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Australian of the Year's strong case for empathy

  • 01 February 2016

Australia woke on 26 January to the news that David Morrison had been named Australian of the Year. One of the most striking features he displayed, both in winning the award and in his acceptance speech, was empathy — the ability to enter the world of others. Though a man, Morrison shot to prominence by condemning sexism and sexual violence in the military — including as an instrument of warfare.

In his speech, he began by noting the undoubted fact that Australia Day, by its nature, is not regarded with unalloyed pleasure by Aboriginal Australians, for whom 26 January speaks to a history of genocide, dispossession and ongoing discrimination.

His stance on diversity, on combatting discrimination of all kinds, pulled no punches in enumerating the types of discrimination which still exist in Australia and the self-interested reason why we should care — excluding some from society impoverishes us all, by depriving society of the benefits which each individual can bring to it.

Sadly, the empathy he displayed is a quality in vanishingly short supply in public discourse. This is not only an Australian problem, and cannot be divorced from the rise of the human rights movement.

One of the great contributions of Western philosophy to human thought has been the emergence of the individual as a focus for concern. I am not merely a member of a group, a plaything of kings or emperors, but an individual with thoughts, feelings and an interior life all my own.

Descartes' cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) is shorthand for the idea that this interior life itself is the basis for how we approach the world and, from our point of view at least, the very warrant for the existence of the world. The individual is important, has rights.

The trouble is that unless we can put the individual on a broader canvass, our world view is incomplete. I am important, but unless you are recognised as being just as important as I, then you are just a plaything for me — disposable at will. My rights are bounded by your rights, your value as a person.

The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noted that the I think of Descartes totalises — it reduces everything: God, other people, to a subset of I. We are only opened to the world beyond us if we are able to accept others on their own terms, without reducing them to what