Conflict of duties – a vegetarian insight

I became a vegetarian just over two months ago, after spending three weeks living in a vegan household in Stockholm. I took the first step last year – cutting off all seafood (except oysters and mussels) and strongly reducing meat and dairy – when I drafted a section of the Global Challenges Annual Report on ecosystem collapse. This three-week meat-free stint with a bunch of effective altruists convinced me to take the next step, and entirely cut off meat (I did sneak out at times, and bought a yoghurt from the supermarket, a buttery Danish, or even a four-cheese pizza – each time, with a delightful sense of doing something very very nasty). It seems, I have now developed a level of empathy for other sentient beings, and no longer feel indifference when eating meat (and even feel some residual guilt when eating eggs and dairy).

I extended vegetarianism in settings that I would once have found rather challenging – and with great results. I am writing this on a two-day stopover in Guanghzou, notorious for a diet that includes all things that breathe – and famous for its seafood, pork and chicken. So far, I managed an exquisite range of snacks and meals, from BBQ’ed eggplant with garlic to sautéed peppers in black bean sauce, Portuguese egg tart, red dragonfruit, and a fabulous not-on-the-menu baked rice with egg and mushrooms at a street stall who responded creatively to my ‘no meat’ request. I flew China Southern here, and for some reason, wasn’t able to book a vegetarian meal on the website for that leg of the journey. I hesitated – would I get the beef or chicken – but instead, asked the stewardess if there was a vegetarian option. There wasn’t, but they made one for me: I had a special meal delivered on the first service, and on the second, was kindly handed over one of the crew’s fruit platters with an extra bread roll – and had not only my healthiest meal, but also one of my best ever experiences of bonding on a plane.

I did, however, consciously and deliberately broke my vegetarian diet on two occasions. Both times, I was taking people to Chinese restaurants: two visitors from Singapore to my local Sichuan, and a gourmet friend to his first encounter with DongBei cuisine. In both cases, we would be sharing dishes, I was hosting, and meat should be part of the full experience. On other occasions, when I joined large meals at a Chinese place, I gently mentioned that I no longer ate meat, and refrained from dipping into some of the dishes. But as a host, I felt it was my duty to politely say that I ‘ate meat only on special occasion’ – and that my guests offered such a special occasion. I experienced a conflict between two duties – respecting the life of other sentient beings and hospitality to fellow humans – and in both cases, the latter trumped the former.

I reflected on this while eating my baked rice with egg and mushroom. Why do people keep eating meat – why do people more generally keep on making all sorts of other choices that harm ecosystems and ruin the global climate? And when I say people, I think of myself too. Simple words come to mind easily – selfishness, indifference, ignorance. But, I wondered, could the answer be different? Could it be that we maintain environmentally harmful behaviours for an entirely distinct reason, because we encounter a conflict of duties, and a certain other duty trumps our responsibility to the planet.

What could it be? Well, I thought, there could be duty to friends and family for all meals taken in common – a duty to conform, a duty to let others have their way, or even a decadent ‘duty to celebrate’ translating as constant collective excess. But when it comes to meals taken alone – and to account for conformism defaulting to meat – I realised there could be something else: a certain ‘duty to oneself’, to look after one’s health, under the deluded belief that meat is essential, but more deeply, that I must ‘look after myself’. I have long cherished those words by Andre Gide, ‘it a duty to make oneself happy’ – but how easy to deform. For we live exposed to non-stop propaganda, telling us that such happiness will come from consumption, giving in to passing whims and desire, embracing convenience and constant hedonism. And so, when meat is advertised, convenient, appealing, no more expensive than alternatives, it becomes a – mistaken – ‘duty to ourselves’ to choose it. In the same way that single-use plastic bags, private cars and holidays overseas are not an expression of selfishness, indifference or ignorance, but the result of a conflict between ‘duty to the planet’ and ‘duty to ourselves’, where the latter trumps the former.

Or – and this is a much darker prospect – is it possible that we live such alienated lives that hospitality, calling to sacrifice an animal whenever a special visitor is sharing a meal with us, now applies for every single meal, with friends, with family, and even with our very self.

