On the pandemic

1

Most of our lives unfold in controlled environments. We make plans. Our pride attaches to them. We fail to see the background work to make all this possible.

Mammals use most of our energy to maintain homeostasy. Same with human civilisation. It’s an effort to keep things in balance. We control temperature. We store food. We set norms.

Then war, nature, or the system’s internal chaos, tip things over. Plans fail. Our sense of self is damaged. We feel shame. We feel grief. We feel anger.

2

Is a virus alive? It’s just a short strand of DNA, with extra protein and fat. Yet, it’s able to hack the cells of a living organism, and reproduce itself.

Each virus normally matches one species. If it crosses by accident – say when a pig eats a banana covered in bat saliva – the virus can’t reproduce. It eventually decomposes.

Except, sometimes, by chance, it works. Because living things have a lot in common. Poodles are very big amoebas, with a twist. More: viruses mutate randomly when they reproduce. Versions most compatible with a new host multiply. They spread. It repeats.

3

Illness is loss of balance. The resources of the body go towards containing a foreign organism, or helping it multiply. Immune system goes haywire. Vital organs stifle and fail. Too much at the same time, and the body collapses into death. Or it rebalances itself, but on a lower plane, some functions lost. Or it heals.

Past experience will tell us how each illness runs its course. We know when to let the body fight alone, or when to intervene. In the case of a new virus, it’s all educated guesswork.  

We look for symptoms. Fever. Cough. Short breath. Fatigue. Rashes. Brain fog. Nausea. Pains. We test how early they start, how strong they manifest, how long they last. We list affected organs and tissues. Lungs. Brain. Blood. Skin. Muscles. Intestines. We count how many people die. We track long-term effects on survivors. We seek patterns.

4

When the body goes out of balance, medical intervention can restore function. Painkillers and syrups relieve symptoms. Threats to vital organs can be warded off by various interventions. But no treatment has guaranteed success for all. Many come with danger.

The goal is to keep minimal homeostasy. As long as a person is alive, there is hope for recovery. When the system collapses into death, it’s too late for a cure. When one organ fails, others tend to follow. Time is of the essence. Better play safe, rest up and isolate.

Except, we’re not bodies only. We strive to keep physical homeostasy, yes, but also mental and social. We take pills to reduce pains and fevers, so we can play, care, work, and keep the systems around us functioning.

Except, we’re not in this alone. Medicine is not just about this person, and this person, and this person. It’s working with a certain amount of supplies, and hospital beds, and doctors, and nurses, and entire supply chains. Too much pressure, and the whole system collapses.

5

How do you compare the preventable death of a son, sister, mother, friend, or grand-parent, to the collapse of a business, the loss of free spirit, or dreams never manifested, at population scale? How do you weigh the grief of crushed aspirations, versus the grief of early death? How do you balance inflation with trauma?

It’s hard enough to find answers. Factor uncertainty, preferences will shift. Some willingly gamble for a career, others for a loved one. Some want safety, some want agency, some want accountability, for themselves, or for all. It’s a maelstrom of passionate confusion.

To stop the chaos, we throw figures around. It’s unclear exactly where those figures come from, how accurate, or what’s left uncounted. Numbers have an air of self-evidence.

Lucky we trained in critical thought. We question the source. Mainstream media. Random dude on YouTube. Big pharma. Fame-seeking scientist. Lying official. Deranged nurse. Sprinkle a spoonful of deep fakes, leave it in the dark, and see the bubbles appear.  

When I was in grade 12 philosophy, I was warned off mathematics. Power likes to deploy them as a form of sophisticated puppetry, to distract or impress. Later, I studied formal logic. It confirmed this early suspicion. Most formulas are nothing but symbolic chiaroscuro, dramatizing platitudes.

In my experience, however, storytelling trumps data. When it’s all too chaotic, and we need a course of action, we follow plot, and we trust character.

On machines as mediators

1

My friend J. lived in Vienna during the Pandemic. His five-year old daughter used to play with the neighbour’s child. Interaction came naturally for the two of them. They were about the same age. Except, they didn’t have a common language. One spoke only German, the other Dutch and English. That wasn’t a problem though. They had a tablet handy, with Google Translate on it.  

2

By default, we think of AI – and digital technology– in terms of its individual benefits. We ask, how can the machine help me reach my goals, or the goals of my company? Technology takes on a different meaning if we consider it in the context of a group. The question here becomes, how could the machine transform relationships?

