Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Walk a mile in Omar's shoes

  1. May 16, 2007 #1
    Walk a mile in Omar’s shoes

    Homicide, the most egregious moral infraction possible, becomes common place in war. It seems to me that we take such homicides in war all too lightly.

    When we see a mother weeping over the death of her child, caused by a suicide bomber, we feel immediate sympathy; often we will come to tears. But we do not easily feel sympathy for the mother who may be weeping over the death of her child—the bomber.

    To understand the bomber we must use empathy. We attempt, through imagination and reason, to create an analogy that will allow us to understand why another behaves as s/he does. Empathy is a character trait that can be cultivated by habit and will. Sympathy is somewhat of an automatic emotional response.

    The lack of understanding between our foe and our self can transform an argument or misunderstanding into a war of mass homicide. Using a quote from “To Kill A Mockingbird”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

    Empathy can prevent war and it can help win a war. Empathy can help us understand our political opponent so that we can reason together. Empathy is a rational means for reaching a solution to our problem.

    Questions for discussion

    Do we always want to prevent war or to understand our political opponent?

    Do we want to win a war badly enough to empathize with our foe?

    Do we want to use reason when fighting is so much more fun?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 16, 2007 #2


    User Avatar

    We feel sorry because we see her sorrow and negative feelings, and because it seems to me people always put themselves in the place of the lesser being.

    In a famous experiment in psychology research, participants watched a video of two black triangles, a circle, and a large rectangle moving around. Eventually, they all created the same story out of it, and sympathized and felt bad for the smaller triangle. The circle was the smaller triangle's friend, and the big triangle was a bully figure.
  4. May 16, 2007 #3


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Since there's nothing we can do for the person who's been blown and/or others - up - there is only the avenue of preventing this sort of behavior. That is, if we feel the suicide bombing and the effects are to be stopped.

    This brings us to a conflict of ideals. The people supporting and perpetrating the suicide bomb and bomber want an explosion in a public place. It serves their purpose and ideals.

    Yet, generally, the majority of other people do not want an explosion in a public place. This is for various ideals and reasons that, being in a majority, should logically supercede the ideals and purposes of those in the minority who are instigating the explosion in the public place.

    Whether there is a solution wrought by the majority or there is a solution brought about by other concerns, it is natural that the majority or the "weight" of opinion would bring about an end to the behavior.

    The solution may not entail military intervention or it might. It may not require 160,000 people to attain peace. It may only take 10. The answer will be clear when the goal of peace in a public place is attained.
  5. May 16, 2007 #4
    I empathize with a person not to give approval or to condone the actions of that person, but to create a means whereby their actions have meaning to me. When their actions become meaningful to me I can thus walk in their shoes and perhaps through such empathy I will be able to act in a way that will improve the situation in which both that person and I am involved.

    Empathy is the first step to comprehending and thus to solving situations in which I find my self. Ignorance is generally not bliss; ignorance is not the path to peace, harmony, or freedom.
  6. May 16, 2007 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    A suicide bomber is the product of religious brain washing, no education and an impoverished family. This is not hard to empathize with. The people that pose a bit more of a problem in terms of empathic projection are the people who set the suicide bomber up to carry out the dirty work of their cowardly handlers.

    The handlers are the people who are making up all the reasons for the attack against their own neighbors and other targets. What their motivation is is anyone's guess. It takes a lot of investigation and even then the motivation can escape you.

    The empathy you have for the suicide bomber's handlers will be based on assumptions that may be, but probably are not, true. This is because the nature of the handler is to never be caught, never be blown-up and never be interviewed by you or anyone else. So your empathy, again, is based on nebulous assumption. And that will have little effect on a situation except in how it makes you feel about it.
  7. May 16, 2007 #6

    Empathy demands knowledge for success. In fact acquiring the knowledge about the other person is a big part of the effort.

