values cards project – spirituality

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I hear ‘spirituality’, the first picture that comes to mind is the Virgin of Lourdes in a yoga pose. A bunch of ex-hippies, some sort of new age thing. A mix of tradition, moral education, Kumbaya community. A sort of, Canada Dry, it looks like religion, but it’s not religion.

B: I like that you’re articulate spirituality and religion. Let me try a definition. For me, spirituality is about relating to something greater than yourself. Buddhism, for instance, is a spirituality. Though now it’s also a religion in Japan, with established schools, and distinct symbols, and people who belong to it or not. So, yes, that would be the distinction. Religion is about formal schools, symbols, and a group with clear boundaries. You’re in it or you’re not. But spirituality, it’s looser. I’ve actually seen the word… there is this thing, this website called Kumbini, where you see two words, and you must pick one. One of the pairs that often comes up is religion vs spirituality. Most artists choose spirituality. It’s almost as if religion was an insult.

A: I’ve been associating spirituality with a form of new age commodification. And so, from a religious perspective, a Christian perspective if you want, there’s something sinful about it. It’s fetishism, idolatry. Then there’s this illusion of choice. That when you talk spirituality, you choose a tradition, like you can pick your favourite yoghurt at the supermarket. It’s the opposite with religion, tradition picks you, and then you can accept it, or you can refuse. Even when you convert, it’s about acceptance, rather than a proper choice. Spirituality, it’s not about conversion, it’s, yes, it’s consumerism.

B: Maybe, it’s a bit like, rationalism. Look at France and the cult of republic. It’s not just the cult of established power, there is a certain… ideal. We could call it French Republican monotheism, we replaced the kind with a president-king, and we have an atheistic dogma to replace the dogmatic church. And then there’s the rejection of communities, particularly Muslims, they’re too religious, too different.

A: I’ve always thought an enlightened Catholic is better than a dim atheist. And the question here is, do we fight religion, or dogma, or just stupidity? But there’s another take on this, when we were speaking, I started to think about this thing, the cult of the Holy Spirit, and mad preachers in the Church. They could qualify as ‘spiritual’, quite literally. That’s, those American mega-churches, then? Are they ‘spirituality’, while the more established rituals, they’re religion? And so, then again, maybe that’s the ultimate downfall, when monotheism meets commercial practice. So maybe yes, spirituality does represent an intrinsic corruption of religion?

B: I wonder, what do you think would be spirituality for a rational, atheistic society? I think, when we took political power away from the church in France, we took out the good, and there is nothing really to replace it.

A: Well, there is the cult of common ancestors, the Pantheon and the ‘Great Men’ of the Republic. The unknown soldier. War monuments as landmarks of atheistic, republican spirituality. But there is something, I don’t know, kitsch about this. It’s like those shops in Paris, they called them ‘boutiques de creation’, they were selling arts and craft supplies, beads, ribbons, paper, that kind of stuff. And I always thought, it corrupted the meaning of creation. Trivialised it.

B: For sure, New Age caused more harm than good to spirituality. Because now, we can no longer talk about spirituality without seeming like we’re about to call in a Hare Krishna.

A: Could it be that, if we look again at those American mega-churches, or Pentecost even, there’s a revolutionary potential in spirituality, when it becomes common practice. It can create new communities, almost instantly. But when it’s just an individual practice, then it’s only consumerism.

B: So, could we say that one goal of religion is to establish new norms of exchange, based on a gift economy. And so, when enough people join, that’s very challenging to structures of power. But if it remains a set of disconnected individual practices, then it’s not a problem. So, religion is dangerous to the powers in place, but not spirituality?

A: That may be true. That we’ve limited spirituality to just individualism, and it reduces its subversive potential. While if you can extend it to the community, then it becomes the basis for new forms of solidarity, and it can threaten the power of the state. And for individuals, it’s the end of slavery.

