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How to Be Perfect: Book Review

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question (2021). Michael Schur (he created The Good Place). This is a surprisingly good analysis of basic philosophical issues mainly on ethics and justice, plus humor. He starts by imagining the “Universe Goodness Accountant to give you an omniscient, mathematical report on how well you did” (p. 1), built into the plot of The Good Place. The question is still: “How can we live a more ethical life?” (p. 3): what are we doing and why? Could we do it better? Why is that better? Major perspectives include virtue ethics (Aristotle), deontology (Kant), and utilitarianism (Bentham and Mills).

Part I. Chapter 1: Should I Punch My Friend in the Face for No Reason? The idea is a theory to explain a “good” from a “bad” person. Punching involves a bad action. Schur starts with Aristotle’s virtue ethics [a premise of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was “virtue” really meant excellence]. “Aristotle needs to define (1) which qualities a good person ought to have, (2) in which amounts, (3) whether everyone has the capacity for those qualities, (4) how we acquire them, and (5) what it will look (or feel) like when we actually have them” (p. 20). Happiness (telos) is the goal of being human. Health, honor, and friendships are expected (Aristotle talks about happiness or flourishing): our purpose is to flourish.

Virtues can be listed, like bravery, generosity, or honesty, acquiring them a lifelong process. People are born with the potential for virtue (Schur calls them “virtue started kits”). “We become virtuous by doing virtuous things … not by a process of nature, but by habituation” (p. 26)—which requires developing all the virtues. “Nature, habit, and teaching are all needed … in the exact right amount” (p. 28), the “golden mean” (e.g., between mildness and anger; or dutifulness: mindless obedience versus breaking all rules), consider the “flexibility of response:” flexible, inquisitive, and adaptable. Then generosity, loyalty, kindness. Judith Shklar argues that cruelty is the worst vice (“the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear,” p. 36). “Montesquieu: knowledge makes men gentle, just as ignorance hardens us” p. 37).

Chapter 2: Should I Let This Runaway Trolley I’m Driving Kill Five People, or Should I Pull a Lever and Deliberately Kill One (Different) Person?” The famous trolley problem, posed by Phillippa Foot in 1967. This can be reimagined in multiple forms, giving different results for, in some sense, similar circumstances: innocent passenger, fat guy on the bridge, etc. Schur introduces utilitarianism [a concept used in economics. Note that economists are supposed to be sociopaths]. This is part of a broader approach called consequentialism, concerning the results or consequences of actions. [Economists consider “unintended consequences,” like pollution by a manufacturing company. They tend to deemphasize bad intended consequences] Schur defines utilitarianism as “the greatest happiness principle.” [Economists often use the term “satisfaction,” which I prefer, but can apply it to individuals rather than some definition of society.]

To measure happiness or pleasure Jeremy Bentham used seven scales: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity (how soon it can happen), fecundity (how long lasting), purity, and extent (how many people benefit): hedons are pleasure measurements and dolors are pain. [Economists use utils.] Apparently, Bentham was concerned with overall happiness not the individual (which causes problems). Utility seems the answer in some cases, like a natural disaster causes food shortages: food banks make food widely available as conveniently as possible. Distributing food in short supply seems a utilitarian calculation.

Chapter 3: Should I Lie and Tell My Friend I Like Her Ugly Shirt? “Most of us don’t enjoy misleading people, but the gears of society do mesh more smoothly if we grease them with white lies” (p. 61). This included obvious benefits, like not coming off as a jerk. What better time to talk about “non-nonsense Germanic dad” Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperatives. Deontology is the study of duties or obligations. Kant focused on pure reason and following rules based on unflinching duty, meaning acting morally.

Kant views categorical imperatives as universal law [one view of natural contract theory: to form a government by social contract]: “The categorical imperative states that we can’t just find rules that tell us how we ought to behave—we have to find rules that we could imagine everyone else following too. … We tell the truth … only out of a duty to follow the universal maxim we have reasoned out” (p. 66). Giving money to charity might be praiseworthy but has no moral worth, because it is not a universal maxim. Happiness and fear are not motivations of duty, and basically irrelevant. Happiness is based on imagination and subjective, not reason. Schur notes that Chidi on the Good Place is a Kantian, which paralyzes him into indecision. Even Friedrich Nietzsche [whose superman included a master-slave perspective and an ultra-nationalist perspective] thought Kant was overly moralistic.

