Values cards project – joy

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 see joy as associated with a desire for power.

B: There’s something about it that’s exuberant, something to do with activity.

A: It’s not a permanent state, but it’s connected to something you do.

B: It’s derived from an activity that’s geared towards the good.

A: It’s also connected to something particular. It can be an object or it can be an action, but it’s about something.

B: Maybe joy and happiness are like fear and anxiety. One is about a specific thing, the other is more like a looser state, without a clear object.

A: There are also people who are more or less prone to joy. You know those people who just seem particularly joyful.

B: And joy can be more or less calm.

A: There’s something religious about it too. Something Christian. I mean, it’s in Christian songs.

B: It’s like a greater capacity to rejoice – enjoy – whatever is coming from the outside.

A: It’s kind of like a candy-machine where you don’t need coins, it just comes when you press a button.

B: OK, so joy has an external source. It means there’s no self-contained joy. It’s a positive attitude, but also something to do with a kind of openness.

A: Yes, happiness is more about having a harmonious relationship with yourself, while joy is about your relationship with nature, or with God, or with other people.

B: So, what’s the opposite of joy? Maybe it’s vice, as the pursuit of an activity that will bring you temporary pleasure on the spot, and remorse afterwards.

A: Another opposite of joy would be rejection. When you’re closed off to things.

B: Or there’s pain, that’s more physical, there’s despair, and that’s more about your inner psychological state, but then there’s sadness, and that’s the opposite of joy?

A: Is joy an end in itself then?

B: Cultivating joy is an end in itself.

A: So, it’s about the pursuit of happiness, as a right and a duty.

B: A right that’s not associated to a duty doesn’t deserve to be defended

A: There’s Andre Gide, saying it’s a duty to make yourself happy

B: Or Gandhi, saying there’s a duty to be happy from the mere fact that you were brought to the world.

A: What about joy and desire?

B: Ha, well, at a first level, desire is about wanting what you don’t have. But at a second level, it’s about the capacity to rejoice from the things you have.

A: In Ignatian terms, you’d say the goal of our existence is to figure out the unique manner in which we’re called to pay homage to your creator. And then do that. Joy is just an epiphenomenon.

B: So, there’s a duty to be joyful. You can’t tell somebody to be happy, but you can bring joy to others through your own joy.

A: It’s a kind of hospitable virtue.

B: A Mediterranean virtue.

A: And what about joy and truth? There’s this passage from Descartes, in the Passion of the Soul, where he it’s better to feel fake joy than true sadness. I call that the Cartesian dilemma.

B: Well, this sounds like one of the only real ethical dilemma.

On free will

“One of the principal parts of wisdom,” writes Descartes in Passions of the soul, “is to know why and in what form each of us should feel esteem or contempt for themselves, and I shall attempt here to share my opinion on the topic. I can only see one thing within us that would give right cause for esteem, that is, the use of our own free will, and the control that we exert over it. Because only such activities as depend on this free will can rightfully receive praise or blame, and because, in some manner, it makes us akin to God, by making us masters of ourselves, for as long as we do not lose the rights that it gives us through cowardice.”

Free will is the cornerstone of all virtue. Any moral judgement, whether about ourselves or others, should hold this as leading principle. Practicalities may bring forward layers of complexity. Symbolic violence, sociological determinations, brain chemistry, all affect our free will. But a radical attachment to Cartesian ethics can help even then. In such and such a context, whether symbolic, social, chemical, how did we choose to behave, within the latitude that our free will made possible? How did that behaviour impact on the situation, our own, and that of others, in the short and long term? Was another path available? Why, then, did we choose this particular course of action?

More importantly, Descartes articulates free will and courage. In any situation, we must ask, to what extent are external circumstances genuinely beyond our control, in the short and the long term? To what extent are we using them as a pretext in order to avoid responsibility? Complex casuistic might ensue, but the glowing core principle remains. It inquires, naggingly, of rich and poor alike, what did you do with your free will?