Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Tuesday, December 14, 2021: Maximum Shelf: How to Be Perfect

Simon & Schuster: How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

Simon & Schuster: How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

Simon & Schuster: How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

Simon & Schuster: How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

by Michael Schur

A timely and entertaining guide to sharpening one's moral compass, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur ponders ethical predicaments both modern and ancient, real and hypothetical, in a splendidly novel fashion, deploying both the author's trademark irreverent humor and centuries-old philosophical theory to uncover what it takes to be a good person and lead an ethical life. As Schur explains, How to Be Perfect is an account of his journey through moral philosophy and learning to accept and even embrace failure as a necessary and beneficial by-product of our efforts to try to mindfully improve how we move through the "minefield of modern life."

An acclaimed television writer and creator of the fantasy comedy The Good Place, Schur was inspired by his research for the television series and the experiences that led to his own ethical evolution for his cleverly presented book debut. As he tells it, the more we practice being good, the easier and more instinctive it becomes. By breaking down the basic tenets of ethical theory into manageable morsels and applying them to real-life situations that are part and parcel of membership in modern society, How to Be Perfect equips readers with the practical skills to confidently build their own personalized ethics toolbox.

The book is organized broadly around three secular theories of Western moral philosophy: virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism, with engaging and thoughtful forays into Jean Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism, Buddhism and the southern African concept of human interconnectedness known as ubuntu. Schur encourages readers who are so inclined to dig deeper and explore the many other fascinating theories of moral philosophy that have developed over 2,500 years. Ethics is free for all to engage with, he says, and it boils down to four simple questions that we can ask ourselves whenever we encounter any ethical dilemma, great or small. These questions comprise "moral philosophy and ethics in a nutshell," namely: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Is there something we could do that is better? Why is it better?

Echoing themes from The Good Place, Schur plunges into spiky ethical questions that readers will likely find familiar, including whether we should lie and tell a friend we like her ugly shirt, the one she plans to wear to a job interview, and if we can still enjoy Woody Allen movies despite his morally problematic past. One of the most ubiquitous modern-day dilemmas, whether we have to return our shopping cart to the cart corral, is explored through the lens of "contractualism," a theory developed by the American philosopher T.M. Scanlon that suggests we apply the standard of reasonableness to evaluate our actions and also what we owe one another as part of a thriving society. Adding a healthy dose of humor, Schur deconstructs philosopher Immanuel Kant's theory of duties and obligations known as deontology, as well as the results-oriented theory of utilitarianism, and applies them, with his own special touch, to the famous thought experiment known as "the Trolley Problem" that has plagued philosophy students since the '60s. These same theories are utilized to evaluate the social and ethical issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, including American attitudes toward mask-wearing and vaccine mandates.

Schur distills Aristotle's dense and expansive teachings and his theory of virtue ethics into a lively discussion on the desirable traits of kindness, generosity, courage and the author's personal favorite, being dutiful. The goal of mankind and the very purpose of living, stated Aristotle, is to flourish, which the author interprets to mean attaining "a sense of completeness that flows through us when we are nailing every aspect of being human." In questioning how we can acquire desirable virtues in just the right amount to flourish, Schur exposes an essential aspect of the human condition that has been neglected by philosophers past and present, concerning the varying real-life circumstances that make it far more difficult for some people to engage with ethics than others. Context matters, he insists, and those who are fortunate enough to live comfortably bear more responsibility to behave ethically and at a higher standard than those struggling to survive.

Moving beyond applicable theories, How to Be Perfect grapples with the reality of "moral exhaustion," a phrase coined by the author to capture the reality that most of us face of having too many moral and ethical decisions to make, on top of our everyday problems and commitments--from which products to buy or use to what is the most responsible way to shop for groceries. Schur emphasizes the importance of checking in with oneself once in a while to assess the current state of our ethical health and the critical skill of learning to apologize when we have done something wrong. With the hard-won confidence of someone who has tried, failed and tried better, he reassures readers that we are bound to fail at being good sometimes and that is fine as long as we care about becoming better people.

