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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?”
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?