How to Be a Perfect—Okay, Fine, Pretty Good—Person, According to the Creator of The Good Place

How to Be a Perfect—Okay, Fine, Pretty Good—Person, According to the Creator of The Good Place

In 2005, television writer Michael Schur’s then fiance gently rear-ended a Saab in slow-moving traffic. Some days later, the couple received a claim for $836. But when Schur went to examine the damage to the Saab, he found a barely discernible crease. A bit incensed, Schur proposed a solution. At the time, Hurricane Katrina had just devastated New Orleans. Instead of putting the $836 toward a bumper that didn’t need it, Schur, a concerned citizen, offered to donate $836 to the Red Cross’s Katrina relief efforts. In the following days, as Schur told this story, both in person and on a blog, people sharing in his moral outrage started making their own pledges. More than $20,000 would go to the Red Cross if this guy agreed to not fix his bumper. Which is when Schur and his wife started to feel very guilty.

“We were excitedly discussing the most recent events, and pledges, and media requests and we looked at each other and instantly read on each other’s faces the same queasy feeling: there was something very wrong about what we were doing… though we couldn’t pinpoint what it was,” Schur writes in his new book, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. It’s a project that Schur traces directly back to this very exchange in 2005. Though the episode ended with Schur calling the Saab owner to apologize and sending him a check for the full repair (not to mention raising $27,000 for Katrina victims), it also sent Schur down a moral philosophy rabbit hole: Had his public shaming crossed the line? Was raising a boatload of money still a virtuous end if it came through unethical means? How should he have acted? He started reading books on ethics and cold-calling philosophy professors. He wanted to learn how to live a moral life.

In the meantime, Schur’s career took off, writing for The Office, then co-creating both Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. His TV writing and ethics obsession collided in 2016, when he created The Good Place. The show’s main character, played by Kristen Bell, is a person who, after spending most of her life acting selfishly and immorally, finds herself mistakenly placed in heaven. Hoping to avoid being kicked out, she spends her time trying to learn how to be a good person. It was Schur’s way of navigating the ethical quandaries he’d been pondering in his decade of study, trying to parse what separates a “good” person’s admission to Heaven from a “bad” person’s ticket to eternal damnation. He dedicated an entire episode to moral philosophy’s most famous dilemma: a runaway trolley is about to hit and kill five people, but you have the power to divert it so it only hits one person. Do you? (The “trolley problem” also gets an entire chapter in Schur’s book.)

The show was a hit and aired from September 2016 to January 2020, a stretch of political, social, and civil unrest that raised many of the same questions of moral responsibility that Schur was asking in his fictional sitcom. Since the show’s finale, amidst a pandemic and a culture of social media shaming, the question at the heart of both The Good Place and Schur’s book has become all the more pertinent: How do we be good to one another? Though philosophy often leads to more questions than answers, GQ called Schur to see what solutions we might glean from his casual obsession with moral philosophy.

GQ: Are you at all worried about becoming known as the moral philosophy guy? I imagine it’s like becoming a MacArthur genius, where people are just waiting for you to do something dumb. People may now just be waiting around for you to do something unethical.

Schur: They don’t have to look very far or wait very long for me to screw something up. It’s always embarrassing when you screw something up or do something wrong, it’s always painful and you feel guilt and shame and humiliation. It’s not like I’m immune to it. I don’t really live in fear of it just because I’m like, “Yes, I’m a fallible human being. We all are.” If anything, it’s made me more tolerant of people screwing up. Even for the luckiest people on earth who have no stress or strain or fear or anxiety or economic woe or anything, I know how difficult it is. I think it’s good to have your failures pointed out to you so that you can learn from them and try to fix them. Every day when you wake up, the process of being alive on earth is a process of failure, in terms of ethics.

I say at the beginning of the book that in the nutshell-iest of nutshells, what we’re talking about is asking some really basic questions. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Is there something we can do that’s better? Why is it better? If you ask yourself those questions, you’re still going to fail all the time. You’re still going to blow it. But just getting used to asking those questions is the most important step, because we don’t ask them of ourselves very often. If we ask them more, 80 percent of the time the answer’s going to be, “Yeah, sorry. There’s nothing I can do. This decision sucks. There’s nothing better I can do,” but 20 percent of the time it’ll be like, “Oh, you know what? This other thing I could do is just slightly better so I’m going to do that instead.” That’s really what I’m aiming at.

