Aikido, War, and the Role of the New Warrior

by Matthew Pike
Ph.D. Student, CU Boulder

            Within political science, the advent of civilization is typically defined by the interacting of two distinct political entities. Some of the first evidence of this phenomena takes the shape of weapons caches dating from around 7000 B.C.E. These caches, as well as archeological findings of fortifications around the city of Jericho, mark the first occurrences of warfare between humans. With warfare came the inevitable probing of the connection between war and morality, including questions about the justification for wars and different wartime actions. These questions continue to this day, with us perhaps even more aware of them because of the many insights afforded us by modern technology (e.g. television, internet, etc). Philosophers over the years have put forth many different views and analyses to try to address these questions. With modern technological advancements, the face of war has changed considerably, both with the shift to mechanized war and with the occurrence of globalization resulting in a focus on economic warfare. Indeed, Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War, is required reading for many corporations top executives. With this shift in the nature of war, a shift in the answers to the philosophical questions is also needed. Many of the past just war theories have aspects which are still widely applicable, but none of them offer a completely acceptable account. I aim to argue that these theories ought to be rejected in favor of a philosophical shift towards a theory heavily influenced by the martial art known as Aikido. Aikido and its corresponding philosophy was developed around 1960 C.E. by Morihei Ueshiba, who attempted to forge a path for the modern warrior to follow, through the use of different physical and philosophical techniques. Ueshiba realized that with the modernization and changes in war, the role of the warrior had also changed, and Aikido aims to provide an approach that is responsive to this new reality, while also aiming at helping to move humanity into a better and brighter era. In order to gain an understanding of this philosophy and how it may be used to address some of the important philosophical questions we currently face, a comparison between Aikido and some of the traditional Just War Theories is warranted.

First, however, a little more background on Aikido is in order. The word “Aikido” translates as the “way of harmony”, with its philosophy dedicated to peaceful harmonizing with everything and everyone that one encounters in the world. It is a purely defensive martial art with no punches or kicks, with its techniques designed to neutralize a threat with minimal harm to the attacker. In this manner, its use of physical force is very different from our standard notion of violence (and the approaches commonly found in other martial arts), as none of its techniques are designed with the express intention of inflicting suffering on another. The moves consist mainly of joint-locks, throws, and the use of pressure points, which, while effective in actual combat situations, are aimed at diffusing dangerous situations with minimal damage to all participants. The joint-locks and pressure point moves allow the Aikidoist to catch and hold an attacker in a position where they cannot harm another person, wait for the attacker to cease to struggle, and then release them with no damage done to them. The Aikidoist uses the attacker’s aggression and negative energy, but redirects them to a peaceful resolution. Aikido is commonly described as “the art of getting out of the way”, which is accentuated by its emphasis on throw techniques. If an attacker charges at the Aikidoist, she moves out of the way, and, if necessary, continues doing so until the attacker abandons the aggressive action. Thus, the Aikidoist avoids directly causing damage to the aggressor, while also preventing the attacker from damaging anyone else.

Aikido is occasionally criticized by students of other martial arts because of its lack of offensive moves. Many people say it is too passive, and therefore too weak to have any real value in a crisis situation. This is also a common criticism of pacifism, and other notions driven solely by a desire for peace. Despite this criticism, Aikido is one of the most effective martial arts in the world.

Aikido’s philosophy is equally effective, since it encompasses the strengths of many different approaches while addressing many of their weaknesses. For example, one of the strongest arguments for pacifism is the belief that if all humans were to follow its tenants, there would be no war. As A.A. Milne said, “If Hitler were Milne, there would be no war”. The same can also be said for Gandhi’s movement, because if there were a universal employment of its techniques, violence would never result from any situation. The philosophy of Aikido has the same strength since it shares the central belief that intentional violence is an unacceptable answer to a problem. Aikido dictates the avoidance of violence, recommending a peaceful redirection of any negative energy towards an outcome that is positive for all parties involved. If everyone followed this mandate with adequate dedication, situations that would otherwise end in violence and conflict would instead be resolved by peaceful means.

The successful application of these peaceful means rests upon the realization that everyone has common goals, which Hobbes famously characterized as the “endeavoring towards self-preservation and from-wards harm”. Hobbes, however, famously sees these common goals as resulting in the “natural condition”, where individuals find themselves in a state of conflict with each other. His solution to this is the instituting of the sovereign to create an overwhelmingly powerful threat that will serve to provide for the safety of the individuals in the political entity. Hobbes views the individual as the basic operating unit, where any and all social structures are simply a creation and unification of many smaller units, which shape themselves into a partially cohesive structure with some of its own properties. According to Hobbes, subjects form into a society by willingly transferring their rights and power into a sovereign, “in so far as others do” (Law of Nature II) in the form of a social contract, and are therefore bound to keep this covenant. He proposes that humans should, “be willing to lay down your natural right provided and in so far as others do as well”. A violation constitutes a threat to the other members of the polity (or perhaps analogously, the larger international community) and must therefore be dealt with in a manner in accordance with natural law, “using all the advantages of war”. This manner of reacting depends upon the methods of war and violence, utilizing superiority of force to accomplish its aims-- a response which the Aikido-driven approach would clearly find unacceptable.

