Why are we becoming insensitive to human tragedies?

Why are we becoming insensitive to human tragedies?

Simone Redaelli

Simone Redaelli

Simone is a biologist and scientific copywriter. He is vice-director of Culturico, where his writings cover the intersection between philosophy, poetry, science and society. He is also the author of "A Sonnet to Freud", a blog for Psychology Today to illustrate how the life of poets, novelists, and intellectuals can be an inspiration for individuals to better face their interior and social life.

In response to worldwide daily reports of human tragedies, we hardly feel anything. In the view of the philosopher Günther Anders, the current incapability to experience a real state of anguish is due to an irreconcilable gap between the effective magnitude of our actions and our limited comprehension of them. We must train ourselves to emotionally live up to the consequences of our actions. Otherwise, we may end up losing complete control over the potential impact of our decisions.

In response to terrorist attacks, daily reports of assassinations and multitudes of castaways drifting in solitude, we hardly feel anything.
We live in an era in which we are becoming insensitive to human tragedies.
While hearing such dramatic news or watching such crude reports, I sometimes got scared. I got scared realizing that I was incapable of experiencing an appropriate state of anguish. And even when I could suffer from a certain amount of fear (although still inadequate), such fear did not last over time. Turning off my television, I could easily re-approach my habitual occupations, sip my coffee and think about my ridiculous aspirations.

The philosopher Günther Anders (whose views are also discussed in “The emergence of infant identity”) explains the current evaporation of anguish through the advent of the atomic weapon.
In Anders’ view, the invention of the nuclear bomb caused an unbridgeable distance between the effective potency of technical products and the limited human capacity to perceive such potency.

Why are we becoming insensitive to human tragedies?

Let us now try to figure out what the atomic bomb really is. If we ascribe this bomb to the category of weapons, we might fall into the mistake of considering it as a “mean”.
What is a mean?
A mean is something that does not survive the appearance of its aim. Once the goal is reached, the mean disappears.
However, the atomic bomb transcends every purpose we may think of. Its use would cause unpredictable consequences through time and space, and it would be considered “acceptable” only if we had in mind the destruction of the whole planet, only if we could picture the end of the world, the definitive death of humanity.
At this point, we must already accept that the effective potential of this bomb far exceeds our imagination. We have built something whose concrete capacity goes beyond any abstract prediction.
But if our imagination cannot live up to our actions, what about our feelings?

Rephrasing Anders’ formulation on the matter: we are capable of killing thousands of people; perhaps we can imagine ourselves killing a few people; but we can regret one death at most.
It is clear, then, that our sentimental apparatus is not always in accordance with our actions: feelings cannot keep up with actions.
Therefore, the gap between the comprehension of our actions and their effective magnitude is irreconcilable.
Perhaps we already know what the outcome of a nuclear war might be. However, do we deeply comprehend it? There is an alarming disparity between our ability of “knowing things” and our ability of “understanding things”.

But why are we really unable to understand the danger of the bomb?
Because we are constantly relieved from the responsibility of our actions.
After the Second World War, when the members of the Nazi hierarchy were asked to justify their crimes, they did not understand the question. They could hardly categorize their actions as bad actions. “I was simply doing my job!” This was the dreadful answer.

We should now try to explore this new conception of “job”.
The word “job” has become a synonym of “task”: by executing people every day, the Nazi leaders were just completing their working tasks. However, it is not required to know what happened before and what would happen next in order to efficiently complete working tasks. On this line, the tremendous success of this system was possible because each job was considered an isolated performance. Because the Nazi authorities were blind to the consequences of their actions, their actions became “morally neutral”. They were beyond good and evil.

At this point, we can try to make the discussion current: does this new conception of “job” as an isolated performance also apply to our working day?
As employees, we participate in business dynamics and collaborate to the benefit of our companies, but without knowing the final aims of our actions. We are trained to do “our jobs”, missing the concrete result of our doing. We are again blind to the consequences. In simple terms, we do not often comprehend the final objectives of the companies we work for. Or better: we do not feel the need to, a situation in which we are innocently exonerated from meeting any moral conflict. And if we think about it, can we easily define the quantity and the quality of our effective contribution to the cause of a business? Such a contribution is hardly traceable.
We thus reach the disconcerting conclusion: being blind to the sense of our actions tacitly means that we never feel the need to meet their magnitude, their effective impact.

Therefore, we become insensitive to a real condition of anguish because the devastation we experience exceeds our emotional understanding (read the article “Lost empathy: what to change to change the world” to understand why the greater the devastation, the less it impacts upon our emotional sphere). In other words, since our actions do more than what we understand, and since we are untrained to feel the emotional scope of the eventual apocalypse that may follow, we cannot be sufficiently concerned. Our psyche remains silent.

What follows is a desperate appeal.
We must fill the gap between the enormous potency of our actions and the limited emotional resources we have available to comprehend them. To achieve this goal, we must dedicate extreme attention to sentimental education, finding innovative strategies to reinforce our emotive potentials.
If we do not act immediately, we may soon lose perception of the global impact of our decisions.


Simone Redaelli


As a general reference to Anders’ cited work:

Anders, G., “The Outdatedness of Human Beings 1. On the soul in the Era of the Second Industrial Revolution”, 1956.

Received: 09.01.19, Ready: 18.01.19, Editors: FG, AFB.


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