Chapter I: Ethics and its Importance

by Adam J. McKee

What is ethics?  In a general sense, ethics is the study of the difference between right and wrong, or the difference between good and evil.  In academic circles, ethics is sometimes known as moral philosophy.  In most cases today, ethics is used to mean what is the difference between right and wrong in the context of some specific profession.  In this text, we will primarily be concerned with the difference between right and wrong in the daily duties of police officers.  Law enforcement professionals face a multitude of situations where they make choices that can be judged (usually after the fact) as right or wrong.  Ethics teaches us how to determine what course of action is the right thing to do.

Ethics is very similar to the idea of morals. In this text, the terms are used interchangeably.  The term ethics comes from the Greek root word ethos and the term moral comes from a Latin word moralis (the root of the sociological term mores).  These are nearly identical terms referring to good and bad behavior.  In general usage, morals is more commonly used to describe the total person, and is not limited to a specific profession.

Note that the idea of ethics is different from the idea of values.  Ethics, in general, concerns itself with how a moral person should behave.  Bushido ethics, specifically, relates itself with how a Guardian should act.  Values, on the other hand, are judgments that determine how a person behaves in practice.  Becoming wealthy is a value, but is not generally an ethical consideration.  Values and morals can overlap when they both concern beliefs about what is good and what is evil.

It is evident that training in ethics will do nothing to correct the behavior of evil men.  They will merely scoff at these values and continue with their unethical behavior.  As Edwin Delattre put it:

No one who does not already care about being a good person and doing what is right can have a serious ethical question.  A person must have achieved a disposition to do the right thing in the right way at the right time for the right reason before any moral perplexities can arise (Delattre, 1996, p. 5).

Good men and women will try to do good anyway.  So, why study ethics?  The answer lies in the fact that sometimes the right thing to do is not always a clear-cut decision.  If all ethical problems were clear-cut, things would be easy.  We could just provide a list of rules prohibiting obvious unethical behaviors.  Do not lie, cheat, or steal.  We could just issue every new officer a copy of the Boy Scout Code and be done with it.  The problem with ethics is that many times the reality on the streets is not black and white—there is no bright line clearly dividing good and evil.  Thus, a compelling reason to study ethics is to have considered the gray areas and be standing on high moral ground when split-second decisions are called for during the course of daily duty.  By careful study and contemplation of ethics, the gray areas can be largely eliminated (at least in your own mind) and most situations will have a bright line clearly dividing right from wrong.

Tsunetomo Yamamoto provides perhaps the best reasoning that I have found for the study of ethics:

There are only a few considerations that are serious for you.  You can make your decision about these few serious matters beforehand in ordinary circumstances.  Accordingly, you previously think about these serious matters and then you have only to take out the previously arrived at conclusions when you need them.  On the other hand, if you are not prepared, then it will be difficult to think lightly of grave matters when you meet with occasions on which you have to make an instant decision.  At such a time you will be unable to hit the mark.  Therefore, to make your own ground firm is the basis for making your decision (Stone, 2001, p. 22).

By “serious,” I believe that Yamamoto was talking about the need for making a hard ethical decision.  Much of the time, the ethical course of action will be obvious, thus not a serious problem to be resolved.  The law and departmental policy will dictate it.  Your training and your experience with similar situations will dictate it.  Codes of conduct will dictate it.  Yet, it must be remembered that while codes of ethics are useful as guidelines, they cannot motivate people to behave ethically.  They are of use only to those people who already have the desire to behave well.  To be a good cop, you must genuinely want to be a good cop.  This means that you must fully understand the police mission and be dedicated to it.

Thus, do not believe for a moment that understanding or applying ethics is difficult.  There is no “mental gymnastics” involved in the vast majority of ethics.  Most of ethics is a matter of character, and thus of habit.  Of course, we must reason out hard moral cases.  Nevertheless, as a rule, ethics is not about painful deliberation.

Why Be Ethical

There are many reasons to seek an ethical life.  There is the spiritual benefit—the idea that virtue is its own reward.  Classical economists believe that all human behavior, including altruism, is dictated by rational choices based on cold, calculated cost-benefit analysis.  This book takes the view that most humans, being social creatures, have an interest in moral considerations that reaches beyond self-interest.  What I suggest is that people and organizations are motivated to act ethically because it is in their self-interest to do so, and because they have moral concerns.  There is a decided economic benefit to acting ethically—conducing yourself in an ethical way gives you a good reputation—its good business.