On 信

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

The character 信 – xin, typically translated as trust – brings together the character for ‘man’ on the left and the character for ‘language’ on the right. A superficial reading would identify the following simple metaphor, that a trustworthy person it true to their word – they are reliable, they tell the truth, and there is consistency between their actions and the promises they make. But as I considered the character further, 信 started reminding me of the first virtue that I examined in this Confucian cycle, 仁. Ren is the virtue that prevails in a relationship between two people – benevolence as a basis for all positive human interaction. Could 信, then, connecting man and language, represent the other end of the spectrum, the virtue that binds a large group of people together through shared language and stories?

Looking through the Analects, I noted how xin was repeatedly mentioned in relation to friendship. Articulating a definition of the noble man, Confucius says “He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber.” [1:8] (主忠信。无友不如己者。). This statement is repeated almost word for word at [9:25]: “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. ” (主忠信。毋友不如己者。) One of the things that qualifies a person as ‘learned’ (学) is to “be honest in speech when dealing with your friends” [1:7] (与朋友交、言而有信。). When the Master is asked about his aspirations, again, trust and friendship are mentioned: “I would like to give comfort to the aged, trust to my friends and nurturance to the young.” (5:26) (老者安之、朋友信之、少者怀之。). Earlier in the text, at [1:4], as part of an introspective series of questions, we can read the following: “In my interactions with friends, have I been untrustworthy?” (与朋友交而不信乎。) – for this would be the biggest failure in friendship.

I was brought back to my early readings of the Greeks and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where friendship is defined as a primary virtue – the source of our deepest happiness – and a cornerstone of political life. Indeed, Xin must prevail not only between friends, but also  between rulers and the ruled. When asked what a government needs to succeed, Confucius replies: “Enough food, enough weapons and the confidence of the people.” [12:7] (足食、足兵、民信之矣。) When asked which of those three is most important, Confucius identifies trust, because: “ From ancient times, death has come to all men, but a people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.” [12:7] (民无信不立。)

Trust is, indeed, what allows a ruler to guide the action of the people: “After the ruler has the trust of the people, they will toil for him. If he doesn’t have their trust, they will regard him as oppressive. Only after gaining his trust will they criticize him openly. If he doesn’t trust them, he will take their criticism as backstabbing. ” [19:10] (君子信而后劳其民。未信、则以为厉己也。信而后谏。未信、则以为谤己也。) We know that there is a correlation between the level of trust that prevails in a country and its wealth. Indeed, this is not surprising: if I operate in a high trust environment, then I will build teams and coordinate projects on the basis of talent and motivation. But if trust is lacking, I will work only with people that I already know, and whose behaviour is controlled through a dense network of mutual connections, mafia style.I ndeed, xin is the hallmark of a person’s usefulness: : “If a person lacks trustworthiness, I don’t know what s/he can be good for. When a pin is missing from the yoke-bar of a large wagon, or from the collar-bar of a small wagon, how can it go?” [2:22] (人而无信、不知其可也。大车无輗、小车无軏 , 其何以行之哉)  This primacy given to trust is universal. “If your speech is sincere and honest, and your way of carrying yourself is earnest and reverent, such behaviour will work even if you live among the Southern and Northern barbarians. But if your speech is insincere and dishonest and your way of carrying yourself is neither earnest nor reverent, then even if you live in your hometown, you will have problems.” [15:6[] (言忠信、行笃敬、虽蛮貊之邦行矣。言不忠信、行不笃敬、虽州里行乎哉。立、则见其参于前也。在舆、则见期倚于衡也。)

When I considered a potential practice to better understand this virtue, I chose to write down what expectations I had of my friends, my government, and the people leading various projects I am involved in. The intention was, after identifying those expectations, to figure where they stemmed from, whether explicit promises had been made, or what assumptions I made as to their expected future behaviour.  With surprise, I noticed a recurring incongruence: there is a gap between what I wish for, and what I expect. In all cases, my expectations were inconsistently both high and low. I hope for the greatest levels of support, transparency, reliability – yet anticipate situations where friends, governments and leaders fail on all fronts. Am I setting myself up for constant disappointment on the basis of past negative experience, doubts about my own trustworthiness, or the side effects of working with global catastrophic risks?

A discussion with Patrick yielded a precious insight. The conversation was going sideways, exploring an inherent tension in the coaching practice. On the one hand, a coach must create a safe space where ‘what is’ for the client is accepted with no judgement – as a therapist; on the other hand, a coach must help their client identify patterns of possibility inherent in their situation, and help them go through personal transformation, leaving ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what may be’. I realised how strongly the second appealed to me, and how thinking about that aspect of my own practice resonated with a number of elements in my mental pantheon: Shiva, god of creative destruction; the family myth of a grandfather in the French resistance during the Second World War; my ongoing fascination for power as the basis for transformation.

Could it be, then, I thought, that when considering friends, government and organisations, trust is about focusing not on ‘what is’, but ‘what may be’. Patterns emerge, hinting at future potential – which I see, giving me those high hopes – but I remain aware that what I perceive is not ‘what is real’, only ‘what could be’ – and that many negative ‘could be’s’ are latent in any situation, and need to be accepted from the start. This – I thought – may very well constitute the essence of trust: not a promise made and kept, but the willingness to keep space open for an uncertain future.

Trust, then, is not about firmly constructing an island of reliability within the chaos of a threatening world, but rather, the deliberate opening of a collective space that welcomes and embraces transformation. Where trust prevails, it becomes possible for individuals not only to identify the many potential futures latent in the present, but also, to weigh in on the situation and, hopefully, with help from their friends, bring about one of those futures. Trust offers an alternative to determinism and fatalism: when trust exists, the future is no longer simply conditioned by the past in a linear manner. Trust is not blind continuity, but narrative potential imagined in conversations with friends and emerging from coordinated action, whereby a group of people establish a joint reading of their collective past that leads towards their chosen collective future. Trust, understood in that manner, is then the political virtue par excellence, grown through friendship, extending across teams and governments – and the cornerstone of human freedom.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

On 智

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

This round started with linguistic confusion. The process has been this: I found a digital version of the Analects, and used the search function to select passages where the virtue that I was practicing, using the browser search function. But when I put in ‘智’, wisdom, nothing turned up. I remained perplexed for a while, but as I scanned through the text, I wondered: there is another character with the same pronunciation – 知, to know – what if the two got somehow bundled. Bingo! now there was over 100 occurrences to scan through, which I filtered as best I could – and selected a few passages that seemed more particularly to reflect on the virtue that I was aiming to understand.

This passage offered a simple starting point, showing potential overlap between 知 – knowledge – and 智 – virtue: “I listen widely, select the good and follow their ways. I observe broadly and contemplate. This is the second level of knowledge.” [7-28] (多闻、择其善者而从之。多见而识之。知之次也。).  Wisdom is explicitly presented as derived from experience, more specifically from a process of observation, selection and imitation, applied to people.

Wisdom, indeed, appears not to be derived from the natural world, but other people. “Fan Chi asked about the meaning of ren. Confucius said “love others.” He asked about the meaning of “knowledge.” The Master said, “Know others.” [12-22] (“樊迟问仁。子曰。爱人。问知。子曰。知人。” But it goes beyond, and entails judgement, discrimination, followed by action.

Something about wisdom has to do with effectiveness: it is about doing the most we can with our time and energy. ” The Master said: “When a person should be spoken with, and you don’t speak with them, you lose them. When a person shouldn’t be spoken with and you speak to them, you waste your words. The wise do not lose people, nor do they waste their words.” [15-8] (子曰。可与言、而不与之言、失人。不可与言、而与之言、失言。知者不失人、亦不失言。) At first reading, this may sound harsh, but the passage echoes the fundamental optimism of all educators – and managers – that with the right attention, by carefully guiding our interaction with others, and identifying their passions and characters rightly, it is actually possibly to transform situations and the people themselves. Following the passage above, we read: “Fan Chi couldn’t get it. The Master said, “If you put the honest in positions of power and discard the dishonest, you will force the dishonest to become honest.” [12-22] (樊迟未达。子曰。擧直错诸枉、能使枉者直。)


