How to be Perfect
Somehow these reflections ended up unpublished for nearly a year. 😮
I uncovered the essay when looking for something else in my Google Drive, and decided I might as well share now. Enjoy!
February 22, 2022
I can’t remember how I learned about this title, but I know I purchased it (from a brick and mortar bookstore no less) only a few days after it’s official publication date. Michael Schur’s television series, The Good Place, was one of my favorites of the past several years. So smart and funny, it was made for geeks like me. So when I saw that Schur had parlayed the philosophy knowledge he gained in writing for the show into a book How to be Perfec t: the Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, it immediately moved to the top of my TBR list.
I wasn’t disappointed. I devoured this book in a matter of days. I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud at a book the way I did reading this one. (For example, in explaining how we are all born with some innate virtues, but then we hone those talents over time, Schur shares this: “Think of it this way: We sometimes talk of certain people being ‘born’ with certain qualities–she’s a ‘born leader,’ or he’s a ‘born bagpiper,’ or whatever. What we really mean is that the person seems to have a natural aptitude for leading or bagpiping, and we often say it in awe because that skill doesn’t come naturally to us. We’ve never even thought about trying to play the bagpipes, so whenever our friend Rob drags that floppy Dr. Seuss-looking contraption out of his closet and fires it up, we ascribe his talent to some internal, inaccessible setting that he seems to have magically had from birth. Then, when Rob gets a full ride to Ohio State on a bagpipe scholarship, we think, ‘Rob has fulfilled his destiny by capitalizing on his innate skill.’ And we also think, ‘Ohio State has a scholarship for bagpipers?’ And then we think, ‘What the hell is Rob going to do with that degree? How’s he going to make rent money–just, like, playing at Scottish funerals?” p. 25)
Schur walks us through the key lessons of a large selection of moral philosophers from Ancient to contemporary with chapters titled such useful questions as “Should I Punch My Friend in the Face for No Reason?” “Do I Have to Return My Shopping Cart to the Shopping Cart Rack Thingy? I Mean…It’s All the Way Over There,” and “We’ve Done Some Good Deeds, and Given a Bunch of Money to Charity, and We’re Generally Really Nice and Morally Upstanding People, So Can We Take Three of These Free Cheese Samples from the Free Cheese Sample Plate at the Supermarket Even Though It Clearly Says ‘One Per Customer’?”
At the same time, he shares fascinating details about decisions he made about The Good Place and it’s characters, conversations he had with the other writers on The Office about how far to push the absurdity of their main character, and how he built his comedy chops on Saturday Night Live.
Honestly, I enjoyed every sentence of this book, but there were a few bits that I appreciated a little more deeply. One was when Schur takes quite a bit of ink to investigate how we should morally act when we realize that someone or something we love is not unambiguously good. For Schur the specific example is Woody Allen’s comedy. Schur tells a story about watching the film Sleeper while home sick from school as a 10-year-old kid and falling in love with the movie and the field of comedy. He attributes that movie with putting him on his path to becoming a comedy writer. He says it this way: “Woody Allen’s sense of humor isn’t just a thing I like–it’s part of my core identity.” (197)
He immediately shares the cognitive dissonance he experienced when Allen’s behavior as a pedophile came to light. In addition to marrying his much younger quasi-stepdaughter and credible evidence that he sexually abused his daughter, Schur tells the story of Allen trying to convince Mariel Hemingway to run away with him two years after they starred together in Manhattan in which Hemingway’s 17-year-old character has an affair with Allen’s 42-year-old character. “...Two years after filming, according to Hemingway’s memoirs, Allen flew to Idaho to convince her to run off to Paris with him, but left when it was clear she wasn’t attracted to him, and didn’t want to share a room. There’s a word for this behavior, and it’s: ‘gross.’” (197).
For the next three pages, Schur relays other damning evidence against Allen, and applies the frameworks of ethicists we’ve met so far in his book to try to figure out how he should proceed.