    Empathy is a character trait that is valuable for our day-to-day life also. It is not just to prevent war or to help win a war; it is about understanding our neighbor or our boss or our kids or our parents. It is about some of the things that humans can do to facilitate harmony in the society. The habit of empathy is vital to our survival.
  8. May 16, 2007 #7
    It could be also a desire to sacrifice their lives for something greater than themselves. I never heard of educated or wealthy people doing something that noble - just check the US army.

    Come on, this can't be that difficult: it must be a desire for power, a desire for a better world, or some combination of the two.

    I know it's hard to imagine how blowing up a building full of civilians can be the result of the desire for a better world. Especially since we know that we can only make a better world by blowing up buildings full of civilians in someone else's country :mad:
  9. May 16, 2007 #8


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    You assume there are only two motives where there are many possibilities for motives. One motive could be to justify an occupation, offering a strong, wreckless resistance where there was none to begin with.
    Another is that this kind of activity destablized a population and keeps them out of the way while other "work" is attended to. There are more but you must get what I'm saying by now.
    Last edited: May 16, 2007
  10. May 17, 2007 #9
    Why would you care about any one of the casualities in any given war?
  11. May 17, 2007 #10
    Have any of you been ever oppresseed? Doubt that. Just like us talking about hunger yet we have never been hungry in our lives. Have you ever fought to survive in any sense of the word? NO! Ok, lets stop this uninformed opinions which are totally clueless. As a person who had experienced and continues to go to places where this is definitelly every minute reality I can tell you that its beyond and above aspiration of any philosophical imagination.

    To be more constructive in my criticism allow me to reverse the question: In what condition any of you can imagine you would do what you now consider "crazy", without "justification". Would you kill for food, would you blow up your oppressors, would you rip the heart out of someone who executed your entire family infront of your eyes, etc I can go on and on.

    Either one says we are stronger we have right to oppress and then dont talk when someone fights back with any and all means, one day they will be stronger and the opposite will be true. Or we realize that oppressing is wrong and we stop that and then we will see if someone will fight back against us stopping oppression. Surelly, ridiculous. Hmm, this is politics and have little to do with philosophy appart from admition or not that we are oppressors or not and thinking if its ok or not.
  12. May 17, 2007 #11
    Sneez.. When you become involved, of course, it becomes more personal... I would say that you agree that someone's personality involves emotion? The more important things that stick out in my mind, atleast, are covered in emotion. Emotion defies logical structure because it’s very personal and it seems very hard to explain very radical changes in thought for however long one may feel different (not to mention, that the whole problem involves brain chemistry that most people don't even consider when they make decisions).
  13. May 17, 2007 #12
    I do not undestand your point. And on the contrary emotion is the very essense of ones experience, no one can experience anything without emotion associated to it, not even logic can be experienced without emotion. Hence, If you never experienced hunger hardly will you ever be able to feel for someone who is hungry to the point of agony.

    What did you try to say...?
    Last edited: May 17, 2007
  14. May 17, 2007 #13
    The truth is that most of us care about those close to us and our intensity of caring diminishes as we move out from our family. However, I think that the more we practice the character trait of empathy the more value we will begin to place on people beyond our immediate family.

    Practically speaking I think that we have developed a technology that can quickly destroy the species and we can no longer afford the luxury of ignorance and apathy that has characterized the past.

    Empathy is the strongest first step we can make to stop our destruction.
  15. May 18, 2007 #14
    Sneez.. Your ideas may not apply to everyone.
    Re-read what you quoted me on because I believe that we're on the same page.

    I believe that variables found in thought will constantly regress.. Far from any solution that one may be looking for. Personally I believe that its because of insecurities like jealousy, paranoia, anxiety, etc.. On the other hand though, I believe its also entertaining.
  16. May 18, 2007 #15


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Strange to put both of those in one question. Clearly, preventing war is not always the most desirable of the available options. But clearly it is necessary to understand your adversary.
    Though the word "empathy" includes understanding, it has an emotional connotation. I prefer simply understanding. I have no desire or need to actually be able to feel their emotions. In fact, such a thing can be counterproductive as it allows emotion to get in the way of reason. Stockholm syndrom seems to me to be an example of that.
    As I said above, I don't believe empathy is necessarily rational. Feelings aren't necessarily rational, so even if you understand their basis, that doesn't make the understanding rational.
    Feeling sympathy for the parent of someone who died (suicide bomber or not) doesn't have anything to do with feeling sympathy or empathy for the bomber. The mother committed no crime - the bomber did.

