An Essay on Murder and Empathy

Murder. It is a dirty word. To take a life is regarded as one of the gravest crimes one can commit. It is a capital sin. Yet, people kill. Why is it that something universally regarded as “bad” among human beings is still so common? What brings people to kill, what goes on in their heads? At times I wonder…

To kill is to kill oneself

The first thing we must evaluate is the reason behind the ethical rule that states killing someone is a bad thing. What is it that makes killing repulsive?

Once again, it comes down to the Principle of General Normality: We are, as human beings, aware of our position as human being in a society, in a group. In order to survive and comprehend the behavior of the individuals that surround us, we project our own ideas, experiences and insights on the others. Basically what we’re doing is saying, “If I were in his position, what would I do? If I would have done that, why would that be?”. We explain other people’s behavior statistically, using a sample with only one person: ourselves.

This evaluation does more than simply provide explanation for other people’s behavior. It also causes the bizarre phenomenon known as “empathy”. We can imagine our own emotions in a certain situation, and experience them partly, just by witnessing someone else experience them. We are literally able to feel “with” someone.

The repulsiveness of killing “an sich” is directly related to the strength of empathy in a person. The stronger the empathy, the stronger the observer/killer is able to project his own emotions on the target, feel what he’s feeling. And that’s where self-preservation kicks in. The instinctual response to stay alive, to survive, makes the thought of killing someone repulsive, because it invokes a sensation of danger, threat and possible decease in the killer.

So, killing is considered bad because we don’t want to get killed ourselves. In a way it is simply a biological variant of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Basically: don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you.

Is all killing related to empathy and lack of it in the killer? This lack of empathy could be considered a lack of insight; when the killer is not able to see into the consequences of his actions and the emotions of his victim, the backwards safety mechanism (killing someone invokes the sensation of being killed and is thus to be avoided) malfunctions and killing becomes possible. This is in my opinion the cause of “passionate” murders. In the spur of the moment the killer’s perception is blurred, the empathic safety doesn’t work because he is completely absorbed by his own emotions. These can be anger, jealousy, hate, and grudge, anything really.

But not all murders are of the passionate kind. Some murders are deliberately planned, carefully thought out, constructed seemingly with a certain target in mind. We can’t speak of a “temporarily malfunction” of the empathic safety system anymore. In certain cases it might, but usually a person isn’t 24/7 overwhelmed by his own emotions. What is it that enables people to get round empathy? Can you feel what your victim feels and still continue with a kill?

Repeated (Self-) destruction

We stated that the thought of killing invokes in people with a normally functioning empathic system the thought, the sensation even, of being killed. Our natural urge to preserve our own lives then makes sure we don’t kill. But what if the sensation of being killed is exactly the kind of thing the killer is looking for? In idea it would be a special type of self-destruction. Seeing the terror, the pain, the absolute despair in a victim, empathically experiencing it, and then finishing it off with a kill. The killer would have a way to kill himself, time after time again. I’m not saying this would happen consciously. But in my tries to understand how someone can sustain the empathy while proceeding in torture and killing, I can’t help but think maybe the empathy is the subconscious reason for the kill.

I spoke of self-destruction, but this doesn’t have to be the case. It can be the repeated destruction of someone else, in mind. Empathically experiencing the pain and fear, and imagining it to be the pain and fear of someone else, someone in peculiar, would also be a reason to kill. When the actual subject of aggression is unavailable to be killed (deceased, already killed, impossible to reach, feared by the killer too much…) killing others can be an exit for constrained emotions. Feeling those exact things that keep us usually from killing would be for some a reason to engage in it.

Would it be possible to turn someone into a killer? Make someone actually enjoy, maybe even need the empathic sensations that trigger one of our most basal survival instincts?

I like to compare this to dangerous sports, maybe even self-harm. When someone cuts himself, the pain is usually the thing that triggers the survival instinct. Only, the pain doesn’t repulse self-harmers, because it is just what they are looking for. The pain, and all the sensations that come with it, isn’t a punishment but a reward. Also, it is known that when the body gets hurt physically, chemicals are released in the bloodstream, among which are endorphins, our body’s natural pain medication. This makes self-harm very addictive.