There is also approval and admiration—others will admire you and you can admire yourself.  There are also religious reasons.  Every major faith demands ethical conduct of its members.  Nearly all unethical conduct can be regarded as “sin.”  Finally, there is simple habit.  We find ethical conduct to be the most comfortable course of action because that is how our parents, loved ones, schools and religious organizations, brought us up.

For the Samurai, to act unethically brought shame, the antithesis of honor.  This was a terrible state of affairs.  As Taira Shigesuke saw it:

So when it comes to doing right and being courageous, there is nothing to go on but shame.  If you do wrong, unconcerned that people will say it is wrong, or if you are cowardly without caring that people will laugh at you for spinelessness, there is nothing that anyone can teach you (Cleary, 1999, p. 21).

The truth is that setting good personal ethical values and using them on the job will not ensure that you are a successful police officer.  Acting unethically, however, will usually ensure that you will fail.  One instrument of such failure is the law.  As one would suspect, there are many laws at both the federal and state level aimed at preventing police misconduct.  These are found in the form of both criminal and civil statutes.

18 U.S.C. §§ 241

Federal law makes it a criminal offense for one or more persons acting under color of law to willfully deprive (or conspire to deprive) another person of any right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States (18 U.S.C. §§ 241, 242).  In this context, the phrase “color of law” means that the offender is using power given to them by a local, state, or the federal government.

The FBI (2008) describes “color of law” in this way:

Acts under “color of any law” include acts not only done by federal, state, or local officials within the bounds or limits of their lawful authority, but also acts done without and beyond the bounds of their lawful authority; provided that, in order for unlawful acts of any official to be done under “color of any law,” the unlawful acts must be done while such official is purporting or pretending to act in the performance of his/her official duties.  This definition includes, in addition to law enforcement officials, individuals such as Mayors, Councilpersons, Judges, Nursing Home Proprietors, Security Guards, etc., persons who are bound by laws, statutes ordinances, or customs.

As we will discuss at length, police officers hold an incredible amount of such power, and, as a police officer, you are an agent of the state.  Sexual assaults and harassment, excessive force, unlawful arrests, the fabrication of evidence, and many other unethical activities are made criminal by this federal statute.  These statutes are not without teeth.

The FBI summarizes the punishment for such violations as follows: “Punishment varies from a fine or imprisonment of up to ten years, or both; and if death results, or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for any term of years, or for life, or may be sentenced to death.”

18 U.S.C. §§ 242

This statute makes it a crime for any person acting under color of law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to willfully deprive or cause to be deprived from any person those rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the U.S.

This law further prohibits a person acting under color of law, statute, ordinance, regulation or custom to willfully subject or cause to be subjected any person to different punishments, pains, or penalties, than those prescribed for punishment of citizens on account of such person being an alien or by reason of his/her color or race.

Punishment varies from a fine or imprisonment of up to one year, or both, and if bodily injury results or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire shall be fined or imprisoned up to ten years or both, and if death results, or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

Relative Versus Absolute

There are many different theories of ethics, and many different ways of categorizing them.  One way to group ethical theories is to consider whether a particular theory involves ethical relativism or ethical absolutism.  Ethical relativism is a perspective that views morality as something that is relative to the norms of a particular culture.  That is, whether an act is good or evil depends on the culture in which the action takes place.  Under this view, an unethical act in one culture can be ethical in another.  For ethical relativists, there is no universal standard of right and wrong.  There are no standards that can be applied to all people at all times.  Many students of ethics are repulsed by this idea.  For, if ethical relativism holds true, there can be no universal framework for resolving moral dilemmas and no agreed-upon standards of conduct.

Ethical absolutism, on the other hand, holds that there are indeed absolute standards against which the morality of an act can be measured.  This theory takes the approach that certain acts are right and certain acts are wrong, and that the social context is largely irrelevant.  Many ethical theories that can be categorized as absolutist derive their moral authority from some higher power, such as natural law, the will of God, even the very nature of humanity.  In its pure form, moral absolutism has the problem of not being able to take utility into account.  For example, an absolutist ethic may prohibit lying, as would most ethical systems.  The absolutist approach, however, would regard lying is unethical regardless of context, even if the lie were told for some noble purpose, such as saving a life.

Religion and Ethics

Moral philosophers have long considered the difference between religion and ethics.  Many have concluded that the two cannot be separated.  From a practical standpoint, the difference is that religious beliefs are personal in nature, and professional ethics are public in nature.  This means that religion is not the best source of professional ethics—not because religion is unimportant, but because it is not something that is universal that almost everyone can agree upon.  While it is impossible to come up with an ethical system that everyone can agree upon, it is possible to articulate a core set of virtues that are nearly universal.

Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the branch of ethics that takes on the practical task of coming up with ethical standards for us to live by.  This is where the general ideas come from that we must apply in our daily lives.  The Golden Rule is a well-known example of a normative principle: We should treat other people as we want them to treat us.  I should not steal my neighbor’s property because I do not want him stealing my property.  From this single principle, we can come up with pretty much the entire criminal code.  Because of its very general nature, the Golden Rule is a very versatile way of deciding whether a particular course of conduct is ethical.  Unfortunately, it does not serve our purpose well because it does not systematically guide us in consideration of potential ethical dilemmas.  Other normative systems of ethics deal with a set of foundational principles.  This text takes that approach.

The key to normative ethics is the idea that there is a single, knowable ultimate criterion for leading a moral life.  This can be a single overarching principle or a set of principles.  Regardless of the number, normative ethical systems hold that the principles of that system are rules that every person can live by.  They are not relative, cultural, or situational.  They are timeless (or nearly so) and are not prone to the caprice of a changing society.


Utilitarianism is one of several consequentialist theories of ethics.  Consequentialist theories of ethics determine what is ethical by the outcome of the act.  The basic test of an acts morality is whether the outcome of the act is more favorable or unfavorable.  The difference in the various consequentialist theories is how we define favorable.  Utilitarianism approaches favorable in terms the greatest good for the greatest number.  In other words, according to utilitarian theory, an act is morally correct if the outcome is favorable to the greatest number of people.

One of the greatest potential problems of strictly adhering to the utilitarian way of thinking has been called the “Dirty Harry Problem” (Klockars, 1985).  That is “dirty means” are adopted to achieve legitimate ends.  The dominant belief is that dirty means must always be punished as dirty, regardless of how good the end.

Deontological Ethics

The term deontological comes from the Greek root word deon, which means duty.  For this reason, deontological theories of ethics are also called duty theories of ethics.  In this type of theory, ethics is based on a set of principles that are obligations.  If we are to act ethically, we must perform these duties regardless of the outcome.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant reasoned that there was a more fundamental duty that overarched other particular duties.  This was a patently obvious principle of reason that he called the categorical imperative.  Let us examine both terms more closely.  By imperative, Kant was using a synonym of duty.  That is, this is something that we must do to act morally.  The categorical part says that the imperative stands alone—it is unconditional and unqualified.  It is just so, regardless of any personal desire on the part of the actor.  Kant’s categorical imperative was essentially this:  Treat people with dignity and respect, and never with the motivation to achieve some personal end.

Virtue Ethics

One way to approach ethical living is to devise a code of conduct that espouses particular rules, much like a code of laws.  This applies to mandates such as the Ten Commandments.  In fact, there is often overlap between rules of ethics and rules of law.  Law enforcement officers should be quick to see the flaw in such a system.  Just as with the impossibility of learning the entire criminal code, it would be impossible to learn all the ethical rules if someone managed to write them all down.

Virtue ethics takes a different path to right living.  Virtue ethics deemphasizes rules and places emphasis on good habits of character.  That is, the path to ethical living is to identify a core set of virtues that guide our everyday life.  In addition, most of these virtues have corresponding vices that we should avoid.  For example, the Guardian should seek to internalize the virtue of courage, while simultaneously avoiding the vice of cowardice.

A synonym for what I call virtue ethics is character.  This text takes the rather simplistic view that bad conduct is the result of bad character, bad judgment, bad circumstances or some combination of those three elements.  A major theme of this book is that good people can prevent bad behavior by imagining bad circumstances beforehand and applying good character traits (virtues) to the situation.