B: I’m thinking now about those religious practices that have a social impact, like Zakat among Muslims. You give 2% of your income either to the poor, or to the mosque. And that’s somehow in addition to tax, but also creates another pool of money, parallel to what the state gets from tax. And here, I don’t know, I think we could say the divine goes before the state, this religious duty trumps tax, and that’s not in the interest of the state. It’s a counter-power.

A: In the same way that the Christian martyrs were resisting the power of the Roman state. And what this shows you, maybe, is that non-violence always wins in the long term. Because it’s just about the refusal to obey. But – that’s the greatest paradox of political philosophy, that La Boetie put forward, why do we do what we’re told? And if people start to refuse obedience, then everything collapses. Power is based on voluntary serfdom. And for that, non-violence is the most threatening strategy. It’s undermining the very basis of power structures. And so, that’s what spirituality can achieve, even maybe for individuals.

values cards project – respect

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: OK, I’ll start with that. I like to think of respect as a kind of mutual distancing, a power equilibrium if you want. It’s about finding stability, and it always involves, yes, distance between individuals.

B: Well, for me, respect has to do with authority. So, I have this impression that respect implies an unequal relationship, a power relationship. And it’s not about natural authority, like when you join a movement, because there’s a charismatic leader, but authority within an existing hierarchy. That’s what respect is about for me. Also, it’s the same when you think about filial respect, my impression is, it’s got to do with authority, with a relationship that’s clearly unequal.

A: I wonder how the two relate. I can’t, every time I think about respect… you know the commandment that says ‘respect your mother and father’. I had a conversation with a friend, it was a long time ago, when I was at university, but it stayed with me. They were studying Arabic, and said, based on the etymology, the words of this commandment said something like ‘far your mother, far your father’. Keep your parents at a respectful distance. That’s what it’s about, not a kind of emotional worship, or submission, but it’s about keeping your distance with them. Don’t get caught up in their affairs. Keep them at arm’s length.

B: I don’t know, when I think of respect… There’s two words in Japanese, ‘sonjo’ and ‘sonke’. The first is universal, unconditional respect, the kind of respect you should have for any human being. Even a jerk, they deserve that minimal level respect, sonjo. The other, sonke, it’s closer to what we would call esteem. It’s conditional. You don’t have to esteem everyone, or anyone. Esteem is based on a quality that someone has, whether it’s a certain ethical trait, or a technical skill, or a craft. But that’s not for everyone, not necessarily.

A: So, that makes me think of conversations I’ve had often about work and payment. With writers and artists, or with young people. That they feel a professional lack of respect, when they’re expected to work for free, talk for free, even when it’s an unpaid internship. It’s very strong in the arts, and the community sector, because there’s so many people there who don’t get paid, or not properly, and then after a while it breeds resentment, and it’s experienced, yes, as a lack of respect.

B: Maybe we’re touching something then, something about respect, youth, and anger. You know the figure of angry young men – angry young people in general – they’re angry because they want respect, and they’re not getting it. There’s an expectation there, from them, but it’s a confused expectation. Part of it is that unconditional human respect, and maybe that has to do with adulthood, they want to receive what any other human is receiving. But another part has to do with what we’re calling esteem, conditional respect. Only the two get mingled, it’s not quite clear what they want, so they feel frustrated, and angry.

A: We’ve got this way of thinking about unconditional respect, professionally when we say that ‘tout travel mérite salaire’. Because you do have the case of interns, who don’t get paid. And here, well, true, power relationships are not in their favour, they feel maybe, that they need to work for nothing, and they’re not respected in that sense. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that they should have esteem for what they do, many, they’re starting, it’s good that they’re out there, but they’re not doing wonderful work, they’re still learning. And so yes, the two things get mingled, and everybody’s angry.

