Ethics & The Martial Arts

What is ethics and what have they to do with teaching fighting skills?

The Josephson Institute defines ethics as “Standards of conduct... that indicates how one should behave based on moral duties and virtues, which themselves are derived from principles of right and wrong.” Ethics are the discipline between the principles and values to which we hold in our personal beliefs and the actual behavior in which we in fact do, and how it affects the lives of others. Our ethics are setting principles and standards we employ to live in a world where our personal needs and desires are viewed with the interests of those whom we come in contact with.

It is important for professionals and business people to combine selling a service or product while making a comfortable living, to make certain that the service or product is of high quality, and either useful or enjoyable to the customer. Because martial art instructors and teachers are working with human beings on a very personal level (touching, philosophical, spiritual, motivational, guidance), it is most important that we ask ourselves,

    a. How should we live, and
    b. Why should we choose to live ethically?

We learn values from our families, friends and religious institutions. Our most deeply ingrained values are what guide our choices and actions. There is much pressure placed on the martial arts business owner when it comes down to a question of sticking to his/her ethics or paying the bills. The bottom line could be “My school is in danger of losing money, or even closing. If I lower my values just a little bit, I can afford to stay open or make much more money. After all, everyone is doing it, and some things have become accepted practice. In fact, some martial arts business manuals keep telling me that it is a smart business move.” I personally wonder if we have gone off course navigating between our ethical beliefs and our business and teaching conduct.

The ethical dilemma: six scenarios. I will apply the question while you the reader supply the answer:


1. You depend on student contracts to pay your bills. Your martial arts studio is in a high rent district and you want to provide a comfortable living for your family. Charging monthly fees just will not get the job done. You lay out your program and rates, and those adult students and parents know exactly what they are getting into. A mother wants to sign up five year old Billy to take lessons from your school. You determine to have her sign a multiple year contract for several thousand dollars, even though statistics show that the drop out rate for this age group, on a national average, is very high. Young children play soccer, baseball, take dance lessons, martial arts classes, but simply become bored, and in short time periods, go from one activity to another. Everyone knows that this is a fact. For every Billy that stays a good length of time in martial arts classes, about thirty drop out in the short run.

The question is, knowing these facts as a martial arts business owner/teacher, are you justified in talking Billy’s mom into signing a long term contract?

2. You set standard rates and fees and present them to your new customers, who seem satisfied, and are willing to pay you for your services. The customer naturally assumes that everyone pays the same standard rate. Then you make a second sales pitch. For X amount of dollars more, your child can join what is called “The Black Belt Club”. In return, you will see that this child receives special attention, can attend more classes, will be taught more techniques, earn various awards, and wear a different uniform, which everyone can see that this student belongs to an elite group. All the parent has to do is shell out a few more bucks. Those who cannot afford the extra money to join this unique club will receive your standard martial arts training, whatever that might be.

The question is, isn’t the purpose of joining a martial arts school is that the parent/student will receive equal and fair treatment, not based on finances, race, color or religion? Isn’t the purpose of every new student wearing the same color gi, based on the premise that everyone starts out on an equal footing, and that you cannot tell a lower income student from a higher income student? Shouldn’t all students be taught the very same information and have the same rights to attend the same classes as all other students, no matter what the financial status is?

3. Your school has a testing schedule that occurs at predetermined times. Any student is eligible to take the test on the next test date. All students must pay your standard test fees before the test occurs. Everyone knows that some students will pass, and some students will fail. No test fees will be returned to the failing student. It has always been standard practice. 

The question is, is it ethical for a student to pay the fees and take the test, even though, as their instructor, you know that they are not ready and will most likely fail, or should the test be given to only those students who have been properly reviewed and whom you know will pass the test? Or do you pass everyone, ready or not, because your studio is packed with parents, grandparents and many friends?

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4. You have a very loyal parent who pays for lessons early and often, who also buys everything you have to offer, who is constantly working on your studio, helps in many other ways, attends every tournament with you, and does whatever you ask of him/her. Money and time means little to this parent, who is willing to freely give both to you. However, their child is a klutz, does not pay attention in class, and really does not want to be there at all. The parent puts constant pressure on you to promote their child, and to promote often. You simply cannot afford to lose this child and parent.

The question is, do you promote this child and retain this valuable asset? What if you had six parents like this? After all, we are only talking about lower ranks here, and you tell yourself that even your worst students are better than those students at that other school down the street.