Some Flaws of Virtue Ethics

The most common criticism of virtue ethics is that it does not lay down a system of rules that even those without virtue can follow.  Many critics have argued that virtue ethics is a person-centered system and fails to specify anything about acts.  That is, it concentrates on “what should I be?” rather than “what should I do?”

Another criticism is that virtues tend to be culturally specific.  That is, different cultures have a different way of looking at things, so a universal set of virtues will be impossible to enumerate.  This argument may hold some truth in a broad sense.  However, in the sense of professional ethics, it seems that most professions can identify a core set of values that all members of that profession should strive to reflect in their behavior.  This is no less true for the Guardian.

The treatment of ethics as a system of virtues suggests a treatment whereby different virtues are listed and explained separately.  This, while convenient in many respects, can lead to problems.  To think of the ethical precepts set forth herein separately leads to problems, for they are, in practice, inseparable.  For example, courage is no virtue if it is not tempered by rectitude.  Thus, we will divide ethics into several virtues for ease of study, but keep in mind that they are, in reality, an inseparable system.  Bushido ethics is something that truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

Resolving Ethical Dilemmas

Many ethical questions can be answered in terms of what is right.  You should not steal, you should not lie, you should not commit adultery, and so forth.  What happens when two different ethical principles come into conflict?  When two ethical requirements come into conflict, then there is an ethical (or moral) dilemma.  Dealing with moral dilemmas is an ancient pastime for philosophers.  Plato writes of one in his Republic.

Here he provides the example where a man has borrowed a sword from a friend who is not in his right mind, and the friend is demanding the return of his sword.  Thus, he is torn between returning the property to its rightful owner and protecting the safety of the friend.  Both restoring the property and protecting someone’s safety are virtuous acts when taken alone.  Now, the man seems to be in a no-win situation.  If he returns the property, which is the right thing to do, then he will be putting his mentally ill friend in danger.  If he decides to protect the friend’s safety, then he fails in his moral obligation to return the borrowed property to its rightful owner.

Of course, the solution to this dilemma is easy to determine.  The safety of a human being overrides the property interest, especially since the property could be returned later when the friend had recovered his sanity.  This is the moral counterpart of taking away the car keys of an intoxicated person against the person’s will.  Many philosophers would argue that since the solution to this dilemma is so easy, then it really is no dilemma at all.

The secret to acting ethically when an ethical dilemma presents itself is the ability to balance conflicting virtues.  We must develop the ability to analyze the situation and determine what is right based on the totality of the circumstances.  I suggest the following process:

      1. Identify the facts surrounding the ethical dilemma in specific terms. It may be helpful to think of this as the narrative portion of a incident report.  You need to include as much information as is necessary for the “jury” to make a good decision.

      2. Identify the general ethical principle or principles on both sides of the dilemma. Keep in mind that several virtues may be working together.  Also, keep in mind that the same general virtue may be in conflict with itself, such as when your duty to the public comes into conflict with your duty to a fellow officer.  If one virtue (or set of virtues) is obviously paramount, then acting in accordance with the superior virtue is the most ethical course of conduct.

      3. If there is no clear-cut distinction between the virtues present in the situation, then resort to an analysis of the outcomes using a utilitarian framework. That is, ask yourself which course of action will cause the least amount of harm to the least amount of people.  Remember that a conscientious person will take into account probable long-term consequences.  The utilitarian analysis is notoriously bad if only short-term consequences are considered.

It is worthy of note that not all ethical decisions are good decisions.  To be a good decision, it must be both ethical and effective.  Decisions that lack both qualities are essentially bad decisions.  If, for example, the decision to lie leads to the desired outcome, then it can be called effective.  It cannot, however, be called ethical.  A decision to act morally that leads to a bad outcome can be said to be ethical but will not generally be regarded as a good decision.  Only when morality and effectiveness are present will a particular decision be regarded as a good one.

The Slippery Slope

The Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption was formed in 1970 by Mayor John V. Lindsay to investigate corruption within the New York City Police Department.  The impetus for establishing the Commission was scandal within the department stemming from corruption exposed by the now famous patrol officer Frank Serpico.  (Serpico’s story was made into a major motion picture titled simply Serpico in 1973 by Paramount, starring Al Pacino).  The Commission became more commonly known as the Knapp Commission after Judge Whitman Knapp, who chaired the commission.