B: So, maybe yes, there is a confusion between what we feel is our right to respect, unconditionally, and then this idea that you get respect on the basis of achievement, success. And the result is what you see sometimes, people who feel they have a right to be successful, and they get angry when they’re not, but that’s just because we messed up with the categories. It’s like, everybody wants to work in the sexy industries, like working for the arts or in graphic design or start ups, or whatever. But they won’t accept not to be paid for it. And that creates a power relationship that’s not favorable to the workers. And then, the personal desire for success, as the basis for respect, it becomes a problem for the whole community.

A: We had this thing, in Australia, a big movement to ‘pay the writer’. And I always found there was confusion in what people were asking for. It was surprising even, that writers, intellectuals, were confusing categories. I mean, they were looking for ways that writers would live with more dignity, and get their bills and rent paid, and that’s very fair. But then they were also – it was like, there was a right to be paid, for whatever you wrote, and the desire to be paid for their writing, not in another way – because that would somehow validate their status. It was messy, it still is, I find.

B: Well, we all have a need for recognition I think, but the question is, how is this recognition materialized, how is it generated socially, and how is it perceived? I mean, one characteristic of a neoliberal society is that we’ve commodified everything. And so, recognition goes through money. If you can’t get money for it, it has no value. So; the writers want to be paid for their writing because otherwise – it has no value, and they won’t be respected for it.

A: You’re right. There’s a need for recognition – esteem, for craft and effort – and there’s a need for food and shelter, but people conflate both, and they turn that into the need to be paid for their art, and so they can’t think about it creatively.

B: I wonder, if it’s the same for the young people you were talking about. They’ve got a need for some esteem, and that’s about identity, finding out who they are and where they can excel. It’s even, maybe, to help with their decision making. And then there’s a different aspect, that’s material needs to be met. And we’ve got a problem when we can’t find a way to separate those two.

A: That’s what I like about the idea of a universal basic income. It actually dissociates those two. You’ve got unconditional respect, on the basis of human dignity, and you get food and shelter. But then you’ve got esteem, and that depends on your achievements – and when you’ve got a universal basic income, that might be monetized or not, it no longer matters so much. I think, that need to monetise everything, it’s a problem for society. We push people to selfishness. While with all moral codes, they’re all about pushing people to be less selfish.

B: Maybe then it is about courage, and virtue. Because – there’s a lot of mediocrity. Generally speaking, we’re all rather mediocre. And we can move away from mediocrity, just a little, when we’re in the right environment. And if you’re in a setting that allows you to be less mediocre by default, then you don’t need so much courage to do things – but then do you deserve more respect? That’s what I wonder.

A: It’s like, international development, should you think of it as a form of justice, or charity? And if you’re simply doing the right thing, should you be praised for it? I mean, there’s this image in the Gospel of the widow who gives a little coin to the temple, but Jesus says she deserves most respect, because she had so little to start with.

B: It’s the same thing in Buddhism. If you give an offering of something you don’t need, it doesn’t count. You must give from the things you need, and then you will get merit.

A: Something I wonder, are we so decadent that we praise people for doing something like giving up what they don’t need. It’s a little depressing.

B: It is a little depressing. It’s, I mean it’s hypocrisy too, and I don’t know that it’s a new thing. I mean, there are many people who just want to look good, but then the cynicism comes through. Their way to gain respect is by moralizing others and judging them, but then they don’t apply the same criteria to themselves, and those people, I mean they deserve fundamental respect, yes, but not our esteem.

A: So, do you think, social, where we direct our esteem is fundamental question, and a fundamental mechanism, to promote certain behaviors?

B: Well, yes – and so, we might wonder then, what could we do, to give conditional respect in a way that promotes more prosocial behavior? Like, maybe we need not just universal basic income, but also more recognition for the most socially useful jobs, and then that will get us somewhere?

Values cards project – happiness

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: There is a song by a Belgian singer, Angele, that’s about happiness, and it says: ‘Il n’existe pas sans son contraire.’ I like that song, and I’ve been thinking, it’s probably difficult to recognise happiness, while unhapiness, that’s something you can recognise.

B: Maybe it’s that, one way to define happiness is just as an absence of suffering. So, there is no proper definition, we just look for its opposite.

