May 02

Imagine you are a sniper and in your scope you see the person who, completely unaware of your presence, is about to die after you pull the trigger. If in the moment before you pulled the trigger you thought how hard this person’s death would be on his family, his newborn son, his ailing mother, and his best friend… could you easily pull that trigger?

Or in another scenario, you are a Marine clearing houses, and you enter a house where everyone in the room is dead other than a 10 year old girl who’s family, in an instant, was taken from her. If you stopped and really felt the pain she must be experiencing and the challenges she is about to face for the rest of her life, could you easily enter the next house and do it all over again?

I think the answer to both these questions is “no.” What I am addressing in these scenarios is the emotion of empathy and I do not think it is possible to remain empathetic and do what needs to done on the battlefield. I don’t think the sniper could pull that trigger over and over again and also feel for the families and lives he is about to impact. I think the empathetic Marine is a Marine who will hesitate, and if you hesitate you will die. If you don’t believe me on this one, find a Marine and ask them the question “what would happen if you hesitated in a combat situation?” I guarantee you they will say “you will die.” As a short term strategy, for one’s survival and ability to do what needs to be done, cutting off one’s capacity for empathy is an incredibly useful and effective skill. I would also argue that this ability is more of a necessity than a skill.

However, there is a problem with this in the long run and it has to do with the idea that when a behavior gets paired with one’s survival it becomes very difficult to stop engaging in that behavior. For example, if the behavior is “not empathizing” and the effect is “my survival” the inverse of this becomes “empathy is dangerous.”  So imagine the soldier who comes home to family, friends, and a community with the ability to empathize hidden behind a wall of survival. Can you imagine how hard would it be to function in life? Or, how hard it would be to live with this person?

Today’s blog will not be about my answers to the questions above. Instead I  request that you consider a question and comment back to me with your answers. Here’s the question: Over the next week I would like you to contemplate the impact on your life and the people around you if you lost the capacity for empathy. What would the impact be if you stopped engaging in the emotion of empathy?

(For a good definition of empathy go here:

In a week’s time I will pull together the comments and generate a follow-up blog with your thoughts and ideas…

“See” you next week…

One Response to “The Loss of Empathy”

  1. robert dowling says:

    i think the loss of empathy is a place where the terms self interest and selfish blend together. selfish is what you do for your self at the cost to someone else, as in survival, and self interest is where you do what is good for you but not at the expense of someone else. self interest is thought of as a good thing by society and selfish is not. however if a soldier is not completely selfish about his own self interest the cost to him or her could be death. the reconciliation between people in battle and people at home cannot exist. the warrior has to do what they have to do to survive and we have no right to ask them what that means unless they want to tell us. the concept of empathy is irrelevant when in a combat situation.

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