I wonder if there is a subset of UX research that focuses on collective experiences, or if companies explicitly design software for communities. What kind of tools would we need to draw user personas and empathy maps, not for individuals but for groups? And how would we pitch this collective value proposition?

3

I shared a piece on Linkedin not long ago. It’s an article about the Prehistory of the Internet,  challenging the default narrative. We’ve all heard of ARPANET, how the Internet was born from a military project to create a distributed communication network – one that would resist a nuclear apocalypse. This colours the way we think about the Net.

Yet there is another strand in the genealogy: bulletin boards, organised on a local basis, accessed through modems, via phone lines. This thread is not about scientists exchanging knowledge in real time, or military generals coordinating reconstruction efforts. It’s about random weirdos discussing whatever online, or using the technology to meet up and discuss arcane areas of pop culture.

Reductionism is tempting. We love to say that something is just something. It’s comforting, and it makes us sounds smart. Yet most of the world is hybrid, messy – sources confused and mingling. Same with the Internet: it’s a global distributed network, resilient and globally connected. It’s also an aggregate of local networks, enabling new ways of organising communities. It’s a whole lot of other things too.

Recognising this hybridity – more generally recognising complexity – is about more than precision for the sake of it. It’s about gaining greater freedom. The more we train ourselves to recognise that the things around us have complex genealogies, the more we can imagine different futures – each in the continuity of a different ancestry.

4

In 2020, an AI wrote a piece for the Guardian. By scanning the enormous amount of texts available on the web, the machine was able to reproduce verbal patterns in a way that somewhat made sense. This is writing through brute force computation, aggregating cliches.

Yet, it’s not exactly true that an AI wrote a piece for the Guardian – to the same extent that few authors write alone. The final text was edited. Humans used their critical meaning-making ability to select, arrange, and cut through the various drafts compiled by the machine.

We like to think of authorship in romantic terms. The poet is a pure fount of original thought. They’re a channel for the Godly muse to reach other humans. The first draft is a work of genius. Editors only polish and refine. AI-writing seriously challenges this view.

But what if we framed things differently? What if we placed editors at the core of the human effort of meaning-making. The first draft is just an attempt at capturing what floats around. Editing is where original thought emerges. If we were to use this model, then we could also think of AI as a mediumnic tool, at the service of the editor. A tool to capture an elusive ‘spirit of the times’, better than any first draft.   

5

Code serialises problems. It’s formal logic and clear communication. How surprising then that it’s not part of our English curriculum, as an extension of argument analysis. Coding as the art of unambiguous thought, expressed in unambiguous language.

On peace

1

On the painting, the Chinese emperor sits at the centre of the frame, calm and symmetrical. Behind, a dragon stretches in dynamic spiral, mouth and claws open, manifesting chaos.

2

Certain diseases spread with just one point of exposure. Most require multiple factors. The same applies to knowledge, and behaviour. The rule of thumb is that people attend an event if they’ve heard about it three times, and one of their friends is going. There is no simple causation. You need A + B + C for something to manifest.

3

You know the drill. Three types of networks. Beware central points of failure. Hail distributed resilience. Now quick, let’s embrace blockchain, open source, holocracy, or whatever latches onto the model.

This is probably the most widely shared image in ‘talks that make you feel smart’, since the rise of the Internet. Why should I abstain? Here’s my quick take on it. I see it as a way of understanding various forms of power, as exerted in a state, or in organisations. 

To the left, executive power. The capacity to get things done. When the crisis strikes, one person makes decisions, the rest obey. Flows of information gather on the one point. There’s one head of state. All group members recognise this one person as a shared figure of authority. All monitor their words and behaviour for guidance.

At the centre, judiciary power. Local conflicts and arbitration sorted through local courts and judges. But one central point monitors each of those for alignment. And if a matter cannot be solved locally, parties might see the Supreme Court, Top Judge, or whatever central entity keeps the system coordinated.  

To the right, legislative power. Each representative a separate node, forming a mesh. Parties and cliques make local clusters, as do regional affiliations, gender, religion, or all sorts of other bases for factional aggregation. Some nodes are more connected than others. But things remain fluid. Norms and information circulate peer to peer.

This model offers a different take on good old separation of power. Namely, that it’s not so much about having separate institutions for different functions. Rather, it’s choosing to structure a group through distinct overlapping networks of relationships.

4

Each of us holds multiple identities. Male. Female. Non-binary. French. Global. Australian. Suburban. Father. Grand-mother. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Left-handed. Socialist. Conservative. Retired. Entrepreneur. Bike-rider. Car owner. Vegan. Fighter. Soprano. Bass. Cat person. Strong person. Gentle person. Dog person.

Each item in the list – and the list has no end – marks a different peer group. The difficulty lies in managing overlaps. How can I be part of the Melbourne community – with its extensive suburbs and cars – and a committed bike-rider? How can I be Christian and Gay? How can I be male and gentle?

Sometimes, we simplify. Melbourne is a green, progressive city. Car-owners don’t belong. Melbourne is an industrious, entrepreneurial city. Socialists don’t belong. Melbourne is a free-spirited city. Dog owners don’t belong. We cast a bridge here, we dig a moat there, and  before we know it, we’re up in arms to defend our precious sense of belonging.

War cements overlaps. Peace has tender boundaries.

5

Many westerners fear China. What would prevent their Supreme Leader from wreaking havoc around the world. There’s no rule of law. No separation of power.

I was talking with my friend Patrick, who coaches executives in Japan. Consulting companies headquartered in the US like to barge into the country to deploy their models, fire people and put process in place. Then they leave, and things collapse. The people were the glue.

Separation of power is a guardrail against excess. If a psychopath comes to rule, they’ll be kept in check. Add a layer of market ideology – greed is good, and people should do whatever they want if they can afford it – and you’ve created a situation where, indeed, we need a solid system to guard against all sorts of deranged appetites. 

So, with that friend, we ventured the following thought. What if limiting the rule of law, reducing process, and consolidating powers, created the conditions for more virtuous leadership? What if it was another type of guardrail against excess, one that must rely on internalized limits, and creates ideal conditions to cultivate restraint and moderation?

6

Clusterings of true believers have disproportionate influence. If 3% of a population hold firm, norms can shift. Canetti calls them crowd crystals. Stable groups with strong internal connections, shaping the culture, beliefs and behaviours of a much larger population.   

Much has been written about weak ties, connectors, and the spread of information. Social transformation, however, needs the strong ties of a close-knit group. Sound waves amplified in its echo chamber.

7

The Polynesian world expands over the open sea. We can learn from ancient navigation techniques. Set the vision, meet the team, consider anchors, anticipate islands along the way, and look to the flying birds that indicate land nearby. This is the wayfinding model proposed by New Zealander Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’I, to rethink innovation and development.

 Certainly, here is a wisdom tradition that we can learn from. It is, in fact, highly compatible with our Western world shaped by navigators, where future projects unfold on virgin islands beyond the ocean, waiting for humans to settle. This is a model for enlightened sea-steading, space colonisation – entrepreneurship even – predicated on there being more space, out there, unclaimed.

The model is useful, certainly, but incomplete without an Australian counterpart. One based in aboriginal wisdom, and continentality. One where slack lies not beyond the shores, but in the shifting patterns of a saturated world.

8

Multiculturalism embraces different communities sharing the same space. I wonder though, what would an intercultural society look like? What would it take to create a world where strong ties are not based on cultural similarity, shared origins, or mutual predictability, but open-ended delight in exploring subtle patterns of distinction and overlap.

9

The human brain differs from other species by the size of its frontal cortex. The key function of which is inhibition. 

On witchcraft

1

‘Women have always been healers’. This is how Barbara Ehrenreich opens her pamphlet Witches, Midwives and Nurses. In the Middle Ages, wise women served as health practitioners, among the peasants and the poor. They alleviated suffering and saved lives. To do this, they relied on empirical experience, transmitted from others, or derived from observation and intuition, through trial and error.

At the beginning of the modern period – with the rise of capitalism – those women were banned from medicine. Church and State leagued against the ‘witches’, systematically tracking, persecuting, and executing them. Their crime – often – was curing people without the right to do so. This was a dangerous form of concurrence for the new figure of the male doctor, upper class, university trained and properly licensed. It was all the more dangerous as doctors’ training relied on ancient canons and dogma, rather than empirical experience. For centuries, their capacity to cure and care was therefore doubtful. Hence the witch hunts, so that the rich would bleed, while the poor were deprived of the more available and affordable care offered by wise women.

