The Morality of Retaliation

The concept of tit for tat or an eye for an eye has existed as long as humans have and honestly probably before (the behavior is also seen in other primate species). It feels good to retaliate when you have been wronged, It’s justice! The idea of justice and punishment for one’s transgressions is so beloved there are tons of movies the feed our desire for retribution in eloquent, entreating, and often violent ways. Right now, in your mind run down a quick list of movies that use this trope.  For me, the first that came to mind was John Wick, mostly because it was the MOST outrageous of them all. You see usually there is some major wrongdoing bestowed on the main charter. Their family has been killed, the house burned down, they were made to watch while all the mayhem unfolded, and they themselves were brutalized and left for dead. Yet, somehow, they survived against the odds and its time to even the score. The problem is the score isn’t evened usually the victim kills waaaaay more people and does a disproportional amount of damage in the world compared to what was bestowed onto them. The bad/evil people don’t just get what they deserve they have to get just a skosh more to make it really justice. There are so many good ones Kill Bill, The Punisher, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Revenant, Law Abiding Citizen and on and on and on. I love John Wick because of how clearly the ridiculousness of vengeance is put on display.   In the movie he is beaten, robbed, and his dog is killed, he then goes on a killing spree that is beyond belief using the death of the dog as his main motivation. Yes, because he had to go on living without his dog there are scores of children, wives, mothers, and fathers that never get to see their loved ones again. Makes sense!?  I won’t spoil the end (everything I said here can be gleaned from the trailer) so give it a watch it’s a good time.

What happens when its not a movie? What happens when a Them does the unthinkable and breaks the rules of social hierarchy by not giving you the respect you feel you deserve or some other infraction, it could be legitime wrong or an overreaction due to your personal framework and exaggerated sense of self. Either way, they have to pay or be punished for their actions. Retaliation is almost a reflex reaction activated by our primal brain, I say almost because your reaction will be measured, you may want to yell and hit Tony from accounting but he is 6’ 8” with a solid build so perhaps instead you will bad mouth him to others and sabotage some of his projects. So, no not totally a reflex reaction, the adrenaline, and hormones that course through your body want a fight but the cognitive and reasoning part of the brain recognizes the consequences, so the battle is fought in more subtle and safe ways. To the victim this is about self-preservation, to protect ourselves and our kind.

Again, the mentality and actions generated are a part of the spectrum of human behavior and not unique to any group or race of people. These situations occur on a daily basis for major and for the most frivolous of reasons. The vitriol of these types of interactions is amplified when there is an Us/Them scenario involved. In the last post, I talked about how we humans will create diminished versions of people so that we can dismiss their humanity.  This makes them easy to label as evil and justifies them punishing them in any way we see fit. In ways that fulfill our need for retribution and retaliation no matter how extreme. This is a horrible situation when it is on an individual basis, but it is much worse when the group gets together to form a mob to unleash punishment to all of Thems that is long overdue. People will excuse violence brought against those who have done nothing to them in retaliation to some perceived wrong. They will abandon their morals and core principles giving themselves over to vengeance and the mob mentality.  Just look back a few months to the storming of the capital earlier this year. Conservatives had looked down on the violence of the riots that occurred during some of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests. Everywhere you turned there were BLM (Blue Lives Matter) posters and comments, mentions of how violent mob action is not the way a democracy works, and lots of talk about making America great. Yet on the day in question, many of those “values” ceased to exist. The rioters stormed the Capital, one of the oldest symbols of our democracy. They brutally assaulted the capital police, we’re demanding that our legitimate and democratically elected president not be allowed to take his post, and they  threatened the lives of the elected officials that were presiding over the proceedings. Blue lives did not matter, democracy did not matter, the only thing that mattered was that they had been tit upon and now it was time for some major tatting! Morals, justice, and the concepts of common human decency evaporate the moment the Thems approach the pedestal that the ingroup resides on, how dare they…

This article is a part of a series focused on the analysis and origins of hate: 

1. What Is Hate? Published 01.14.20217. Us vs. Them Published 03.11.21
2. So, What’s The Plan? Published 01.21.20218. Love Published 03.18.21
3. How to Make Mutant Published 01.28.20219. The exaggeration of SELF published 03.25.21
4. Don’t Take it Personal Published 02.04.2110. Respect Published 04.01.21
5. Social Darwinism Published 02.25.2111. How it Should Be Published 04.15.21
6. Selective Breeding Published 03.04.21 


  1. Beck, A. T. (2000). Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (1st ed.). Harper Perennial.
  2. Christakis, N. A. (2020). Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (Reprint ed.). Little, Brown Spark.
  3. Harari, Y. N. (2018). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Reprint ed.). Harper Perennial.

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