“The purity of Kant seems tempting: a categorical imperative to turn away from any “fruit of a poisonous tree” (art by an artist who has committed an unforgivable sin) appears to take care of the whole situation. But it’s also a slippery slope, as Kantian purity often is. What counts as ‘unforgivable’? What about an actor who didn’t commit a crime but merely supports a presidential candidate we abhor? Is that enough for us to follow the imperative?....Again, this feels like a ‘What kind of person should I be?’ question, more than a ‘What should I do?’ question. There are just too many versions of ‘bad behavior’ to lump all these possible scenarios together and find one umbrella we can follow.” (200)
And Schur doesn’t have a final answer, despite the book’s subtitle, but I deeply appreciate the nuance and analysis (and humor!) he brings. He does not shirk from the hard questions and insists that “the most important part of becoming better people … is that we care about whether what we do is good or bad, and therefore try to do the right thing. If we love a problematic person or thing too much to part with it altogether, I think that means we have to keep two ideas in our head at the same time: 1. I love this thing. 2. The person who made it is troubling. Forgetting about (1) means we lose a piece of ourselves. Forgetting about (2) means we are denying this thing causes us (and others) anguish, and thus we’re failing to show concern for the victims of awful behavior.” (202)
This both/and Schur is arguing for is what he believes is required specifically when we can’t part with “fruit of a poisonous tree” altogether. I am chronically, constantly working to push back against the either/or thinking to which I am (and our whole culture is!) prone, so this reminder “we can think both these things at the same time” (202) is well-received.
Another point of Schur’s that I find refreshing and appropriate is his acknowledgement of his own positional status as a white, heterosexual, affluent, cis man. In a section called “It’s a Hard(er for Some People Than for Others)-Knock Life, Schur delves into what is required of those of us who by the fate of our birth.
He notes “We were all born into circumstances over which we had no control, and which conferred on us certain advantages or disadvantages. I was born a healthy white dude in America in 1975, to two married, college-educated parents, who never had a lot of money but lived a decent middle-class life in central Connecticut. I didn’t have a say in the matter–that was just my roll of the dice. What did that lucky roll mean for me? It meant I was born with immunity to the following society ills:
low-quality, underfunded schools
war (in my home country)
lack of clean water
lack medical care
I escaped all of those booby traps, which can throttle people as they attempt to make their way in the world, through no effort of my own, just because of the random, specific embryo that I great out of.” (227).
I say that I find this refreshing in part because I recently walked away from a hybrid course / coaching curriculum that also relies on ancient and modern moral philosophers but from an instructor who seemed to be completely oblivious to his (very similar to Michael Schur’s) lucky role of the dice.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics are useful (why did no one tell me that Musar is Aristotelean?! Maybe they did and I missed it.) in figuring out how to be a good person. Aristotle also thought his ethics (or citizenship or basic human dignity) applied only to “free men” and “...he was very into slavery. He 100 percent thought slavery was cool. I know it was 2,400 years ago, but still–don’t be so into slavery, Aristotle!” (113).
Schur names those things about Aristotle. The coach/instructor I walked away from did not.
In other words, Schur actually applied his both/and from above within this work itself. And, in the same way that the both/and of the “fruit from a poisonous tree” requires us to think two things at once, Schur invites us to think two things at once when looking at merit and achievement. He isn’t saying that he didn’t in fact earn the accolades (and laughs!) he received for The Good Place or The Office or Parks and Recreation. He’s holding the both/and that he didn’t have to overcome that bulleted list of obstacles (and others not listed) in order to achieve those things.
Schur’s smart and playful treatment of moral philosophy is delightful. From Aristotle to Kant to Jeremy Bentham to Albert Camus to contemporary thinkers like Peter Singer and Harry G Frankfurt, the author of a book called, On Bullshit, I learned even more than I laughed while I was reading this book (and that’s a lot). Honestly, Mindy Kaling’s blurb on the book’s cover sums it up: “So brilliant and funny and warmly written you don’t realize you’re becoming a better person just by reading it.”