The Knapp Commission differentiated between two types of corrupt police officers.  This distinction has been restated in nearly every article and book on police corruption since the Commission’s report was released in 1972.  The distinction made by the Commission was between “Grass Eaters” and “Meat Eaters.”  Grass Eaters were those corrupt officers that specialized in a passive form of corruption consisting of taking small gratuities and bribes when offered.  They did not go out actively seeking financial gain through corruption, but they were content to take it when an offer came along.  Such things as a free lunch at the local diner or a ten-dollar kickback from a tow truck operator who “just happened” to get the call to work a traffic accident are common examples.

The Meat Eaters were considered the more insidious kind of corrupt cop.  These officers actively looked to abuse their police power for financial gain.  Meat Eaters would do things like shake down pimps and drug dealers for money.  They rationalized such conduct as criminals getting what they deserved.

Very few officers are willing to go so far as to be Meat Eaters.  Yet, as the Knapp Commission found in New York, many are willing to be Grass Eaters.  What is wrong with taking a free cup of coffee?  After all, the storeowner offered it of his own free will, and it costs him only a few cents.  Police officers are underpaid and underappreciated.  The public should show some support now and then.  Right?

This line of reasoning is problematic.  Once the cup of coffee shifts from being a kindness to an entitlement, the door is opened to trouble.  This leads to what has been called a slippery slope—the idea that excess begets excess.  It is too hot for coffee, so why not a soft drink?  What about a doughnut?  What about a sandwich?  What about a six-pack of beer at the end of a shift?  According to the slippery slope argument, the best way to prevent future meat-eating is to stop current grass-eating.

Even if the officer taking the cup of coffee has good discretion and can draw the line, the motivation of the storeowner must be considered.  Most probably do it as a kindness.  Others may, however, expect something in return—extra patrols late at night, faster responses to calls for service, or ignoring illegally parked patrons.  Experienced officers will often say that it is a very uncomfortable position to be torn between a debt of gratitude and your official duty.

Police Corruption and Ethics

In an exhaustive review of the literature on police corruption, Tim Newburn (1999) concluded, “police corruption is pervasive, continuing, and not bound by rank.”  He further concluded, “the boundary between ‘corrupt’ and ‘non-corrupt’ activities is difficult to define, primarily because this is at heart an ethical problem.”  These two conclusions are at the very core of why ethics training is critical.  The problem is big, it is not going away by itself, and it cannot be blamed on a few “bad apples.”

The bad apple thesis simply does not hold.  One rogue officer could not survive in a department otherwise composed of good, honest cops.  The other officers need not be “meat eaters,” but they become “grass eaters” when they observe corruption in other officers and do nothing.  As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

The reality is those complex ethical problems are an inherent part of police work.  Power, authority, and autonomy conspire to make the temptation to unethical conduct an omnipresent danger in the world of policing.

Bushido’s Meaning

The Code of the Samurai tells us, “One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve” (Cleary, 1999, p. 3).  This seeming obsession with death has led many Western commentators to believe that the Samurai were mad members of some sort of bizarre death cult.  This could not be further from the truth.  The idea of always thinking about death is to force us to lead a life of worth.  That is, if we live this day as if we are going to die tomorrow, then surely we will attend only to important things today.  We will not squander our precious time with vice and worthless pursuits.

This concern with death is not so different from Western notions of how to live a character-centered life.  In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, business success guru Dr. Stephen Covey asks his reader to imagine “…your own funeral, three years from today.  All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life” (Covey, 1989, p. 96).  Covey further instructs us to “…think deeply.  What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life?”  Covey’s basic idea here is to Begin with the End in Mind.  That is, by focusing on the end, we can get a clear idea of our real values—those things that are truly important to us.  The specter of death creates a sense of urgency, a need to accomplish things that we would not attempt if we allowed ourselves not to consider the end.  Many people suffer under the illusion that they have forever to accomplish things, and thinking so, they accomplish nothing.

While all of us are mortal, this sentiment is especially salient to the Guardian—be it a Guardian of ancient Japan or a Guardian patrolling the streets of modern America.  The fact is that law enforcement is a dangerous profession.  The constant presence of danger provides a constant wake-up call.  The Bushido code reminds us that in order to lead a long life, we must be ever mindful of our impending death.  It also reminds us, as Dr. Covey put it, “If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.”  Thus, Bushido leaves us with an important maxim:  Live each day prepared to face death tomorrow.