5. You conduct a tournament each year. One of your friends brings forty students or more to your tournament each and every time. He and his six black belts come early, stay late, and judge your event all day long. Sitting in the audience are a hundred or more of their parents and friends, all paying customers. Unfortunately, his students are not very good and usually end up in fourth or fifth place. This does not set very well with the head instructor of this school. Just one or two more points on the score cards will move his students into the winners circle. Many of the other judges are from your school, or come from schools that are dedicated to making your tournament a success. Since most of the competitors are children, your goal is to make a lot of kids and parents satisfied and happy. Your event would be known as one of the most enjoyable they have ever attended, and you can be assured that they will return next time, and in greater numbers. But first, you have to make losers into winners.

The question is, what do you do to retain this instructor’s friendship and source of income? What’s a point or two anyway, even though they are not very good, they are just kids?

6. Your friend has been teaching the martial arts for a very long time at a local community center. His classes have always been very small. He no longer trains, is not involved in any type of competition, nor does he involve his students. He has not written any martial arts manuals, nor has he done anything in the community to receive special recognition. However, your friend has been conducting martial arts classes for twenty five years. You are going to conduct a martial arts hall of fame and are thinking about having your friend inducted because of his seniority, and also promote this long time teacher to high black belt rank.

The question is, should a long time teacher of the arts, who has done little, if anything, be put on an equal footing as those who are very active, and who have done ten times as much to promote the arts? Is seniority the only criteria for special recognition?


The above ethical dilemmas are not the figments of someone’s imagination, but actual scenarios that occur much too often in the martial arts. Too many times business owners/teachers rationalize the wrong way and take the easy way out. Are our ethics being eroded because “everyone is doing it, so it must be standard and accepted practice? Will our professional level ever reach that of the doctor, lawyer, or CEO”? The answers to the above questions are determined by your ethics and your wallet. It simply comes down to our beliefs as an industry and how we enforce them. You are the judge!

This would be a good time to clarify our martial arts values. Let’s use as a guideline information set forth by a study course offered by the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, modifying them to meet our martial arts criteria.

1. Ethical values which reflect the golden rule.
           a. Are you treating others as you would want to be treated?
           b. Would you feel comfortable about seeing your reasons and decisions published in your local newspaper?
           c. Would you feel comfortable if your children were watching you?

2. Concern for the well-being of other people. Is this an integral part of your ethics?

3. Respect for others, no matter who they are, rich or poor, pretty or plain, talented or not, shy or loud.

4. Are you trustworthy and honest?

5. Do you obey society’s laws?

6. Are you fair to everyone?

7. Do you refuse to take unfair advantage? The best index to a person’s character is:
           a. How he treats people who can’t do him any good.
           b. How he treats people who can’t fight back.

8. Do you do good without lowering your ethical values?

9. Do you prevent harm of any kind?

People know exactly what our values are when we state clearly what they are, and when we apply them fairly and consistently. “We walk our talk”. The very nature of a martial arts professional means that he/she acting in a professional capacity assumes higher levels of ethical values than the students and parents whom we serve. We martial artists must establish a code to protect both clients (student and parent) and the reputation of our profession against the harm that results from unscrupulous motives or conduct by it’s members. It is the need to put the client’s interests and well-being ahead of the professional’s self-interest.

As the course states: “The ethical principles expected of professionals are reflected in most codes ethics include the following”:

1. Meet and maintain all educational requirements for membership and skill development.
2. Exercise good and fair judgment in practice.
3. Serve the client with diligence.
4. Avoid conflicts of interests.
5. Be sincere, open and truthful.
6. Adhere to moral principles and standards of conduct.
7. Be accountable and dependable.
8. Protect confidences.
9. Be loyal to your profession and its clients.
10. Be tolerant and compassionate.
11. Act with restraint.
12. Refrain from illegal or immoral acts.
13. Do not indulge in excessive behavior.
14. Serve the clients and profession with the highest integrity and impartiality.
15. Provide competent and professional service to the client.
16. Maintain the necessary knowledge and skills needed to serve the industry.
17. Perform services in a manner that is fair and reasonable to clients.
18. Endeavor to extend public knowledge of the high ethical standards of our industry.
19. Endeavor to encourage the professional development of our industry.
20. Display at all times professionalism in the quality of service being offered to clients.


In conclusion, the goal in most businesses is to build and maintain a loyal following. This can only occur when our profession is committed to building a foundation founded firmly on ethical principles and behavior. Organizations who view their clients simply as financial income, no matter what it takes, simply do not succeed over the long term. Strategies motivated by greed and the desire to succeed at all costs are potentially profitable in the short-term, but in time this strategy triggers backlash and failure.

The final question, don’t you think that as our industry is rapidly growing, that we professionals should re-evaluate our ethics in our martial arts business, and in our personal relationships with others? 

“Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.”  

Prof. David L. Grosscup

President

Maryland Professional Karate Association, Inc. 

Copyright 2003 Maryland Professional Karate Association, All rights reserved.

 

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