    Huh? Fun? Who thinks war is fun? I don't see what using reason has to do with fighting being fun - you seem to imply that people would rather fight. I don't believe that is true.
    Last edited: May 18, 2007
  17. May 18, 2007 #16


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    There is a moral principle that two wrongs do not make a right. Our legal system incorporates it. Previous abuse is a common trait among serial killers, for example, but it does not - nor should it - keep them out of the gas chamber.

    Being abused/oppressed yourself does not provide a justification for committing your own crimes.

    Your examples are stark and complicated, but they do not fit the typical situation faced by suicide bombers. The bombings virtually never target a specific abuser and virtually never hold an immediate benefit for the bomber or their family outside of the financial reward often given by terrorist organizations.
  18. May 18, 2007 #17


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Can you explain that? What emotions are required to add 1 and 1 to get 2? Logic is almost by definition devoid of emotion.
    Why not? I've never been shot, but I can empathize/sympathize with someone who has. In fact, logic in this case drives the emotion, not the other way around. I know from facts I've seen/read, that it is a painful/destructive thing and I can sympathize with that. Heck, how many people that cried at Titanic ever had friends/family die in a shipwreck?
  19. May 18, 2007 #18


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    I've never before thought of empathy as a voluntary response. When you see a given person in visible anguish, you either feel for her or you don't. That's probably something you either learn or fail to learn pretty early in life and have no conscious control over.

    The more interesting question would regard how societies-at-large control and disseminate information about their enemies in order to dull or suppress the empathic response that citizens would have to images and stories in the absence of background information. I'd think there is also an interesting question regarding the differing responses to descriptions, still images, moving images, and live witnessing of tragic human events. In fact, I'd go so far as to hypothesize that we'd see a direct spectrum of inverse relation from one pole to the other of analytic distance and immediate emotional impact.
  20. May 18, 2007 #19

    Sympathy is an emotional and thus automatic response. Empathy is different. It requires a great deal of effort and is an act of will. It is a character trait that must be developed by habitual effort.

    Society generaly does all kinds of propogandy efforts to dehumanize the enemy during war. This is directed at stoping such things as empathy.
  21. May 19, 2007 #20
    first off when you get bullets flying over your head the 'fun' disappears real quick, that sounds like a childs mindset. next, once you kill someone you'll always have it in that back of your head and if it isn't a 'justifiable' killing, whatever that is, you'll always have to wonder if you might get caught or trip up and break down. the real problem is when someone becomes so numb they don't care enough to give it a second thought. i've seen teenagers-young adults gung ho to get enlisted just so they can shoot someone, i say sign them up as fast as possible and once they have to shoot back or be killed you can bet 99.99% won't be bragging about it when they get back home, if they get back, the other 0.01% need to move into that type of job and stay in the line of fire. personally i wouldn't shoot someone unless i felt my life or someone i cared for life was in danger. it really isn't a gun problem either, it's a people err person problem.
  22. Jun 2, 2007 #21
    Children being killed
    Forget about the mothers whose children are bombers for a second. We don't even consider the mothers of the children who are shot in the head in 'passing.'

    Perhaps more justified but completely out of balance, children are killed for throwing stones at an invading tank.

    There are those that use these deaths to gain sympathy, to demonize, or justify them, but do we think of simply the children themselves and their families? When we assess a situation it is important to put ourselves in the shoes of the people of every side subject to that situation.

