Review of How To Be Perfect

by Joseph Shieber

From the collections of the Harvard Art Museums; depicts Michael Schur teaching philosophers how to land their first TV deal

One of the best television comedies of the last decade was The Good Place. Over the course of four seasons, its creator, Michael Schur, and a phenomenal ensemble cast tackled topics that I had thought to be too arcane for network television. The so-called “trolley problem”? Kantian deontology? Utilitarianism? All in the series, served up with Schur’s finely honed comedic chops.

Despite having already had countless opportunities to explore the moral philosophical underpinnings of the show – on Vox alone Schur had a 100-minute interview with Ezra Klein on the moral philosophy of The Good Place and Dylan Matthews wrote an extended piece on “How the Good Place Taught Moral Philosophy to its Characters – And Its Creators” – Schur revisits this territory in his new book, How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

To which my first reaction was: Really, Michael Schur? You didn’t have enough to do creating and writing sitcoms for NBC? You just had to sell a philosophy book project to Simon & Schuster? I was almost enraged enough about his amateurish poaching on my professional bailiwick to sit down and craft an unputdownable pitch that would land me an exclusive, even more impressive deal with Universal Television than the one he signed. (Suck it, Schur!)

After I realized that I didn’t know the first thing about pitching a television series, I decided that my fall-back plan would be to read How To Be Perfect and then mock it with haughty disdain – not only at faculty cocktail receptions but also to my immediate friends and family … and here, at 3QD. So I read the book and I can now tell you it’s … really quite good, actually.

Schur’s writing style might not be for everyone. He lards the discussions with a lot of jokes and asides – he uses footnotes pretty much solely to pursue some of those asides even further (and perhaps as a “meta” commentary on the use of footnotes in academic philosophical works) – and not all of the jokes land. Enough of them do, though, to keep the book engaging.

As for the philosophical content, it’s actually quite impressive. Schur begins by covering virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and Kantian deontology – each in a chapter devoted to sketching the theories and highlighting some of their main deficiencies. He name-checks not only the canonical authors – Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill – but also contemporary (or near-contemporary) figures like Philippa Foot, Judith Thomson, Peter Singer, or T. M. Scanlon. 

And while he doesn’t get into the details of any of the philosophical views he discusses – or really deal with any arguments underlying those philosophical views with any sort of rigor – he also doesn’t put a foot wrong in guiding the reader through, as the press for the book has it, “2,400 years of deep thinking about the world.” If someone wanted a gentle introduction to moral philosophy, I’d not hesitate in recommending this book. If I taught moral philosophy, I’d seriously consider using the book as a course text – although not as the course text, since I’d feel the pathological need to spoil my students’ fun by focusing on some of those arguments and injecting some of the rigor that Schur forgoes.

Given the fact that How To Be Perfect is (1) a wide-ranging book about philosophy and the good life (2) by a non-philosopher (3) who creates and writes television comedies for a mass audience, I expected the reception for Schur’s book to include some robust criticism. In fact, when I admire a book, I appreciate negative reviews. They give me a chance to test my response to the book, to see if my positive reaction can withstand the criticisms raised by other readers. From what I’ve been able to see, however, there have been very few negative reviews. I actually was able to dig up only two.

In one of those negative reviews, Ariella Garmaise’s “Why Do We Have to Feel Good? On Michael Schur’s Cloying Moral Universe”, the central criticism that Garmaise levies against Schur is that he is too focused on the individual. 

In critiquing Schur’s discussion of “moral exhaustion”, the burden that we can experience when every choice that we face seems to be freighted with moral weight, Garmaise writes that, “Neoliberal economists have been telling us to vote with our dollar for the past half century; Schur’s only intervention is to add that this sometimes gets tiring. This isn’t to say that we should empty our recycling bins into our trash cans or skip the organic produce aisle, and Schur is correct in his diagnosis of a cultural moral exhaustion. But it’s not our endless choices that fatigue, it’s their futility.”

And in the peroration of her review, Garmaise notes that Schur “tells his children in the book’s earnest coda, ‘I’m placing a decent-size bet on the idea that understanding morality, and following its compass during decisions great and small, will make you better, and therefore safer.’ But in a world where our individual choices mean less and less, we delude ourselves in pretending that they mean more, and Schur’s insistence on the power of simple kindness feels less brave than desperate.”

