Getting Better All the Time: The Society of the Free and Easy¶
The Society of the Free and Easy is a self-directed, peer-supported, character development group in which we help each other to strengthen the skills for living thriving, beneficial lives.
The Society is informal—that is to say, nobody owns it, it doesn’t have any rule book, and nobody’s the king. You’re invited to take what seems helpful and branch off in your own direction.
The virtue perspective¶
“The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning.” —Simone de Beauvoir
To say “life is a game” may seem at first to trivialize life, to not take it seriously enough, maybe even to disrespect people for whom life is struggle and hardship. It’s a matter of perspective: The Super Bowl is just a game, but it’s also taken very seriously by those who play it. Hamlet is just a play, but try telling that to Hamlet.
Life, as they say, is about the journey, not the destination. In order to have a quality journey, you need to play life well. Although life is indeed a sort of “play,” that doesn’t mean it’s frivolous or trivial. As with the Super Bowl or Hamlet —but even more so—with life it means a great deal how well you play.
The human-being game is complex. Playing well requires many skills. In classical philosophy, such skills were called “virtues”, and that’s the terminology our Society has adopted.
An influential theory holds that these virtues are not fixed, innate traits that you must helplessly accept as part of your fate, but that they are skills you can acquire and incorporate into your character through deliberate practice.
We are creatures of habit: We create ourselves by the habits we engage in. If we adopt habits without giving them much consideration, we risk becoming what we never intended to be. If instead we deliberate carefully about what habits we want to cultivate, we can become the sculptors of our own characters. What you do today, how you do it, and the stories you tell yourself about why you are doing it, all help to form or reinforce the habits that create you.
The Society of the Free and Easy is a sort of gymnasium in which we exercise the virtues and make them habitual parts of our characters.
Virtues have a way of building on each other. Some virtues, for example persistence, or curiosity, or honor, can make other virtues easier to acquire. In this way, the process of strengthening virtues bears compound interest.
We’ve also noticed that as we work deliberately on the virtues, we seem to notice them more in those around us. In part this may just mean that we’re being more attentive, but we also seem to be encouraging other people by modeling and appreciating virtuous behavior. That’s certainly a bonus.
Which are the virtues?¶
There is no single canonical list of virtues. Different people from different cultures at different times have concentrated on different sets. Sometimes our vocabularies limit us: virtues that exist in other languages are absent from our own and so may be harder to recognize.
It can be a useful exercise to try to come up with your own list—your best guess of the most fundamental skills for living a thriving, beneficial life.
We have identified over 250 terms that more-or-less precisely define virtues. A few of them are arguably synonyms, or at best they split hairs. Others, it might be argued, may not be virtues at all. We’ve borrowed some from other languages, when English did not seem to have a matching term. You can find pages on these virtues in this wiki and can use them as a sort of menu to help you through the process of choosing your own list.
Some virtues have to do with understanding the world and our place in it: the intellectual virtues like curiosity, rationality, and imagination. Others have to do with our relationships with other people: the social virtues like honesty, kindness, and leadership. Yet others are more personal: virtues like initiative, courage, or purposefulness.
How do you become fluent in the virtues?¶
We each have a different mix of fluency in the virtues. Some virtues we picked up as children and now they seem as natural as breathing. Others seem so difficult or awkward that we despair of ever learning them, and we may have given up in frustration, thinking that we lack the natural talent. For many, we’re somewhere in-between: able to muddle through, but not reliably well.
In the Society of the Free and Easy we use a self-guided, peer-supported process for becoming more fluent in more virtues.
See “Starting Your Virtue Strengthening Team” for a more in-depth guide, but in summary it goes like this:
- Find a partner or form a small team.
- Each of you choose a virtue to work on.
- Take a close look at your virtue, and at any obstacles you feel when you try to practice it.
- Work with your partner(s) to come up with exercises in which you will frequently, deliberately practice that virtue in ways that challenge your current level of fluency.
- Check in with your partner(s) regularly to encourage each other and to keep each other accountable, and adjust your curriculum as you learn more about what works and what challenges you face.
- When you feel you have integrated the virtue adequately into your character, start the process again with a new virtue.
Along the way, the Society hopes to collect information from each team that will help it to improve this process, and information that will give us shared insights into particular virtues. Over time we hope this will help us to become more effective and efficient.
