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?)

 

 

Temperance – 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, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

In this last week with temperance, I reflected on its connection to prudence.

We treat our bodies as an instrument for pleasure: we direct our attention to food, sex, drink and the titillations of entertainment. So what if the body suffers in the process?  Maybe, by spending time, energy, money, we seek to restore balance: comfort food, social media scrolls, pornography, give us a momentary high – and this, we believe, will tip us back into sustained happiness. As if, by feeding fleeting passions, we could nourish our deeper core.

This – however – carries danger, as excessive pleasures loosen our connection to our own body. Sometimes, it is wise to stretch limits, accept a measure of pain, and disregard our body’s warning signals; sometimes, on the contrary, we should listen to the body, stop running, and rest, avoiding burn out. The more temperate we become, the more likely that we will perceive the right signals, rest when we need, extend boundaries when appropriate.

We should also think of temperance as a social virtue. Wednesday, I spent a pleasant evening sharing spicy food and sake with a friend. Sharing food or drink – and in certain contexts, even sex – is a potent bonding ritual. For over 25 years, I have reflected on a quote by Andre Gide, ‘it is our duty to make ourselves happy’. Temperance should not stand in the way, but rather, support wise indulgence – including appropriate excess.

When is excess appropriate? This will vary, from person to person, and culture to culture. I did something unusual on Thursday: I left half my lunch for the following day, I was full. At other times, I would keep eating, without considering my own hunger, following a script. For once, I did not act in a distracted manner. We live in highly complex environments, and in the resulting clutter, pleasure triumphs. Temperance has no worth of its own, if not guided by prudence. But, if prudence prevails, how potent is temperance.

Temperance – 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, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

This week, I reflected on temperance and the structure of our body.

Why tolerate mediocrity, when excellence is within reach. In Paris, this was my approach to bakeries. We feed ourselves three times a day: asking for good food is a way to respect our material selves. Temperance does demand a capacity to derive enjoyment from simple things – tolerating sloppy food is testing the devil.

Is temperance then no more than deep respect for the body – or better still, deep connection to the body? Monday, after concentrated hours of work, I said ‘it’s over’, respected my inner tiredness, and took rest. Tuesday, I rejoiced in a glass of Shiraz at a concert intermission – I responded to social cues, but respected advice from my Chinese doctor, that I needed ‘warming’ nourishment. I am bored of deliberately practicing temperance, yet my habits have changed over the last eleven weeks: I no longer crave for meat, alcohol, or a second coffee. I feel stronger. The culture of capitalism makes indulgence a default setting, so what if destruction follows; but I feel more willing and ready to resit

Engaging with temperance over three months has left me craving for activity – I look forward to no longer focusing on my body’s inner workings. Yet I do feel a deeper connection to my own weaknesses: appetites uncontrolled, ebbs and flows of energy, structural distraction. I know myself better, how fluid I am. I see potential in this. Solid is not the only state of strength. My body’s animated with constant currents and storms, cravings, passions, triggered by a chaotic environment, true; but if I can swiftly tie knots in the right places, and let the ropes loose in others, I can harness those inner gales, and sail onwards.

 

Temperance – 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, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

Over the week, I reflected on the strength of my appetite of pleasure – and how celebrating it may be the best pathway to temperance.

I started the week with a  stomach ache – yet found it strangely difficult simply to reduce portion. Something in me was eager to keep eating more, more, more – as if this would make me heal faster. On Sunday, exhausted, I went to bed at 8pm, with a very light dinner, but all I could think about on the Monday was dinner. We go through much hardship for material satisfaction, yet would not go through the same trouble to prevent much greater personal pain. Is it, perhaps, that we’ve become addicted to pleasure, so much so that its sheer absence is pain. And so, we no longer seek pleasure, we simply try to flee the pain of recovering from our material addictions.

In a workshop I ran on Tuesday, I invited international students to describe their sensorial experience of Melbourne: what are the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and sensations that they’ve enjoyed most in Australia. One of them, a sweet young man from Shenzhen with a beautiful smile, told me, “I can’t do this exercise, I don’t feel anything, I simply stay in my room, and do nothing, feel nothing, or I just go out and buy something.” This absence of any feeling is not temperance, I thought – but it could be the very opposite.