Fools and Philosophers: On Michael Schur’s “How to Be Perfect”

MICHAEL SCHUR HAS WRITTEN a philosophy book, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. If Schur’s name isn’t familiar, the title reveals his vibe: he’s a comedy writer, involved in the creation, development, and production of TV shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Saturday Night Live. In 2016, he created The Good Place, a multiseason philosophical romp through the afterlife, each episode of which engages perennial topics in morality, such as what it is to be a good person, whether it’s possible to improve, and whether these questions are even worth asking. The Good Place received critical praise and nominations for a slew of major awards, some of which it won. In his book, Schur takes up similar questions over approximately 300 printed pages.

On release, the book appeared at number two on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list, in part because it received advance marketing unlike that for any other philosophy text: blurbs from celebrities, appearances on Today and Late Night, an author’s profile in The New York Times. In this last one, Schur admitted, “I’m terrified of people who know what they’re talking about reading it and saying, ‘You fool.’” In fact, the book foregrounds this concern, starting with a Q-and-A section that addresses the complaints of imagined “smarter, professor-type” people, while a late footnote offers a preemptive defense against “mean, learned professors” who might critique his claims. I’ve studied philosophy for decades and taught moral philosophy to college students, so I’ve never felt less welcome as a reader! Despite Schur’s best efforts, by the end of this article, I’ll call him a fool — promise.

Before that, there’s an obvious question to ask when confronted with yet another ethics text: why? This book follows the same outline and employs the same examples as many others. There’s an introductory chapter on why morality matters: “Nearly every single thing we do has some ethical component to it, whether we realize it or not. That means we owe it to ourselves to learn what the hell ethics is and how it works, so we don’t screw everything up all the time.” Then follows a few chapters on “the ‘Big Three’ in Western moral philosophy” — utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics — plus one covering T. M. Scanlon’s contractualism.

After that, there’s a series of chapters applying these theories to concrete cases and a few summing up what we’ve learned and why it matters. Aren’t there dozens of well-regarded ethics textbooks covering roughly the same ground, following roughly the same structure, and aren’t they written by people with PhDs? That, Schur suggests, is exactly the problem. Though philosophers “have answers for us — or, at least, they have ideas that may help us formulate our own answers,” they write “infuriatingly dense prose that gives you an instant tension headache.”

The distinctive Schur-twist (Schurprise?) of How to Be Perfect is, of course, comedy. The text is studded with riffs on philosophers and their theories, along with the occasional funny observation about contemporary life. The joking tone varies from playful absurdism to winking irony to hyperventilating histrionics, as if Schur were playing an improv game of “yes and” with himself. For example, when explaining the demanding complexity of strict utilitarian analyses:

If we were having lunch with our best friend, Carl, and across the street a woman got frustrated by a malfunctioning parking meter, we would have to leap up and rush to help her … unless doing so made Carl upset, because he was right in the middle of an emotional story about his ongoing troubles with his sister, and thus the act of helping the parking meter lady would cause him more unhappiness than the happiness we would create by helping the woman with her parking meter troubles … but then as we’re making that calculation we happen to overhear someone talking about a flood in Missouri that displaced thousands of people, all of whom are more in need than Carl or Parking Meter Lady, so we rush to the airport …

On he goes, without a period in sight. Extended, humorous descriptions are mixed with shorter gags about objects of Schur’s disdain, such as pineapple on pizza, the New York Yankees, Immanuel Kant’s rigidity, and Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder. With so much jesting, How to Be Perfect is clearly unlike most philosophy texts.

It’s not as if philosophers conscientiously avoid humor. We just aren’t good at it. Our best efforts amount to puns and wordplay. Take, for example, one of my professors: anytime he overheard someone discussing Indian thought, he’d shout, “Well, Samkhya very much!” Or Neil Sinhababu, whose “Possible Girls” — a play on the philosophical theory of possible worlds — got him featured in The Washington Post. Philosophical humor is often comedy as concept, of the “oh, I see what you did there” sort, not anything actually funny. (There are exceptions. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, peppers his books and talks with outrageous and ribald humor to make philosophical points. Much of the rest is dross.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *