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Guest post: The Society of the Free and Easy (wants you)

David Gross posted this intriguing announcement at the Living Freedom Forums. I reprint it here with his permission and add a couple of comments below.

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Summary: The Society of the Free and Easy is a self-directed, peer-supported process for becoming a more flourishing and effective person while enriching the culture around you. You’re invited to join.

Benjamin Franklin is famed for his remarkable scientific and technological discoveries, his many diplomatic and political achievements, his publishing and journalism, his practical philosophical acumen, and his many contributions to the public good.

How did he do it? When he was young, he began a self-directed process of integrating a set of virtues into his character, deliberately and one-at-a-time. He was delighted at the effect of this process, and recommended it to others as one of the secrets of his success. He considered creating a sort of fraternal society devoted to such practice — The Society of the Free and Easy — but he got distracted by other things before he could bring it about.

What do you say we fix that for him?

A few months back, a group of my friends started trying to bring Franklin’s idea to life. Here’s the theory we’re operating under:

  1. There are many character traits that help people to live thriving, beneficial lives. Back in the day these were called “the virtues.” There are many sorts: intellectual virtues that help us understand the world around us and our place in it (like curiosity, imagination, rationality, or attention), social virtues that help us in interpersonal contexts (like honesty, hospitality, leadership, tact, or empathy), and other more internal virtues (for instance honor, courage, endurance, hope, or initiative).
  2. By and large, these virtues are skills. That is, they can be acquired by deliberate practice, in much the same way as you would learn to play an instrument or to speak another language.
  3. We can help each other design and practice exercises that strengthen these skills. By doing this together, we build accountability and camaraderie into our process. This prevents the common problem with self-help books or inspirational TED talks or whatever — where they sound really insightful and wonderful, but fail to take hold and actually change your usual habits.
  4. By doing such practice together, we will improve, we will help our peers to improve, and we will improve the culture around us.

If you would like to join the Society, this document explains how to form a virtue-building-team and begin the work: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CLm5-JRlWiK4osc1x5CzqD2m6gqBUjGy98o9v-77ZcQ.

To head off some possible concerns:

  • The program is self-directed. We don’t tell you which virtues you must have and what a virtuous person is supposed to be like. Instead, you choose for yourself which virtues you think are important and which one(s) you want to work on next.
  • We’re free and open-source (gratis y libre).
  • We’re not associated with any other group, religion, cult, guru, fraternal lodge, ascended high master, professional self-actualization facilitator™, or anything of that sort. No hidden agendas.
  • We’re nonpartisan and welcome people of all political persuasions to take part in our processes.

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My comments:

I think this is a great idea and hope it doesn’t turn out to be too hard a sell.

From my late teens, I used to do something like this (though without the peer input, which would have been helpful). I found that merely by listing traits I wanted to acquire I gradually developed most of them, even though I didn’t work steadily at my goals. I remember the first time I found some of my old October Resolutions (as I called them) and realized I’d achieved most of the aims listed there. I was pretty awestruck.

And yes, I was and am a lot lazier and less assertively self-directed than Benjamin Franklin ever was. But realizing the power of merely setting goals and writing down aspirations was a biggie for my young self.

It would go much faster to work on such “virtues” (though my younger self would have recoiled from calling them that) in a more focused way and with peer support. Being a peer supporter in itself could be a virtuous act, and certainly a means of developing several “virtues” related to communication, kindness, patience, and empathy.

We talk a lot about freedom communities and what they entail. It seems to me that David Gross and friends have come up with a very practical means of either forging or finding such communities — and helping grow and improve them.

I can also envision this as an excellent tool for young people (with or without an adult support component) who feel lost and directionless in the world. In fact, though it might be hard to get something like this started, I can see it having quite a few uses in building both strong individuals and self-reliant communities.

Your thoughts?

I’ve asked David to look in and either add his own comments or respond to yours.

11 Comments

  1. Claire
    Claire July 10, 2019 10:48 am

    I’m surprised nobody had commented on The Society of the Free and Easy after 24 hours. Anybody care to say why?

    If you like the idea, it would be instructive to hear what you might do with it. If you don’t think it’s workable, it would be equally instructive to hear your reasons.

  2. Pat
    Pat July 10, 2019 11:43 am

    I’m not sure what its goal is, what our roles would be, where the organization is going (formal or informal?), or where/how we as individuals would end up.

    I don’t wish to be a part of a formal organization; too many of them land on their feet as a political group, and I won’t be a part of that ever again.

    I was still trying to read his mind, I guess, while thinking about it this am.

    (I can picture a group of young people, virtually if not actually sitting around a circle, discussing their “virtues” like Objectivists might have many years ago. And where would that take them over the long haul?)

    Guess I’m too cynical now, but I don’t trust it.

  3. Claire
    Claire July 10, 2019 3:30 pm

    Pat, I think David’s envisioning this as small, local, self-driven groups, not one overarching organization. Everybody “rolls their own” version and has whatever sort of support group the members need or want. Perhaps he’ll chime in and elaborate or correct me if I’m wrong.

  4. Pat
    Pat July 10, 2019 4:01 pm

    If that’s true, that’s the sort of action I had in mind in “Voices from the past,…” regarding education and spreading knowledge to counteract the “progressive”/socialistic trend.

    I’m just wondering what he hopes to accomplish with this – i.e. where he feels it will lead ultimately.

  5. David Gross
    David Gross July 11, 2019 8:47 am

    I’ll try to answer Pat’s questions/concerns.