How to get started¶
If this sounds like something you’d like to try, join the “Society of the Free and Easy” Google Group and introduce yourself, then read “Starting Your Virtue Strengthening Team”. Find a partner or a small team (you can send a message to the Google Group if you need help finding a partner) and start the process. Send feedback to the group about how things are going and any recommendations you have for improvement or any insights you learn about particular virtues.
Flagrantly Anticipated Questions:¶
Why do we call ourselves “The Society of the Free and Easy”?
We borrowed the name from Ben Franklin. Franklin tells in his autobiography how he invented a similar experiment of incremental character building. He toyed with creating a “Society of the Free and Easy” in which members would do this sort of practice together, but he shelved the idea when the myriad of other things that occupied his life got in the way. To Franklin the name alluded to how as you acquire virtues and free yourself from vices, you make your way through life easier.
How did it begin?
In early 2019, David Gross messaged his friends in San Luis Obispo saying that he wanted to explore the possibility of creating a “virtue gymnasium”—some sort of establishment that would make it easier for people to exercise and improve in the virtues. A daring few people wrote back expressing interest, and together they began to refine that vague idea into something practical. A number of virtue-buddy groups formed from this initial group to test and refine the processes described in this document.
What makes you think you’re so virtuous that you can give other people advice like this?
A Christian once described church to me in this charming way: “We’re not a clubhouse for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” Our Society has something of that outlook. We’re not holier-than-thous coming together to glory in our superior virtues, but we’re people who realize we’ve got work to do if we want to improve and who are trying to help one another.
Are you part of some strange cult or something? Are you going to spring a guru or a wacky creed on me at some point?
No. We’re not an offshoot of any existing group, we’re not following a guru (well, okay, David’s a little wacky for Aristotle), and we’re not trying to push any hidden agenda. To the extent we have a shared creed, it’s this: that life can be lived more or less well, that there are certain habits that make it more likely that you will live life well, and that those habits can be learned through deliberate practice.
What about politics? Is there a partisan angle you haven’t told me about?
Our peer-supported approach—helping each other as we help ourselves—improves our fluency in the virtues and that of those around us. As we improve in this way, we also become better at distinguishing good policies from bad and at making our influence felt in the world. So the Society will certainly have political implications to the extent that it is successful. That said, the Society itself does not have partisan aims, and people of all political persuasions are encouraged to take part.
Who decides what counts as a virtue?
You do. You decide what virtue you want to work on. We have lists and can point you to lists put together by other people who have given the subject some thought, but ultimately it’s all up to you.
How much does it cost to join?
It’s free and open-source.
What makes you think this will work?
The small number of teams who have been using this process so far have already reported success in establishing new virtue-habits. We also are partially inspired by other programs that have shown success with similar models but in more specific domains. For example, “Toastmasters” uses peer-support and practical exercises in small groups to help people learn the skill of (and overcome the fear of) public speaking. “Alcoholics Anonymous” uses 1:1 peer support (sponsors), small and largely-autonomous groups, and regular check-ins to help people change a notoriously intractable habit. We’re keeping an eye out for models like this, and for research into the science of character development.
How can I find a virtue buddy?
The best way may be to just ask around in your social group to see if anyone else you know finds the idea attractive and wants to try it with you.
If you can’t find anyone that way, try sending a message to our Google Group. Briefly describe yourself, where you’re located, whether you prefer someone you can meet with in person or whether you’re comfortable meeting by phone or Skype or something, and maybe make some early guesses about what sort of virtue you might want to work on first. (Make sure to mention early on, maybe in the subject line, that you’re looking for a virtue buddy.)
How can I help this Society succeed and grow?
Here are some ways you can help:
- Recruit more people to start virtue-buddy teams. Spread the word. Be an ambassador for the project. Let your friends know what you’re up to and how they can get involved.
- Become a leader who will check in with buddy-teams and see how they’re doing, give them pep talks if they get stalled, answer questions, etc.
- Collect information on practical self-improvement processes (the more scientifically verified and field-tested the better) and on individual virtues, and share this information with the group.
- Share your experiences as you go through the processes and your recommendations for how they might be improved.
- If you have experience with open-source-style licensing, help us to license our processes and organization structure in an open way so that we’re confident it will stay open and free.
- Ditto with trademarks and such. It’d be a shame if someone else came along and trademarked “The Society of the Free and Easy” out from under us and forced us to change all of our material.
- Help us establish and administer our website and wiki. We need it to be backed-up, free from vandalism & unauthorized copyrighted material, well-maintained, and with a welcoming community policy.