Who Were the Samurai?

The samurai were the legendary warriors of old Japan who led noble and violent lives governed by the demands of honor, personal integrity, and loyalty.  The samurai as we imagine them today solidified around 1192 at the end of the Gempei War.  It was at this time that the victorious Minamoto Yoritomo took the title of shogun.  Prior to that time, samurai leaders were given that title by the emperor along with a commission to deal with rebels against the throne.  It was temporary and was relinquished when the threat of rebellion had passed.  Yoritomo took the title and made himself a sort of military dictator.  The title became hereditary, and the shogun would remain the real power in japan until modernization in 1868.  This period began with wars against foreign enemies and rival clans at home.  The latter half, however, was a period of peace and prosperity.

The Tokugawa (or Edo) period brought 250 years of stability to Japan.  It was during this time, known as the Edo Period, that the samurai rose from primarily a military designation to the highest-ranking social caste of the time.  Samurai employed a wide range of weapons, such as bows and arrows, spears, and later guns, but the most prevalent symbol of the samurai was the sword.  It was during this period that warriors turned their thoughts to ethics.  As Kanno Kakumyo argued, the samurai of earlier times were too busy fighting and only began to concern themselves with ethics in the reasonably peaceable Edo period.

In order to maintain this peaceful status quo, the Shogunate government adopted a closed-door policy toward all foreign countries.  Under the political system of this period, local power rested in relatively independent clans that were required to pay allegiance to the central government.  Within each of these clans, the Lord and his samurai composed the ruling class (Stone, 2001, p. xiii).  As the ruling class, they held dominion over the lower casts of people composed of farmers, manufacturers, artisans, and merchants.  This period also saw a social change for the samurai.  Most samurai lost their direct possession of the land.  All land ownership was concentrated in the hands of about 300 daimyos.  The samurai had two basic choices.  They could give up their sword and become peasants or become paid retainers of a feudal lord.

For centuries, the samurai were an imposing presence of authority; they were the peacekeepers of feudal Japan.  Two razor-sharp swords, one long and the other short protruded from his belt.  There was no mistaking who this imposing figure was among the citizenry.  By law and tradition, only a samurai could carry both swords, the potent and deadly symbols of his authority.

The Samurai rule of Japan was long and ended only after American ships sailed into Japan’s harbors.  This incursion from the modernized West exposed the powerlessness of the shogun to defend the nation against the modern war machines of the day.  Forces rallied around a new emperor and overthrew the shogun’s army.  The samurai’s reign ended, unable to cope with the brutal destructive power of modern weaponry.  The warriors who made up the samurai class may have faded from history, but the legend will live on forever.

Training of the Samurai

Nitobe describes the classical training of the samurai in some detail.  He tells us that the first and foremost thing that these warriors learned was character building, leaving other pursuits in a secondary position.  While intelligence was esteemed, wisdom was more highly regarded.  That is, the samurai viewed mere knowledge as subordinate to wisdom.

The tripod which supported the framework of Bushido was said to be Chi, Jin, Yu, respectively, Wisdom, Benevolence, and Courage.  A samurai was essentially a man of action.

Science was only of interest to the samurai if it pertained to the warrior profession, and religion was only considered if it fostered Guardian virtues, such as courage.  Philosophy and literature were of critical importance in the intellectual training of the samurai.  Philosophy was so highly regarded because it was a “practical aid in the formation of character,” and provided methods of solving difficult political and military problems.  Of course, military skills were stressed.  Nitobe provides the following list: fencing, archery, jiujutsu or yawara, horsemanship, the use of the spear, tactics, calligraphy, ethics, literature, and history.

The Modern Samurai

Political theorists tell us that one of the most important defining characteristics of the state is a monopoly on the use of force.  In modern America, that awesome power is divided between the criminal justice system and the military.  The military is severely restricted in how it can use force on U.S. soil.  As a practical matter, the government’s monopoly on force within the borders of the United States is entrusted to law enforcement.  Under rare circumstances, such as in cases of legitimate self-defense, someone not under the color of a law enforcement office may legitimately (legally) use force.  These circumstances are rare and often dangerous.  For our society to be safe and operate according to the rule of law, force must be limited to use by professionals.

