Tsujigiri and the error of moral relativism

15 October 2008 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in philosophy | 8 Comments »

During the first and only philosophy course of my ill-fated university career, I and my fellow students were presented with an assignment to read about an ancient Japanese samurai practice called tsujigiri and to comment upon it with an eye toward answering the question “is moral relativism acceptable?”

From Wikipedia:

Some girl (probably not a samurai) pretends to prepare to do something with a samurai sword in some movie

Some girl (probably not a samurai) pretends to prepare to do something with a samurai sword during filming of some movie

Tsujigiri (辻斬 tsuji-giri, literally ‘crossroads killing’) is a Japanese term for a practice when someone, after receiving a new katana or developing a new fighting style or weapon, tests its effectiveness by attacking a human opponent. Originally, this practice took the form of traditional duels between bushi, but as the classical ideals of Bushidō were largely forgotten during the Edo Period, the mannerisms of Tsujigiri became increasingly dishonorable. By the 18th Century, it was not uncommon to hear of ronin ambushing unarmed peasants in the dark for simple amusement. A warrior who practiced this often would often be referred to as a Tsujigiri.

Essentially, the question posed by the assignment was this: Imagine that in your society the errant samurai was not sanctioned for ambushing and killing a hapless passerby simply to test his new blade. Does that make it right?

Having recently liberated myself from a fettering moral absolutism, I predictably and foolishly adopted the utterly unfettered relativist position and proclaimed in my essay that even though such a practice might seem barbaric today, it was morally acceptable because it formed an accepted part of the culture which existed in that place and time. It’s been a long while since then, and the essay is lost; perhaps I discussed what little I knew of the samurai code and its origins, imperial Japanese culture and other such matters.

What I certainly did not address in the paper were the passersby themselves. Ooops. I’d thrown away what I considered the stifling values of my upbringing in the name of discovering truth by its own lights. Unfortunately, I’d thrown out a great deal of the good along with the bad, leaving me in a place where, from my diminished principles, it was entirely possible to simply ignore the fact that the passersby were human beings. Definitely not part of the analysis was an examination of the moral standing of each of the actual participants in the tsujigiri exchange — the heavily armed, imperially-costumed samurai and the hapless peasant traveler — or any questioning of how the situation would be different if, instead, both or none were wearing the same costumes, or if the sword was moved from one set of hands to the other. I never asked myself about the samurai’s political status relative to that of the peasant or about what privilege was implied by the samurai’s costume. Certainly I knew nothing of the clown suit argument. I examined the beliefs of the collective in terms of my own belief that there could be no objective morality, and came to the preposterous conclusion that this jolly slaughter at roadside was just fine. The samurai was the samurai, and that was the system.

I’ve started writing a new version of my essay response to this tsujigiri question. I have just completed a first draft:


by Michael Gogulski

Down with the samurai! Death to the Emperor!

How do you think it sounds so far? I know I need a lot more words to reach 1,500 and I do need to mention something about moral relativism, but this is kinda what I’d like to say. Any tips?

  1. 8 Responses to “Tsujigiri and the error of moral relativism”

  2. By Azrael on 15 October 2008

    Just keep writing that line over and over?

    That is my lazy answer

  3. By anarcho-mercantilist on 15 October 2008

    I identify myself as an ethical universalist and a moral subjectivist. Randians would probably see this as contradictory. I do not. Notice the difference between the definitions of morality and ethics.

    I define morality as the differing believes and behaviors of individuals. I define ethics as a code of conduct that everyone should follow.

    Randians define ethical subjectivism as the belief that we should allow differing ethical codes. Randians define ethical objectivism as the belief that we should encourage everyone to follow one common ethical code.

    Notice that Randians have a normative definition of subjectivism and objectivism, while non-Randians have a descriptive definition of subjectivism and objectivism. When I identify myself as a moral subjectivist, I do not mean that I should allow differing ethical codes. I mean in a descriptive sense that I view individuals create view morality as a mental concept. I believe that morality evolved from evolution.

    But in ethics, I have a normative conception that all individuals should follow an universal moral code: the non-aggression principle.

  4. By scineram on 16 October 2008

    I switched from moralism to amoralism. You should have kept the essay, it was true.

  5. By Mike Gogulski on 16 October 2008

    Azrael: Your laziness comports well with mine! 🙂

    anarcho-mercantilist: I’ll buy that. In my own muddled thinking the distinction between “morality” and “ethics” is often blurred, but there is a distinction nonetheless.

    scineram: does your amoralism lead you to the same ethical normative prescription as anarcho-mercantilist specifies above?

  6. By Ethan Lee Vita on 18 October 2008

    That girl is from the movies Kill Bill vol 1 and 2. I couldn’t tell if you intentionally didn’t write that or not.

  7. By Mike Gogulski on 18 October 2008

    I did recognize Uma, Ethan. The caption was for fun, since I couldn’t find the “samurai beset hapless peasant” picture I was after 😉

  8. By anarcho-mercantilist on 18 October 2008

    Mike, thanks for your reply. I plan to do a new post on my blog about the fallacy of the subjectivist/objectivist semantic conflict.

  9. By counterp on 26 August 2012


    then as a test of your new found freedom of expression, please fully enjoy any situations that express others amorality upon you.

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