#15 Moral Reasoning and Conflict


In this blog, I further explore last week’s topic of moral reasoning in conflict.

When people are in conflict they justify retaliatory behaviour as appropriate. As each party reactively retaliates they engage in behaviour they would otherwise consider inappropriate. This response pattern seems to be prevalent and almost automatic in many cultures including the West. Why?

“The practice of retaliation is a problem for the world because it sustains many personal and international conflicts. Trying to understand it is important.

In the last blog I explored how advanced moral reasoning sometimes condones actions that are otherwise prohibited. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg used the example of stealing. If breaking and entering a closed pharmacy is the only way to acquire the medicine necessary to save someone’s life, it becomes not only acceptable but advisable. The decision to steal is appropriately reached because human life is valued more than property.

I have suggested that in conflict our advanced capacity for complex moral reasoning described by Kohlberg becomes misused as ‘moral rationalization’. Actions that we would normally view as inappropriate are explained away as appropriate in the conflict context. “I don’t care what the contract says. He won’t complete the job, so I am not going to pay him for any of the work he has done.” In this example the requirement to complete a job is viewed as trumping the payment terms of a contract, but the strength of the reasoning behind taking an action that will cause harm is much less robust than in Kohlberg’s example.

Misapplication of complex moral reasoning is one possible contributor to the prevalence of retaliation. Another possible explanation is our collective sense of justice.


Quote by Gordon White on moral reasoning: "Forced confinement is normally a crime but as a response by the justice system to harm done, incarceration is institutionalized and accepted."


Retaliation and revenge are important and fully institutionalized aspects of the criminal justice system, right up to the death penalty for certain crimes in some jurisdictions. The criminal justice system doles out pain; for example, if you steal a valuable item and are caught, you will be incarcerated. If you drive after consuming alcohol and injure someone you may have your license revoked.

This practice runs deep into our psyches and is the core of what is understood to be justice. Forced confinement is normally a crime but as a response by the justice system to harm done, incarceration is institutionalized and accepted.

It seems that this deeply held societal sense of justice is mirrored in our personal sense of justice. Once we feel that we have been treated badly, we often feel that retaliation is appropriate. Within our own conflicts we take on the role of judge and jury and then dole out what we consider as an appropriate response, which is often retaliatory. On a subjective level our response seems reasonable. We may not even consider how the other party will experience our response, and what the consequences will be. Worst of all, we feel righteous about our actions.

A mutual diminishment in the quality of collective behaviour creates a downward spiral.  Each party feels the other does not deserve to be treated with normal considerations and each contributes to the other responding in that manner.

This blog is the beginning of an exploration of what drives our tendency to retaliate. Being aware of this human tendency can lead us to actions that are more considered and more considerate. In my experience once a dispute has escalated, parties often have to be willing to give each other the benefit of doubt on some points in order to resolve it.

For information about alternative forms of justice, read my blog by clicking here.


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