“How to be Perfect”: A Crash Course in Moral Philosophy

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by television writer and producer Michael Schur is a crash course in moral philosophy for those of us who don’t want to read Wittgenstein — which, I suspect, is most of us.

The book begins with and builds on an introduction to the three main philosophical schools in the Western world over the last 2,400 years: Aristotelian virtue ethics, utilitarianism (or consequentialism) as put forward by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant’s deontology, which is a fancy word meaning the study of the nature of duty and obligation.

Schur describes the positives and negatives of these and other theories, as well as the philosopher or philosophers most often associated with them, in a quest to answer the four questions we should ask ourselves whenever we face an ethical dilemma:

What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?
Is there something we could do that’s better?
Why is it better?

“If we care about anything in this life,” Schur writes, “we ought to care about whether what we’re doing is good or bad.”

Schur is either a co-creator or creator of Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Rutherford Falls, and The Good Place. He weaves in references to the latter throughout this book, so those who enjoyed The Good Place will undoubtedly enjoy reading about Schur’s personal journey through moral philosophy because in many ways it’s the origin story of that show and its characters. You needn’t have seen The Good Place to enjoy this book, however.

Schur writes in an accessible, practical, and highly entertaining fashion, distilling the “massive and diverse rain forest of ideas” in moral philosophy for us laypeople. His endeavor is valuable because philosophy can be some pretty dense stuff. Kant’s writing, Schur says, is “not a great beach read.” He compares Kant’s “treatise on wind” to the 1976 Caldwell, Idaho, business registry or a 900-page history of the garden hose. The footnotes are rife with laugh-out-loud nuggets, so don’t skip them.

After reading this book, you’ll have a working knowledge of concepts like the golden mean, the categorical imperative, the doctrine of double effect, and the Overton window. (I’m seeing Overton windows daily now.) He also dips his toe into contractualism, ubuntu, Buddhist philosophy, pragmatism, and existentialism. He distills Ayn Rand’s philosophy of “rational egoism” down to its essential meaning: “Fuck all y’all.” And he uses thought experiments throughout, particularly the infamous Trolley Problem and its myriad variations, initially posed in the 1960s by British philosopher Philippa Foot.

But he keeps it all basic and relevant. He attempts to answer questions such as whether we should punch our friend in the face for no reason, lie about a friend’s ugly shirt, and return our shopping car to the rack at the grocery store. He writes about cruelty, the meaning of integrity, the ubiquity of whataboutism, why apologies are important and how to do them correctly, and bad behavior in public-facing people like Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Commanders football team, and Woody Allen.

I was taken with the stories of his own personal ethical failures, particularly his exploration of the ethics surrounding his need to have others witness him tipping the barista at Starbucks.

Some of my favorite sections appeared toward the end of the book. In one chapter Schur discusses the importance of context and luck in ethical decision-making, along with John Rawls’ theory of the “veil of ignorance.” The position that people with greater fortune and wealth and status have likewise greater ethical obligations resonated with me, especially given modern American society’s social and political divisions. We must admit that bad behavior is everywhere, and the information in this chapter is like a balm.

Schur also includes a coda in the form of a letter to his two children, a letter that not only summarizes his conclusions about moral philosophy but is also immensely moving. We are not alone on earth, he says, so we owe things to each other. Moral perfection is impossible, and we will fail. But “who we are and what we do matters… we should care whether we’re doing something good or not, and thus try to do the best things we can.”

NON-FICTION
How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question
By Michael Schur
Simon & Schuster
Published January 25, 2022