Spotlight: How To Be Perfec t
A book about moral philosophy from the creator of The Good Place
I loved The Good Place as much for its thoughtful treatment of ethics and philosophy as for its puns and dick jokes (and for so much else in between), and creator Mike Schur has talked in interviews about how much reading he did to ground the series in real philosophy questions, including talking to two professors of philosophy (one, Todd May, reviewed this book and added notes). I don’t recall him stating it directly (he might), but it’s clear from the first few chapters that Schur’s experience in reading primary texts of moral philosophy was arduous enough that he wanted to distill what he’d learned into a form that was more accessible to regular people. Hence the book How To Be Perfec t.
Philosophy is famously a field of jargon, as I suppose are most scientific fields. When you’re researching and discussing the same concepts over and over, you develop a shorthand for talking about them that both saves time and serves as a kind of marker to prove you belong, and to make sure other people reading also belong. Furry does this too: a minor example is “a YCH.” When I say that, non-furries probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but furries understand that I’m talking about a commission offered by an artist with a fixed tableau including one or more undefined characters that people can pay the artist to render as their character either through a direct purchase or, more often, through an auction. Imagine if you had to spell that out every time you wanted to talk about one.
The problem in philosophy (more, I think, than in most other fields) is that they are often attempting to solve questions of direct interest to most people (as opposed to, say, rocket scientists, who are also solving important problems, but I don’t have much use for knowing the rate of fuel burn of various fuels in my daily life), and yet they cloak their texts in this impenetrable jargon. Schur quotes some philosophy texts to show how dense they are and how often even he, a motivated reader, was unable to finish them. (I did not expect to have existentialism explained to me, but I’m glad that explanation was there.)
So he wrote this book to bring some of the key concepts he learned to people in a way that would be not only accessible but fun. Jargon is inescapable, but he confines himself mostly to teaching us the names of the various schools of thought: deontology, consequentialism, Aristotelian “golden mean,” and so on. The meat of the book is in the examples he uses, situations like “should I return the shopping cart to the rack or leave it in the parking lot,” and “can I still enjoy great art that was created by terrible people?” which he then applies the various schools of thought to. Schur also engages with my big problem with a lot of the moral philosophy questions in a way that he also did in The Good Place: he points out that in the real world, where we’re trying to apply these concepts, things are rarely as neatly set up as in a philosophy problem. I can guarantee that you will never find yourself at the helm of a runaway trolley with a switch coming up that will force you to choose between barreling into five people or one (mostly because there are so few trolleys these days). But Schur does a great job of mapping those philosophy problems into the real world and addressing at least some of the complexities that come up (is there an employee whose job it is to retrieve the shopping carts?) so that the questions he discusses feel real and applicable.
Schur doesn’t espouse any particular philosophy; he’s very good at identifying the appeal and pitfalls of each one. His point is that being aware of all of these schools of thought helps guide us rather than telling us which of them is “best,” and that in a lot of cases we sense what the “right” course of action is even if we can’t always articulate why (yes, we should return the shopping cart to the rack). Even if you haven’t watched The Good Place (ugh, why not?), I’d recommend picking up this book to anyone with even a passing interest in
moral philosophy being a better person.
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