A: You know the buzzword in startups, ‘chief happiness officer’. I hate it, it makes it sound like happiness is something that the company will try to sell you. Maybe you know this guy? Arnaud C**. That’s his whole platform. Pure platitude.

B: What if we tried to see it from a different angle? I like to think of happiness as a well-functioning immune system. Like a form of Nietschean ‘Great Health’, it works like a kind of armor, it’s, somewhat artificial, and protective.

A: What about this? We could say that most of the things we think about are things that will happen in the future. And they will only happen if we believe that they will. So, happiness is about our approach the world, the way we choose to encounter things. And there are different forms of approach, some more positive, some more negative. But if you somehow anchor yourself in the present, then there is a form of happiness that’s directly connected to this sense of a better future. And so, yes, maybe happiness is just something that derives from hope?

B: Maybe we can tie this with etymology. ‘Hap’ – or ‘heur’ in French – it has to do with what happens, what unfolds. And so maybe, thinking about hope, happiness is a certain way to perceive our environment as conducive to something positive, and that will naturally unfold into the future. If we think of it this way, we can make sense of injunctions, like Gide says, that it is our duty to make ourselves happy. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the world that sees the possibility of future good. And that relationship is experienced in the present as happiness.

A: So maybe, this also tells me something about cynicism and suspicion. When I reject what I would call ‘happiness in a can’, those happiness recipes and tricks and chief happiness officers, maybe that has to do with my own sophistication. I’m saying, this wouldn’t work for me, therefore it’s intrinsically wrong. Or it there is some truth to it, it would work, but only for less sophisticated people. But when I think like that, I fall into the pit of snobbism.

B: I like this image of ‘happiness in a can’. If we come back to the idea of happiness as an immune system, maybe that kind of happiness you describe is like an over-reactive immune system, and that’s dangerous, for individuals and for the collective. It’s like an allergic reaction, it can kill you. Or like drugs, it helps in the short term, but it’s harmful in the long run. Because, that kind of artificial happiness, It disconnects you from the real.

A: Or maybe it’s just that this ‘in a can’ feature, this pre-formatted message, it negates a characteristic of happiness, that it’s always experienced on a personal level, not as an abstract universal.

B: Is it then that this ‘happiness in a can’ presents happiness as a means, not an end in itself?

A: Yes, while wisdom traditions, like the Greeks, take happiness, eudemonia, as an end in itself, as a form of healthy relationship with the world.

B: But could it be that happiness is precisely the means to this healthy, fair, harmonious relationship with the world?

A: I think, happiness is a personal thing, it’s experienced individually, not collectively. It’s impossible for a collective to pursue personal goals. So, we cannot pursue happiness as a group. It doesn’t make sense.

B: Well, that would be particularly true if, as we said in the beginning, happiness is hard to define. Because if an end, or a goal, is hard to define, it is also difficult to pursue. And so, we could shift things a little and say the collective goal is to pursue the absence of unhappiness, but that’s way more depressing.

A: Doesn’t Aristotle write about happiness as a type of satisfaction that directly derives from the pursuit an activity? So maybe, we should think of happiness as an aristocratic type of virtue. That’s what you see today in startups, and all this talk about, your work should make you happy. You can get that kind of happiness if you’ve got slaves who do the dirty work. It’s probably not so easy to feel happiness from your activity when you’re a cleaner or a delivery person. And so –the practice of virtue that leads to happiness, that takes time, and it calls for certain conditions. So, there’s something dangerous about this discourse that says we should pursue happiness, and if we’re not feeling happy, we’re doing something wrong. I think, it’s hiding something, it’s not in touch with the real.

 

Values cards project – trust

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: In French, we have a set of three words: ‘confiance, méfiance, defiance’. I like this philosopher, Andre Comte sponville, he discusses that, and that’s how he describes it. Confiance (or trust) is a belief that things will work out well. Mefiance (or wariness) is belief under condition, so in a way, it’s like a form of knowledge. Defiance (or mistrust) is a belief that things will work out badly. And so, mefiance, that form of confidence that involves a measure of wariness, is actually close to a virtue.

