Take this true story of a young man who went to the aid of a young woman—she was being beaten. This fellow tried to thwart the attack by attacking her attacker. But, unbeknownst to our hero, the aggressor's friends were not far behind, and when they came on their comrade receiving a knuckle sandwich, they served up several of their own. Whatever happened to the girl is anyone's guess.

Were our hero's actions ethical? Did he do the right thing?

He saw the violence and knew it was wrong. This young lady did not deserve to be beaten by a cretin. In his gut, he knew this to be immoral and acted. Our hero, a trained martial artist, gained tactical advantage and took the bully out. Now, had the violence stopped at that point, perhaps he could've tipped his hat and walked into the sunset. But the question remains: Did his tactical action provide him with the best option to stop the violence and prevent more?

Some will say yes, based on his intention to do right. But intending is not the same as doing. Knowing the right is not enough—doing the right is what counts. Then perhaps by merit of the outcome? Still not enough. The outcome could have been born of pure luck, like a rum-fueled dance-like-nobody's-watching stumble accidentally knocking the attacker out—hardly an ethical act, even when the outcome goes his way. But the outcome didn't go his way, and our hero was lucky he won only some nasty bruises, in spite of doing a noble, dumb thing that could have resulted in croaking at the hands of angry drunks.

The world is a brutal place, and there will always be cases in which good folks have no choice but to attack an attacker, even at great risk to themselves or others. But this doesn't mean it should be our first choice. In fact, if your default setting in regular training is "stomping mud holes in chests" or worse, slitting throats like a commando but you are not a commando, you are priming yourself to go off road, even off map, to cause greater conflict and violence. "Kill 'em all and let Gary sort 'em out" is an awful way for Gary to live in the real world, where some of that indiscriminate aggression will rub off on him and people he cares about.

We can be tactical without being ethical. It's easy, really—far easier than being both, for sure. Even though our hero had been tactical—he approached and ambushed unseen from the rear—he had not acted on the ethical first. If he had, he would have given himself the best opportunity for the outcome he was initially compelled to effect.

Let's remember why he intervened to begin with. It wasn't to deliver justice to the villain and tie him up with a note for the cops. He did it to protect a young woman who could not protect herself. Why, then, did he choose a tactic that endeavored the former and neglected the latter? Bear in mind, once the aggressor's friends attacked our hero, it created a new issue: now he needed defending. And the young woman was left in the very same predicament our hero found her in to begin with—at the mercy of those who meant her harm. He had lost touch with the duties he was obligated to uphold to himself. And if he had failed himself, what use was he to anyone else in need?

By unnecessarily attacking the attacker, the hero placed himself, the girl, and even his attackers in potentially deadly harm. Yes, even his attackers: had the hero or someone else been carrying a concealed weapon, such as a firearm, it might have turned into a turkey shoot with no turkeys.

What ought the hero have done?

He should have placed himself between the young woman and her abuser and separated them.

This ethical action is the best tactical action, as it protects everyone:

By standing up for the girl, he becomes a guardian to protect her from further violence.

By not immediately attacking the attacker, our hero protects himself because the attacker isn't forced into a fight. Fighting becomes a choice the attacker has to make. It also protects the attacker from harm by the hero, as well as harm he may incur on himself as a result of his own poor behavior, even if he doesn't realize it.

Our hero should have acted as a protector of self and others, including the enemy, if possible. This outlines the protector ethic, with the "if possible" as the balance, since we must engage from a sober understanding of our ability under given conditions—we can only do what we are confident we are capable of doing. Protecting our enemy is definitely the most difficult and dangerous thing we can do. It doesn't just speak to our willingness to do it; it also speaks to our martial capability and maturity because there is no higher skill than to subdue an aggressor without killing him.

Operating from the perspective that less is definitely more, when engaging in violence we should employ the least dangerous tactic, in order to conform with the protector ethic. We should take the application of martial tactics as seriously as any mortal threat posed against us. The human body is a complex, if sometimes frail, vessel that can malfunction just as often as it can perform wondrous feats. How an opponent will react in response to grave techniques is often an educated guess. Every year there are an alarming number of scuffles that turn deadly—one-punch knockouts that end up homicides, and this often between untrained people. And let's face it: any physical action we perform may land us in court, since in this polite society, litigiousness is a culling sword, even when folks follow the law and do everything right.

Balancing the ethical-tactical continuum is the best way to increase our ability because it's when we can (or cannot) ethically protect everyone and resolve conflict that tactics become vividly clear. The tactical itself, on its own, is devoid of meaning without orientation—a sword-cutting technique is simply that, a procedure to cut with a sword. The technique gains priority and consequence only when used in fulfilling our protector ethic, which is always moral-physical.

The above is an excerpt from The Protector Ethic: Morality, Virtue and Ethics in the Martial Way by James V. Morganelli