With this in mind I think it is very well possible to get addicted to killing. The empathic sensations related to death are so strong I can imagine a chemical rush is caused in the killer’s brain that is almost enough to make him kill again.

The key piece is the first kill. Making someone kill someone else under threat won’t have the desired effect –I’d say more likely the opposite effect-, just as making someone put a knife in his own arm under threat doesn’t make that someone a self-harmer. I personally think it requires certain despair, an inner pressure that can’t seem to be relieved in any other way, an accumulation of emotions that can’t be dealt with. Like the pain a self-harmer inflicts on himself causes a relief of this pressure, both chemically and psychically, the empathic sensation of murder relieves tension as well.

To make someone a killer, one should cause the subject to become so emotionally frustrated with himself or –best- with someone else, that killing becomes the only way out of it the subject sees.  The alteration of perception required could be attained in a variety of ways; most of which I haven’t researched (yet). Continuous abuse, solitary confinement, verbal and physical torture… could provide this alteration. But as we know not all abused people turn into serial killers, we can tell there must be a rare and very subtle interaction between subject and environment, making this alteration happen. Perhaps the close study of murder cases can reveal this mechanism, I don’t know.

These are just my thoughts on a very complicated and specialized subject, and I don’t mean to imply that I am an expert in the matter. I have simply theorized a bit about it and I would like to hear other opinions on this piece and on the matter itself.

Thanks in advance,


About quantumphysica

My name is QuantumPhysica The Insane, but you can call me QP. I am insane, admitted to a mental hospital in Belgium, and waiting for a decent diagnosis at the moment. Once I was a physics student with goals in life and what more; now I'm simply the patient of Room 93. Ever wondered what life is like in the psychiatric ward? I'll tell you everything you ever wanted to know... I am... particularly twitchy of personality. But I also am genuinely interested in everything. There is nothing that doesn't interest me, really. Everything, from quantum computers to fashion and cars to traveling... I also give advice. On anything. No taboos whatsoever. And I make lists of things...
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4 Responses to An Essay on Murder and Empathy

  1. waywardweed says:

    In war people are trained to be killers, and the evil people are, of course, the ones on the other side. In effect, we can be culturally trained to commit horrendous acts. Also I do believe there are some who are born to be potential killers, psychopaths or the “bad seeds,” if you will, and they may go on to commit atrocious acts if given the chance, despite good childhoods and no mental illnes. (Hitler, Ted Bundy to name two.) Of course, someone may argue that they were mentally ill, and maybe they were in a sense. Still, no one will ever convince me that Hitler or someone of his ilk wasn’t evil.

    • To me good and evil are often questionable concepts open for discussion…
      What do you mean exactly with “people on the other side”? Is one side necessarily good and the other necessarily bad?
      I think I left open the possibility that a malfunctioning empathy-system (which you can be born with) can cause psychopathy… Still I believe everyone is capable of everything, given the right stimuli.

  2. waywardweed says:

    There is always propaganda in war where subtly or not so subtly the other side is painted with a tarnished brush. I believe some ( albeit few) wars are necessay, e.g. WWII. In that case there were evil people among the Axis Powers. Sometimes, however, things get murky where “people on the other side” may and probably aren’t evil. Take the Revolutionary War. There were differences of opinion, but I wouldn’t call those who held opposing opinions evil. As for everyone capable of everything given the right stimuli–in many cases people with bad inclinations can be helped. There are those few, for whatever reason, however, will go on to do truly evil deeds no matter what. Just my opinion …

    • Thank you very much for your opinion 🙂 I find it enlightening to see things from another perspective too…I know this may sound weird, but I have the strange condition of having no ethics. Not that I insist on doing things others disapprove of, I know very well what is “considered” right and wrong in our society, I just don’t feel the difference. I have often wondered what it is that brings people to kill others, because even though I could if I wanted to, I don’t really feel the need to.
      This essay was actually my attempt at explaining, apart from right and wrong and the whole concept of ethics, why someone would act in a certain way.

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