The very nature of civil society, even a democratic republic, dictates that there must be Guardians among us.  Modern Guardians are different from ancient warriors in several respects.  The modern Guardian does not hold his position by virtue of noble birth but because of a commitment to keeping the streets safe.  The modern Guardian has replaced chainmail with Kevlar and replaced a large, sturdy shield with a much smaller symbolic counterpart—the badge.

To illustrate further the similarity, consider how Taira Shigesuke’s description of the Samurai compares to modern SWAT team members:

However, warriors are fundamentally emergency men.  When there is a civil disturbance, they set aside their usual knightly ways for the moment, adopt military terminology for their superiors, comrades, and subordinates, doff their formal suits and put on armor, take up weapons, and head for the enemy’s ground (Cleary, 1999, p. 11).

Sources of Bushido

Unlike most religions and philosophical systems, there is no single text or group of texts that can be pointed to as the fountainhead of Bushido.  The development of Bushido ideology occurred over a protracted period of time and meant different things to different people.  Nitobe describes it this way:

It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant.  More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart.  It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned.  It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career (Nitobe, 1979).

As with modern ethical thinking, the bushido ideal changed over time in response to evolving social norms.  Political norms were also important.  For example, as peace grew more and more constant and the power of the central government grew, the teaching of Confucius became more important.  These teachings advocated peace and order (Stone, 2001, p. xv).

During this period, Samurai were able to devote time to cultural matters.  Many classical commentators lamented this fact, pointing out that the Samurai of this period were forgetting about Bushido and concentrating more on personal accomplishments.

Nitobe (1979, p. 21) had this to say of the sources of Bushido:

Thus, whatever the sources, the essential principles which Bushido imbibed from them and assimilated to itself, were few and simple.  Few and simple as these were, they were sufficient to furnish a safe conduct of life even through the unsafest days of the most unsettled period of our nation’s history.  The wholesome unsophisticated nature of our warrior ancestors derived ample food for their spirit from a sheaf of commonplace and fragmentary teachings, gleaned as it were on the highways and byways of ancient thought, and, stimulated by the demands of the age, formed from these gleanings a new and unique type of manhood.

According to Nitobe (1979, p. 17), there are three major sources of bushido ideology:  Zen, Shinto, and Confucius.


Because the samurai faced death on a regular basis, he could not focus on death as a terrible and bad thing if he was to live a life of courage and calmness.  The teachings of Zen provided a solution to this dilemma (Stone, 2001, p. xi).  Zen is a form of Buddhism that deemphasizes religious texts and metaphysical discourse.  The ruling elite and their samurai followers gravitated toward the Rinzai school of Zen.  Rinzai Zen is marked by the emphasis it places on kensho, “seeing one’s true nature.”  The fine arts of ink painting, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, and Zen gardening were refined at Rinzai monasteries and thus filtered into the Samurai way of life.

Zen taught the samurai that there is no real self, encouraging them to foster an attitude of absolute detachment from the “things” of earth, which is impermanent and therefore of an illusory nature.  Samurai were advised to adopt this philosophy by abandoning all concerns of the future and focusing solely on the present moment, which empowered them to demonstrate courageously loyalty to their lords.


Nitobe (1979) describes the value of the teachings of Confucius this way:

As to strictly ethical doctrines, the teachings of Confucius were the most prolific source of Bushido.  His enunciation of the five moral relations between master and servant (the governing and the governed), father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, and between friend and friend, was but a confirmation of what the race instinct had recognized before his writings were introduced from China.

The fusion of ethical principles with political ideology was particularly well suited to the samurai because they were the ruling class.  These warrior statesmen could easily identify with the aristocratic and conservative nature of the writings of Confucius.

Not all of the influences of Confucian ideas on Bushido were due to Confucius himself.  After Confucius, Mencius, a notable Confucian philosopher, exercised an immense influence on the development of Bushido.

While Confucius and Mencius formed the principal textbooks for samurai youths, most samurai held mere knowledge of their writings in little regard.  The samurai were famously practical, and scholars that did not actually make application of knowledge were considered “a book-smelling sot” or “an ill-smelling vegetable that must be boiled and boiled before it is fit for use.”  To be worthwhile, knowledge must be assimilated into the minds of the learner and show in his deeds.  Contrary to Western ideas of the value of scholarship, intellect itself was considered subordinate to ethical emotion.  This idea that true knowledge must have practical application in life is not alien, however, to western thought.  It can be seen in the works of great Western thinkers, such as Socrates.


Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, practiced before other religions were brought in from other areas.  The term loosely translates into “The Way of the Gods.”  The first writings of Shinto date back to the eighth century, and archeological evidence suggests that Shinto began as an oral tradition much earlier than this.  Shinto is known in the West for Kami, or the spiritual essence contained by all things, both living and nonliving.  Shinto can be confusing to the Western mind because it does not demand the exclusivity of its adherents.  There is no problem with being a Confucian, a Buddhist, and a Shinto practitioner at the same time in the Japanese mind.

Nitobe (1979, pp. 12-14) describes the value of Shinto to Bushido thinking this way:

What Buddhism failed to give, Shintoism offered in abundance.  Such loyalty to the sovereign, such reverence for ancestral memory, and such filial piety as are not taught by any other creed, were inculcated by the Shinto doctrines, imparting passivity to the otherwise arrogant character of the samurai.

According to Shinto, there is no evil inherent in the nature of man.  Shinto espouses an “innate goodness and Godlike purity of the human soul.”  Those who have observed Shinto shrines often comment on their Spartan simplicity.  The common trappings of divine worship are conspicuously absent.  Usually, a plain, unadorned mirror is found within such shrines.  Nitobe (1979) suggests that this is symbolic of the human heart that when placid “reflects the very image of Deity.”  This is tantamount to the philosopher’s mantra of “know thyself.”  Of course, the mirror reflecting the physical person is merely symbolic of the spirit within.  To know the moral nature within you is the proper goal.

The practice or revering one’s ancestors is another important element of Shinto.  Ancestor veneration derives from the central role of the family in Japanese spiritual life rather than the individual.  In the traditional Japanese religious world, dead family members are able to play a part in the world of the living.  To a samurai, the celebrated ancestors who had founded his lineage continued to have an influence in the present.  An extension of this idea placed the Imperial family at the fountainhead of the Japanese nation.

Ethical Flaws of Bushido

In the modern world, things are obviously very different than they were in feudal Japan.  It is predictable that there will be elements of a system of ethics so far removed from us in both time and space that we must reject.  We must consider each precept of this warrior philosophy carefully, deciding whether it is as valid today as it was when first introduced.

Let us consider Nitobe’s entire chapter on “The Institutions of Suicide and Redress” as an example of ethical thought that does not fit well into the modern American ethical context.  In feudal times, it was widely believed among the adherents of bushido that a great dishonor could be cleansed by ritual suicide, commonly known as hara-kiri.  Nitobe tells us that hara means midriff, which was considered the seat of the soul in much the same way that we now view the heart.  A closely related term was seppuku or self-murder.  This is a method of self-destruction much different from our popular conception of suicide in the West.  Seppuku was legal, ceremonial, and extremely painful.

Nitobe describes the purpose of ritual suicide as follows:

An invention of the middle ages, it was a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologize for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity. When enforced as a legal punishment, it was practiced with due ceremony.  It was a refinement of self-destruction, and none could perform it without the utmost coolness of temper and composure of demeanor, and for these reasons it was particularly befitting the profession of bushi.

Hara-kiri holds a firm grip on the imagination of westerners.  The Guardians among us have a seemingly instinctual fear of a culture capable of seppuku and kamikaze attacks.  Military strategists and personal protection experts know that it is nearly impossible to stop a perpetrator that has a complete disregard for death.  A man prepared to die for the success of his mission is a fearsome adversary.

Another ethical problem with Bushido is the sexism inherent in classical writings.  In classical Japanese society, the roles of women were quite different from men, and the Samurai were always men.  Our modern Guardians are both men and women.  This is as it should be.  I hope that the use of male personal pronouns in quotes from classical texts will not give offense to female readers.

Despite these few cultural differences in what constitutes appropriate conduct for the Guardian, studying bushido opens the door to a rich heritage of ethical principles.  For the samurai of old, bushido was not something novel to be studied for a while and then put aside; it was a way of life.  It is not an unrelated collection of platitudes but rather a holistic system of thought aimed toward the pursuit of excellence.  It is not limited to combat.  Bushido, when properly understood, is a valuable guide for everyday life.


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