A Review of Michael Schur, How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022.
I took an Introduction to Philosophy in college – my father and my brother majored in it, and I wanted to see what it was about. What it was about was boring. The teacher wasn’t particularly inspired and never engaged us in the philosophical issues she droned on about. Besides, at that age I didn’t really care about what Socrates or Aristotle, Kant or Bentham felt was so vitally important.
I didn’t see the point of establishing my ethics for everyday living because I hadn’t done a whole lot of everyday living. But now! After a life filled with the vicissitudes (and joys) of marriage, parenthood, teaching, community organizing and political activism I know what I stand for, though I still struggle to avoid undercutting my integrity by failing to live up to it.
That’s where Michael Schur’s How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question comes in. The fact that Schur is a tv comedy writer (Parks and Recreation) and is funny even when he is carrying on about categorical imperatives and existential anxiety convinced me to read the whole thing this summer, very slowly.
Here’s the kind of ethical conundrum that typically gets my moral knickers in a twist. We have a community homeless shelter where I drop in with fresh fruit to supplement the hot lunches. I often chat with whoever has come off the streets that day: I have a rule for myself that if a guest wants to talk I will stop running all over town like a chicken with my head chopped off and take time for a conversation.
The other day I brought a bunch of grapes and stopped to greet a guy I often chat with, who was disconsolately slumped over his chair.
“Lunch smells good,” I said.
“Would you sit down and eat it with me,” he asked.
He had been in the shelter all day with his mask below his nose, and I am at a high risk category for covid. In order to break bread with him we would both have to take our masks off.
“I am really sorry,” I said, “I have another errand.”
I chose between his good and my good, and I am still unhappy with myself about it. So is he: he has gone off me, no longer eager for my company.
That’s why I like Schur’s less than perfec (sic) take on the struggle to live up to our moral responsibilities: “Again, part of the project of this book is to help us accept failure – because, again, failure is the inevitable result of caring about morality and trying to be good people. I really don’t mean to argue for perfect living…because a) it’s impossible and b) I don’t even think it’s a good goal. Instead, I’m arguing that when we fail, in matters great or small, we just take a second to acknowledge our failure to ourselves, and try to remember that failure the next time we have a decision to make.”
He devotes the first eighty pages of his book to “various theories of how to be good people.”
Deontology – Emmanuel Kant: Arrive at your rules for moral behavior through reasoning, as long as they work as well for others. My personal ethics told me to eat with the guy at the shelter, but, the very next day, I was joining my daughters and grandsons for our summer vacation. Taking a risk on his behalf could in put me and my whole family at risk. Or, my (Kantian) categorical imperative of being there when people ask me to was undercut because it might not work out well for others.
Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham: Make decisions that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Take my monetary donations to that shelter: arguing from quantitative analysis, shouldn’t I donate to groups whose intent is to eradicate homelessness (and poverty) altogether?
Contractualism – T.M. Scanlon (Author of What We Owe to Each Other): Make ethical decisions based on what we need to do to live with other people. What we owe each other is more qualitative and emotional than quantitative and mathematical, therefore “Living with other people” backs my choice to support “bricks and mortar” programs in my own neighborhood rather than distant charities.
Virtue Ethics – Aristotle: what are virtues? Which values do we want to live by, how to we find the golden mean in enacting them that is neither too little or too much? There are two aspects of Aristotle’s ethics that are the touchstone for my decision-making: first, that life does not consist of ideas but of action; secondly, matching your acts to your values brings life’s greatest happiness; being at one with yourself brings you a sense of wholeness, true flourishing as a human being.
Existentialism – Sartre: don’t look for a meaning in life there isn’t any. There is no source outside of you where you can find moral values: you have to make your own choices (while being sure they are good for others too.) Camus: Life is absurd; accept human absurdity and try to make good individual choices anyway.
I used Schur’s philosophical categories to sort out the basis for my life choices. I have come to consider the universe fundamentally moral, so I go with Kant. Utilitarianism leaves me (emotionally) chilled; though I have to admit that basing your charitable giving on algorithmically sorted data and quantitative accounting makes plenty of (rational) sense.
In choosing my actions I have never been a loner, but always join in the social contracts of the organizations where I volunteer: there is my (Unitarian) church’s covenant to principles, for example, and the stated rules that the Citizens’ Climate Lobby adheres to. And there is our United States Constitution and our Rule of Law, about which I am passionate.
As for Existentialism – when I fell into it during the (mercifully few) depressions I suffered, existential anxiety and a sense that life held no meaning whatsoever undermined my entire (Kantian/Contractual/Aristotelian) process of moral reasoning to leave me disastrously adrift on life’s tumultuous seas, without a rudder.
One of the truly lovely things about living (as often as possible) by integrity is that your ethics have a way of making themselves available at a (non-deliberative) second’s notice. A moment suddenly arrives when I realize that I must stand up for my values, right then and right there. Trembling all over, I get up on my feet to speak my piece for what I think is right and good, and experience what Aristotle described as true human flourishing – a great and all-pervading feeling, a warm bolt of complete happiness that rises from the tips of my toes and shoots up my spine to the top of my head as, once again, I head for good trouble.