There can be the “practical imperative:” “Act so that you treat humanity … always as an end and never as a means only” (p. 70). Kant has difficulty with the trolley problem because “we should never intentionally cause an innocent person to die.” Philippa Foot suggest the doctrine of double effect: “an outcome can be more or less morally permissible depending on whether you actually intended it to happen when you acted” (p. 74), like saving five lives for one.

Chapter 4: Do I Have to Return My Shopping Cart to the Shopping Cart Rack Thingy? I Mean … It’s All the Way Over There. “What is the smallest nice thing you do for other people on a regular basis?” (p. 81). Little gestures are basically free. Philosophy professor Pamela Hieronymi recommended Schur read TM Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. His theory is contractualism, something of a less demanding than Kant rules-based set of ethics (another social contract theory), the morality of right and wrong. Rules can be designed that can be justified to other people, assuming everyone is reasonable and willing to accommodate to other people’s needs.

Schur for some reason then goes to African ubuntu logic: “A comprehensive ancient African world view based on the values of intense humanness, caring, sharing, respect, compassion, and associated values, ensuring a happy and qualitative human community life in the spirit of family. … The individual can only say ‘I am, because we are’” (p. 92).

With Covid no one wanted to wear masks, but millions didn’t. [This was one of the few remedies that worked during the 1918 flu pandemic.] Mask wearing is an example of how contractualism should work, what we owe each other where the cost is miniscule. “It gives us a baseline for creating a livable society” (p. 97).

Part II. Chapter 5: Should I Run into a Burning Building and Try to Save Everyone Trapped Inside? Run inside or call 911; depends on the ethical system. “The happiness of the moral saint would truly lie in the happiness of others” (p. 106); other-preservation rather than self-preservation. The calculation is different for a firefighter. How much morality can we stand? “While Kant and Mill ask ‘what should I do?’ Aristotle is asking ‘what kind of person should I be.’ … Aristotle suggests that if we can focus on becoming virtuous, people we will then make good choices. … continual practice brings us closer to perfection” (p. 109). Defining your own worse faults are okay in moderation according to Aristotle.

Philosopher Judith Thomson considered Meg as a blood-cleaner for a famous violinist. What is Meg’s obligation? Mill probably would say its her obligation for the greater good. A Kantian says Meg is a human crutch and disapproves. Aristotle would say Meg is not required to do this: there are limits to self-sacrifice. “If flourishing is the ultimate human purpose, it requires us to protect ourselves a little from suffering. … There are limits on what’s required of us—moral perfection is impossible, and it's unwise to think of it as any kind of reasonable goal” (p. 112).

Chapter 6: I Just Did Something Unselfish. But What’s in it for Me? “Mindfulness is the core of Buddhist philosophy: … the energy that brings us back to the present moment. … There is something good and mindful about giving anonymously. … The goal of charitable giving is to maximize the transfer of money from people who have it to people who need it” (p. 118). Does purity of motivation make a difference? Schur thinks not, according to utilitarian logic. It still maximizes good. Buddhists expect the right happiness, so would disagree with Schur.

William James focused on pragmatism. Virtually any perspective (e.g., science, religion) to arrive as a meaningful perspective: “a mediator and reconciler that unstiffens’ our theories” (p. 127). Consider all hypotheses and consider any evidence. In the case of giving, Schur thinks James would agree with the giving, with the motivation secondary (just consider bad motivation as “bad taste.” The Good Place’s Tahani desires fame and attention over all else.

“Thich Nhat Hanh describes a person’s life as analogous to a wave forming—with specific dimensions and properties and qualities—and then returning to the ocean whence it came. The water is the constant—the wave is just a different way for the water to be” (p. 129).