Before starting reflection on this virtue, I had been attending an international conference on governance innovation. The key message was that it is easier to criticise than constructively develop – but that our collective goal at the conference was to do the difficult thing, and start building. At the conference, and later when I spoke about it with friends and family, I noticed a certain recurring type of response: people – often intelligent people – harnessing their analytical skills to demonstrate that the work we were doing was impossible, and why. When digging through their underlying assumptions, I found this: a belief that ‘human nature’ is ultimately both dark and unchangeable, that ‘people are like that’ or ‘things are like that’. Analytical cynicism then becomes an easy refuge for strong egos – and offers a rhetorical position from which they can avoid the difficult question – ‘so human nature is dark and unchangeable, people will not cooperate or rationally try to do good together – does that apply to you?’

By contrast, Confucian wisdom signals a fundamental optimism about humanity. Some people may be led by dark negative purposes, situations may be adverse. But if we can identify the character of people around us, and if we can wisely choose who receives power from us – starting with the more fundamental power that we have, the power of giving attention – then we can change not only the shape of a situation, but a person’s very character – including our own.

Wisdom perceives the world as liquid, changeable, and a space for joyful human activity : “The Master said: “The wise enjoy the sea, the humane enjoy the mountains. The wise are busy, the humane are tranquil. The wise are happy, the humane are eternal.” [6-23]  (子曰。知者乐水、仁者乐山。知者动、仁者静。知者乐、仁者寿。) The practice I derived from this analysis was a deliberate attempt to exert a sharper form of discernment in my interactions with people – a difficult task, I realised. It revealed that I could err on the side of softness, and invited me to think more about the tension between benevolence and wisdom – and in the Catholic framework that I explored last year, between prudence, justice and charity.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

On 礼

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

‘Li’, variously translated as ‘ritual’ or ‘propriety’ – written 禮 in the traditional form, and礼 in the simplified form – represents the third of the five Confucian virtues, and the one most often typically associated to some ‘Chinese’ spirit. Before delving into the Confucian texts, and basing myself on pure generalisation, I considered this relationship to ritual as the condition of possibility for a certain eccentricity that I noted among my Chinese friends. If external behaviour is not about expressing an authentic inner truth but performing a ritual, then in areas that are not strictly determined by ritual, it is possible to be radically free.

However, when I started reading Confucius more closely, I realised that this interpretation was somewhat superficial. “When Confucius entered the Grand Temple, he asked about everything. Someone said, “Who said Confucius is a master of ritual? He enters the Grand Temple and asks about everything!” Confucius, hearing this, said, “This is [precisely] ritual.” [3-15] (子入大庙、每事问。或曰。孰谓邹人之子知礼乎。入大庙、每事问。子闻之、曰。是礼也。). The linguistic form of 礼is not imperative, but interrogative. 礼 is also, therefore, present and relational: it emerges in the course of an interaction between two people. There is a certain naïve, post-romantic way of understanding ritual as a pure act of mindless repetition. This may be ritual in the 19th century, but it is certainly not 礼.

I practiced the virtue while on a work trip in Stockholm. I was living in a friend’s home with four other people, and working with a multicultural team on a major global forum. Questions of protocol needed to be resolved in both settings, and I had little immediate cultural understanding to guide me. I embraced 礼, and asked. This I realised: at first, I imagined that the purpose of this questioning was for the other to share their predetermined understanding of what was expected – allowing me, then, to comply. But instead, often, the question elicited a new form of shared understanding on matters that had not been properly thought through. This was the case at home, but also during the forum. There was no mastermind holding every detail of what should happen and how. Rather, knowledge of rules and rituals required by the event were distributed in the team. There was no proper way to behave that existed as a preconceived idea to follow: proper behaviour – 礼 – emerged as a shared conscious decision through the act of questioning.

There is a measure of collective magic to ritual. “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.” [2.3] (子曰。道之以政、齐之以刑、民免而无耻。道之以德、齐之以礼、有耻且格。) If we know that our behaviour is exposed to questioning, self-regulation emerges naturally – and both parties eschew selfishness for mutual benefit. This understanding of ritual, in turn, opens a new way to understand justice. ”The Master said: “The noble man takes justice as essential. He actualizes it through propriety, demonstrates it in humility, develops it by truthfulness. This is the noble man!” [15.18]  (子曰。君子义以为质、礼以行之、孙以出之、信以成之。君子哉。。 ) Justice actualized is precisely the collective construction of a shared world.  Eliciting assumptions as to the right action in a certain circumstance, and making assumptions as to the right behaviour conscious, is a way to surface underlying patterns and reveal the underlying order of this shared world.

