I knew I was going to like this book when I found myself laughing several times before finishing the first few pages. That’s not usually what happens when I begin a 260-page book (plus 12 pages of notes in small print) on moral philosophy. But it happened with How to Be Perfect, and as I kept reading, I kept laughing. Not at the author but with him, and not only laughing but challenged to think and reflect and learn—and laugh some more—right through to the end.
The author, Michael Schur, is funny, intelligent, a good writer, and intensely interested in ethics. He’s not a professional philosopher; he’s a television writer and producer, best known for creating the show, The Good Place, a comedy series that required him to take moral philosophy seriously. As the show’s tagline (on IMDB) describes it, “Four people and their otherworldly frienemy struggle in the afterlife to define what it means to be good.” There are even characters designed to embody specific moral philosophies, as together they try to sort out ethical issues and questions.
What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?
Is there something we could do that’s better?
Why is it better?
That’s moral philosophy and ethics in a nutshell—the search for answers to those four questions… Philosophers have been thinking about those exact questions for a very long time. They have answers for us—or, at least, they have ideas that may help us formulate our own answers. And if we can get past the fact that a lot of those philosophers wrote infuriatingly dense prose that gives you an instant tension headache, we might arm ourselves with their theories, use them when we make decisions, and be a little better today than we were yesterday. [p. 4]
Schur wrote How to be Perfect to help readers do exactly that, by walking us through the learning process he undertook to produce The Good Place. Schur is a very serious thinker, and a very funny writer. It makes for good reading, even when the topic is something as serious, intricate, and difficult as moral philosophy.
Schur introduces us to three primary streams of thought in moral philosophy. Virtue ethics (Aristotle), deontology (Immanuel Kant), and utilitarianism (Jeremy Benthan and John Stuart Mill). He explains each one, illustrates its usefulness and limitations, and applies it to specific issues that ordinary people face in ordinary life. “Do I have to return my shopping cart to the shopping cart thingy? I mean… it’s way over there.” “Oh, you bought a new iPhone? That’s cool. Did you know that millions of people are starving in south Asia?” “This sandwich is morally problematic. But it’s also delicious. Can I still eat it?”
Schur essentially writes each chapter around such questions, as an exercise in ethical discernment, identifying what’s being said, reflecting on what things mean, applying the various philosophies to the ethical dilemma being considered, and proposing how someone might seek to think about and live out the right response. And as he asks questions seeking the right way forward, he brings in other thinkers who might clarify (or muddy) the conversation.
Schur notes that because the choice was made to keep The Good Place secular, he skips religious ethical philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard. That is obviously a weakness in How to Be Perfect, but it is also an opportunity for Christian readers. We can appreciate and enter into Schur’s thoughtful exposition of issues and ethical conundrums, all the while asking what a biblical moral philosophy might contribute to the conversation. It’s a great chance to make certain we have developed a robust Christian moral philosophy that we bring into conversation with the secular systems Schur adopts.
Some readers might object to some of Schur’s political and social positions. Whether you happen to disagree or agree with him, it is an opportunity to reconsider what you believe and why. And how you would talk about it if you had the chance to discuss it with him or with the millions of Americans who agree with him. Dismissing him because he is a Hollywood liberal (something he admits) is small-minded, narrow-minded, and clear evidence of a less than biblical moral imagination.
And throughout it all Schur keeps his sense of humor. In the chapter addressing, “Should I lie and tell my friend I like her ugly shirt?” he outlines what a utilitarian (or consequentialist) approach includes:
Good Things About Lying and Saying We Like the Shirt
- We don’t hurt our friend’s feelings.
- In fact, we make her happy.
- We don’t seem like a jerk.
- Our friendship continues apace.
Bad Things About Telling the Truth and Saying the Shirt Is Hideous
- We make our friend sad.
- We may have to have a difficult conversation and argue that true friendship means always being honest, which can be a tough sell when someone is upset at you for being honest.
- We seem like a jerk.
- Our friend may react badly, double down on her own opinion in order to prove us wrong, wear the ugly shirt to the interview, fail to get the job because the interviewer questions the decision-making ability of someone who would buy such an ugly shirt, fall into a deep depression, sever ties with her friends and family, turn to a life of violent crime, and spend twenty-five years in a maximum-security prison. 2
Footnote 2 reads: “Admittedly, a worst-case scenario.” [p. 62]
Another reason that this book is worth reading is that the evangelical church has lately demonstrated a troubling lack of ethical behavior and thinking. In an interview about her work as a climate scientist and her book, Saving Us, Katherine Hayhoe was asked about her fellow evangelical believers.
Jesus says to his disciples, “You should be recognized as my disciples by your love for others,” and today when you look at people who self-identify as Christians in the United States, love for others is not one of the top characteristics you see. Christianity is much more closely linked with political ideology and identity, with judgmentalism, partisanship, science denial, rejection of responsibility for the poorest and most vulnerable who we, as Christians, are to care for.
That’s a troubling assessment, and one that is, sadly, true. We need to bring serious teaching, learning, and discussion about moral philosophy into our small groups, mentoring, church classes, sermons, Bible studies, and fellowship meals. How to be Perfect is a great resource for discerning Christians in this effort. It isn’t all we’ll need, of course, but its light touch and serious thinking can help us better understand our world, reflect on our own thinking and doing, and by God’s grace grow in love for God and our neighbor. And by God’s grace may the church rediscover the rich moral philosophy revealed in Scripture in the ancient, life-giving wisdom tradition that Jesus indwelled, taught, and creatively developed.
Book recommended: How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur, with philosophical nitpicking by Professor Todd May (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2022) 260 pages + index + notes.
Photo credit: the author with his trusty iPhone.