    The goal of the group is to help one-another become more thriving, effective people.

    The roles of the individuals in the group are to help one-another through this process. Largely we’ve been doing this in groups of two so far. Ideally, these small groups will also send feedback about their experiences and experiments to the larger group so that it can learn from their experiences and help disseminate good ideas.

    The larger organization is fairly informal (there’s no official “board of directors” or “boss” or anything like that), and anyone is welcome to start their own organization if they want to go their own way.

    As for how you would “end up” “as individuals,” you get out of it what you put into it. In theory you continually improve in the virtues that help you to live a thriving, beneficial life. Meanwhile you are also helping your partner to do the same. You each end up a little better and more capable day after day. There are lots of virtues, so this is potentially an activity that can continue to yield rewards your whole life long.

    I think there’s room for theorizing about the virtues (which things are virtues? how does one acquire them?) but we haven’t done any sitting around the room talking about our virtues so far (though we’ve done some theory-discussion by email). In our face-to-face work, we’ve been focused on the practical side of things: designing and implementing exercises that strengthen the virtues in our day-to-day lives.

  6. deLaune
    deLaune July 12, 2019 7:46 am

    Bible-believing Christians (and Judeans before them) have been practicing this for millenia. It’s called “renewing the mind” (Romans 12:2) by the process of “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17).
    This “new” plan strikes me as Christianity light (like Jordan Peterson’s preaching).
    I don’t believe we can crowd-source morality. A secular code of ethics must, necessarily, be based on culture. And today’s culture is vile: can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit?
    The actions of “the powers that be”–whether Antifa, Google, or government–declare plainly that today’s core virtue is “might makes right.”

  7. Pat
    Pat July 12, 2019 9:29 am

    There is one “code of ethics” that is pretty universal in its secularity – while present in many if not all religions: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or words to that effect. Humans seem to understand this basic tenet from early childhood. “I wouldn’t do that to you” is a common-enough complaint from the victim.

    I strongly believe that religions have incorporated it into their canon *because* it is universal – and it may be the first/basic maxim that directed us toward a civil relationship when humans began to congregate. How else would we know how to act if not by equal and fair exchange?

    (Didn’t plan to say any more, but deLaune’s comment got me to thinking about this.)

  8. Claire
    Claire July 12, 2019 10:36 am

    Three thoughts on deLaune’s comment.

    1. I don’t believe that virtue in the context of The Society of the Free & Easy is the same thing as morality in religion. My take on David’s concept is that virtue in this context can be any positive personal trait an individual wants to develop. It might be a moral virtue. But it could also be (for example) creativity, honor, the ability to articulate ideas, reliability, being a good listener, being more sociable, athleticism, or any one of a number of traits.

    2. This isn’t crowd-sourcing morality. This is small groups of individuals helping each other achieve personal goals. And while it may be true that “culture” in general is corrupt (and possibly always has been), many individuals and groups are far, far, far from being corrupt. Antifa and Google might believe “might makes right,” but that doesn’t mean everyone does.

    3. I don’t doubt that Christians practice “iron sharpening iron,” but it’s also not solely a Christian or Jewish practice. I expect it appears in many, probably most cultures in some form or another. Socrates asking questions to get others to analyze their own thoughts comes to mind, but other examples abound. Many forms of self-improvement, from Weight Watchers to yoga groups use peer support to help individual progress. And no religion has a monopoly on kindness or ethical behavior.

  9. Ron Johnson
    Ron Johnson July 13, 2019 6:25 am

    I have to admit that I did not find appealing the idea of banding together with others to pursue honing our mutual virtues. I’m not much of a joiner, first of all, and second: I don’t know anyone who shares my specific interests in self-improvement.

    I mentioned the story to my wife, and she thought it was a great idea. She started buzzing immediately with “we could do this, we could do that,” none of which occurred to me. Maybe it’s a girl thing. Maybe I’m more comfortable as a loner wrestling with my own issues.

  10. Saturday Links | 357 Magnum
    Saturday Links | 357 Magnum July 13, 2019 7:28 am

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  11. deLaune
    deLaune July 14, 2019 1:40 pm

    “Virtue: behavior showing high moral standards.”
    To be virtuous, one must have moral standards. Where do these standards come from?

    I attempt to be virtuous and help others to do the same — according to my best reading of biblical standards. I am fully aware of my frequent failures.

    Pat makes an interesting point in his second post, but I would argue that this moral law has come down to us through Christianity. Only Christianity, as far as I’m aware, tells us to “do good unto every man [both believers and unbelievers], but especially unto the household of faith [other Christians].”
    The Hebrews engaged in genocidal war to retake the promised land.
    Most Native American tribes thought it virtuous to steal from, kidnap, torture, or kill members of other tribes.
    Islamic scriptures are clear that infidels may be treated as less than human. They may be enslaved, heavily taxed, or killed.
    Socrates could sit around philosophizing because the majority of Athenian residents were slaves who supported his lifestyle.

    When is tolerance a virtue and when is it a welcome mat for evil? Is honor always moral or may it be pigheaded self-righteousness? Tough questions.

    Remember when Google’s motto was “Don’t be Evil”? (It’s now an afterthought in their code of conduct: see Wikipedia “don’t be evil”). That sounded good, but they never specifically defined either “good” or “evil.” We can see how well that is working.

    I think I’ll pass on joining or supporting a group that promotes moral behavior without any defined standards. Does that make me pigheadedly self-righteousness? You may decide for yourself.

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