Justice – Week 5


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 connection between individuals and collectives, stimulated by two books, ‘La composition des mondes’ by anthropologist Philippe Descola, and ‘L’Enrichissement’, by sociologists Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre.

Justice must ensure that everybody receive their due. The primary question therefore must be, who is everybody? This is particularly relevant in the case of ecological justice, where the relationship between humans and non-humans is at stake. From the perspective of justice, if a natural element is endangered – a lake or an animal species – they could be considered as external objects that only matter inasmuch as their existence affects the well-being of various humans. Or, they could be considered as part of a structured collective, alongside other elements of the natural ecosystem, including humans. Justice, then, demands that their interest be taken into consideration, as much as that of individual humans.

At the basis of any reflection on justice is the question of distributing public wealth to members of the community fairly. The technical modalities of collective decision are therefore a crucial issue. Those who master rhetorical codes and understand procedures are at an advantage, and able to guide collective decision to their benefit. We should therefore always ask ourselves, to what extent does a certain protocol favour justice, or strength?

Does justice require that we follow formal established rules, or more general principles?  If I was to develop a personal relationship with an Uber driver and got them to drive me somewhere, without going through the system, would I be at fault? On the one hand, if I by-pass the system, I would replace an exploitative structure with direct human interaction; on the other, I would endanger a system offering stability to the social order. In a multicultural environment, these questions are difficult, as norms of behaviour in relation to the law vary.

The current state of things is justified by narratives anchored in the past: justice and history therefore go together. Further still, the structures giving value to things are themselves historically located. Modern industrial society produces large numbers of interchangeable specimens based on the same prototype, whose ownership is protected by law. This is a product of the European 19th century. Today’s discussions on copyright and piracy should be considered in this light: what they question is not an eternal right, but a certain historical construction.

Economic systems, and the way that various types of things are valued and priced, determine in turn the comparative advantage of those who control various types of things. The position we take in those economic systems will in turn determine our interest in advocating for change or preserving a certain state of things. Deliberately choosing to place ourselves in a position where we serve interests in contradiction with the common good is a question of justice. Beware, therefore, the risk of finding ourselves in a situation that seriously restricts our capacity for justice.

Justice regulates the mutual relationship between people as part of a collective. But who decides on our capacity to be part of that collective? When belonging requires physical access, who makes decisions on our capacity to remain part of a certain group, and what form of justice applies?


Justice – Week 4

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. 

Through the week, I considered the narratives that affect our understanding of the relationship between personal and collective benefits.

As a premise to justice, it is essential to define whose interest we serve. For-profit entrepreneurship presents itself as a force for good, developing better products and services for people. However, the for-profit start-up ecosystem could aptly be seen as a constructions that allows capital holders to grow their wealth exponentially, with the benediction of public opinion. Successful entrepreneurs join this small club of investors, and embrace their interest, while all pre-selected players are rewarded by access to subsidised work space, events, and curry puffs. Non-profit legal structures, though possibly more suited to many start-ups, do not service the needs of capital, and are therefore both undervalues and misunderstood.

Technology defines our common living environment, and the way we collectively make decisions. It is unclear, however, who determines our discourse on technology. Hackers, tech-enthusiasts and crypto-anarchists advocate for tech-enabled decentralised power networks, anonymous browsing software, and bitcoins. The latter appreciated almost tenfold in the past few years. Bitcoin advocates happened also to be the first adopters: they care, no doubt, about building parallel currency systems independent from the state – incidentally, this results in their virtual assets exponentially rising in value.

There is a storyline about international politics, whereby ‘Western democracies’ – the US and EU – are international guarantors of good and freedom, while rogue states endanger international stability, supported by two shady powers, China and Russia. On Tuesday night, I watched interviews of Putin by Oliver Stone. Putin is cast as a typical ‘bad guy’, yet, through the empathetic lens of the documentary, some of his claims are allowed to resonate. Why should Russia not assert its sovereignty? Why should it not systematically question American intentions, actions and statements? Why should we doubt the truthfulness of Russian statements more than that of American equivalents?