    The fact is, we don't empathize with children who are not of our own - often if they are Arab they are 'soon to be terrorists' anyway. Hence compare the response to missing Madeleine (I am not saying that her being missing is not a tragedy) and then the 1000s of killed children in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or abused in Thailand, and other places of the world. We just see them as a statistic rather than individuals whose lives are affected. We should aim for a world where no child is suffering, whether in Iraq, America, Brazil, Israel, Russia, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world and each child who does, counts as our failure.

    I myself become indifferent sometimes... its so wrong...

    Noble Soldiers
    Soldiers should be from the most noble in society. This way they will be ruthless only in the instance when the purpose they are fighting for is right, and only against oppression; for this is the only instance when fighting has good in it. They will not rape women, or kill children, or humiliate the people, or destroy buildings unnecessarily nor will they be racist.

    No one will blame the man who kills someone who is attacking his wife and children. And the man would not be unjustifiably ruthless, nor will he try to steal the wallet from the attacker. In the same way, soldiers should have their clear aims and purpose.

    When soldiers are sexually abusing the women in their own army, there is something wrong.

    Sorry for the rant...
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2007
  23. Jun 2, 2007 #22


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    if this is your definition of empathy, then I agree with what you have trying to get at. there is always a reason for everything and knowing the reason(s) is the best way to solve the problem. The only problem (whether it is the Middle East conflict, Iraq, racism...etc.) is that even if we know the cause, we are often not ready to do the right thing to rectify it. eg. suicide bombers expressing their disagreement with the west via killing themselves and others, western worlds in turn strike back with invasions and their "anti-terrorism" campaign... . it may lead you to ask the question: do we really know the cause? Do ppl in powers really understand what was going through the mind of the suicide bomber or their organisation? Or is it just the case that we do know but we tend to ignore it simply because we are so concerned about "empire building" (as some call it) and economic growth? There is no clear answers to these. however, one thing is clear, both sides have probably not done the right thing in ending the bloodshed.

    coberst, it is not just about knowing the cause, but also knowing the consequences. Ppl are relunctant to yield not just because they are selfish (although in many cases, they are), but the fear that their opponent will bite back instead of showing gratitude towards your kind concession, and ultimately trying to gain the ascendency. In the world of politics, "empathy" is regarded as a weakness. I guess, it is then not surprising that there are so many conflicts in the world. :frown:
  24. Jun 2, 2007 #23

    I think that if we had a law that only persons over the age of forty can be soldiers we would change our world for the better.
  25. Jun 2, 2007 #24

    You are correct. Few people comprehend the nature and the power of empathy. Perhaps we should, each one of us, make an effort to inform others about the nature and power of empathy. If we did that each one of us could make a small difference and if enough of us took on this responsiblilty we could make a great difference.

    "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
    Margaret Mead/
  26. Jun 2, 2007 #25


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    This is not a new concern. It has clear racist underpinnings, that everyone of a particular race or from a particular area is to blame for the decisions and actions of a subset of that population. I'm sure it has been an issue for all wars, but I'm personally aware of it from the Korean conflict. I had an uncle who was killed in action there, so never got to meet him in person or discuss it with him, but my grandmother shared with me some of what he wrote in his letters home. In one of those letters, he reminded the family, "Don't blame the children." This apparently was an issue, an assumption that the children are all part of the same society so just as bad as everyone else, and he was reminding them that the children are the innocents, losing their parents and growing up orphans, and just as hurt and traumatized as the kids back home would be by such an experience.

    Then again, I'm not sure it's so much empathy as sympathy. How can one empathize with someone over an experience far worse than anything they've ever experienced? I can have sympathy for those growing up in areas of conflict, but I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be raised in the presence of constant fear, instability, not knowing if you can even go shopping at the market without being blown up, hearing the noise of tanks rumbling down your streets, etc. This is far beyond my experiences, so difficult to empathize. I do understand on a rational level that is must be extremely difficult to have one's childhood spent in such a way, and is likely to have lasting impacts on them long into adulthood, and can sympathize that they have to grow up this way, but really can't fully know how they feel.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook