Being Ethical in Martial Arts

Byron Mantack

Being ethical is indeed professional, but the gesture goes beyond the mere compliance with law. It means being completely honest concerning ALL facts. It means more than merely not telling lies, because an incomplete answer can be more deceptive than a lie. It means more than being silent when something needs to be said, because saying nothing can be the same as telling a lie.

Instilling ethics is a process that must start long before a person chooses to become a martial arts instructor, it is probably part of the very fabric that is rooted in lessons parents teach their children. So preaching ethics in a forum such as this may not be an incentive enough to sway some instructors to stay on the tract. It may be easier to explain that honesty and fair play could mean more students, but more than that, better students and citizens.

Perhaps the blame for modern-day ethical indiscretions is the pursuit of financial gains and the intense competition among martial arts schools and instructors. Both make it harder for potential students and their parents, to understand what they want or need, and easier for an aggressive instructor or school owner to mislead them.

Some believe that the ethics problem reflects our current culture that glorifies short-term success at all cost. This includes presenting awards to, and honoring instructors whose schools have the most pupils, as well as the “golden boy” stories of schools that went from ten, to two hundred pupils in six months. Neither of these events is meant to say that these schools and individual instructors accomplished these feats in an unethical manner; it simply raises the bar for those who follow them. If those who follow have inadequate skills and work habits, and lack integrity, they could employ less than ethical means to reach the same goals.

Just what is ethics? A simplified definition of ethics is a set of values that constantly guides our values. These values are typically aligned with what society considers correct and positive behavior within legal boundaries. Ethics are also the balancing of an individual’s good with the good of the whole.

What are you doing that might influence your pupils in an unfair or abusive manner? For example, do you represent yourself as a master, or grand master of the martial arts when you are not? Do you claim to have special knowledge of the martial arts when you don’t? The point is, when you disguise your actual position, you deceive potential students and their parents with the intention of influencing their decisions. That is unethical, and may very well be illegal.

Many erroneously believe that ethics and the law are the same. It is important to understand that ethics are not laws, yet they can be guided by the law. Proofs of this exist despite the fact you can be unethical, yet still operate within the confines of the law.

In many ways, we have become a no-fault society. Popular thinking dictates that as long as a problem does not directly affect you, you don’t need to get involved. That is commonly referred to as the Ostrich syndrome. For instance, if you cannot recognize and acknowledge there is a problem, then that problem does not exist, and it cannot affect you. A crucial shift is needed to avoid this bystander mentality. We need to think of ourselves as a member of a community, the martial arts community, and our lives in this community entail mutual obligations and interdependence. In other words, we should be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

The easiest ways to become entangled in the unscrupulous and unprofessional deeds of someone else is to ratify their behavior by endorsing their decisions that you know to be wrong. Not only is it unethical, but could come back to haunt you by way of your own integrity and credibility being called into question. We should ask those who want us to perform an unethical task to state their position clearly.

This forces them to make an ethical choice. For example, if your instructor or school owner wants you to promote a student to a rank, you know to be beyond their current skill level, you may pose the following question to them: Are you asking me to lie, by promoting this student to a rank you know full well her/she did not earn, and does not deserve? It is probably a safe bet they will back away from this unethical request.