By comparison, Aikido views humanity’s common goals as a uniting factor, such that if the false notions and mistaken tendencies towards violence were to fall away, an actor would feel nothing but compassion and love towards others. footnote 1 In this manner, acting in a peaceful way would be an automatic result. The difference between Aikido’s interpretation of these common goals and that offered by Hobbes stems from a difference in their analysis of human nature. Hobbes believes that human nature ingrains individuals with a tendency towards selfishness and war, which is a problem to be solved by an artificial construct. Aikido, however, views human nature in a rather more optimistic light, seeing human nature as including a predisposition towards love and peace, which all too often gets clouded and confused by other distracting details.

One important thing to note is that Aikido is not a philosophy of political structuring. It does not dictate a sovereign or other governmental structure, but instead focuses upon the role of the individual within the surrounding environment. This represents a notion that the characteristics of a society are representative of what is found in its individual members. Along these lines, if one wishes to enact changes in how nations interact, changes must be made in the mindsets of its citizens. It is interesting that our common ways of speaking about international interaction assign the nations similar characteristics to individuals, including notions such as territory rights, “harms” done to a state, goals, intentions, and so forth. If these comparisons can be thought of as accurate, then perhaps the Aikido method for the interaction of individuals could also be applied to intergovernmental relations and international affairs. (Perhaps Plato’s and Aristotle’s emphasis on education should be seen as suggesting a dojo for the masses!)  If all the nations of the world adopted a cooperative mindset, instead of a fundamentally competitive approach frequently masked by a smile, war would be avoided in all but the most extreme cases.

The occurrence of such “extreme cases” has been one of the major problems standing in the way of the various just war theories. The most common criticism of pacifism is that it is, well, so passive. If pacifism is followed to the letter, an actor will take no action in even the most action demanding circumstances. This can breed problems of its own. For example, many political science textbooks explain the occurrence of World War II as resulting from the lack of the use of power politics and the threat of force. WWI left most of Europe with a bitter taste in its mouth, and so its political leaders adopted a pacifist attitude in an attempt to avoid a repeat occurrence. Many theorists say that if these leaders had been willing to act when the trouble first began, the whole second world war could have been avoided. There is also the question of moral standards, since an avoidance of one evil that results in a greater evil can hardly be said to be just. A total failure by other nations to react to the Holocaust might have avoided some combat, but would likely have resulted in the extermination of an entire culture. In this manner, it becomes clear that cases can arise where war-like actions seem to be required. These cases seem to spell the downfall of various pacifist approaches, because while presumably everyone sees strong reasons to prefer a pacifist approach (and I therefore have not felt the need to provide much motivation for it), the apparent inability of pacifism to provide adequate solutions in all cases seems to preclude its acceptance.

For this reason, many of the mainstream just war theories have abandoned a pacifist approach and instead focused on how best to distinguish between avoidable and required conflicts. One example of this focus can be found in Walzer’s adaptation of the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). Within a state of conflict, many difficult decisions arise which may have very severe negative results associated with them. Many times, a perfect solution is not available and an actor must try to pick the lesser of two evils. The DDE attempts to provide a decision-making apparatus for these moral dilemmas, recognizing that almost every action has both positive and negative results. It tries to provide a means by which differing results and intentions can be cross-compared to allow for the making, and justification, of a decision that may result in increadibly undesirable consequences.

These decision-making means seem to rest upon the belief that somewhere there is a solid line that will eventually be crossed where violence becomes acceptable. Many people feel that if a situation is bad enough, any means of response are justifiable. Of course, the meaning behind “justifiable” is interesting within western culture. Even if a nation engages in actions that result in the death of millions of individuals, if the circumstances are grave enough, the act is seen as “just” and the actor is absolved of all blame. (For example, Truman claims to have “slept like a baby” after ordering the use of nuclear weapons.) This shifts the focus primarily onto the “the justice of the war” itself, suggesting that if the cause and end result are good enough, and sufficiently outweigh the bad consequences, any injustice in war can be disregarded. This is one of the primary differences between western conceptions and that of Aikido. Aikido does not believe that there is a “point break” where suddenly anything goes, but instead sees the world as a continuous curve. Aikido retains a focus upon the justice in war, with its students learning techniques for neutralizing a threat without harming the aggressor beyond what is absolutely necessary. This is similar to the well-known “soldier/man” distinction, except that Aikido dictates viewing everyone in every situation as the man and not the soldier or whatever other role that they happen to be performing at the moment. Aikido does not subscribe to the “demonizing” of the opponent so typical in western thought, but instead advocates seeing through any attack to the human being beneath it, and harmonizing with them to achieve the best possible situation for everyone.