礼 does more: it allows us to stand firm. “Structure yourself with propriety” [8.8] (立于礼) encourages Confucius. We all run the danger of becoming trapped in our own nature. “Studying liberal arts broadly, and disciplining yourself with propriety, it is easy to stay on the narrow path.” [12-15] ( 子曰。博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫。) )“The noble man who studies culture extensively, and disciplines himself with propriety can keep from error.” [6:27] (君子博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫 。) 礼 frees us from tyrannical self-attachment, and the associated risk of drifting off into self-delusion. Ritual reveals the structures of the world -– the bones of social relationships – and thus makes flexible practice possible. “In the actual practice of propriety, flexibility is important. This is what the ancient kings did so well— both the greater and the lesser used flexibility. Yet there are occasions when this does not apply: If you understand flexibility and use it, but don’t structure yourself with propriety, things won’t go well.”[1:12] (有子曰。礼之用、和为贵。先王之道、斯为美、小大由之。有所不行。知和而和、不以礼节之、亦不可行也。)

Ritual does more: it not only makes practice possible, but provides a sense of historical continuity,whereby practice gains meaning. “Zi Zhang asked whether the state of affairs ten generations hence could be known. Confucius said, “The Shang based its propriety on that of the Yin, and what it added and subtracted is knowable. The Zhou has based its propriety on that of the Shang and what it added and subtracted is knowable. In this way, what continues from the Zhou, even if 100 generations hence, is knowable.” [2:23] (子张问:十世可知也 子曰。殷因于夏礼、所损益、可知也。 周因于殷礼、所损益、可知也。其或继周者、虽百世、可知也。) Here again, however, careful reading is required, and yields a surprising interpretation. Rituals do not evolve over time in a Darwinian fashion, shedding elements least adapted to the circumstances through the pure passage of time. Rather, ritual past and present is an act of ongoing questioning and emergence: so it was with the Yin, so it was with the Shang, so it was with the Zhou, and so it is with us. We are at great risk of projecting perfection on the past. There is no reason to believe that the past was any less chaotic than the present, nor that our ancestors – and with them, any people we think of as representative of an ‘old culture’ – simply repeated an inherited script, while we moderns are living in an age of free collective decision, where the sense of ritual got lost. No, what 礼 reveals is that all human societies – past and present – are at equal risk of chaos ,unless we make the concerted effort to build a common world through the questioning act of ritual. And by keeping this in mind, we are protected from the dangerous myth of a golden age.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller




On 义

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

‘Yi’ , with a falling tone, variously translated as justice, righteousness or fairness, is written义 in simplified Chinese. The traditional form of the character, 義, represents a lamb – 羊 – over the character 我, ‘I’ – which itself represents a hand holding a spear, image of the self fighting for its own survival. Justice, according to certain etymological interpretations, could therefore be understood as a form of behavior where the self adopts the role of a sacrificial lamb – ready to forego life itself in the interests of truth and harmony.

In the dialogues of Confucius, 义 is consistently defined as opposed to 利, a character typically translated as ‘advantage’, and interpreted etymologically as representing a knife cutting down a stalk of wheat. At 4:16, I read ‘君子喩于义、小人喩于利。’ (The noble man is aware of fairness, the inferior man is aware of advantage). Justice, then, as a defining attribute of nobility, is about keeping self-interest at bay: the just are those who relinquish the never-ending fight for individual survival. On reading this, I am reminded of a passage from Journal of Felicity by Romanian philosopher Nicolae Steinhardt, defining the cornerstone of the entire legal system as the willingness of constitutional judges in the higher courts to put their own lives on the line in order to uphold the law.

