Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Two Cheers for Empathy

Sentimentality may be a poor guide to morals, but so is triage.

The young man was about 19 years old (statistically likely to be his age in that particular setting) and looked like a normal corn-fed, albeit uniformed, Iowa farm boy. He was smiling, although without much mirth, at the camera. Apart from one detail, he belonged on a recruitment poster showing a wholesome young man defending his nation. It was that detail that drew my attention. Around his neck was a necklace of human ears. The ears were of various sizes but it’s not possible to be sure what the age or sex of their owners was. Given my other historical knowledge of the setting, it is unlikely that they were all combatants.

In the context of Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum in Hanoi, this photograph is far from the most shocking exhibit, but for one reason or another, it has stuck with me. Given the Iowa lad’s age, he had probably not been in combat for long. I doubt that he had shown signs of incipient human ear-collecting at the school he had just left, and I am sure that few, if any, of his comrades, had either. It seems unlikely that typical signs of psychopathy (such as cruelty to animals) had been endemic either in his past or in those of his comrades. Psychopaths are rare and do not make good soldiers anyway. They don’t have their comrades’ backs.

I’m not taking sides in this conflict or singling this out as an atrocity beyond all others. My reaction then was part psychological interest—that is my job. I have spent much of my professional life around youngsters of late teenage. Now I spend it around clinicians and forensic psychologists who deal with the fall-out of behaviors like this, or of people (such as warlords) who deliberately try to generate behaviors like this in others, including children. Back then, however, I found myself wanting to have this lad in front of me so I could ask him to walk me through the process of transformation that took him from Iowa farm boy to human trophy-hunter in the process of maybe six months.

A month ago, I got part of my answer. It was given in an interview with Private 1st Class John Musgrave of Fairmount Missouri. 3rd Marine division, for the recent documentary, The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. A remarkable piece of filmmaking, this 10-part series uses new archive footage and interviews with previously unheard voices from all parties in that terrible conflict. In episode five, here is what Pt. John Musgrave had to say:

“My hatred for them was pure. Pure. I hated them so much—and I was so scared of them, boy I was terrified of them. And the scareder I got, the more I hated them…I only killed one human being in Vietnam, and that was the first man that I ever killed. I was sick with guilt about killing that guy and thinking ‘I’m going to keep having to do this for the next 13 months, and I’m going to go crazy.’ Then I saw a marine step on a ‘Bouncing Betty’ mine, and that’s when I made my deal with the devil. And I said ‘I will never kill another human being as long as I live in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find, I’ll wax as many dinks as I can find, I’ll smoke as many zips as I can find, but I ain’t going to kill anybody.’ Turn a subject into an object. It’s racism 101. It turns out to be a very necessary tool—when you have children fighting your wars—for them to stay sane during their work.”

What sense can psychologists, or non-specialists for that matter, make of this clearly-expressed set of psychological changes that Musgrave gives? A natural thought, well-expressed by David Livingstone-Smith (1), is that a process of dehumanizing has occurred. At least since the second world war, social psychologists and anthropologists have been documenting a variety of mechanisms that help understand the processes involved. We run them by our first-year psychology students. Conformity to group norms—even when those norms are grotesque.(2) Obedience to authority—even when that authority is immoral. (3) In-group loyalty generated by (for example) rituals. Out-groups and the dehumanization of same through stereotyping, caricature, racism, and other mechanisms. (4)

This picture—of mechanisms that change our perception of fellow humans into potential targets of evil behaviour—has recently been challenged by cognitive scientist Paul Bloom, who worries (along with philosopher Kate Manne) that such talk runs the risk of lessening our sense of the moral responsibility of evil-doers. “The idea of rapists as monsters exonerates by caricature,” he quotes her as saying, going on to approvingly cite her analysis of the murderer Eliot Rodger, of who she says objectification of women (and his male victims, presumably?) was not the issue, entitlement, and a host of other evils, was. (5)

Bloom, as evidenced by the title of his latest book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, is concerned at the misuse of empathy as a moral guideline. (6) He sees it as “innumerate and biased” and is guided, as are all consequentialists, by a sense that morality should reduce to rational principles or, at least, a certain conception of rationality.

For at least 2,500 years, moral philosophers have pursued the goal of being able to chide the immoral on pain of irrationality to behave better. Bloom’s latest attempt to banish empathy from the role-call of moral motivators is not an especially radical one. Much fun was made of Kant when he thought that love could be commanded by a rational will, Mill mused whether an artificial moral engine could replace human ethics. The trouble is that caring about other humans at all is not entirely rational. Why should we expect it to be? The consequentialist is aghast that humans could be so partisan as to prefer one human over another. However, they take it as axiomatic that humans are of value. But what happens if someone comes along and challenges even that, as David Benatar, the renowned (or notorious) anti-natalist, recently did on Sam Harris’ podcast? Benatar thinks that we should all just give up, stop reproducing and let the species die. It is not at all obvious, from a platform of “pure rationality” what can be said to him. (7)

