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The Ethics of Self Defense

Ethics definition: Moral principles that govern a person or group. Moral correctness of specified conduct.
To define what ethics ARE is simple. To define what IS ethical in any given situation is altogether much more problematic, as it essentially defines who we are as individuals. Much of an individual’s ethical behavior is influenced by how that person was raised, what was instilled in them at an early age, and depending on the situation – what a person genuinely believes is the right course of action.

The Ethics of Self Defense are equally as precarious to discuss.

The ethics of self defense have been fiercely debated all over the world over the last few days in light of the George Zimmerman trial ended which ended on July 14th. Given that the Krav Maga Institute NYC teaches self defense to adults in New York City, what constitutes self defense could not be more relevant to us. One of our primary goals during training is teaching students to defend themselves and others effectively and having a proportionate response to an attack.

This post is not about the Zimmerman trial, the legal arguments, facts or circumstances surrounding the case. This is a wider discussion of the ethics of modern self defense. It does not deal specifically with armed attacks or relate to the Zimmerman trial. The assumption in this piece is that your life is in danger, a fight is in progress and there are no guns involved.

Growing up, many of us believed that you needed to act honorably in a fight. When the conflict arose, an unspoken set of rules were in place ensuring the fight is fair. Certain areas, like the groin, were off-limits because in a ‘fair’ fight and in an ideal world, the better man always prevails. This is a wonderful idea but the reality of a fight on the street is not like the movies, boxing, MMA or other competitive sports. Street fights and attacks are an entirely different matter. There are no weigh-ins, rules, referees or rings – and they are never ever ‘fair’.

A fight between two people of equal size, skill and ability, where neither are armed and it comes down to a battle of wills, rarely – if ever – happen. The reality is very different. Attackers often pick vulnerable victims that are unable to defend themselves. So, for instance, it is quite possible that an attacker would time their attack so the victim is vulnerable at the time or attack them from behind in the dark, when they are alone. An attacker on the street would not bat an eye-lid before striking vulnerable points on the victim or using a weapon. This is far from a fair fight.

So, how do we deal with this attacker who doesn’t believe in an honorable fight?

Change your personal definition of a fight.

Firstly, change your personal definition of a fight to a promise: “My promise to myself, my friends and family is that I will do everything necessary to make it home safely.”

Secondly, your attacker is not an opponent. Opponents play by rules and attackers do not. We all have a right to defend ourselves, so we have a right to respond to an attack in a manner befitting the attack and do what is necessary to get away, without engaging in anything that’s unnecessary or grossly disproportionate. We do not encourage reckless and disproportionate responses to threats and attacks. The laws that govern self defense in the state of New York do not protect those that react disproportionately to an attack. Remember, in the heat of the moment, it isn’t the role or responsibility of the victim acting in self defense to punish an attacker and once you are safe, re-engaging with an attacker without reason once you are safe is no longer considered self defense. This is why we encourage students to get away as soon as they can.

Thirdly, you can’t be nice when it comes down to defending yourself.Punching, slapping, scratching, gouging, kicking in the groin and biting are your weapons in battle and you should use them if that is what it takes to get away safely.

Striking soft tissue on the attackers body (eyes, nose, throat, groin) and attacking knees should be your target. End the fight as soon as possible, search for additional threats, then get away. This isn’t always easy. A person’s judgment is impaired in the heat of the moment but with the right training, you get better at decision making under stress. An attack against someone out of the blue, when they weren’t expecting it is difficult to respond to quickly and effectively.

If an attacker attempts to choke you into unconsciousness, striking them in the throat or nose and kicking them in the groin to so you can get away is a justified and proportionate response because your life is in danger and you have to act quickly. Striking an attacker in a vulnerable spot may be against the rules at school or in a boxing ring but it is necessary on the street sometimes. How else would someone who is smaller and weaker than their attacker and attacked from behind at night when on phone call defend themselves effectively? Doing what is necessary is the reality of modern self defense. The attacker initiated the attack so you must respond effectively and do everything necessary for you to make it home safely.

A student of ours recently noted: “If you find yourself in a fair fight, you’re using the wrong tactics”. But consider this: there is not such thing as a fair fight, they are whimsical ideas best left to the movies. Fight without apprehension, there is no need to be nice about it. When the day ends, choose to be the person who goes home safe.