On 义

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Justice – Week 13

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due.

This week, the last I will engage frontally with Justice, I reflected on its relationship with birth, death, and merit.

The principle of meritocracy is that privilege and power should not be based on birth, wealth or strength, but merit, as measured by a set of agreed upon mechanisms. Meritocratic systems include the traditional Chinese imperial examinations, or the French ‘Concours des Grandes Ecoles’. After a period of preparation,  participants take the grand examination, following a prescribed set of steps to demonstrate their competence in a certain subject, which will be assessed anonymously, according to a set of reasonably transparent criteria. The selected few will be fast-tracked to positions of responsibility, benefiting from an outsized share of investment in their further education and training. This may seem like a good manner to compensate for inequalities at birth. But the cost of administering examinations, together with the considerable investment by students, families and the public in preparing for those exams, may be to the detriment of the community.

The dangers of meritocracy include the development of a class more keen on preserving its exam-based privilege than looking after the public welfare. On the basis of that one examination, people acquire a lifetime status. Innovation becomes a threat. Further, meritocratic systems operate within the boundaries of a nation – and therefore encourage not better global forms of collaboration, but competitive nationalism. Worse: each selection system relies on an illusion of intrinsic rationality. Hence a form of meritocratic xenophobia: the ruling class of another country was not selected according to the rules of reason, and therefore, their authorities should not be taken seriously.

On Tuesday, I attended a concert by the Takacs Quartet, a world-class chamber music ensemble from Hungary. What better representation of justice, I thought, than a well-executed string quartet. Each instrument, in turn, takes prominence or holds its own voice back, while, together, the four musicians engage in a rhythmic attempt at reaching musical perfection through concerted collaboration.

The final bulwark of sovereignty, wrote Nicolae Steinhart in ‘Le Journal de la Fecilite’, resides in constitutional judges’ willingness to die in order to uphold the constitution. Here, then, is the touching point of justice and fortitude: the courage of a judge is the condition for justice to manifest in this world. Justice finds its ultimate test in a readiness to die.

Corrupting judges may be the most harmful crime against the State – by the same token, judges’ personal capacity to stand firm may be the greatest ultimate rampart of justice. And so, strengthening the position of judges, from material benefits to social honours, is a pathway towards justice in the community.

Solving crimes, and assigning responsibilities for injustice, even after the perpetrators and victims are dead, is essential. Justice is indeed often called for when death occurs, whether it’s sharing inheritance or avenging murder. Detective novels and other thrillers place murders at the centre of their plot – but, often, then articulate this symbolic manifestation to more complex networks of white collar crime and corruption. Historians assess the justice of past decisions, and on this basis, determine the legitimate capacity for those in power to remain there – or, if not, give precious ammunition to those willing to fight and die so that justice will come to the world. Those, in turn, may form a ruling class based on a different type of legitimacy than scripted exams: the proven willingness to stand up for their idea of justice, and the proven capacity to bring  more justice to the world.



Justice – Week 12

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due.

This week, I reflected on the relationships between justice as a set of balancing mechanisms and the blind effects of chaotic complexity – or, to use a more traditional word, fortune.

Price is a mechanism for establishing justice, say supporters of the free market: the sum total of private interests will end up in a fair price. Not so, say the supporters of regulation: intervention is required so that the random forces of the marketplace do not result in blatant inequalities, or incapacity for the poor to cover their basic needs – that is why we must set maximum prices for certain types of goods, a minimal income, and differentiated taxes.

The difference between those two positions on economic policy may, more fundamentally, reflect two very different belief systems. Is our world inherently good, but corrupted by our incapacity to let nature have its way – or is our world inherently flawed, and ethical behaviour a deliberate effort to counter the destructive effects of a fallen nature? Our answer to this question will determine the way that we think of justice and the role of the state.

I read the following in a piece that circulated on my Facebook stream: ‘massive corporate avoidance, which is just legitimised corruption.’ It is only possible for business ventures and collective entities to generate profits because a set of public goods make their activities possible – including rules and regulations, educated populations, and material infrastructure. It is, therefore, legitimate that private benefit should partly be redirected towards the maintenance of the very public goods that made them possible to start with. This is the principle of tax, and a matter of justice. Corruption occurs when private individuals benefiting from public infrastructure no longer bear their fair share of effort, but rather, direct excessive amounts of scarce resources towards their private accounts. Failing to pay the right share of tax is therefore, in logical terms, a clear form of theft. And yet, in too many circles, evading responsibility for supporting public goods is celebrated as a form of intelligence and the mark of a free spirit – or at least, tolerated as the way things are and have to be. Not so stealing from supermarkets, squatting an empty house, or – God forbid – claiming excessive unemployment benefits.

Justice is always about change. It forces us to question a certain state of affair, and make required adjustments. As we, humans, are biological creatures, interacting with other biological creatures, change is permanent, in us, and around us. Whenever we reach a state of balance, something occurs to quickly disturb it. Therefore, the work of justice is not a once-and-for-all attempt at establishing the right balance, but a continuous effort, that our very nature undermines, always.

Our lives are based on heritage: language, architecture, and the laws guiding our behaviour from a very young age are all remnants of the past, giving shape to the present. Meanwhile, the chaotic interactions of groups and individuals have unexpected effects, and unequal impact. A building permit will cause one to lose access to sunlight or an open view – while another will benefit from a new school or train station built around the corner. Some will experience this as a form of injustice, and fight a collective decision that they perceive as excessively detrimental to them. For others, a decision taken somewhere else, and affecting them positively, will be perceived as good fortune. Which of them has a wiser approach? When should we see the world in terms of justice, and actively question the way that a decision impacts on various parties – and when should we, rather, take things as a matter of fortune, rejoice in our own luck, or accept a negative turn with calm, as part of the way that things have to be?



Justice – Week 11

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due.

This week, I reflected on the conditions that allow for the manifestation of justice.

“Plus on juge, moins on aime,” writes French moralist Chamfort. There is a tension between the virtues of justice and charity. Our duty to pursue neighbourly love could easily be replaced with harsh righteousness and acrimonious litigation. From another perspective, however, both virtues align. Whenever we pursue justice, we relieve others of the duty to forgive – nay, we create a more harmonious world for them – and could think of this as a form of charity. Yet, this holds only to the extent that the pursuit of justice leaves room in us for charity. Here again, though, we should be wary: when others fail to follow justice, and ask instead for charitable forgiveness, is it a matter of human frailty, or plain complacency?

Is it part of justice to promote emotional conditions conducive to its own manifestation? On Sunday night, I attended a concert by The Songkeepers, a group of indigenous women performing Lutheran hymns in their own language. Everybody cried, as these old women from an oppressed people came to the stage, and sang, celebrating the survival of their culture. This event, and similar ones, create a sense of emotional connection, and favour justice: these people are no longer abstract entities, but real human beings with a voice, a face, a body. Justice, then, would require two types of action. On the one hand, an act of fair judgement aiming to rebalance inequities; on the other, an explicit admission of our emotional bias, and a deliberate effort to create emotional conditions for fair judgement.

Justice does not only concern itself with relationships among individuals and between individuals and the community – but also between various communities. So what if they come in conflict? Recently, Melburnian developers illegally took down a heritage-listed pub in Carlton. The same are now suing the State for not granting an authorisation to build a high-rise tower on top of the site. This very possibility, that a convicted corporation sue the State, marks a characteristic of our justice system, genuine separation of power, and belief in the real possibility that an arm of the State – executive agencies in particular – might act unjustly towards individuals and groups. To go one step further, this acknowledges the right of citizens to be part of more than one collective. True, we must pay allegiance to the State – but also to family, city, region, the broader world, and a range of communities that we form. Our justice system must allow us to balance our allegiance to these various entities, particularly by acknowledging that the State is but one among many.

Unions are a form of collective organisation that aims to achieve greater justice. Their existence reveals a weakness of our adversarial system – that it requires an amount of power for justice to manifest itself. No worker on their own could stand up to the owners of a factory, the cost would be too high – but if structures back them up, it becomes possible. Thus, justice depends on a capacity for various parties to create the structures of emotional, financial and social support allowing them to pursue justice. And, therefore, organising and nurturing communities of mutual support, whether unions, clubs, municipalities, or even friendships groups and extended family networks, should be seen as an adjunct form of justice.

Change comes about when a system reaches a state of instability, followed by a restructure. It is always impossible to foresee precisely what the new state of affairs will be. The result may be catastrophic. Yet, justice typically takes the form of such a change, and therefore, it always carries with it the risk of a catastrophe. Therefore, those who benefit from a certain status quo will, more likely, stand against change. Not that they cannot acknowledge a failure of justice, but for fear that their own relative status change too much for the worse, or even that catastrophic change create excessive suffering beyond their own.