Bloom is not wrong that empathy can be misused, manipulated, and be always subject to one of the many ways in which moral thought can become corrupted, namely sentimentalism. He ably documents many instances of this. But, it is less obvious that the ethics of triage (which is what consequentialism amounts to) should be our primary model for understanding how humans relate to each other as beings of value. Here is one reason why: Humans, in moral relations to one another (such as love), are not replaceable. This is not hard to see. Imagine offering a bereaved person an exact facsimile of their lost love (a long-lost identical twin raised in appropriate circumstances perhaps) and see if, even in your mind’s eye, such an act could be regarded as anything other than grotesque. Imagine a bereaved person telling you that they are “right as rain now” having found someone who exactly replaces that loved one they lost last week. Would you be impressed by their rationality or horrified at their inhumanity? Blade Runner 2049 explored precisely this scenario in a sci-fi setting and I am suggesting that it’s not accidental that humans typically explore their moral landscapes in rich, layered, character-driven stories, rather than in the sterile medium of trolley problems.

Humans are individuals, and I am suggesting that this is an irreducible element of their moral value. One could no more be in love with a replaceable unit than one could be in love with an appliance (fetishists aside). Bloom is suspicious of the idea that evil-doers dehumanize their victims, thinking that they still see those victims as having a complete rundown of the properties of members of the set: Homo Sapiens. Philosophers spend a lot of time and energy on compiling lists of properties of this sort. But, it is less obvious that the things that Bloom says about the misuses of empathy have similar force about de-individuation. Consequentialists are suspicious of individuation, worried perhaps that it opens the door to valuing some humans more than others and hence undermining the whole moral calculus that they wish to build. But what are they attempting to build it on? If individuality has no value, then billions of it have no value either.

However, a bit of reflection on what private John Musgrave had to say should open the possibility that it is not so simple and that consequentialism may be inadequate to capturing the sense of moral seriousness we need. Musgrave was not “sick with guilt” over transgressing a moral principle—who would be? He was struck with remorse in a way inextricably linked to the individuality of the person he killed. He was haunted by a face, a uniquely individuating characteristic, which I think is also no accident. Musgrave’s subsequent language—and one assumes, thought process—de-individuate (“gooks”, “zips” etc) so that he can still kill without individuals figuring in his actions. This matters because it is a non-accidental feature of moral seriousness that we think about a wronged individual. Bloom misses this because of his focus on the possible failings of empathy (namely sentimentalism, or the cynical manipulation of our emotions) causes him to throw out individuality with the sentimental bathwater.

Would we think that Musgrave was a morally more serious person had he said any of the following: “I realized that, at that moment, I had failed to maximise the greatest good for the greatest number!” Or even “I spent the rest of the war haunted by the realization that I had violated that man’s human rights”? It is not uncommon when talking to non-psychopaths who have killed, to hear that the first kill stays with them, as Musgrave stated it. That individual never leaves him. Mechanisms cut in (in some) to preserve the person’s sanity, and their sense of being a good person, in the teeth of the horrible reality of their actions. Some never recover from this. Some recover only partially.

Musgrave knew that those “gooks” he killed had hopes, desires, dreams. He knew that they were fully paid up members of the Homo Sapiens club, with all the attendant properties a biologist or psychologist could document. What he denied them was a certain sort of content. Being fully human in another’s eyes (being subject as well as object) is not simply a matter of having a checklist of those capacities. To see someone as human means to see them as an individual. This is ruled out of court by consequentialist philosophy and I think it lies at the root of Bloom’s rejection of empathy as a false semblance of morality. The trouble is, replacing with consequentialism is not going to satisfy either.

Consequentialism, as a moral theory, is a theory about what someone is permitted to take morally seriously and this rules out one sense of humanity, not the technical question of whether someone makes it into the club of Homo Sapiens (or maybe a wider circle). The sense it rules out is the recognition of individuality which can hit us as a shock, especially when we destroy that individuality in some way. To dehumanize, in this sense at least, is not to deny that the person is human. It is to deny that humanity a particular meaning.


1) Smith, D. L. (2011). Less than human: Why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others. St. Martin's Press

2) Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal, 193, 17-26.

3) Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67(4), 371.

4) Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). "An integrative theory of intergroup conflict". In W. G. Austin &
S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole

Sherif, M.; Harvey, O.J.; White, B.J.; Hood, W. & Sherif, C.W. (1961). Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, OK: The University Book Exchange. pp. 155–184.


6) Bloom, P. (2017). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. Random House.

7) Benatar, D. (2008). Better never to have been: the harm of coming into existence. Oxford University Press.

8) At another point Musgrave says: “I want to make this clear. We did not torture prisoners and we did not mutilate them. [pauses and looks down] But to be a prisoner you had to make it to the rear, you know? If he fell into our hands, he was just one sorry fucker. [long pause] I don’t know how to explain it that it would make sense.”
I hope it is obvious that I do not feel in any position to pass judgement on Musgrave. It is not my place to do so. His clarity and honesty in revealing this element of human nature is shocking precisely because he is obviously not a monster.

A Bouncing Betty is fragmentation mine that bursts at waist level throwing out hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in all directions.