Schur concludes with a heartfelt letter to his children, encouraging them to reflect on their decisions, interrogate their ethical instincts and develop a good balance of virtues. His enthusiasm for the subject of ethics is contagious. Accompanied by a robust and often hilarious notes section, the conversational, chucklesome tone of How to Be Perfect renders moral philosophy, a subject that has intimidated mankind for centuries, joyfully accessible to readers at every stage of their lives and is sure to animate intergenerational dinner table conversations exploring the universal human desire to be good. --Shahina Piyarali

Simon & Schuster, $28.99, hardcover, 304p., 9781982159313, January 25, 2022

Simon & Schuster: How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

Michael Schur: The Art of Combining Ethics with Humor

(photo: Marlene Holston)

Michael Schur is an Emmy Award-winning television writer and producer who has worked on Saturday Night Live, The Office and Master of None. A Harvard University graduate who was president of the Harvard Lampoon, the L.A.-based Schur is the creator of the fantasy comedy series The Good Place and co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99. Schur's book debut, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question (Simon & Schuster, January 25, 2022) is a uniquely irreverent introduction to moral philosophy and a down-to-earth guide for readers interested in learning how to lead a more ethical life.

Moral philosophy is often viewed as a dry, serious subject. Yet, in How to Be Perfect, you joyfully incorporate humor and levity into real-life examples of critical moral quandaries. What role should humor play in striving to lead a more ethical life?

One of the barriers to entry for moral philosophy is its inherent capital-S Seriousness. It's a very serious subject, you see, full of serious-looking people who wrote long, serious books and, as such, most people want nothing to do with it. I find that frustrating, because these are literally the smartest people who ever lived and they devoted their lives to defining and describing how we ought to behave on Earth. I hope that humor--whether through secondary writing, or just the approach people take to reading it--can bridge the gap between the Seriousness of philosophy and the application of its ideas to everyday life.

It is courageous of you to share personal ethical blunders as a way to help readers understand the evolution of your moral philosophy. Are there some areas of ethics that are harder for you to practice than others?

First of all, it is in no way, shape, or form "courageous." Talking about the ways we've all screwed up in matters big or small is a very basic first step in the process of learning how to do better, make better choices, cause less harm to other people. It also makes us feel less alone in the world, because screwing up brings feelings of guilt and shame, and knowing we're not alone in feeling these things can be a huge relief.

I find most matters of ethics difficult to practice, because (a) making decisions in a modernized Western capitalistic world is an endless parade of value system compromises and (b) the process of marching in that parade, of mulling over our decisions to try to come up with the best solution, can be incredibly frustrating, and often makes everyone around you annoyed and miserable. But we still have to try!

The goal of humankind, as you interpret Aristotle's teachings, goes beyond happiness to achieve a state where one is "flourishing." Can you share your interpretation of what it is to "flourish" in life?

Aristotle (like most philosophers) was an incredible snob, so he thought the number of people who could actually "flourish" was very small. (And the only people who were even capable of it were men.) "Flourishing" as he defines it means that we are hitting the bullseyes of a bunch of different virtues--we're being generous but not too generous, mild but not too mild, courageous but not too courageous and so on. I think of it less like a tangible goal and more of a theoretical target--a North Star by which we can navigate. To me, practically speaking, flourishing means that we're paying constant attention to what we're doing and evaluating whether we're doing it well.

Do you think ethics and citizenship are intertwined?

Without question. No such thing as citizenship without ethics, and I think you could argue there's no ethics without citizenship. I'd rather my kids learn civics and ethics in school than advanced math or chemistry.

You taught a Zoom class on the philosophy of ethics in the context of your show The Good Place. What grade were the students and did they absorb the lessons of the show?

It was my son's sixth-grade class. My wife had the idea--we were all looking for ways to keep our children busy during the early days of the pandemic, and a lot of the kids in his grade had gotten into the show. We met four times. I asked them to watch a couple episodes and then we'd discuss the basics of the philosophy those episodes were dealing with. I think they got something out of it--it was a good reminder that when you boil these ideas down, they can be understood by anyone.

Do you plan to continue teaching this class and expanding it to more grades?

I would happily do it again if the kids were interested. Though it doesn't pay as well as my day job.

What is your response to potential readers who say they don't have the time, money or energy it takes to incorporate moral philosophy into their lives?

I get it! Acting ethically--or, acting more ethically than you were going to--often costs money and time and energy, but the ideas are free. So I guess I would say: start by learning the ideas. You might not have the resources to do the right thing at this moment, and that's understandable. Life is hard, and our time, energy and money are often in short supply. But you can practice the art of learning what the right thing is and why it's right. That would be a noble and worthwhile first step.

One hundred years from now, when future generations struggle with questions of moral philosophy and turn to How to Be Perfect for guidance on how to lead a more ethical life, what is the one thing you most hope they will take away from your teachings?

This is an exam no one gets an A on. The very best among us fail basic ethical tests on a weekly basis. It's a real "journey is the destination" situation--the goal here is simply to care whether what we do is good or bad, and therefore to try, all the time, to do a little better. --Shahina Piyarali

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