In the professional context, how does justice apply to various ‘extensions of responsibility’? Should those be seen as a form of managerial generosity, creating the conditions for staff to develop new skills – or do they represent a clear form of fraud, allowing organisations to pay people below-rate for extra work and responsibilities? More generally, this is a question we should raise in today’s capitalist order: where do freeloaders reside? At the bottom of the pyramid, where people profit from the system – or at the top? Those in power, at least, are in a better position to press for handsome compensations. Corruption ensues: rather than asking for a general reduction of salaries in top layers of management, competent leaders in the non-profit sector start complaining about their organisations ‘underpaying’ them in regards to their for-profit counterparts.

Who benefits from a community? I jokingly told the recruiter at THNK that I did their work for them – I had referred a couple of people to their program. Many communities – or clubs – hire community managers who maintain a sense of collective belonging, and harness the goodwill of members towards actions benefiting the group. Members act as volunteers, not so the managers. There are, however, two ways for them to be paid: through the contributions of existing members, or through joining fees of new members. If the latter prevails, then the business model of the community goes against its value proposition: more enrolments ensure economic survival, while a supportive core group is key to members’ experience.

On Friday, I reconnected with one of my life’s great teachers, Andra, who trains THNKers in the art of presence. We spoke about cardinal virtues: instantly, she draw correlations to the work she does in spatial awareness: ‘if there are 7 virtues, then you can project them on the 7 cardinal points, left/right, front/back, up/down, and centre’. We reflected on the symbolic equivalent of each in the Chinese framework of the five elements. ‘Justice,’ she said, ‘if it is about separating what is mine from what is not, would have the quality of metal.’ She placed an arm forward, palm facing towards her, fingers slightly spread apart. I thought then that justice could be seen as part of a natural cycle. In the Chinese model, the five elements that constitute the material world engender each other in a cyclical manner. As long as abundance prevails – in fiery times of abundance and, resulting from fire, earthy times of calm plenitude – there is no need for justice. But comes a moment where distinctions have to be made, and metal must rule. From this comes flow – water, born of metal – and from water, wood, or rebirth. A certain economic model proposes to bypass the moment of justice: the trickle-down effect ensures increasing benefits for all as long as we maintain growth. But Without a transition through justice, and metal, the cycle remains in a state of block, and renewal is impossible.

Justice – Week 3

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 privilege and the role that power structures play in maintaining justice.

The structure of the State, at least in Europe and Australia, involves a separation of power. Law-makers are responsible for establishing fair legislation; judges are responsible for settling disputes; executive organs – governments and their various agencies – must coordinate the work of administration, police and public service in a just manner. These powers balance each other, limiting the risk that an entire state will shift away too far from justice. But this balance structurally limits fast and decisive action. Hence, as happened in the recent French election, the appeal of a strong man taking initiative to concentrate all powers in their hands. This is a path to greater strength, not greater justice.

Where does justice begin, and where does fortitude? Does justice command that – whenever possible – we step up and exert leadership when a system is unjust? Does it only require that we not take part in whatever evil is orchestrated? Or does it demand that we publically strive to name things for what they are – and leave it there? Is justice a virtue that mainly concerns individual action, or does justice invite us to consistently reflect on the structures around us, and what those nudge us to do? Where does justice begin, and where does prudence?

As I attend the first day of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance pre-summit in Berlin, I reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of entrepreneurship and its supporting systems. Start-ups are very good at building not only private goods, but also club goods – open access to valuable things for a limited pool of members. The danger is, such club goods often pass off as public, and on that basis, receive undeserved amounts of scarce resources and attention. Facebook has over one billion users, true. Most of humanity therefore is not on it. Sharing economy platforms do wonders for educated residents of global cities. In most of the world, they bring no benefit.

Start-up ecosystems, put forward as part of city-branding by Berlin, Melbourne, San Francisco, Shanghai and Amsterdam – or even Johannesburg, Hanoi and Nairobi – belong to the same class of club goods: access to co-working spaces, incubators, networking events and all forms of seed-funding for new projects is dependent on a certain attitude, language, skillset, information and dress-code. There is nothing inherently wrong about this – but passing off a selective members’ club as a community space for all is telling a lie, and endangering justice.