Women came back on the healthcare scene, though, as the figure of the nurse emerged. Except she – for in her initial guise, she was very much gendered – was not a wise healer, with deep empirical knowledge of plants and practices to cure ailments. Rather, she was modelled on the society lady, offering gentle and docile support to the trained (male) doctor. From expert healers, women had been recast in the default role of professional assistants. And what if people suffered, or couldn’t afford care – as long as class and gender norms were kept in place.

2.

When I was a child, my mother ran a one-person graphic design agency. Her logo was a witch on a broom. My cousin is a speech therapist with unconventional methods – cats, dogs, donkeys – and stunning results. She has a witch hanging from the ceiling in her practice.  On the other side of my family, one of my aunts used to gather herbs and keep goats as pets. Another would cure sunburns by imposition of the hands, a gift passed on by an old wise woman. I even heard that my grand-father was from a family of village healers. Witchcraft, in short, is not a thing of the distant past for me, but part of my heritage.

It was also part of popular culture, from when I was a kid. I remember Elizabeth Montgomery twitching her nose on Bewitched, I remember shows about mysteries on TVs, and book series on paranormal experiences om the bookshelves at home. I remember reading La sorciere de la rue Mouffetard in primary school, and becoming a healer or a magician myself every lunchbreak during a role playing game stint in Middle School. Later on, it was Harry Potter, X-men, and vampires. More recently, it’s been Astro-memes, and the fascinating Weird Studies podcast –  introduced by my co-author Corin Ism – reflections on art and philosophy ‘at the limit of the thinkable’. So, yes, for me, magic has always been part of the fabric of life.

3.

Back in high school, I was often praised for my ‘synthetic spirit’ – esprit de synthèse. I ended up inquiring from a teacher what they meant by it. It’s your capacity, they said, to make sense of things, and express that meaning clearly. Find relevant patterns, and summarise them in a way that others understand. Like a good reduction – this is how I think of it now – it’s about caramelising knowledge. 

‘Synthetic spirit’ is not an expression I’ve heard much in English. When I typed ‘esprit de synthèse’ in Google Translate, the machine proposed ‘analytical mind’. I can see the overlap. My friend Ashish is an analytics lead in a tech start-up. He describes his role as solving puzzles, finding answers to questions from heaps of data. Sorting through the mess takes time, but the result comes in a sudden flash, like magic.

I can see the overlap, and yet the words carry distinct overtones. Analysis implies a process of division – breaking things down into their parts. It has a surgical cleanliness to it. It also sounds like it can be professionally taught and assessed. Synthesis, by contrast, is intrinsically murky. It’s odd bits put together, in context, guided by intuition and experience. The proof is in the pudding – and like any great pudding, the recipe won’t capture the secret: it’s all in the sleight of hand.

4.

As we outsource our memory to the Internet, one of the risks is that we lose our capacity for synthesis. I recently stumbled upon a dialogue with the editors of a new book, A global history of the 20th century’. The authors – both history professors – describe a common shortcoming among their students. They’re able make sense of a specific historical event (say, May 68 in France), but they struggle to place an event in its broader context. They can’t articulate its relevance, or follow the various chains of rippling causality connecting it with everything else that happened in the world.

Things always make sense in relation to each other. Without enough background knowledge in our heads, we become unable to make meaning, no matter how much is accessible online.  

Writing a global history of the 20th century is about providing such background knowledge: a shared foundation for historical sense-making. That work is relevant because, as time passes, matters of concern shift. They certainly did since the 19th century, and the German Idealist vision of a ‘universal history’ centred on the rise of Europe and human progress. Unless we consider the 20th century through lenses relevant today – demographic explosion, questions, political violence, or the Anthropocene – we will have nothing but a set of disconnected facts.

Good synthetic work, like good comedy, can do wonders for its time. Then it fades. Like old jokes, insights from that sense-making work either enter common consciousness as commonplace knowledge – or they become antiquated oddbits.

5

I remember this conversation with a lover once, who identified as a wizard. We were speaking of the Radical Faeries, and the long tradition of queer resistance. ‘They used to call them witches,’ he said, ‘they were men and the women who chose an alternative life, and lived in the woods. They would make soup, using whatever was nutritious – forest animals, leaves, insects. That was a free life – it was in touch with the environment too – but it was threatening to the mainstream. So to discourage people from leaving the village, they focused on the witches’ brews, and used disgust. Imagine eating toads!’ Then he laughed – ‘They did the same for us. Imagine anal sex!’

6

Capitalism sets a clear distinction between the place of work and the place of care. There is a private space for social reproduction – where women exert invisible labour – and a space of economic production, dominated by men. Witches blur the categories, and therefore threaten capitalist constructions. Imagine, healing methods that cannot be reproduced at scale, and monetised! What a scandal! Besides, we should get rid of those forests and commons, with their messy governance and proliferating wildlife. Better enclose the fields, and breed sheep.

7

Magicians rely on external forces to transform the world. The gift should be shared freely. This is the wisdom behind Peter and Simon the magician. Professionals have no such qualms. They learn formal skills in learning institutions – at a measurable cost – take long apprenticeships, and charge accordingly. For healers and other intuitive practitioners – facilitators, coaches, change experts – the relationship is not so straightforward. We learn on the job, from others, or in a sudden twist of genius. How much, then, should we charge?

I have learned not to compromise on sharing the gift for free, by-passing all advice to the contrary. But what I am comfortable charging for is constraints on my own timetable. The gift should be shared freely, true, but if you want it next Thursday from 8 to 11, there’s a cost for that. Or if you have any further request – format, direction, delivery mode – then again, here’s a cost.  

8

My mother taught me to think by myself: ‘Others are doing it’ was never a valid excuse, but a source for deep mockery. My step-mother had a more professional outlook. Her default frame of mind was ‘What’s everyone else doing?’

Good design requires a balance between introspective judgement and social exploration. But each of us has a preference, a default direction. This is a defining trait of character, and when left unspoken, a major cause of disagreement.  

9

In Christianity, nothing is forbidden. This is the crucial break. There is no sinful act in itself. Sin only lies in the relationship we have with our own actions. This is radical freedom.

Virtue ethics in a time of crisis

1

In a stable and unified society, there is a shared sense of what constitutes the good life, and a person of good character.

The world is now in crisis, we all know that. Yet we often fail to discuss the consequences on our sense of self.

Faced with all sorts of systemic risks, far beyond our scope of action, we no longer know what the good life is, what’s ethical behaviour, or what a good person looks like. We’re therefore at risk of moral collapse.

2

Virtue ethics is based on a belief that, in order to live a good life, we must cultivate certain positive habits, or virtues. We must develop a readiness to do the right thing. We must also nurture the wisdom to discern what the right thing is. By doing this, we become a person of good character, who therefore acts ethically.

This ethical stance is generally contrasted with two other models. Deontology sees ethical action as respecting a set of firm rules that we should never break, no matter how painful or costly. Consequentialism – effective altruism its latest popular incarnation – sees an ethical life as one devoted to minimising harm and maximising pleasure, for the largest number, whichever way measured. Meanwhile, virtue ethics places emphasis on the agent. Ethical actions are what an ethical character would do, with tradition as a guide.

Each tradition has its own framework articulating key virtues: Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Islam, etc. Beside a large amount of overlap – gentleness, courage, benevolence – virtue-ethical traditions have three fundamental traits in common.

The first is a belief in human perfectibility: we can change our default settings through deliberate effort.

The second is a commitment to education: societies should put systems in place so that people do develop virtues.

The third is an aspiration to effortlessness: we should build virtuous habits, so that we will do the right thing without having to fight against ourselves.  

3

I’m the child of a divorce. One of the hardest thing I had to do growing up was reconcile the worlds of two parents who drifted apart, and inhabited different ethical worlds. Navigating intercultural virtue ethics was a matter of existential importance. At times, it placed me on the brink of madness – but it also built a muscle that has proven highly valuable.

Inspired by a childhood spent in the European capital, languages and cultures were my way forward. Through philology and hermeneutics, I trained to question the relationship between words on the one hand, and thought, behaviours or emotions on the other. Through language practice, reading and international friendships, I learned to stretch my own ethical sense of self.

Later in life, marriage with an Australian and migration to Melbourne put all this to the test, quite successfully. I delved deeper into my own Catholic tradition – including by pursuing Ignatian spiritual exercises – while exploring Confucianism, and Buddhism. I also started working on ‘change-the-world’ type projects – global governance, engagement with China, regenerative finance, etc – all of which needed a good stomach to resist ethical sea-sickness. Meanwhile, I continued reflecting on virtue, and sharing my reflections on this blog.