Aikido may be able to solve the problem for other pacifist approaches because it acknowledges that situations can arise where a solution could necessitate a physical response. Aikido differs from the DDE, however, agreeing on some issues more closely with the absolutist deontological conception proposed by Kant and Anscombe. The absolutist position, holding that there are some actions that are simply unjustifiable and morally wrong,  places its focus on the actions themselves, not just on what happens as a result of them. Even if there is a beneficial end result, there are some things which cannot be outweighed. If many people’s lives will be saved by one act that will inflict great harm on one individual, the DDE will say that the ends justify the means, if certain conditions are met. But, the absolutist points out that there are aspects of humanity inherent in a person which demand that their rights (to life, etc.) be respected in any situation, and so the fact that the negative consequences are merely foreseen does not change the fact that the act of causing great harm to an individual (who is endowed with rights and commands the respect of his being morally considerable as a person and equal entity) is wrong.

The philosophical approach of Aikido seems to me to potentially provide us with a solution, one which provides a bridge from the ideal of pacifism to the effectiveness of what could be called “rationalizing theories” of conflict.
As a brief, preliminary exploration of what this approach might look like, let us consider two aspects that I take to be central to the Aikido approach that I am suggesting be adopted. First, this method is largely dependant upon the actor being in a proper state of mind (or, as Kant would surely prefer it put, possessing a properly “good will”). This proper state of mind may initially be compared to what St. Augustine described as a passionless calm, devoid of personal desire. Aikido draws much of its theory from Zen Buddhism and thus advocates a perfectly centered calm where the actor never reacts out of anger. However, the comparison to St. Augustine’s version has its limitations, since he also describes this state of mind as being “one with God” and thus “doing God’s work”. Given this, a warrior who is acting out of this proper coolness could be seen as “having God on his side” and would therefore be justified in doing anything—which, needless to say, seems worrying to many of us. Aikido differs from this conception, specifying that the state of perfect calm must be filled with compassion and love, and this serves to enact better responses to any conflict. If someone’s intentions are good and their mind clear, a path of harmony will eventually become clear, and paths of harm will be avoided. On an international scale, having this mindset adopted by diplomats and policy makers sure seems more likely to allow for successful negotiations and other non-violent resolutions to conflicts.

A second major component to Aikido’s approach is its emphasis on technique. It is the particular skills and movements of Aikido that allow its practitioners to successfully diffuse dangerous situations, while at the same time not having to resort to other more aggressive, damaging measures. How does this emphasis on technique translate to the international realm? Well, it is no coincidence that the word “technique” shares the Greek root techne (meaning skill or craft) with our word “technology”, and I suspect that technology may hold the key to a successful implementation of Aikido’s principles at a governmental level. Technology makes possible such non-lethal weapons as the tasers being adopted by police officers and the sound-based weapons currently undergoing testing by the U.S. Department of Defense, and may (eventually) furnish nations with missile shields, guidance jamming systems, EMPs and cyber-warfare techniques that allow the complete disabling of enemy combat systems without the loss of any life. Were these technologies to be more widely developed and adopted, governments would seemingly be able to effectively handle the full range of possible crises while acting in a way that satisfies the ideals of pacifism. By adding new tools and methods that are capable of performing the needed functions, limitations and constraints grounded in moral reasoning could be more fully and consistently respected. In closing then, Aikido’s success, both physically and philosophically, at the level of individual interaction seems to me to hold considerable promise for broader application. As I hope to have shown, an Aikido-driven approach has the potential to solve many of the problems of war, not by distinguishing where war is right and where it’s wrong, but by changing it. This seems like the path that a true warrior would choose.

Footnote 1 Certainly many people would view this as exceedingly naïve. There may be some substantive support for such an optimistic view of human nature forthcoming from the neuro-scientific work on mirror neurons and their role in morality, however.


Matt Pike

7/3/19: I am thrilled to have accepted a position as an Instructor at the University of Colorado at Denver! I was extremely impressed by the students and community when last I was there, and am excited to be returning to now teach all the core classes for the UCD Philosophy of Science Minor!

5/6/16: I'm honored to be the first person to receive both the CU Boulder Philosophy Department Morriston Teaching Award (2016) and the University of Colorado-Boulder Graduate Teaching Excellence Award (2014-2015)! My thanks go out to the many great teachers and students with whom I've been lucky enough to learn!

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