Liberty = Freedom + Virtue (On Virtue)Jul 29, 2020
I’m a liberty-minded guy. That phrase, give me liberty or give me death, has particular resonance for me. I struggled mightily during the initial lockdowns, and I confess that the recent statewide mask order felt a bit heavy-handed to me - because it’s a big and diverse state, and many areas have seen little covid. Ten counties in Colorado have seen fewer than 10 total cases to date (with one county at 0, one at 1, and one at 3), and yet they’re asked to be masked up at the local farm elevator or the 4 table local cafe - which can now only have 2 tables. And I would hazard to guess that mask order adherence in those places is likely minimal - and they are probably taking an acceptable risk based on their situation. But here in Fort Collins, I tend to wear my mask as prescribed out of responsibility to others, and to avoid being the cause of any unnecessary fear - there is far too much of that in the world already. It still feels a bit silly to take my mask off when I sit at the restaurant table, and put it back on when I walk to the restroom, but whatevs,
You see, that’s what liberty is, it’s the freedom to act without constraint but with the expectation of virtuous intent. I was blessed with a mind that is always churning, poking at challenges from different angles. I’ve also got a quick tongue (not calling this one a blessing), and am fond of saying “Just because I say something, doesn’t mean I think it!” - and it’s true. I regularly float a thought out into my extended thinking network - the people around me. Done best, it’s in person, and I can judge from facial expressions whether I should continue to think this thing, or whether I should best poke at it some more before unleashing my tongue again.
This freedom to speak things that people don’t want to hear appears to be under some peculiar strain of late - do you agree? Or, put another way - the willingness to hear difficult things is on the decline. I think this a bad thing, for individuals, businesses, our communities, and for our nation. I think a willingness to listen to hard things is very much a virtue - and it’s at the heart of our LoCollaborative process at LoCo Think Tank. One of our original values was that members would “Encourage and admonish with loving kindness” - and that implies not only that they would be kind in their speaking, but that the presenting member would be willing and able to listen (and act). Each of us sees the world only through our own perspective, but we can get an understanding informed by a wider and deeper understanding if we invite other perspectives into the conversation. I wish for every LoCo Think Tank chapter to bring together a diverse group of people, to find common cause with others from far-different backgrounds and perspectives. Don’t we all ultimately want the same thing? - do we require more than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
I’ve been reading some of the notions of the founding fathers just lately, and they were almost universally in agreement that the republic of free peoples that they were founding (let’s put the slavery thing aside for the moment) must need be of a virtuos society to ensure public virtue. One of my favorite quotes (from among dozens in the category) is from Samual Adams - “No people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffused and virtue is preserved. On the contrary, when people are universally ignorant, and debauched in their manners, they will sink under their own weight without the aid of foreign Invaders.”
But what is virtue, anyway? Do our people still have it? Do our government institutions reflect it? And how about the large and powerful corporations that have developed in the last century - are they virtuous?
Oxford dictionary defines virtue as “Behavior or attitudes that show high moral standards”. But who defines these high moral standards? For Aristotle, the virtuous habit of action was the intermediate state between opposed vices of excess and deficiency. Generosity is virtuous, while wastefulness and stinginess are both vices, for example. Everything in moderation, my mother would say. The Bible would generally define virtue as conformity to a standard of right, or acting according to high moral standards. Again, we stumble into the problem of who defines the high moral standards. We are a post-Christian nation in many ways, and so perhaps we must seek to have a shared definition of these high moral standards before we can cultivate virtue and maintain our free republic?
I’m a proud Rotarian, in part because of their intentional effort to be an organization founded on high moral standards - but open to those from every nation, creed, and religion. Rotary’s code of ethics is the 4-Way Test - Of the things we say, think, and do…
- Is it the Truth?
- Is it Fair to all concerned?
- Will it build Goodwill & Better Friendships?
- Is it Beneficial to all concerned?
I think it’s a pretty good standard, reflecting high expectations - but I think the problem is that it opens the door to too much interpretation. What is the truth? What is fair?
I decided to look back a little farther - if we’re a post-Christian nation, maybe I’d find some answers in a pre-Christian document? The foundational ethics of both Judaism and Christianity are found in the Ten Commandments, and we remain a nation founded on that Judeo-Christian ethic - maybe we can examine that document as a reference point? To me, whether this document was delivered intact to Moses on the mountain, or was documented as a distillation of cultural values of those people at that time - it serves the same purpose - to unite a diverse people under a common set of values.
I think it might be fun to go through the whole thing and insert some commentary along the way. I’m not going to approach these from a fundamentalist or Christian perspective per sa, but more an everyman perspective I think. We could perhaps give the name a freshening too, as my liberty-loving mind bristles a bit at the word commandment. Let’s call this the Ten Principles for People’s Best Good.