Considering this, some will be more structurally likely to resist justice: not only those who clearly benefit from the status quo, but those who built their lives on compromise with an existing system. Change would not only deprive them of status, but their whole personal history would appear under a new light. What if they were to fall victims to retrospective revenge, held accountable for all the violence incurred through the system that they propped us, whether compromise was prompted by greed, sloth or cowardice? It is, therefore, a requirement of justice that we do not let our own existence and sense of personal worth excessively depend on the structures of a corrupt system.

Justice – Week 10

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due. 

This week, my reflections circled back around commons, narratives and historical change.

When we consider major changes in the state of the world over the last hundreds of years, we talk a lot about technology, little about social transformation. Europe, in particular, evolved a tale of technological change that obscures underlying social phenomena. In the UK, village commons were taken over by sheep farmers, displacing people to the towns and cities where they could work that new supply of wool. In France, the king gathered regional aristocrats at court, imposing a life of leisure and building appetite for luxury goods. Meanwhile, Europe expanded overseas: rather than carefully tilling their soil, Europe took over new lands around the globe, while the locals fell to their cannons and disease. American, African and Australian commons were privatised and distributed among European settlers. Rather than the usual narrative of industrial revolution, I would like to read one that follows successive patterns of land ownership and control over resources around the globe – along with underlying evolutions in the meaning of justice.

The stories we tell children and the games we train them to play will impact on their value systems and capacity to thrive in various social contexts. I discovered a new board game today. Commonspoly offers a twist on monopoly: rather than bankrupt others in order to dominate alone, the game invites players to collaborate against the system, and turn a maximum number of resources into commons. Justice takes a different form depending on the system we live in. If individualistic capitalism dominates, then protecting private property matters – because there will be nothing else for individuals to rely on. But if most resources take the form of commons, then private property matters less, as people can fall back on the collective. What should we prepare children for, then? The world of today, or a different world that we believe would be better? Which form of education would justice demand that we pursue?

Detective novels are the main expression of justice in literature. I read ‘The Golden Scales’ by Parker Bilal. Private investigator Makana, former police inspector exiled from Sudan, looks for a missing star-footballer on behalf of Cairo’s foremost businessman. The plot of such novels is predictable and repetitive. The protagonist is on a quest for facts and connections, in order to get a solid understanding of the past. Meanwhile, criminals and evil-doers try and leave the past in darkness, erasing the traces of their own evil. These novels reveal the close connection of truth and justice – the serious efforts required to reach a truthful understanding of the past, and obstacles awaiting those who try.

If we follow the wisdom of Montesquieu, and resolutely take virtue to be the cornerstone of democracy, then addressing issues of ecological collapse and climate change is well within our reach. Prudence – acknowledge the danger, and act accordingly; temperance – limit our appetite for material goods, and cut down our consumption of meat, gas and plastics; fortitude – accept a measure of hardship to do the right thing; justice – share the benefits and burden of change fairly. But if we take democracy to be nothing more than the battleground of selfish interest – then our political system is unfit for the challenges ahead, and despotism becomes an attractive option.

Technological change affects our sense of justice in two ways. Technology plays a role in the process of justice: new forms of evidence, new modes of analysis, new types of contracts and agreements. But also – technological change affects patterns of ownership, and corresponding questions of justice. When it becomes possible to share text, images and sound around the world at a close-to-zero marginal extra cost, what exactly justifies ongoing copyright laws? When new drugs can be synthesized in laboratories around the world, what justifies ongoing monopolies over molecules? When digital platforms allow customers and consumers to bypass intermediaries, what justifies their protection? Yet – on the other hand – when the benefits of technology disproportionately fall within the hands of a very small minority, when society remains organised around individual private property, what then would justify that creators, inventors and developers give up the fruit of their effort to a public sphere that fails to properly guarantee their long term well-being?



Justice – Week 9

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due. 

Over the week, I reflected on the way that cultural and social expectations shape our conception of justice.

The World of Marvel characters might seem reasonably clear-cut. On Sunday, I saw the latest Spiderman. A kid with superpowers wants to do good. He stops a man who steals alien materials to manufacture weapons. Good guy, bad guy. Yet there is a measure of ambiguity – why should the powerful Stark industries, who supports the good guy and beyond, the good guy-Avenger team, hold a government sanctioned monopoly on alien materials and alien-powered weaponry? ‘I became a thief because the world is unjust’, says bad guy. Bad guy still finishes in prison, but revenge will be coming in the next episode. When the world is unjust, lasting peace is impossible. Maybe that is the wisdom of Marvel stories.

We cannot achieve justice without a common agreement on a set of laws and principles. But in a time like ours, when every norm is shifting under the pressure of technology, the set of laws and principles underpinning our sense of justice is itself in motion. Hence, maybe, the sense of generalised injustice. In organisations, values guide everyday decisions when strategy does not give clear directions. But when values are unclear, and every person has a different interpretation – what then?