B: it’s a form of prudence.

A: Yes, while defiance, or mistrust, is a lack of virtue. In Japanese, there’s two different words for trust. There is ‘Shinlai’, which means to believe and take as a foundation, and ‘shiyo’, which means to believe and to use – for instance, that’s the word bankers use to talk about trust.

B: My friend was pointing at another way to think about it, when we were working together on a program about trust. We trust people on two different accounts: because of their competence and because of their intention. So we wonder, ‘do you have my best interest at heart’, but also, ‘are you competent enough that you can actually carry out what you say you will.’ And if you don’t have both, you might cause a lot of harm.

A: I like that. It makes me think, there’s this thing we call the trust equation, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It says that trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy. Another way to look at it, it’s ethos, logos, and pathos. And that’s how you build trust as a consultant, for instance.

B: I like those kinds of equations. And I wonder then, is it possible to trust somebody for some things, but not everything? How does that work?

A: Yes, well, trust always has to do with what you don’t know, right? It’s about belief, not experience. You can’t have trust in things that you properly know, that’s not properly trust, that’s knowledge. It’s only when there is a measure of unknown that you start to talk about trust. So, people talk about the conditions required for it, but there is no specific or universal criteria. It’s more about a feeling…

B: One thing I like to think about is, how trust allows you to build something from nothing. I mean, money, creativity, any type of collective endeavor, it’s all about trust.

A: And if you think of it this way, Edelman publishes a trust index every year, and you see that the countries with the greatest level of trust are all wealthy countries. Actually, there’s one exception, which is the USA, where people don’t trust each other but they trust contracts. That’s another story, but otherwise, yes, you have this direct correlation between trust and wealth.

B: And that’s, that’s interesting, because whenever you think about trust, there is always that element of unknown. There is always a leap of faith. And so, this is directly connected to courage: you cannot trust unless you make that decision, and it’s always, yes, somehow, embracing a measure of unknown. While mistrust, not wariness, not prudence, not caution, but mistrust, it’s always a lack of courage. I mean, when you remain in the situation, but mistrust. Because not everything or everyone should be trusted, and sometimes, you sense that things will go badly, and you pull out.

A: It’s interesting if you look at Japan. There’s rules everywhere, and the principle is that something bad is going to happen. So, the rules stem from a spirit of mistrust. But then, you have a very high level of interpersonal trust among people. And I wonder if the two go together? Maybe, the rules create conditions where trust is boosted by the fear of getting a bad rep. You know that other people won’t be doing anything bad, they won’t break the rules, because they’re afraid of the consequences. And so, you can trust them. Maybe that’s how it works.

B: I like that, the collective structures that makes interpersonal trust possible. That’s, I wonder if that’s how blockchain works. They say things like, instead of trusting institutions, you trust the code, the mathematics. But there’s this element of blockchain that everything is transparent, and the way the code works, it’s not, you can trust the code, because other people are watching it, and if people try to mess up with the figures, they’ll be found out. So, there’s an element here that’s like what you describe in the way Japan works, with rules and interpersonal trust. You can trust others because there are collective rules in place.

A: So, that’s interesting, because if you look at institutions, or many companies, there’s people you can trust and people you can’t. It’s like, you place your trust in a certain person, and hopefully, the person in charge is someone you can trust. And because you know they’re in charge, because they’re accountable, you can trust an institution. While in Blockchain, nobody’s responsible. It’s the same thing in a Teal style organization, people don’t want to be responsible, and so what you find is, you trust the process, not the people. I’ve been wondering actually what it does to the people who work in those kinds of systems, to their personal sense of virtue, when there is no personal accountability.

B: Do you mean, whether they’re still responsible people?