4

All virtue traditions involve a shared sense of ‘what humans are’ and ‘how the world works’. Without basic agreement on those points, how could you decide what positive habits we must nurture?

Today, with a world in deep crisis, we flounder.

Learning to perform better within existing systems and structures has become irrelevant. It’s unlikely that the world will be made better by me getting a job at Google. I should certainly not have a stake in maintaining existing structures of power in place. Yet alternative paths are unclear.

This blog is in part about exploring those paths. What can we and what should we do to shift the system? What virtuous habits should we nurture?

It is also – and mainly – proposing to do something more fundamental. That is, train a form of lucid detachment. Patriarchy, colonialism, neoliberalism, and a whole catalogue of obsolete mental models, hide behind self-evident truths. If we want a real chance to build something new, we need to defuse the cliches scattered across our shared mental landscape.

But even that is not enough. When we get rid of a cliche, nothing will immediately take its place. So we need to cultivate a form of intellectual calm, while we patiently wait for new connections to form, and new, better model to take shape. This virtuous habit we need, to stay calm in the face of mental chaos.

This is what I hope my blog can achieve, or at least go some way towards.

I encourage you to explore the various sequences listed under the header. Or if you want a place to start, check out The Seven Deadly Sins, Confucian Virtues, or this series on My Practice.

Emotional labour as a shock absorber

Our bodies are made up of bones, muscles, and organs. Yet that’s not all. There is a wide network of nerves, blood and lympathic vessels to connect them, and there is connective tissue to hold the whole system together: cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and membranes.

Our animal life depends on that connective tissue. Elastic fibres enable movement by stretching, collagen holds the structure in place. This is what keep us whole, and mobile.

The same applies to the social world. Collectives are made of more than bones, muscles and organs. They need shock absorbers, cartilage and glue, to keep us from hurting too much as we bump against each other.   

Diplomats, connectors and care-takers play that role. Gentle movements to soothe inflammation, politeness to reduce the risk of ripping a fragile social fabric. Emotional labour of all sorts.

Those efforts are particularly valuable in all settings where misunderstandings arise easily. Whenever there is difference, injustice, or inherited tensions. Whenever things shift, rub or chafe. Yet as for all harm prevention, we fail to value those who keep society together, then clap those who remediate – or worse, encourage the trouble-makers.

As we face major disruption around the world, it may well be time we rewarded our shock absorbers – or at least, celebrated them enough that they don’t leave us dry when we need them most.

On goal setting

There is a structural weakness to goal setting practices. For if you can articulate a goal from the start, then go through the motions, and hit the mark, you’re probably using a borrowed framework. You’re playing someone else’s game.

Sure, you might win, with luck and discipline. Like there’s always a winning horse in a race. But that’s not my gig. Instead, I try acting first, clumsily, messing with the concrete –  hoping the goal will reveal itself afterwards, retrospectively. I find it more human.

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 – winning

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 think about why I do things, it’s always about reflection or connection. It’s about understanding, self-transformation, meeting new people. It’s not about success or competition. In fact, that’s a thing I meditated on during my spiritual exercises. That’s in the Principle and Foundation, that we should become indifferent to success or failure.

B: There’s this way of viewing the world, that uses ‘win/lose’ as an axis. If you’re using that model, typically, winning is about earning money, and losing is about money too. But life is much more complex than that. There’s a vast number of things that we’re involved in. While if you look at the idea of ‘winning’ (or losing), it implies that we’ve got a set of agreed rules, and we play by them. So, if you have ‘winning’ as a value, it means you see life as a game with clear rules to follow. While the way that I would see it is that life is a multitude of games with different rules, and we’re all playing a number of them at the same time. So, to see life in terms of winning and losing, properly, that would mean we understand all the rules of all the games. And that seems a bit excessive for me.

A: Also, when you talk about ‘winning’, it means someone else is losing, and I’m not sure that’s how society works, or how it should work. It’s not the goal we should go towards at least. I mean, we can we should all be winners, but then the concept doesn’t mean anything anymore. So, what’s a system that would allow everyone to benefit, and we’re not talking about winning?

