Impossible vanity of caring for everything at once

Democracy thrives on debate. But debate is a skill to be cultivated, not a divinely given talent.

For example, almost a decade ago, I wrote a letter to another Fairfax newspaper, lamenting the bombing death of a little Lebanese girl. I remember sitting at my computer in the middle of the night, weeping for the little broken body on the screen. My letter was blubbery but sincere.

After it was published, the newspaper ran a reply, charging me with moral myopia. Yes, the reply read, this was a sad story, but what about the indigenous children who suffer in Australia? Very telling, it concluded, what we choose to ignore.

In other words: you write about X, but what about Y and Z? You clearly don't care about them. Importantly, this is quite different to noting that someone's complaints are trivial next to other, more serious issues. It may be genuinely edifying to realise that one's worries - a tiff with one's beloved, a poor cup of tea - are actually small and surmountable. Rather, this charge is that one does not care about a particular issue because one has chosen to write about something else.

Since then, I have regularly noted this species of reply in conversation, newspaper commentary and on television. It seems a common feature of public and private debate. And it is almost always a mistake. It is unreasonable and frequently self-contradictory. I dub it the Fallacy of Inferred Insensitivity.

First, it is mistaken because it makes inferences it is not entitled to make.

It might be that someone writing or speaking is insensitive to this individual or that group. But nothing can be presumed by their absence. It might be the author simply lacks space; opinion columns are notoriously short. It might be that the issue is in the news, and thus demands attention.

For example, Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews were recently in the news, because some of their number spat on a eight-year-old girl, or were insulting to a female Israeli soldier. These provide good opportunities to discuss issues of religion, secular society, politics and morality. It might be that the author's life circumstances have struck a chord, and this can combine with the previous reasons; being a new father, for example, predisposed me to noticing the headlines on the Lebanese girl, and space limits meant I could write on nothing else.

These are only a few reasons why an author might focus on a particular event, person or community. There are others. The point is that it is irrational to move, without evidence, from this focus to any one explanation for bias. It is poor reasoning; heavy on rhetoric, light on facts.

Ironically, the Fallacy of Inferred Insensitivity also demonstrates a curious lack of human sympathy. When confronted with some issue of ethical and political importance, the critic's first response is to reply with the long equivalent of, ''Yes, but ...''

It is not to empathise profoundly, demonstrate why it is not as it seems, or to pitch in and help. Instead, it is to point to all the other ethical or political problems in the world, and to vilify the speaker or author for ignoring them.

But this game never ends. Why stop within our own borders, when so much misery occurs on our Australasian doorstep? And why stop with our species at all, when so many animals are tortured every day?

Sadly, there is always more cruelty, exploitation or misadventure. It waxes and wanes, but it seems endemic to existence.

So the question is not, ''Do we care?'' but, ''Is it humanly possible to care simultaneously about all of it, and to do so in a single speech, or piece of writing?'' And the answer is, of course, a very straightforward ''no''.

And by asking another human to do so, we expect more of them than we ask of ourselves. We replace cautious, attentive care, with a kind of moral solipsism, which sees insensitivity in genuine concern.In some cases, those who charge authors or speakers with indifference are correct. They accurately identify some moral blind spot, which is relevant to the case at hand but has been ignored or forgotten.

In other words, they rightly recognise some bias. But in most cases, the critics are in no position to make this charge reasonably: even if they are right, they lack the evidence to establish this reasonably. They do not know the mercurial substance of another's mind.

At best, they are guessing well. At worst, they are simply rehashing their own biases.

Why is this important? Because in a shattered, painful world, genuine care and thoughtful criticism are in short supply. And life is short. To respond with the Fallacy of Inferred Insensitivity is to squander yet another opportunity to think, feel and perceive with sincerity and care. Better to properly address one thing at a time, than to lambast another for not vainly trying to address everything at once.

This does not mean we cannot be systematic; cannot try to develop a ''big picture'' approach to the world. This is crucial to understanding and overcoming global problems. Rather, it means we must recognise human limits: others' and our own. And that this recognition is itself a way to promote something sadly lacking in political and moral debate: goodwill.

Damon Young is a philosopher and the author of Distraction.