Empathy, Strategy and Moral Injury


In his book Strategy: A History Lawrence Freedman argues that empathy is an important component of strategy, “Empathy involves at least emotional sensitivity to others and at most an ability to understand another’s point of view.” (p. 5) This struck me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the reputation of military strategy in the 19th and 20th centuries as highly rationalistic and empirical in nature. So one wonders if this is, in fact, true.  When I posted this as a discussion point, the reactions were intense and diverse, much more than I expected.

First off, we need to define some terms. Empathy, following Scottish philosopher David Hume (as I do!), is the ability to enter into the sentiments of other persons.  (He calls this the sympathy principle, and sees this as the key to the moral life; one must counter-act natural self-interest and other preferences for those closer to the agent by learning to take up the General Point of View and be moral. Empathy is key to this.)  While this sounds like emotional work, Hume’s view of sentiments includes an emotion component, but also a cognitive component. (See Book III, The Treatise on Human Nature) On this view, one needs to use what we might think of as moral imagination (he does not use this term) to see the sentiments and commitments of others from their point of view, as they would see, think and feel.

This is, I think, fundamentally different from what we think of as sympathy. We typically have sympathy FOR someone and their emotions; if I have sympathy, I have feelings that are similar to those of the person I have sympathy for. My son comes home having seen a dead cat on the road and I have sympathy, in that I have been in that situation and also love cats so I am literally feeling along side him. I am sharing his emotional world as my own. Sympathy is very difficult if there is not already a shared moral world or commitment involved, and is more emotive than cognitive. It also seems to carry a certain kind of approval or endorsement of the feeling involved.

If empathy is important to strategy, I think it must be in the way that Hume suggests. Can I enter into or imagine the sentiments of the other? In the case of my son, I might be able to empathize understanding how much he loves animals, his difficulty with death and his lack of exposure to these kinds of things even if I do not share this emotion. When I punish my son for violating the rules in my house, I can enter into his sentiment of anger or sadness, I can imagine and understand why he might feel that way, even as I do not share that emotion because I think the punishment was entirely fair and just. I can imagine and understand the sentiment (emotion plus belief), but I do not feel it and do not have sympathy.

It seems that an important part of strategic work is being able to enter into the world of the party whose behavior you are trying to influence or respond to.  You must be able into enter into that world from their point of view in order to figure out how to respond and act. If you cannot imagine or enter into their world from their point of view, there is a great danger of importing and impressing your assumptions, commitments and sentiments on the other party. ISIS does not operate with the same assumptions, moral world view or experiences as a US Army Major and it would be a mistake to think so.

In the strategy literature there is an emphasis on self-interest and the idea that humans are rational actors. I tend to be skeptical of this claim, but even if it is true, that does not mean ISIS (or whomever) has the same conceptual framework of what counts as rational.  What one considers rational depends upon many assumptions, ideas and the context and if one fails to understand the starting point, a course of action can seem utterly irrational and so not to be taken seriously. So if one could understand these things from the point of view of the person who holds these views, it seems that it is easier to anticipate how the other party will act and counter-act in response to our actions. (The 2016 Presidential election seems a good case study in this, but I shall not tangent here.)

But empathy, especially for an adversary, is hard and also hard work. It requires emotional and cognitive skills, critical thinking, moral imagination and a willingness to step outside of one’s own world – at least temporarily. But there is also danger. Can empathy shift into sympathy? If it does shift, can that impair one’s ability to engage in strategies and tactics against the party in question. Or even if it does not impair this in the moment, can it produce guilt and moral injury later?

The problem of child soldiers seems a clear case. I can enter into the world of the child soldier, I can imagine the difficult situation they find themselves in and see why they are fighting.  I also have children. If I target this child with lethal force, will I feel like I am targeting my own child? Will I feel guilt because in my worldview, children are not to be combatants, they are to be protected as innocent? Will I be able to kill if it is called for? How will I feel afterwards?

One helpful consideration is that empathy is more relevant at the strategic level, and less so at the tactical level. Another consideration is that the distinction between empathy and sympathy may matter a great deal; empathy may be necessarily and productive, sympathy may be bad and counter-productive, especially in relation to the question of moral injury. How does one engage in empathy and not in sympathy? Does one slide naturally into the other or is it possible to maintain some clear distinction between the two? What does the work of empathy look like in current strategic contexts with high levels of bureaucracy and the dominance of a rational actor model?

Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

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