Through the Analects, 义– and its contrasting opposite 利 – is consistently associated to the same verb, 见, ‘to see’, in two distinct constructions. At 2-24, I read ‘见义不为、无勇也.’ (If you see what is right and fail to act on it, you lack courage) – echoing my reflections of last year on justice and fortitude, and the complementary need for both virtues. But more interestingly, I find another contrast at 14-12 (见利思义) (When you see an opportunity for advantage, think of what would be the right thing to do.), and again in the same structure at 15 :18 (见得思义), and 19:1 (见得思义). Justice, here, is a form of resistance – a cognitive cog in the wheel of self-interest, guiding us towards the right action when we’re exposed to the lure of advantage. I grew up in a family context where ‘cunning’ was praised consistently (with a few life-saving exceptions), and those who were reluctant to press their own advantage on ideal grounds were mocked. I was able to observe that this attitude often came with a certain narrow mindedness, and – if one was to be harsh – a level of stupidity. I found a potential explanation for this at 16-11, where I read ‘行义以达其道’ (I act with fairness to penetrate the Way). Following the call of justice – resisting the sole path of self-interest – is how we perceive the complexities of the world, understand patterns of interwoven causality – and therefore, hope to exert a deeper systemic influence.

On the basis of this interpretation, over the second week of my engagement with justice, I decided to deliberately pay attention to the consequences of my actions every day. In a radical phrasing, I chose to ask myself who needed to die so that I could occupy a certain plot of land? And who suffered so that I could enjoy this particular moment, product, service, or space?

The practice led to mixed feelings of guilt and boredom, but mainly revealed how little I understand about the rippling consequences of my everyday actions. My daily life is apparently benign – I spend a lot of time in front of a screen or a notebook, reading, watching, writing – sometimes speaking with people – from home, at cafes, or in a nearby studio. I eat, mostly vegetarian food. I drink, mainly water, tea and coffee. I throw my waste in the bin and let my partner take it down the building. I understand and vaguely know that every element in this benign existence is part of a complex network rippling across time and space. That I can occupy a certain area of land in Melbourne, as do the shops and businesses I engage with, because indigenous people were displaced and massacred two centuries ago, and their descendants never properly compensated or even acknowledged. That the computer systems I use and the endless amounts of images, videos, music and text I stream on the Internet are not simply ‘there’, that people made them, maintain servers, and protocols, and browser codes, and long networks of cables – which, in turn, entails pollution in remote parts of the globe and exploitation of many workers. That my whole existence depends on access to cheap electricity, locally provided by brown coal, with unmitigated consequences on the global climate. That people had to grow, process and package the food that I eat, and most of them probably received a comparatively low level of payment for it – leaving me with greater disposable income. That the milk and eggs I consume came from cows and chickens who do not enjoy comfortable circumstances. That the waste I put in the bin – paper, plastic, scraps of food – does not simply disappear, but will somehow float off into the oceans, or fill in a plot of land that could have found better uses. But all this is vague, and quickly disappears into some sort of grey mist: if I look too long too far, all I experience is a vague form of seasickness – and so, I try not to think about it too much, and rather, encouraged by the culture I live in, focus on my advantage, convenience, price, quality, which offer a much nicer and clearer picture.

And thus I reflected – the distinction between justice and advantage may not be purely one of appeal, but rather, of complexity. The world of advantage deceptively simplifies things: here is a stalk of wheat, I shall cut it, I will eat the grain, and let nature deal with it. Isn’t it simply the way things are and should be? The world of justice, by contrast, entails extreme levels of complexity: it requires that we consider chains of cause and consequence extending into further and further into the depths of time and space, until the vision blurs, and nothing is clear anymore. And thus, the paradox unfolds – whereas advantage can be seen clearly, justice cannot – it is a certain shapeless feeling in our heads that interferes with the fascination of advantage. Led by that vague feeling, in the absence of perfect clarity, justice is a thing we do, an action, a statement, a withholding often, that in turn, has power to change the course of things – and in that movement, reveals the deep hidden patterns of our common world.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller


On 仁

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,义,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

