mother trying to raise her son in a non-violent way, and learning that violence is not intrinsically evil but has its place, can be found here. In short, she decided on a set of rules which, if followed, would make any violence her son was a part of morally acceptable. My rules are a little different (less gender-oriented for instance), but I admire her position.

We can imagine our Art being applied in dozens of circumstances, and while many of my students use aspects of their training at the School in their work as security guards, police, etc. most will never call on their skills outside of class. But for the training to be of any moral use it should require the practitioner to engage with the fact that we are training in lethal techniques, and therefore must have a clear set of internal guidelines as to when their application is acceptable. We can create those guidelines for all sorts of modern or historical contexts, which while it is not of any immediate practical use, nonetheless has the value of making us engage with these difficult questions.

In my view, it is impossible to inflict damage on another soul without inflicting damage on your own, no matter the circumstances. But there are situations in which the better course is to inflict the physical damage and take the spiritual. Failing to act out of fear of damage, physical or spiritual, is cowardice.

Let me tell you a story:

Twenty years ago, while at University, I was walking home alone from band practice with my trumpet, through a dodgy part of Edinburgh. As I was walking I saw a man, rough looking, with a bleeding head, standing over a woman in a doorway. I was terrified, of two things. One, I would act, and get the shit kicked out of me or killed. I was under no illusions as to who wins in a fight between street-thug and pampered kid. Two, I would not act, and despise myself for the rest of my life. So I stopped, far enough away to have a running head start, and called out in my best public-school accent

“Excuse me, but can I be of any assistance?”, the subtext I was trying to imply being “I've seen you and will call the police if you don't leave her alone”.

I was astonished when the man called back:

“Yes, please, my wife is having an epileptic fit!”

So I went over and helped him get her home, and we became friends. Turns out the blood came from his trying to cushion her fall. Some weeks later I told them that I had thought he was up to no good in that doorway, and they both fell about laughing.

My point is that while we can simulate all sorts of scenarios, and come up with ideal responses to them, we cannot reasonably predict our own actions unless they have been tested under stress, nor necessarily predict the outcome of a seemingly obvious scenario. But we can use our training in violence to help us make moral choices about who we are and wish to be, and then try to live up to them, accepting that doing so can be dangerous.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

2 Responses

  1. I think you are mistaken in your understanding of arming teachers. The idea is not to require teachers to be armed, but to permit them to be just as armed on the job as they are in off-the-job life. There are thousands, if not millions, of teachers in the US who are trained and prepared for lethal combat with firearms and carry firearms regularly in their lives, and many if not most of these people are better trained than law enforcement. They carry firearms concealed and no student would ever know there was a gun present, and no one would ever see the gun. Because of laws, these people are not allowed to be armed when at a school. If these laws were changed, teachers who are so inclined would be permitted to be armed, but no teachers would be required to be armed. It would not be a new thing in the lives of the teachers, because it is already something they have chosen to make an aspect of their lives. Teachers would not be given guns, rather teachers would not be required to leave their guns in their vehicles. The children would never have access to the guns, the guns would not be visible and would not be left lying around.

    Here is a youtube video that says a similar thing:

    1. That’s a different proposition, with different ethical ramifications. So, my ethical position regarding arming teachers (who are not already trained and licenced to carry) is as I stated it; my position on your proposal from a practical perspective would be that as a deterrent it would only work if it was common knowledge that there are or may be teachers armed with concealed guns; given the prevalence of accidental shootings, given that teachers are human, it seems risky to have more guns around for accidents to happen with. Ethically, if the person carrying the gun is doing so entirely of their own free will, are not required to do so by any kind of career-preference coercion (extra pay, no promotion without the concealed carry permit etc.), then I’d probably be ok with it.
      I googled some numbers on concealed carry and teacher numbers (these are approximate, and sources don’t agree particularly closely): There are approx 209 million adults in the US; 17.5m have concealed carry permits (about 8.4%). There are approx 3.6m teachers in the US. Assuming the same likelihood of having the permit, that’s about 302,000. There are about 133k schools in the US, so in theory you could have at least two concealed-carry permit holding teachers in each school. But the distribution isn’t even: some states and counties have no concealed permits at all; in others they are very common. And we don’t know whether teachers are more or less likely to have the permit than the general population.
      There’s a case to be made to allow concealed carrying teachers to carry into the classroom, but I’d be very very surprised if more than a tiny fraction of those would be actually trained and willing to shoot a child to defend the others. Without the right training, most people, even armed people, freeze.

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