The discourse of entrepreneurship articulates a new form of aristocratic ethos. Risk-takers create the world of tomorrow based on a deep desire to leave a mark through their impact.  On this basis, they demand privilege – access to rulers, exemption from tax, a looser relationship to the law. They believe in working hard, but also believe in cultivating the traits that will nurture a greater creative vision: they do sport, they like beautiful things, and gather in cosmopolitan forums to shape the world of tomorrow – expecting subsidies to fund their travel costs and salmon canapes. This is just only to the extent that their efforts genuinely contribute to public welfare.

As the week ends, and I reflect on the summit I just attended, I return to the role of structures. I met beautiful people, but found the curation underwhelming. It was not clear whether we were mainly supposed to learn new things, meet new people, or propose new policy. Hence, probably, a light sense of coldness and competitive hostility. I leave on a high – there was cheesecake, champagne, and I was one of the happy few. But I leave with a mild sense of frustration: we could have done more, better. It’s not clear what though. I’m in the club, for sure, but what was the great contribution of this publically sponsored forum to the welfare of all? It is what each one of us makes of it, perhaps. But if we demand privilege, should we not work harder to deserve it?





Justice – week 2

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 second week, while travelling around France, I reflected on justice within a systemic context.

The first rule of justice is never to mistake strength and right. Contemporary Western civilisation has expanded over the world, imposing its form and values, extending lifespans and producing large quantities of material goods. It now harnesses most of the available space and resources on the planet towards its goal, and therefore surely qualifies as the strongest form of culture. This triumph has nothing to do with justice.

On photograph, Walker Evans captured the faces of farmers struck by the Great Depression. Poverty takes on a human face, confronting the viewer, even ninety years later: is it right that people, through no fault of their own, should suffer the systemic consequences of bad decisions made by those in power. The recent financial crisis was forefront in the minds of all visitors, begging the question: were those responsible held accountable? What were the faces of the many who suffered? And who’s going to do them justice?

Tax is an agreed system for distributing material resources within a community. Fraud is a direct affront to justice. But there is another, more insidious danger. It should be permitted for anybody to take advantage of the space allowed by law. But if only the few, the rich, the powerful can hire the services of experts in the arcane science of tax optimisation, the systemic result is blatant injustice. We may wonder, should not virtue prompt those in positions of advantage actively try to reform a system benefiting them more than others, and align it with justice?

An article circulated on Facebook, announcing the projected financial shortfall for pensions by 2050. This piece, as all the ones I read on finance, occulted one fundamental fact: that money is not a thing endowed with intrinsic properties, like petrol, pork or butter, but the symbolic expression of a relationship. ‘Having money in one’s old age’ is a shortcut: the goal is to increase the chances that we can access goods and services after our bodies and minds decline. The problem of future pensions goes beyond the realm of finance, and requires a structural reflection about the state of the world. Various factors play in: by 2050, where can we expect abundance, where will there be scarcity, based on technological developments and ecological exhaustion? Who will make decisions regarding the sharing of scarce resources by then? Will medicine extend healthy lifespans, and what activity can we maintain in old age? What will be the relationship across generations? All those factors may radically change in the coming 33 years. But if we place all of our eggs in the finance basket, betting on an indefinite continuation of the current situation, then we have a vested interest in maintaining it. And we’ll oppose any change to whatever aspects of our current model jeopardises the future of all, in the mistaken belief that it might affect the size of our own puny little nest egg.

Mediterranean societies trade on many levels, exchanging large quantities of material and immaterial goods within the community, creating dense networks of mutual obligation. Those prime over responsibility to people outside. A paradox emerges: intense ethical attention prevails within the group, while tax evasion becomes a way of life. In relationships with people outside this network of mutual obligation, the law of the jungle encroaches at the margins: if you can get away with it, in small things at least, strength and cunning trump justice.