A: Yes, when trust is no longer about the people, but the process, how does that affect us, as people?

Values cards project – integrity

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I hear integrity, to me, it’s connected to consistency. It’s got to do with continuity over time. You’re the same independently of whatever happens outside.

B: There’s a very strong moral component to the word, but it doesn’t have to do with keeping a conformist kind of moral code. You can have integrity and be well integrated, but the idea is that you’re not quite in line with what’s usually done in the context around you. So, it has to do with a certain form of courage. You’re not in direct relation to the established order.

A: I would associate it with originality. It’s about respecting your own shape, and refusing to change so that you can fit in the box. And this has to do with real originality. I’m always remembering an essay by Pessoa that I read as a teenager, something with a Greek name, Epi-something, where he says that, when push comes to shove, the only thing about an artist with actual value is how original they are.

B: I see that as an individual form of value, integrity. It’s not about your relation to the group – like, you follow the norms of the group, as in a cult – but rather facing up to the group. There’s something antagonistic about it. It’s me against the world.

A: Then there’s a form of congruence with non-violent communication. And that would also mean that there’s a form of courage to non-violent communication. I state what I see, what I feel, what I need, and I make a proposal, based on a description of the world as it appears to me, rather than conforming to the madness of other people.

B: We might think it’s a form of power, or a strength, when you can adapt to another person. And it is. But this sense of integrity as a form of courage, it means it may be that it’s your capacity to clearly state your feelings or requests that is the biggest form of respect for another person, and ultimately the best way to influence them.

A: You can have integrity and be a psychopath, but you can’t have integrity and do things against your moral code. So, it’s about the capacity to judge what’s inside, from the outside.

B: Giving up on moral effort, then, that’s a lack of integrity. And that’s the distinction between the respectable bureaucrat and the opportunistic consultant.

A: Well, some of the people I despise the most for that are consultants, who just get in, do something and leave, in pure mercenary fashion, with no sense of continuity or mission.

B: But there’s a fine distinction between both. Maybe the consultant, because they’re independent, it allows them to have more integrity, because they see it and they say it like it is. It’s their job. Or it could be about all sorts of second-order things that the consultant wants to achieve. So, the question becomes about the end justifying the means.

A: So maybe, is it that Integrity can only appear retrospectively? And then, this would take us to a complex dialectic, something hard to figure out, including for yourself. Am I living in line with a principle that I wasn’t sure I had, or am I somehow losing my own shape? Because, we constantly have to give up on certain things so that we can hold on to others. And integrity then is about what we choose to hold on to.

B: It’s one of those things that asks for a lot of attention: do I have integrity?

A: Or if integrity is some form of incorruptible probity, maybe it’s a proof of flexibility then that you can identify it a posteriori? Like, it’s only retrospectively that you can figure out what remained incorrupted in someone.

B: Maybe integrity aligns with moral invention then. It’s about the quest for a new moral code, or a superior moral code, or a more truthful one. Which will only manifest in retrospect. It’s connected, yes, to the creation of a new moral code, that derives from an older one, or differs from it, and can manifest in new situations. It’s a form of anti-puritanism, or even moral entrepreneurship.

A: So, that’s interesting, is integrity about respect for a relatively closed and defined moral code, independently of context? Or is it the continuous and constant invention of a moral code, in relation to the changing context?

B: The more distance between established moral and your own code of ethics, the more opposition there is, and the more integrity you display when you continue pushing your own code of ethics forward. The danger is, you might feel like pure opposition is a way to ‘gain points’, and you might fall into some sort of addition to refusal or rejection. An ‘I’m pure, they’re dirty’ kind of thing. That’s something I feel sometimes with American liberals, and that seems like a kind of dangerous integrity.

A: Maybe then, there’s a creative integrity, which is like an embodiment of the spirit, where the spirit respects its own shape, even as it comes in contact with the resistance of the real. And that’s in opposition the form of integrity which simply refuses any contact with the dirty concrete.