I don’t find this sort of criticism at all convincing. Is Garmaise trying to suggest that we shouldn’t try to make better ethical decisions or that we shouldn’t be kind? Certainly not. (She notes that her criticism of Schur, “isn’t to say that we should empty our recycling bins into our trash cans or skip the organic produce aisle,” remember?) So the most that the criticism would seem to amount to is that Schur ought to have written a book on a different topic than the one that he intended to tackle – in other words, not a book on moral philosophy at all.

In the second negative review, Morten Høi Jensen’s “The Bad Book”, Jensen raises three criticisms – two obliquely, and one more fully. The first oblique criticism seems to be a version of Garmaise’s criticism: that Schur is not mounting a full-scale critique the horrors inflicted by contemporary neoliberalism. The final sentence of Jensen’s review, dripping with sarcasm, is: “Perhaps a more honest title for this book would have been: How to Be a Virtuous and Conscious Consumer.” To which, again, I say: that is criticizing Schur for not having chosen a different topic, and NOT for writing a bad book on the topic he DID choose.

The second oblique criticism is more interesting. Jensen faults Schur for disliking Heidegger and Nietzsche, but if you’re writing a book about moral philosophy, it’s not so terrible to exclude those two, given that the effects of reading their work was hardly morally salutary. In criticizing Schur for this, though, Jensen notes that Schur doesn’t “take seriously any arguments against moral philosophy.” This is actually a good point! If you’re writing a book about how moral philosophy can help you become a better person, it’s worth taking a bit of time to ask whether moral philosophy can help you become a better person, and Schur doesn’t really do this. (Not that I’d say that this lacuna makes Schur’s book a bad book, by any stretch.)

Jensen’s most fully developed critique, though, is that Schur’s book – remember, an over 300-page book trying to bring moral philosophy to the masses – is anti-intellectual. “Like many products of American culture,” Jensen writes, “How to Be Perfect bespeaks a deep uneasiness about the realm of ideas and the intellect. It is embarrassed by them. Every concession to higher thought must be soothed with a needling joke or yarn, lest the reader should think that any of this is actually serious.” 

I mentioned that Schur’s writing style might not be for everyone. I should note that I wrote that before I found Jensen’s review – but he’s definitely one of those people for whom Schur’s writing style doesn’t click. Jensen notes that Schur set himself the task of making abstruse philosophical ideas accessible to a mass audience and writes, “With How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, Schur has attempted to … translate thousands of years of complex philosophical arguments into a so-called human language. But what kind of language is that? Judging by Schur’s vocabulary and prose style, it is the language of a third-grader reading at a second-grade level.”

Let me reiterate: Schur has written a book that cites Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Thomson, Singer, Scanlon, and others. He tackles the trolley problem, the categorical imperative, and the golden mean, among other topics. It’s hard to see how that could be described as “anti-intellectual.”

As for the writing style, you can judge for yourself. An excerpt from the book is available at LitHub here. As for whether it’s written in “the language of a third-grader reading at a second-grade level,” I cut a chunk of that excerpt – a discussion of Scanlon’s contractarianism – and ran it through a readability calculator. Here were the results:

Flesch Reading Ease score: 57.1 (text scale); Flesch Reading Ease scored your text: fairly difficult to read.

Gunning Fog: 13.9 (text scale); Gunning Fog scored your text: hard to read.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 11.1; Grade level: Eleventh Grade.

The Coleman-Liau Index: 10; Grade level: Tenth Grade

The SMOG Index: 9.7; Grade level: Tenth Grade

Automated Readability Index: 12.4; Grade level: 17-18 yrs. old (Twelfth graders)

Linsear Write Formula : 14.4; Grade level: College.

Now you might take this as an indictment of the American educational system. Perhaps 10th – 11th graders actually only understand the language of a third-grader reading at a second-grade level. These scores, however, were about what I would have predicted. (I noted earlier that if I taught moral philosophy I would assign Schur’s book as one of the books for a college level Intro Ethics class.)

In other words, Schur’s book is worth reading if you like his style of writing (and I do). I’m just glad that he didn’t try to encroach on my own subfield of epistemology. Or … maybe we could collaborate. How To Be Omniscient, maybe? Michael, bubbeleh, have your people call my people!