At the end of the week, I was left with a question: to what extent is justice culturally independent? This in turn expanded into the following three. First, what are the boundaries of the group where justice applies? Is it the immediate family community, the broader town or city, the nation, the world? Second, what is the object of justice? Is it access to material goods, or immaterial goods, attention, honour, warmth or other social benefits? Finally, who is the subject of justice? Is it always an individual, or can the group be responsible?

Justice – week 1

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. 



I started my reflection on justice by exploring the context where it applies.

It started on Sunday with a darning session. Last year, our apartment was infested by moths: my nice woollens are all dotted with holes. Now that I work on global catastrophic risk and must professionally consider the danger of ecological collapse, I decided to repair them. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, I couldn’t help repeating. But it’s about more than time. Some of those holes, as I tried fixing them, if I just pulled a little too hard, would expand, fray more, and eventually merge with another nearby hole. Longer, more intricate needlework is needed then. My sweaters are now repaired, and will not easily rip further, but if you just pull just a little too hard, the stitches show, leaving grooves and valleys on the formerly flat surface of the fabric. This, I thought, is like the mark of justice.

Prudence and justice have balance as their goal. But where prudence identifies the strategic opportunities of the moment in order to dynamically create a better situation, justice identifies the turning moments when things became what they are. All acts of justice require a correct narration of facts and causal chains connecting them, but also the choice of the relevant laws and principles, as established by past decisions and tradition. In that, justice is a conservative virtue, preserving balance by projecting the past into the future.

What are the limits of the space where justice applies? On Tuesday, I took a long walk around the Singapore Marina. Is it justice that nearby residents enjoy this environment on their doorstep? Singaporeans receive considerably more support from the State than Malaysians or Indonesians. Is it justice, because this community developed a culture and practices that brought forth prosperity? Is the story one of worthy people from around Asia – China mostly – looking for opportunities in this British colony, supporting each other while suffering indignities from the whites, and eventually building this harmonious island-society, where their children could live happy lives? So that, indeed, it is fair for a child born on this side of the straits to start their lives with more than a child born on the other side?

Imperialism – or the submission of one place to another – is a key source of imbalance, and therefore injustice: more so when it expands across cultures. ‘The world is too white’, said Jack Sim, Mr Toilet, as we spoke on Wednesday morning, ‘everyone still aspires to be American’. Native English speakers, from their infancy, learn a language that they can teach around the world. The tradition, norms and standards of the US and – to some extent – Britain have spread through film and media. The skin tone, beauty norms, and expressions of the locals are highly valued globally. People born and socialised in the central places of empires have access to more, structurally, than those on the periphery.

To what extent is justice compatible with the quest for profit? I shared a post on Facebook criticising the ‘conscious capitalism’ model of social enterprise, and triggered an expected indignant response from someone. But I kept thinking, if the goal is to bring about some form of greater social good, which we believe is needed because our current system structurally destroys the commons and produces negative externalities, then won’t the profit motive distract from the goal? And if the goal is to make profit, then it would be unethical to pretend otherwise. In other words – when push comes to shove, what goal prevails? This should determine the choice of a structure. Beyond this, I started reflecting on justice in a capitalist system, where it is accepted that wealth deserves its own remuneration if adequately directed: this is the fundamental principle of all for-profit organisations, that not only work, but also capital should be remunerated.

I sat with my father by the Seine River on Friday for lunch, enjoying a world-class outlook on the Pont Alexandre with its golden horse statues, and the Grand Palais in the distance. We spoke of many things, including the new president’s push for ‘moralising public life’. To what extent should justice apply differently to people holding various levels of power? Should leaders be given extra leeway, because action requires a capacity to compromise with principles in order to deal with complex situations in real-time? Or should higher standards apply, because their choices have so much impact, and greed – or other passions – may easily distract them from the pursuit of the greater good? More generally, should leaders be judged on the basis of their result (but who then shall decide on success measures for their result?) or their respect for principles and process (but who shall establish if principles and process were just and relevant?)