B: Well, morals is the set of rules you’re imposing on yourself for the good of others, and that only comes in the first person. There’s something moralizing about puritanism, but that’s not integrity. Integrity is something that only exists in the first person, and is not something you can demand of others, or even properly judge.

Values cards project – leadership

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I remember, my Australian friends were shocked when I said that there was no word for ‘leadership’ in French.

B: Well, it’s one of those words that just bring together all sorts of different ideas under the one label. But then, the word ‘motivation’ didn’t exist 500 years ago, and people were still probably ‘motivated’. So, the fact that there isn’t a word for leadership in French might not mean very much.

A: I mean, how do you translate ‘leadership’ in French? The best equivalent I found was ‘meneur’, but then it sounds like you’re a gang leader. So, I wonder if it’s about not having the word or concept, or that we don’t value the concept in the same way?

B: What about, leadership is one of those things you recognise when you see it, but you can’t really define it. And maybe that’s because it’s about actions rather than intrinsic qualities. Leadership only manifests in certain circumstances. It’s a cliché, but there is no leader without followers, right?

A: True, I mean, there’s an illusion, from the word itself, that leadership somehow emanates from the person, rather than their position. It’s kind of an intrinsic something. And I think that’s a very American way of looking at things, very protestant.

B: In business, it’s one of those bullshit concepts – I mean, there’s a whole leadership industry, and a lot of it is just about trainers and coaches making money. I know you hate that kind of stuff. And then, all this focus on individual leadership, it hides an important part of the puzzle, which is about, how do you create the structures of an organization where effective collaboration is possible?

A: If I look at it with a less critical eye, I think, there’s something about leadership that… it implies that an organization is not a mechanical structure, but it’s alive somehow. Followers are not exactly like cogs, more like cattle. So, there is something, it’s like shepherds and sheep. And what that’s about is again, the leader as somehow on a different plane of reality, the leader as a superior being.

B: Coming back to the French context, we have this power structure, this class system, this network of grandes ecoles, and that’s what defines leadership. It’s the same thing in French companies, you have the engineers and Grandes Ecoles alumni at the top, leading. It’s like, their diploma gives them a kind of aura, and that’s why the rest of the company follows.

A: It seems like, the way we describe it, leadership is all about vertical relationships. I wonder then, could we say then that leadership is not a useful concept to think about collaboration. That’s, leadership will not help us think about better ways to relate with peers and equals? Or maybe, it’s saying something else, it’s saying that everything in a group starts with a person, so you need that one person to start the movement, and that’s what leadership is about?

B: Well, there is a problem still, that it’s about that mysterious intrinsic quality, and it makes you believe that leadership is that thing inside, that individual something, that creates whatever leadership is about, rather than the context. While I think… in an ideal company, there may not even be the need for leadership. That doesn’t mean all you have is process, but rather, if leadership is about making decisions and acting – and sometimes this demands courage – the role of an organization, of the structures in place, is to make it so that decisions call for as little courage as possible to be made. So, we have the effect of leadership, without need for that quality. I even wonder if we might be creating deliberately difficult situations precisely so that we can see leadership emerge, like a kind of masochism?

A: I like that, but then would you say, it’s possible that thinking in terms of leadership calls to mind a mafia-style model, and instead of complex and costly systems of organization, you just rely on that strong-man figure? And so, there’s something about keeping dysfunctional structures in place that’s about letting all that macho-stuff play out?

B: I don’t know, I think…. I think it might be cultural. It we look at a traditional Japanese organization, the problem is, there is an aspiration to consensus, but it’s not explicit why there is this aspiration. There’s very strong peer pressure not to make any mistakes. There’s a fear of being blamed. Then you’re, exiled from the village, and you die. So that’s why there is a whole system in place, so that people can avoid responsibility. In Japan, the director of a department will spend their whole day doing nothing. Their main role is to apologize if there is a problem. And it’s true that they do nothing, that’s what a good director does, they just maintain personal connections internally. But that’s essential, because it allows the younger or the more junior staff to do the job, and take risks. Because the director is responsible, and if things go wrong, they know the director will apologize. So, the staff don’t have to fear anything. And that’s leadership too.

A: I like that, because then, we can say that the features of a good leader is whatever makes sense in whatever structure. Or even, that the traits of the good leader come forward through the structure, because of the structure. So, the good leader may be the shepherd, or the macho warrior, but the good leader might also be the one who stays calm, and leads by inaction. We recognize the leader by their silence, they make room for others. Ha, and when I think of it, it may be particularly difficult, particularly for, say, more American models of leadership, to focus on that deliberate inaction.

Values cards project – independence

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: Let’s start with this: freedom – or autonomy – is not so much about the absence of rules, but power, more specifically the power to make decisions. So, there’s a difference between freedom and independence.

B: Another angle would be to look at financial independence. What it is is, it’s the power to be autonomous, that is, I choose who to depend on. And so, if we look at independence, it’s always relative, never absolute. Absolute independence, it’s not realistic. It’s always about who you choose to depend on.

A: So, that’s more about chosen dependence, or interdependence. When we think of things that way, we just recognize the fact that absolute independence is only possible in theory.

B: It’s also about not obeying orders, the capacity to say no, the capacity to maintain your principles. If I see a competent person, and they haven’t developed an independent position for themselves, I start to doubt their integrity. It even seems dangerous to me.

A: Well, when a newspaper claims that they’re independent, the word seems interchangeable with integrity. We’re independent, therefore we tell the truth. But that’s never told explicitly. For a paper, integrity is implicit, while independence is explicit.

B: Then, from another perspective, if you’re independent but you don’t have integrity, you’re making a moral mistake. The optimal situation, so that you don’t have to make compromises, it’s independence. And if you don’t strive towards that, it’s the beginning of a moral flaw.

A: I also associate independence, then, with a type of craft or technical excellence. When I was hanging out in the startup space, I saw those two profiles – I had two friends actually like that. One who cofounded a crowdfunding platform, but could also code and do UX work, and he had this kind of strong independence. While another friend was a business developer, she set up an international incubator, and she was really sharp, but all she could do was build relationships – nothing really specific or marketable, with clear measures of success. And I always had the impression that she was less independent, she needed to care about other people more. There was this frustration, and this kind of anxiety about her, I think for that reason.

B: Well, that’s how I sometimes think of myself. I’m a good salesperson, but do I have excellent craft? I’m not sure.

A: Maybe that’s what trading is about: it’s keeping the belief that both parties need you. And so, it’s not an independent role. Is it that the merchant, then, is structurally less independent than the craftsperson?

B: Well, I like that new concept of ‘bullshit jobs’, and my theory is, if you can describe you job in one sentence, it’s not a bullshit job. Otherwise it is. I wonder what this means for a coach?

A: Maybe one way to look at it is this. A physio puts your body back in place. And a coach does that with your brain. Except coaching had a lot from people who came in as consultants, or wanted to be consultants, and started to hype everything up, they were making claims about what we could achieve. And often, those claims weren’t true. It’s actually difficult to reach that point of stability and say ‘that’s what I can do for you. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, and that something is already not bad.’

B: So maybe, this has to do with independence. You’re more valuable when you don’t promise people the moon, but you give them an unmbrella, and when it’s raining, that’s what you need. It comes with a form of integrity. You’re not dependent on people’s delusions.

A: Are we saying then that there’s a link between independence and truth or realism?

B: There’s that, but also that financial element we started with. You’re independent when you’ve got money set aside. And if you’ve got an expensive lifestyle, that reduces your independent.

A: So, we must limit our needs to increase our independence. And the token of freedom is not more income, but fewer expenses. The possibility to keep your needs down.

B: I like that. Independence as the capacity to say no to anything. Or better, the decision to say yes to certain things, so you can continue to say no to anything.