An essay presented to the Society for the Study of Philosophy and Martial Arts at the 2009 meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Society.
Abstract: It is widely accepted by practitioners that at least one aim of martial training is moral development. It is equally well known that proficiency in a martial discipline often fosters egocentrism. I propose to examine this tension between the moral aspirations of martial discipline and the all too familiar failings of many advanced practitioners from the perspective of evolutionary biology and social psychology. First I will review the origins of what I call the moral imperative of Aikido and the role that perspective taking in Aikido training can play in opening the door to moral development. I’ll then consider how certain evolved propensities that organize human behavior – the pursuit of social status and in-group solidarity – can commandeer martial training that could be directed toward moral self-cultivation. The capacity of Aikido to support the development of empathic awareness of others will be, so to speak, bypassed while the discipline is pressed into the service of status seeking and in-group solidarity. I will conclude with some reflections on the significance of these evolved dispositions for the project of moral self cultivation.
I start with what I hope is a relatively uncontroversial claim, which is that responsible practitioners of traditional martial arts suppose that one aim of martial training is the cultivation of moral character. Needless to say, there is quite a lot packed into the qualifiers “responsible” and “traditional”. Implicit in them are claims to the effect that, for example, training in mixed martial arts as preparation for competition in the Ultimate Fighting Championships or some such will not share this goal. I could be wrong, though. Despite my prejudices, there could well be some kind of morally commendable development of character taking place in such training venues. Still, I don’t want to get bogged down just now in parsing the varieties of moral virtue that different martial forms and aspirations might or might not cultivate. So I shall simply and hopefully assert that some martial practitioners explicitly endorse the aspiration that their training should foster some kind of moral development. It is to this aspiration I want to turn my attention.
Let me now also quickly narrow the scope of my discussion to Aikido, because this is the martial art with which I have most extensive experience. It may be the case that the dynamic that I describe here is equally true of practitioners of other martial arts. I strongly suspect that it might be, but I have neither the experiential or evidentiary basis for making such claims.
I. The Moral Imperative of Aikido