B: In the 2000’s, there was a lot of talk about winners and losers. There was all this talk about personal responsibility, particularly in the USA. And it was like the goal of the government was to create conditions where more people can ‘win’ – but is that what the government is about? Or is it about helping the ‘losers’? Or is it something completely different?

A: When I hear somebody think in terms of ‘win/lose’, I always get an impression that they’ve got a kind of satisfied stupidity. It’s this American vision of personal responsibility, you’re the master of your own destiny, all that stuff, and if you do what you should, then you’re going to win.

B: This, or it’s like we project team sports and its artificial environment on the social world, which is much more complex. There’s a lot of sports metaphors for performance in coaching. But business is really not like an 11-player soccer game. Whatever works in sport, that doesn’t quite extend to social life or business.

A: So, what we were saying is, if ‘winning’ is a value for you, then it means you take life as a game, and so that’s a sign you might lack of seriousness. Or maybe that’s about you choosing not to take life seriously, so that it’s more bearable?

B: Well, that’s the philosopher stance, right, to live a sad life with truth rather than a happy life with lies. To see life as a game so that it’s more bearable, that’s running away from from wisdom.

A: We have those discussions about distraction as an existential risk – that’s in Pascal, and that’s Kierkegaard, who talks about the danger of living for what’s ‘interesting’, rather than, say, living a life that’s morally right, a serious life. But then, there’s a passage by Descartes against that. It’s in the Passions of the soul, and it’s a passage I really like. He says that happiness is positive in itself, while sadness is harmful to you. So, we might genuinely wonder whether it’s better to be wrongly happy than to be rightly sad.

B: OK, so then, is it about winning and the idea of a game being opposed to the serious approach to life?

A: Well, what’s a game? It’s a pursuit or an activity without a clear objective other than itself. The goal of the game is to play the game. It’s about immediate pleasure, something that has no consequences outside the game. While a more serious approach to life sees the goal as important. Maybe that lack of seriousness is about an incapacity to set an objective, or a refusal to pay attention to the consequences of what we do. Maybe that’s a form of laziness.

B: The game is a game, it has not goal outside itself. So, we might as well just play, since nothing really matters. Carnivals are about that. You don’t pretend that things are more serious than they are. It’s all feathers and music. And there’s an existential wisdom to that approach – and to games also. Maybe precisely that thing about happiness as better than sadness. While if you take everything seriously, maybe that’s a sign that you don’t have very good judgement. If you take everything seriously, you might end up neglecting what’s really important – and that’s another form of intellectual laziness. It’s even dangerous – more dangerous than frivolity. That kind of serious approach is how you find yourself believing that the end justifies the means.

A: Maybe we can think of it as associated with Calvinism, since we’ve been talking about this American approach. If there is predestination, then nothing you can’t do anything that will lead you to salvation – it’s all outside of your reach. That means, life is not actually that serious, there’s nothing at stake, it’s all decided for you anyway. You can wait, you can look for signs of predestination, but ultimately, there’s nothing at stake. And so, you might as well play life as a game, and try to win.

On the writer as a project manager

In my Linkedin header, I identify as a writer and educator. I never studied business, or anything resembling business – yet over the past ten years or so, I realised I have done a pretty decent job at project management. Though the skills required are not exceptionally original, I certainly saw that not everybody did well at it. I’ve reflected quite a bit on this unexpected skill, and came to realise that project managers and writers have a lot in common.

1) Situation A to situation B

A fiction plot takes a protagonist, or a set of characters, from situation A to situation B. That is exactly what project management is about: where are we at, where do we want to go, and how do we get there?

2) Who’s doing what?

The most central element of project planning is breaking down a big vision into a set of tasks, and assigning them to different people, trying to match task with character. This is what writers also do. And as for communication, writers have to figure out not just action and characters, but also voice and point of view: at all times, be very clear who’s doing what, what they know, what they see, and how they would describe whatever is happening.

3) Writing is a skills

Project management requires producing a large number documents – beside the project plan itself, there is web-copy, collaterals, team briefings, minutes, and endless emails and text messages. Writers are, generally, rather good at writing. And we make a pretty decent job of producing all of these business documents. Generally, we even manage to get our point across rather well.

What should we get from this? 

Teams and businesses are often looking for an ‘admin’ person, or a ‘business manager’. The best match may very well be a writer, someone who will listen to the story, and turn that into clear, structured written material. So if you’re looking for a new staff member to support project management, admin and strategic support – get a writer in there.