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Wry, wise ‘How to Be Perfect’ explores being a good person

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What does it mean to be a good person?

That’s a question that people have been asking themselves since we’ve been capable of asking ourselves questions. There’s a fluidity that comes with moral judgments, a shift of perspective from individual to individual. “Good” means different things to different people, and yet … is it possible that there’s a right answer? Some of our most brilliant thinkers have devoted years of their lives in an effort to figure it out.

And now we can add Michael Schur to the list.

Schur – a television writer/producer responsible for some of the most beloved sitcoms of the past 20 years – has written his first book, titled “How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question” (Simon & Schuster, $28.99). In it, he delves into the sometimes-thorny realm of moral philosophy – a subject that he explored to great effect in his excellent show “The Good Place” – and finds ways to connect the abstraction of thought with the concrete reality of existing in the world.

The result is a wryly funny book that is also packed with wisdom, a primer of sorts with regard to the semantics of being a good person. Each chapter is headed by a question that addresses moral behavior; these questions are explored and often (but not always) fully answered thanks to Schur’s wit and his willingness to mix it up with some admittedly challenging thinkers, all with the help of some dense philosophical tomes and a few modern-day experts to help guide him along the way.

“How to Be Perfect” is broken up into three parts, whose titles I will reproduce in full because they are both representative of the contents and an absolute delight.

  1.     In Which We Learn Various Theories About How to Be Good People from the Three Main Schools of Western Moral Philosophy That Have Emerged over the Last 2,500 Years, Plus a Bunch of Other Cool Stuff, All in Like Eighty Pages
  2.     In Which We Take Everything We’ve Learned, and We Start Asking Some Tougher Questions, and We Use the Stuff We’ve Learned to Try to Answer Them, and We Also Learn a Bunch More Cool Stuff
  3.     In Which Things Get Really Tough, but We Power Through and Complete Our Journeys, Becoming Perfectly Virtuous and Flourishing and Deontologically Pure Happiness-Generating Super People, and Also There’s a Chapter with Some Cursing in It, but It’s for a Good Reason

Within these three parts are chapters, each headed by a question that will be addressed within. The first question is a simple one: Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason? And yes, that is literally the heading for the first chapter. And no, you shouldn’t. See? Simple.

But as you might expect, things soon get a bit more complicated.

Schur introduces the Trolley Problem, a classic thought experiment involving a runaway trolley. On the tracks are five people, unaware of the danger. On another track, there is one unsuspecting person. There is a lever that will allow you to shift to that other track, saving five but killing one. What are the moral ramifications inherent to A) actively causing the death of one to save five, or B) allowing five to perish due to your inaction?

(Note: This particular experiment is a through thread in the book and Schur definitely takes it to some fascinatingly weird and often hilarious extremes.)

And just like that, we’re off on a journey designed to let us question and explore the extremely malleable notion of what it means to be a good person.

Throughout the book, as our moral quandaries deepen and evolve – from lying to a friend about an unflattering shirt to returning your shopping cart to the corral to saving strangers from a burning building and so on. Schur also delves into the importance of intent, in that the effort to be a good person definitely counts, even if we (inevitably) fail along the way.

And make no mistake – things get a bit sticky. Schur asks us about the morality of embracing art created by bad people and about whether good deeds can be undermined by selfish motives and the moral quandary of caring about the micro above the macro and vice versa.

It should be noted that we get some pretty heavy hitters as far as the philosophers touched upon in these pages. We hit the ground running with Aristotle and his golden mean, exploring the elegant balance of virtues. We spend a good deal of time with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, a pair of British philosophers who would be the primary developers of utilitarianism – a school of thought based on the idea that the best action is the one that makes the most people happy. You can’t believe how much Kant we get – deontology (the study of duties and obligations), for instance, a term I haven’t thought about since college.

The three legs of the Western moral philosophy tripod – Aristotelian virtue ethics, consequentialism, deontology – are the foundation here, though Schur proves unafraid to venture down the various primrose paths laid out by each of these schools.

Now, I realize that what I’m laying out here might sound a bit intimidating. I get it. But you needn’t fear. See, Michael Schur is a hell of a good writer, one who proves more than capable of converting these thoughts and concepts into material that is engaging, relatable and hilarious. Even as he guides us through these ideas, he never loses sight of his book’s central tenet – how to be a good person. And with that simple notion as his lodestar, he never loses his way. Sure, there are footnotes and tangents and the like, but that’s part of the joy of the journey. You’ll never laugh as hard at a tossed-off reference to Wittgenstein or heavy shade thrown at Kant’s treatise on wind as you will while reading this book.

Of course, Schur was far from alone in his work here. He spoke to numerous experts in these varying fields, informed guides who could keep him from wandering off (well … from wandering too far off, at any rate). His primary collaborator is Dr. Todd May, a preeminent expert in moral philosophy and professor at Clemson University; May was one of Schur’s primary philosophical advisors for “The Good Place.” While May’s guidance was undoubtedly invaluable to the writing of the book, his presence is most keenly (and delightfully) felt in the gleefully deprecatory footnotes.

“How to Be Perfect” might not be the sort of book you’d expect for Michael Schur’s debut. Honestly, that’s part of the appeal. Think about it – Schur was so enthralled by what he learned in the course of preparing for “The Good Place” that he felt the need to write a whole book about it. Tongue-in-cheek title aside, Schur knows that nobody’s perfect … but we can always try to be better. And considering the world in which we’re currently living, a bit of advice about being a good person is certainly welcome.

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 13:59

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