仁 – pronounced rén with a rising tone – is  variously translated as benevolence, kindness, or humaneness. Popular etymology describes the character as composed of the key for ‘man’ (亻) and the number two (二) – therefore identifying 仁  as the virtue that manifests when two people come together. This first arrested my attention. 仁is not about guidance from a higher being or a set of rules that the self should follow: it is anchored in concrete human relations. From the very start of the Analects, this relationship is presented as defined on the basis of seniority: “孝弟也者、其为仁之本与” (are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness? Analects 1:2). In a later commentary, 仁 is said to manifest itself in the person who rescues a child playing on the margin of a well. 仁 informs each relationship not on the pure basis of our joint humanity, but also based on each parties’ lifespan – and therefore, the same virtue will manifest as a different behaviour in each situation. This, I thought, addresses a point which I often hit upon when thinking about morals and ethics: when exactly should a child be considered ethically mature? 仁 offers a lateral way to think of the answer: when the child finds themselves in a situation where the relational duty demands that they be the adult, on the basis of their seniority to the person they interact with.

The word仁has another unrelated meaning: it refers the kernel of an apricot pit or the flesh of a shrimp. Is it therefore, I wondered, the warm rich human core that lies inside the social shell, and acts as the principle of movement? 仁 cannot be deducted from external behaviour, as this long passage indicates:  “孟武伯问子路仁乎。子曰。不知也。又问。子曰。由也、千乘之国、可使治其赋也、不知其仁也。求也何如 子曰。求也、千室之邑、百乘之家、可使为之宰也、不知其仁也。赤也何如 子曰。赤也、束带立于朝、可使与宾客言也、不知其仁也。(Meng Wu Bo asked Confucius whether Zi Lu was a ren man. Confucius said, “I don’t know.” He asked again. Confucius said, “You could direct the public works forces in a state of 1, 000 chariots, but I don’t know if I would call him a ren man.” Meng again asked: “What about Qiu?” Confucius said, “Qiu could be the governor of a city of 1, 000 families, or of a clan of 100 chariots, but I don’t know if he is a ren man.” Meng asked: “What about Chi?” The Master said, “Dressed up with his sash, placed in the middle of the court, he could make conversation with the guests, but I don’t know if he is a ren man. Analects 5:8). Instead, it can be captured through patterns of subtle harmony that are experienced aesthetically: “里仁为美。” (As for a neighborhood, it is its ren that makes it beautiful. Analects 4:1) “人而不仁、如乐何” (If a man has no ren what can his music be like? Analects 3:3). In turn, the collective enjoyment of a world infused by 仁 can trigger a positive spiral where aesthetic refinement nurtured by 仁brings together people who, through their relationship, strengthen each other’s 仁: “君子以文会友。以友辅仁。” (The noble man uses his refinement to meet his friends, and through his friends develops his ren. Analects 12:24)

What mainly struck me when I read through the words Confucius was a seeming paradox inherent to the virtue. On the one hand, 仁 is presented as an always available option “仁远乎哉。我欲仁、斯仁至矣。”(Is ren far away? If I aspire for ren it is right here! Analects 7:30). And yet, we consistently fall short of it, and few can maintain it for any period of time: “囘也、其心三月不违仁、其余则日月至焉而已矣。” (Hui could keep his mind on ren for three months without lapse. Others are lucky if they can do it for one day out of a month. Analects 6:7).

In line with this observation, when I developed a practice that would help me cultivate 仁, I decided to focus on deliberate attention: at least once a day, when I found myself in a public setting, I would pause and think about my relationship with every person present. I would do this in two stages: first establish common humanity, then consider our respective status based on age, and how this should inform my behavior to each person around, should I interact with them.

The practice revealed a few things about myself. As a gay man, I noticed how skewed my attention is to people of different gender – and how little attention I spontaneously pay to women in public places: another confirmation of unconscious bias, and its rippling effects. As a 40 year-old, I noticed how time has passed, how most people are now slightly younger than me, and how I should therefore start adapting my default behaviour. I also noticed how solitary my professional life can be – how much of my time is spent ‘alone in company’ or even entirely on my own.