I finished a major project in the middle of the week. On Wednesday, to celebrate, I headed to the supermarket and decided to grab ‘anything I liked’ for lunch. I headed home with beetroot burgers, vegan sausages and unsweetened almond milk. This was not self-restraint though, but genuinely what I felt would give me most enjoyment, not simply the passing caress of pleasure, but a deep, wholistic sense of good.

Thursday was the first day for six-weeks where I didn’t have to think of a major project. I had an acupuncture session scheduled, and focused on rebalancing. All through the day, I allowed myself to do whatever I felt like. I vaguely considered movies, porn, food orgy. Instead, I resumed work on projects I had set aside from various terraces in quiet South Melbourne, enjoying a mild late autumn afternoon. As evening came, I stood on the street and considered my options: what would bring me the most joy: head home and collapse, go to the cinema and watch Alien, or spend as long as the film would last on a long walk through Albert Park, via St Kilda West, and along the beach. This is what I chose, and thought, as I moved through the fresh air, among the eucalyptus trees, and on the sand, this is a genuine act of temperance: given the freedom, I made a sensual choice most conducive to my own happiness.

Our stomachs are me-making machine: food and drinks continuously nurture the machine that is our body, where transformation processes occur non-stop. Intemperance is ignoring of the delicate balance of these internal processes for the short-lived enjoyment of a passing contact, whether food, drink, caresses or images, on our sensitive membranes. Temperance is finding happiness in the quiet, regular functioning of our body. It is deep sensual connection to the simple pleasures associated with well-ordered internal activity.

Temperance – 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, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

Over the week, I reflected on the meaning of temperance in our historical moment. 

We live in times of  exceptional affluence. For much of the world, abundance is a greater problem than scarcity. Is this a new normal, however, or a passing apex? And is temperance preparation for inevitable collapse, adaptation to plenty forever, or a way to stretch abundance over space and time? Is temperance, therefore, a matter of prudence, wisdom, or justice?

I headed over to university for a workshop on Monday. I was early, deliberately, and looked for a cafe to sit down, relax, and do some writing. None felt inviting enough. After a walk around the block, I grabbed a 1$ coffee from 7/11, and sat on public tables and chairs outside a building. I had a great time. How odd, however, I reflected, that my initial impulse was to trade money for a space, when so much was available for free. And how odd that I was unable to simply sit and think without purchasing a drink.

We live in times of exceptional abundance. Over a billion people today – that’s about as much as the entire planet at the time of the French Revolution  – live in unprecedented abundance. Meanwhile, 60% of species are heading towards extinction, forests are disappearing, and oceans turning to jellyfish. This is the dark side of our times: material plenty for humans, extreme duress on other living forms.

On Wednesday morning, I headed over to Riverland, by the Yarra. Instead of the usual urban Neapoli cafe, I enjoyed the seagulls, ducks and palm trees; the sun rippling on the water, the bristling leaves of a eucalyptus tree. This, I thought, is more nourishing than music or pastry.

What will we sacrifice in the name of abundance? Since the 1950s, exploitation has grown exponentially. This is the trend I inherited, alongside all people my age. ‘I will never be hungry again’, we say in unison, nor experience material frustration. So what if nature goes.

When I struggled with deadlines and multiple pressures on Friday, when the weather suddenly dipped into winter, my body reacted with a deep sense of hunger. I grabbed a block of tofu, spread spicy sauce over it, toppled half a bag of peanuts, and ate. I grabbed a piece of cheese, and ate. I grabbed an ice-cream, and ate. I grabbed a rockmelon, and ate. I stayed clear of meat – but not clear of excess. I followed an inherited script: this is how I was brought up. The practice of temperance requires active resistance not only towards impulses and urges, but towards our ingrained habits and cultural norms. I consume, I conform. Abstinence, even restraint, is an outlier.