Cardinal virtues – a project for 2017

prudence-2 temperance-2fortitude-2 justice-2

This is a sharp memory from my grade Ten French class. We were studying French moralist writers of the 17th century, and our teacher explained one of the fundamental religious debates of the time: the respective role of Grace and Virtues on our salvation. It was the height of religious wars in Europe, and the question of Grace was at the core of a theological opposition between Protestants and Catholics, echoed in France in a polemic between two Catholic factions, the Jesuits and the Jansenists (represented by Pascal). According to Jesuit views – inspired by Renaissance Humanism – God offers his supernatural grace to all humans; it is our duty to meet Him halfway, and use our free-will to deliberately cultivate virtues and accomplish good works. This goes directly against the belief of Jansenists – as well as most Protestant theology – who take a more pessimistic view of mankind: our sinful nature is such that only the Grace of God has efficacy to grant us salvation. All attempts at cultivating moral virtues and conducting good works carry the risk of fostering pride and delusion.


What exactly do we mean when we talk of virtues? For over twenty years, I’ve worn a symbol of my father’s home region around my neck, the ‘guardian cross’, blending a heart, an anchor and a cross. The symbol represents Faith, Hope and Love – three virtues that Paul’s Epistles identify as defining Christianism, and known together as theological virtues. Today, in our post-Christian world, the word virtue evokes at worst a conceited bigot, at best a coy individual, looking for shelter from a corrupting world. But it was not always this way: in its original meaning, virtue has the same root as ‘virile’, and refers to the character of a good citizen – in a famous reflection on the dominant affect in various, Montesquieu associates Virtue to Republican rule. Through the works of Sts Ambrosius, Augustine and Thomas,Catholic theology considers not three, but seven fundamental virtues. Four cardinal virtues, identified in the works of Aristotle, and therefore common to Christians and Pagans, complement Faith, Hope and Love: known as Cardinal Virtues, they are Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. On a recent public profile I wrote – ‘I like to listen and look for common ground’. My exploration of Cardinal Virtues in 2017 will both allow me to reconnect with my own Catholic heritage, and reflect on universal forms of good behaviour – what makes a good citizen in a range of tradition, and how to cultivate one’s own character.


Last year, I started a daily blogging project – a daily page of handwriting which I posted online after light editing. After three months, this was interrupted by a demanding new role with the Global Challenges Foundation. The project I was in charge of setting up has now found its shape, systems are in place, and I’ve been able to reduce the extent of my engagement. This allows me to resume daily writing meditation. So this is what I propose for 2017. I will associate a virtue to each season: Prudence and Summer, Temperance and Autumn, Justice and Winter, Fortitude and Spring. Every day, I will reflect on the season’s virtue, decide a way to practice it over the course of the day, and write about the experience in the evening in a diary. At the end of each week, I will write a short blog post summarising what I did and learnt. Marking the end of each season, I will take a full week to reflect, and compose a deeper written meditation. The project will blend writing and practice – and hopefully, lead both to personal transformation and valuable intellectual insights.

I look forward to this year exploring virtues – and hope we can all learn from this.

On power, justice and commonsense

Power may not be just, justice may not be powerful. In the end, power may triumph. But it is essential that we keep them separate in our minds, if we must keep our spiritual freedom.

In a piece about the current dire state of Chinese universities, Muran identifies a root cause to all forms of anti-intellectualism: what he calls authoritarianism or, in Chinese, 权力注意. This doctrine, he says, takes power as its only touchstone and only point of focus. Under its impulse, the sole purpose of the human spirit is to justify power.

Westerners easily criticize Chinese authoritarianism, brandishing human rights, free press, democratic elections, etc. Yet the Middle Kingdom does not have a monopoly on anti-intellectualism. But in our countries, it takes a different color. What people want is what we give them, as market-democracy proposes. And shouldn’t we trust the wisdom of crowds? So truth and beauty submit to the power of the masses.

Democratic traditions, for all the joys of equality, easily suffer the lack of an aristocratic spirit, pointing its finger at beauty, justice, truth. These ideals are too different from what is, and sometimes too sharp on the tongue for the taste of many. And so, we point the finger down: we stay grounded. Our spirits are no longer invited to run free, but will now serve the power of commonsense. Gravity rules. And it imposes its dumb earnestness or – in chaotic times – the tidal waves of murderous opinion.

(January 2 2016)