How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question Michael Schur 2022
One of my favorite classes in college was introductory philosophy. It opened my mind to questions I had never considered before and sent me on a years-long journey of discovery. People today could use a lot more mind-opening and soul-searching, but in our distracted age of disinformation and polarization, we seem to be more lost as to what the truly important questions and ideas really are.
Books today rarely delve into the world of philosophy, but the creator of The Good Place, Michael Schur has done just that, with entertaining bits of comedy to make it all go down easier. The Good Place was a situation comedy from 2016-2020 that looked humorously at the afterlife and how we judge goodness and evil. How to be Perfect had me with its clever cover, and then I found out that the audio book was narrated by Schur along with his Good Place colleagues like Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. This book turns out to be a fun mixture of important questions and bizarre, funny footnotes that raise consciousness while amusing the reader at the same time.
Philosophers are generally interested in two basic questions:
- How can we know anything? (Epistemology)
- How can we be good people? (Ethics)
Schur takes an in-depth look at the second question, with some relevant situations that apply to many of us in real life. He asks questions about morality and gives a basic introduction to the three main schools of philosophic thought- Aristotle's golden mean, Utilitiarianism, and Kant's categorical imperative.
The golden mean was proposed to be a magic middle-ground between self-interest and community interest, where our behavior is just right. Many of our dilemmas revolve around pursuing self-interest or helping others, and the extremes of both can be destructive, with the former being the most debated in moral circles. Aristotle said that our purpose was to flourish, and we do that by doing virtuous things, but not too many as to make us miserable.
Utilitarianism is the philosophy of capitalism and greatest goods for all. Things are good if they create the most good in the aggregate, even if they have some bad side-effects. Fossil fuels are moral in this very mathematical way of looking at things because they provide enough jobs, products, and economic growth as a good to outweigh the environmental downsides like climate change and pollution.
Utilitarian math can be very subjective, however, and Schur visits the famous trolley problem to show many instances where it falls short.
The categorical imperative is an unyielding principle that says we should act as if everybody else will act the same way. If you're okay with everybody going over the speed limit, cheating on taxes, or murdering, then it's moral for you too. Kant modifies it a bit to only treat people as and end in themselves, and never as a means to an end. We tend to excuse our own moral failings while judging those of others harshly, but some kind of universally applied code of ethics is what most religions shoot for.
This heavy moral thought is lightened up by the humor of Schur's discussions, starting with chapter titles like:
- I did something unselfish. What's in it for me?
- Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?
- Do I have to return my shopping cart? I mean it's way over there...
- This sandwich is morally problematic, but also delicious. Can I eat it?
Three of my favorite issues brought up by Schur involve moral exhaustion, moral currency, and moral opportunity costs.
Moral exhaustion has to do with the title of this book and our desire to be perfect but our all-too-human tendency to screw up. What if you know you should do something for others, but you just don't feel in the mood? We all have a limit to our morality, and are willing to buy products that are ethically compromised. Many unselfish acts like charity are complicated by selfish motives like tax deductions and social status-seeking.
Moral currency is the mental accounting that we all do when we think we've been good and earned some points towards being bad for a little bit. If you go to church on Sunday morning, do you build up your "God bank account" to the point where you can be an asshole on Sunday afternoon? Many of the worst deeds ever done by humans came from a sense of moral license that they had somehow "earned" the right to be temporarily evil. Schur points out that this is a slippery slope and diverts us from our earnest attempts to be moral and good.
Moral opportunity cost come from all the things we don't do by living our lives as we want. Schur points to an extravagant purchase of a $800 autographed baseball bat that he spend money on. How do we justify buying collectibles, yachts, designer clothing, and other extravagances when people are starving or homeless in the world? We waste a lot of money on things that don't make us safer (military and guns), healthier (plastic surgery), or happier (stuff), and the question needs to be asked what the missed opportunity was here. On the other hand, we need things like comedy, art, and music that are unpractical and frivolous to survive as well.
Schur gets personal with the story of how he got to the top of the entertainment industry with The Good Place. He recounts many lucky breaks that led to positions with successful tv shows like The Office, Saturday Night Live, and Parks and Recreation that propelled his career upward. He claims that much of success is just dumb luck, and the biggest factors are often our of our own control. He admits that as a straight white male his life is on the lowest difficulty setting there is, and his Jenga tower of luck could have crashed had the unfortunate things that happen to many others also happened to him.
I loved this book. It was funny, thought-provoking, and almost perfect. Schur credits Todd May, a philosophy professor at Clemson and his main consultant for The Good Place's many philosophical quandaries. There are so few books out there that approach the questions of this book, and we could use many more like this one as we fly blindly into the 21st century with both truth and morality hanging by a thread.