Don’t have any other gods before God
This is an interesting one - mostly I’d say folks subscribe to the idea that there is a creator, or a creative force of some sort, that started this whole thing turning - what made the Big Bang bang if it wasn’t God? Certainly there are plenty of atheists among us, but probably godlessness is the only thing put before God in our society. More folks I think are like - “I don’t know, and I don’t want to think about it, I’m living for the weekend and retirement.” Or something like that.
Don’t make yourself (or anything) an idol
Oh gosh! - can we skip this one? We have a TV show called American Idol, and we have sports idols, and movie star idols, business idols - and money is an idol for many, and power, and sex. We’ve become a world-class idol-making empire. And honestly, I think most of us would confess that both the idols and the idollators suffer from this condition. And I think some people make the government an idol - I see a big problem, and it’s a problem so big and hard, only the government can fix it. (cue cynical Simpson’s bully “Yah Right” voice echoing in the writer’s head…)
Don’t take the Lord's name in vain
I had a friend in college who would exclaim, when something went wrong or he was surprised - “Cheese & Rice!” he’d say. I don’t say that phrase but in my head, and I also don’t say its’ cousin phrase, but I hear it more than I’d prefer. And I do say God Dammit sometimes - especially if I bump my head or scratch my knuckles. In our schools, our media and for the most part our government, however - God’s name is not often taken in vain - it is absent.
Find Some Time to Rest
Wow, big fail here for most of us I think. I read this more as “Take a break once in a while, you need it.” Honestly, I think this might be on the uptick a bit though - perhaps as a benefit of the covid crisis, and certainly through the increase in mindfulness and the rise of nature walks and whatnot across the world in recent years. I think that’s good - I know it’s been good for me to make space to just be sometimes. The rise of Thanksgiving evening sales, and the always-on internet reveals that the corporations of our world are not taking time to stop and breathe, however. When I was a kid we couldn’t get booze on Sundays so you had to plan ahead - honestly I think there was something virtuous in that, and people like to have a regular day off and benefit from it, I think. But I’m ok with liberty prevailing here generally - find your own sabbath if you will, but find one and you’ll be better for it, I think.
Honor your Father and Mother
This one is interesting, and not one that I take completely literally. Thankfully, I have a wonderful father and mother, and I think I mostly honor them with my words and my behavior. Others don’t have the same opportunity - they may not know their father, or their mother may be such a nasty B that it’s almost impossible to honor her. For me, this goes far beyond that - it’s more like “honor those who have come before you”. Here in Northern Colorado, I think about those early settlers, who built irrigation systems to bring the mountain runoff into the plains to allow today’s incredible agricultural production. I think about the Founding Fathers, whose concerns over the risk of tyranny in government provided them with the insight to craft our Declaration of Independence, US Constitution and Bill of Rights. And in researching this essay, I learned about Ada Lovelace - the world's first computer programmer - in the 1840’s! I think it goes without saying that I don’t think the toppling of statues by an angry mob is virtuous. I think community dialogue about removals and relocations is though. As I speak with youth particularly in today’s world, but also those my own age and beyond - it’s fairly clear that most people don’t know much about how we got to this day and age, and if we don’t know where we’ve come from it’s hard to think about where we’re going. Too many people don’t.
Generally accepted on this one - in more of an eye for an eye mentality probably than intended. I don’t want anyone to murder me, and thus I should not commit murder. Makes sense. People are pretty good at this one, and corporations too. Governments, not so much, if you count all the wars and the it’s-not-a-war but we’re bombing buildings and people, and Jeffrey Epstein. I think doxing and cancel culture are kind of along this track though - trying to ruin someone, or make them go away - it’s modern day murder, I think Jesus would say. I don’t think any of that stuff is virtuous, personally. For me, the ends don’t justify the means, and if the desired ends is killing people, or our losing our ability to speak our minds, I stand firmly opposed.
Don’t commit adultery
Adultery is basically not having sex with someone you’re not married to. And it’s a big reason many (especially young and single) people stay away from being a part of a church-type organization - synagogue or whatever. Not to bring Jesus into it, but He said (and I believe) something along the lines of “You have heard it said not to commit adultery - but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So basically, our whole world is soaked in this one - and so am I - and it’s a tough one for me to address. As a liberty-minded person, I’m not so inclined to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies. But as an observer of people, I can say that for the most part, people in long-term committed and monogamous relationships are generally happier and more successful than others. For me, that’s because life is hard, and everything is easier with a partner. Did you know that a draft horse can pull 8,000 pounds in a sustained effort? Did you know that two draft horses yoked together can pull 24,000 pounds in the same kind of sustained effort?! Life is kinda like that for me, and I’m so thankful for my forever draft pony, Jill Bear.
We’ve seen big increases in single parenthood over the past few generations, due both to an increase in single motherhood, and also in divorce. It can be troubling to think of the impact enticing imagery used in marketing from corporations has had on relationships. I believe that what fills our eyes and ears, goes on to fill our hearts and minds, and comes out of us as actions. I’d say we could knock the glorifcation of sex down a few notches and still have a highly liberal and open society. Perhaps this society could even celebrate the positive impacts of maintaining a nuclear family. As an armchair economist and sociologist, I would say that reversing these trends would be to the benefit of our national prosperity and general happiness.
Our neighbors would go away for a few months in the winter when I was a kid, and they had a creepy old house tucked away in the trees. When my cousin was visiting one time, we broke into that old house to look around, and we ended up taking a couple of computer games - like old school handheld digital baseball or something - useless by today’s standards. I was so sick about it I never even played with them - I hid them in the garage for a while and eventually buried them - I was too scared to put them back. I later confessed, and my mom made me go and tell Audrey what I’d done after they came back in the spring. That dear lady forgave me immediately, and said they’d been in the drawer but had quit working - they were junk already! So, I guess I’m mostly virtuous in this area - except I may or may not get a bit creative on my taxes. But that kinda feels virtuous to me somehow - being as I’m a Libertarian and I think the scale of our government function is absurd. I won’t go too deeply into what I think about our tax structure, or the general leechiness on society that is our media and tech industry - they’re the kings of the world, and they pull gigantic salaries and do very little good for us it seems to me - so they’re more like thieves in my understanding.
Oh yeah, how are we doing on not stealing as a nation? - well, there were an estimated 9 million cases of identity theft in the US last year, among 330 million people, which is almost 3%...to say nothing of burglary, extortion and bribery, and most every Comcast customer getting ripped off...but I digress and must move on.
Don’t testify or bear false witness against your neighbor
Hmmm, this one is an interesting inclusion to me - it seems different than the rest. It’s basically don’t lie, right? It says against your neighbor, but I think everyone is your neighbor in this context. And I don’t think it’s about witness testimony kind of stuff - it’s all the things we say. So for me, this one is more like “seek truth and speak truth”, and I have to say that our society is sucking it big time in this one. Truth is deemed relative in our world today, and we can’t have an open dialogue about this fact - or any fact! I love to flip back and forth from Fox to MSNBC or similar, and read articles about the same topic. The truth of course, is somewhere in between the narratives - if any of the real truth makes it onto either page. When I hear someone say something like “Well, that’s my truth” - but they’re lying to themselves or completely ignorant about the topic, I just want to shake them - but I digress. Also, there’s a whole insiders and outsiders thing with our government institutions, law enforcement and service agencies (who’s heard of “professional courtesy”), tech industry culture (uptalk, what?!), and so many other areas of our popular culture that I find it disturbing - but I have no more room to expound on this one.
Do not covet
OK, who hasn’t been guilty on this one? The fancy car, the beautiful wife, the high-paying corporate job of your neighbor - or some random person on the internet. That new video app, Tick Tok, the kids are spending all their time on? - it’s all centered in covetousness. They covet the attention that these videos garner, and the number of followers their cooler friends have, and it’s not virtuous - or healthy! There’s a quote somewhere about how the key to happiness is not in the having of what you want, but in the wanting of what you have. I think there is deep truth in that, and we’d all put a lot less pressure on ourselves if we mostly keep our heads down, focus on our own selves and making that vessel smarter and stronger and more capable of virtuous thoughts and deeds.
“So, isn’t this a business blog - why are you talking about all this stuff?”
You might be saying to yourself - and I’ll tell you. Basically, nearly every relationship in our free enterprise system, and thus the majority of the wealth of our nation (and any nation) is built on trust - which we mostly take for granted. We don’t worry about getting our money out of a bank, so we put it in there - and thus the banks can loan it back out to others who have current need. We don’t worry that we have given money to the retail store employee before we have our new shirt in our hand - we trust that we’ll walk out with the shirt.
Where virtue is lacking, we spend an inordinate of effort (and money) forcing trust - or at least an acceptable level of risk. We invest in physical security systems and firewalls and encryption for our files, and business regulations have to be passed and enforced because we can’t trust people to do the right thing - all of which cost a lot - it’s a drag on the system. I would argue that in an information economy, bad actors will get called out, the market will respond and take their dollars elsewhere, and those employers who abuse or underpay their staff - or fail to serve their clients well - will be forced out of business. Maybe this sounds sad - but then those employees can go work for a better place - ‘tis a good thing to lose a bad job, usually. The marketplace is a continuous improvement process for those of us willingly engaged in free enterprise, and it could be a lot more free if we had a more virtuous society. Virtue is the lubrication and the turbo boost of the economy we have in the USA, and it would be great if we could all still agree what that means - in one another, in our homes, schools, businesses, government, and institutions.