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The Ethics of Retaliation

by Alia Ismail
February 2018 Alia Ismail
Many people resort to retaliation to protect their own authority. Sometimes, demonstrating authority is necessary. When offended, matching others positions, with “equivalent” positions is a natural right. Yet, conduct in such situations rarely happens within ethical means. While it’s natural to protect one’s rights, and demonstrate one’s authority, it is not necessary to do so in an unethical or ill-timed manner.

One of the main factors that keeps retaliation within ethical limits is timing. Having timed one’s retaliation well could surprisingly protect one’s relationships. Such relationships may not necessarily grow and develop into friendships, but could peacefully co-exist. A good timing makes one come across as less offensive. A good timing usually comes after a number of successive communication notifying the other that one was offended.

Another factor that minimizes the impact of retaliation is equivalence. Matching others behavior with behaviors that are equivalent, meaning, neither more intense, nor less intense, is essential. While matching others behaviors with positions that are more intense could come across as unnecessary aggression, matching with positions that are less aggressive could encourage the other party to continue with violations. With equivalence, a mere deterrence force is created, and that could contribute to the well-being of a future relationship, if retaliation was necessary.

A third factor to keeping the impact of possible retaliations reasonable is communication. When two positions happen to be opposing one another, with the possibility of penetrating the boundary of each other, it is essential to notify the opposite party of the detailed basis of the decision to retaliate, and clarify in depth why stepping on the “toe” of the other or crossing the boundary of the other was necessary. Written or verbal notifications prior to making one’s move are essential to minimize a surprise element creating ineffective hostility.

Some people consider retaliation a form of expression humans need in order to feel safe or adequately heard. As long as one does so with adequate intensity, clear intentions, and transparent communication, damages could be minimized or even avoided. Many times, people justify that necessary positions were taken to protect one’s own interest. Yet, taking positions abruptly, and without notice, should mostly be used only in extreme scenarios, when self-defense is a must, meaning one’s security is under real threat. Only such scenarios could make aggressive retaliations necessary. Yet, that’s rarely the case.

Most healthy long term relationships, involve parties who feel equal. The capacity to reciprocate ensures balance. Yet, reciprocating with ethics, ensures peace. That's why committing to the ethics of retaliation could lead to future reconciliation.

Nevertheless, when one retaliates one should keep in check their value system, lest one violate oneself, and one’s image, before even violating the other. As long as one's intention is clear, and serves the higher good, retaliation could be a tool for peace. This allows retaliation to be exercised while reconciliation remains possible. 

Retaliating adequately and wisely could possibly induce honest conversations, and that's what's required in long term relationships. Yet, excess could easily lead to loss of control. That’s why, what’s required is mindful regulation.


Alia Ismail is an independent dispute resolution professional. She is a non-lawyer mediator and a formerly California licensed financial advisor. Possess a consistent and successful track record for closing deals within the environmental health (Lebanon), financial services (US) and education (US) industries. While in school, and as part of getting trained, mediated and dismissed a few cases at Los Angeles Superior court.

Possess primary local (formerly Lebanon, and latterly US) and secondary international (Europe) education in public administration, business and dispute resolution. Holds an MBA and an MDR from Pepperdine University, a certificate in global enterprise management from Oxford, and a Bachelor’s of Arts in Public Administration from the American University of Beirut.

In the process of establishing a Beirut-based American Lebanese cross-border mediation center to regulate mediation activity within the Middle East, and between the Middle East and the US. Besides mediating commercial disputes, developing a private practice in cultural transformation to instill a culture of ethics and protect the human rights of employees within organizations.

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