Beyond the Limits of Empathy

by Miki Kashtan

Can empathy serve as a reliable guide to action? David Brooks, in his recent article “The Limits of Empathy,” suggests that empathy is no guarantee that caring action will take place. Participants in Milgram’s famous 1950s experiments willingly inflicted what they thought were near-lethal electric shocks despite suffering tremendously. Nazi executors early in the war wept while killing Jews. And yet those strong feelings didn’t stop them. Why does this happen?

Empathy, Shame, and Fear
I have been haunted for years by this great puzzle, reading, thinking, and writing about it. Brooks suggests that “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.” My investigations lead me to think that “a sense of duty” is part of the problem, not the solution. A sense of duty usually gets instilled in us through fear and shame, leading us to act based on external considerations while doubting our own intuitive heart response. Who of us won’t remember times when despite being moved to do something caring we didn’t because of fear? Jason Marsh, in his response to Brooks, retells the story of Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s research findings about the empathic values on which rescuers – people who saved Jews during the Holocaust – were raised. The Oliners also point out that rescuers tended to be raised with little punishment. When there is no punishment, there is less shame and fear, and more willingness and capacity to honor our empathic inclinations.

Overriding Empathy
I carry with me, with some tenderness and horror, the story of a man I know who, at 7, delightedly told his science teacher that he had captured a special insect. His teacher asked him to put the insect in alcohol and bring it to school. The insect, meanwhile, had other designs. Struggling for its life, it repeatedly attempted to climb out of the alcohol, and succeeded in doing so several times before it was finally drowned. All this time the child was shaking as he struggled to overcome his aversion to inflicting further damage on the insect. In the name of contributing to science and obeying his teacher, he set his feelings aside. As an adult, he said: “I never questioned my actions, only my feelings.”

Being from Israel, I wanted to understand this dilemma in the context of the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli Jewish soldiers. Director Ido Sela, in his gripping 1993 documentary Testimonies (a short version of which is available on youtube), interviewed soldiers who shot Palestinians, subjected them to prolonged physical torture, or killed them during the first Intifada. They spoke of the same difficulty. Despite a felt sense of trauma from having inflicted harm on others they continued to do so. The most common reasons that allowed them to ignore, overcome, or numb out their empathic responses to the people they harmed were fear of consequences to them; doing what they were told to do; or believing it was the right thing to do. Only one person described an incident when he likened his own daughter to the children he was facing, and stopped short of harming them.

Writer David Grossman, a Lt. Colonel in the US Army, studied extensively what makes people overcome the natural aversion to killing that was discovered after World War I. In On Killing, he demonstrates repeatedly that US Army training focused on reducing access to empathic response by numbing and desensitizing trainees, thereby increasing the shooting rate from 10-20% in earlier wars to 80 and 90% in later wars. The cost, he warns us, is unprecedented massive trauma to war veterans as well as to the nation that sent them to war.

Trusting Human Nature
If we believe that humans are fundamentally evil and unruly, or at best plain old selfish, a view which still underlies most of the institutions we have in place, we will naturally want to control, shame, and punish our children into being “good” and insist on obedience to a strong code of behavior, thereby prolonging human suffering on this planet. As more and more of us trust our children and our own humanity, we will engage empathically enough with children and adults, allowing all of us to find and act on our own empathy without fear. I long to live to see that day.


5 thoughts on “Beyond the Limits of Empathy

  1. Archana Sankaran

    Hi Miki,

    Great to know you are going to be in India in Jan next year. I would like to email you about possibilities of training near where I live. What would be your email address please.

    Archana (

  2. arnina kashtan

    My dear dear sister

    Again and again I am not only deeply touched by your heart and mind, but by the way you bring your message out.
    I love how you weave together your own words, passion and ideas, with existing "data" which makes it all the more compelling and moving (in both senses – emotionally and action-wise).
    I bless the God who created us in the form of

  3. Liz Wiener

    Thank you for your answer to David Brook's take on empathy. It is good to answer these statements (especially when they are published in the NY Times as facts about human behavior) with a different and more loving perspective.

  4. Ron G

    Miki, I see the "sense of duty" as being related to carrying out my worldly responsibilities. I have not always felt this way, but more and more I experience fulfillment and joy from acting on these responsibilities. Here is what Rabindranath Tagore said on the theme: "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.&

  5. Sarah Proechel

    These are profound reflections. If empathy is our natural state then we should theoretically be able to resurrect it and bring it to the fore somehow even after it has been crushed by life's experiences. I am left with the question, how to do that in myself and especially in others who aren't even aware of what they have lost? Is providing empathy to the lost soul the best way/only way


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