The practice was strangely transformative. When I was looking at people sitting or standing in a group – friends, families, co-workers – through this deliberate relational attention, I entirely stopped thinking of them as ‘another group’, a ‘them vs me’, but rather, each of them became part of a consistent human web that I also belonged in. Through the practice of仁, I feel that I was able to expand my circle of empathy: most likely by offering a simple framework that allowed me to think of my relationship with every other human as concretely defined by age – the length of time we spent alive, and how this determines a certain type of duty. This also made it more possible for me to see the world from the perspective of others, and in their company, feel a sense of calm and beauty.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller


On Envy

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

In French, the word ‘envy’ became synonymous with desire before I was born. It is therefore highly difficult for me to natively think of it as a sin. I can hear the voice of parents and friends asking me ‘Qu’est-ce qui te fait envie?’ literally ‘what makes you envy’, meaning, ‘what would you like?’ I can hear the lyrics of an 80s rock song that played on the radio through my childhood: ‘On m’a trop donné, bien avant l’envie – qu’on me donne l’envie, envie d’avoir envie’ – and though the song is about the exhaustion of desire in a consumerist world of material abundance, a word-for-word translation would read ‘I’ve been given too much, way before envy – let somebody give me envy, envy to have envy.’ It’s an odd reversal of values when the radio broadcasts an aspiration to sin.

The lyrics of that song echo my experience of material abundance as an only child of wealthy divorced parents. Toys and games rained over me – both parents, I guess, and parts of the broader family vying for my affection through gifts. I had more things, I think, than any kids at school. I remember moments of envy, when one of them had a toy that I didn’t – but this never lasted very long: either I came back home and appreciated how superior my collection was, or I was able to acquire the plastic object of my desire.

Material abundance protected me from material desire, but a different and deeper form of envy characterised elements of my life that compared unfavourably with others. I envied the children of married parents, who didn’t have to shuffle around from one apartment to the other, nor act as mediator in the financial and emotional struggles of adults. When my father left for the capital, I envied anybody whose two parents lived in the same city, and were spared a fortnightly plane commute. Later still, I envied kids without hostile or manipulative step-parents. Envy led me to regular bouts of despair, a belief that my family situation would make it impossible for me to reach happiness, ever – while others around, though materially less fortunate, were given all the right emotional and spiritual circumstances to lead balanced happy lives. And I became incapable of seeing the good in my own situation.

At school, struggling with my own romantic attraction to men, growing up in a period when gay was not OK, I envied couples of male platonic friends who shared a clear mutual desire to spend time together. Some times, instead of letting new friendships and attachments emerge, I let myself be possessed by envy, targeted and seduced – soon resulting in embarrassment, or even harm.

Envy lost its grip on me when I came out and moved out of home. But the possibility to do this depended on so much – high levels of privilege, a scholarship system, decades of activism from LGBT groups, and the sheer luck of remarkable encounters leading to friendships and romantic relationships that, I hope, were mutually nourishing. And so, when I look back at my own experience of envy, I sense how difficult it is to curb its power, and how dangerous it is for all communities and social relations.

Tragedies of the commons are all based on envy. Prisoner’s dilemma: what if I was to reduce my carbon emissions, and others don’t. Why should I work harder for lower benefits? Why should less developed countries – hey, China – get a right to burn more cheap coal and save money to buy beef, while we must forsake immediate satisfaction to build more expensive insulated buildings and wind farms? Why should future generations be protected, and live in a world of greater potential abundance than us? Why should I go to the effort of looking after the public good, if the public does not look after my interest?

Envy squares greed: while greed is a perverted relationship to the material world, envy looks at other people and their possessions or attributes, seeking discrepancies, and aiming to get even. Envy derives from a scarcity mindset: you have more of something than I do, whether brains, looks, money, relationships, or attention. Envy wears a mask of heroic justice – I would rather risk both of us losing everything, than let such inequality continues. But the same person, here, is both judge and party.

I am writing this – the last of my reflections on sin – on Easter Day. Judah betrayed for greed, but envy led the Pharisees to condemn and kill Christ: why should this man receive such attention – yay, claim to be son of God – rather than us? I would rather take the chance of killing the Messiah than let this uneducated man steal the love and respect of the people from us. Easter, however, is not a revenge story. The judges and executors simply disappear, while abundance returns for the believers who did not let envy possess them. And on this day, at least, it is possible to dream of a future community where envy does not exist, and a genuine sense of abundance prevails.