Our society values excess. I posted last week on Facebook how annoyed I was at people asking for ‘just a skinny flat white’ at cafes, with a self-effacing, apologetic tone. On Wednesday, at a South Melbourne Cafe, the same apologetic tone invited me to pay ‘just 3$20’ for my long black. ‘Just’ indicates a voluntary limitation, ‘just’ aims to reach a right measure, no more. But when excess becomes a norm, and success is measured in terms of exponential growth potential, ‘just’ goes against the grain, and irritates.

Who should be responsible for bringing justice to the world? Is it our duty to model our own behaviour on justice? Should we nudge each other when we wander off? Should we collectively develop and support agencies that will bear the burden of administering justice? Conversely, when one of us fails to follow justice, who should bear the blame? That one individual, their immediate environment, or the broader social conditions that, in the first place, made it possible for them to fail?

What implicit metaphor guides our understanding of justice? The scales weighing human hearts and actions against a golden standard? The flat surface of water marking perfect balance? The sword cutting through the complexities of a knotty problem? This implicit image will in turn influence the way that we think about the virtue.

What inequalities should justice palliate? I had a terrible backache on Friday. At almost forty, my back is weaker than that of younger people. To what extent should I expect to be looked after when this happens, as a matter of justice? Health is one of the great sources of inequality – and various forms of inequality, natural and social, have massive effects on our health. Then there is age. But what exactly should be justly compensated for, as a matter of justice? What can we legitimately claim and expect, what is unreasonable? Here, justice should give way to prudence, but there is a catch. How easy would it be to veil injustice under the mask of prudence.

Justice – Week 8

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due. 

This week, I reflected further on the mutual relationship between justice and power.

In French, the same adjective, ‘juste’, describes the quality of a just decision, appropriateness in the choice of a word, and a musical note on pitch. Social order is based on people saying the right thing at the right time. The main obstacle to justice, in that perspective, is not a punctual lie on one particular point of fact, but deliberate and systematic obstruction of meaning, or bullshit. I was giving a conference on Sunday. There was a question. On that occasion, guided by justice, I honestly replied ‘I don’t know’. But how tempting, when holding the right of speech, to make up something instead, hiding ignorance under a cloud of words.

Decision-making structures rarely result in a distribution of power that ensures absolute fairness. The representative model of Western democracies is based on a division of the country by seats. Some of them, more likely to swing across the field of possible choices, have disproportionate importance in defining the political agenda. Global power differentials act as a multiplier to this internal imbalance. Trump’s election rested on the choice of a relatively small number of people in the central eastern United States. The ballot power of those communities now endangers long-standing international efforts for climate and environmental protection. From the perspective of justice, this is a blatant issue. Yet these voters – and US politicians – only followed the national rules of the game.

Is it justice that we should suffer from the decisions of our fathers? In many poor countries, children at birth are loaded with a national debt heavier than the collective can structurally cover. Without even considering how fairly loans were allocated in the first place, those children never gave consent, yet find themselves burdened with a duty to repay. Meanwhile, somewhere, somebody’s receiving interest – and likely using some of that money to support their own children and others in their community. From the perspective of those children who benefited at birth of this inherited advantage, however, a deliberate or forced reallocation of wealth on the global scale, gradually reducing their comparative wealth and affecting the conditions of their children, would likely be perceived as injustice.

To what extent should systems favour majorities – to what extent should they be designed for ‘everyone’? I had a conversation about supporting cultural minorities on Wednesday. Soon, challenges arose: what should be given priority? Supporting locally born people of minority background, or supporting migrants? And what about other inequities, class, age, or gender? We might wish for systems to service ‘all’, but when they don’t, what should we do to compensate? This is a murky space, where justice and pragmatism blend.

On this note, I started reflecting about justice and time. If justice is a return to balance, how fast and often should justice be rendered? What is an acceptable delay? And when we’re aiming to create a more just decision-making system, should we be judged on the perfect justice of our final intentions, or should we be judged on results and improvement?

Justice has many dimensions. It regulates the relationships among individuals, and regulates the relationships between individuals and the various social collectives that we belong to. But justice also regulates the mutual relationship between different collectives, considered across space, and across time: international justice, intergenerational justice. These various dimensions of justice are mutually dependent: progress on one dimension will affect others positively. But it is tempting, depending on our position at birth and at the moment of passing judgement, to neglect one of those dimensions, or even deny its existence entirely.