Chapter 7: Yes, I Bumped into Your Car. But Do you Even Care About Hurricane Katrina? This was an episode that happened to Schur, where he overreacted, then overreacted on a guilt trip. Apparently, he needed more of Aristotle’s golden mean.

Shame versus guilt: “Guilt is the internal feeling that we have done something wrong. … Shame is humiliation for who we are, reflected back at us through other people judging us from the outside” (p. 134). “A daily perusal of American newspapers reveals dozens of shame-worthy activities: corruption, rampant hypocrisy, using power for personal enrichment, dereliction of duty, racism, dishonesty—and that’s just Ted Cruz” (p. 134). Schur wrote this when Cruz was visiting Cancun.

“Whataboutism is most commonly deployed as a defensive strategy” (p. 135), an example of argumentum ad hominem. “Each of us is responsible for our own actions” (p. 137). Schur’s best defense for bad action is consequentialism, wanting to use the money for Hurricane Katrina relief. “If people were incapable of feeling shame, they would do whatever they wanted to with impunity. … The golden mean represents an appropriate amount of anger, directed only at people who deserve it” (p. 140).

Backfire effect: “when people are confronted with information that contradicts their core beliefs that contradicts their core beliefs, even if the evidence is both demonstrably factual and overwhelming, they’re much more likely to double down on their original beliefs” (p. 143).

Chapter 8: We’ve done some good deeds, and given a bunch of money to charity, and we’re generally really nice and morally upstanding people, so can we take three of these free cheese samples from the free cheese sample plate at the supermarket even though it clearly says “one per customer”? Is there a moral bank account to withdraw and spend? Otherwise, what about moral exhaustion, like moral jaywalking or anarchist calisthenics? The Overton window “describes the range of ‘acceptability’ a political idea has at any given time” (p. 152). Acceptability changes over time, like same-sex marriage.

Ayn Rand preached “rational egoism” or “rational selfishness,” and was identified by Schur as a bad writer and worse philosopher. “She can’t think and she can’t write” (p. 156). She called it objectivism—not necessarily different from an economist’s idea of utility theory (especially libertarians). This is roughly the opposite of altruism or self-sacrifice, but really a common modern moral theory.

The free rider problem is taking advantage of a situation and not paying for it, a market failure in economics. We have shared resources (especially public goods, common in government) that people can overuse. It’s easy to be a free rider on public television. I give to Wikipedia to avoid free riding (I use it a lot). The most relevant one now is the “mask problem,” particularly annoying to nurses and other healthcare workers. Scanlon’s What We Owe Each Other suggests we “owe things to each other and the goal is to find out what those things are” (p. 161). Wearing masks protects others at minimal inconvenience.

Part 3: Chapter 9: Oh, you bought a new iPhone? That’s cool. Did you know that millions of people are starving in South Asia? What about Peter Singer’s “moral opportunity cost” (based on “What Should a Billionaire Give—and What Should You”), the good we miss when we do something else. What is Bill Gates’ opportunity cost? He gave away a lot, but still owns plenty.

Chapter 10. This sandwich is morally problematic. But it’s also delicious. Can I still eat it? “Can we separate the things we like from the people who make them? And should we?” (p. 186). Contractualist argument: ‘what do we owe each other? does not include an exemption clause” (p. 192). Deontology would be similar, consistent with more than one categorical imperative. Utilitarianism could be a stand-in for contractualist and reluctantly agree.

“Things causing us moral anguish is an unchangeable fact of history. … Aristotle believed in slavery and the superiority of free males” (p. 196). Heuristics are rules of thumb and are a possible help. Scanlon considers “rules no one would reasonably reject.”

Chapter 11: Making ethical decisions is hard. Can we just … not make them? The focus is existentialism as defined by Sartre and Camus. (Kierkegaard and others had different perspectives). Jean-Paul Sartre writing mainly in the 1940s: “Completely denies the presence of God … To Sartre, we’re born out of nothingness and then it’s entirely up to us what we are and do, then we die. … All we have, and all we ultimately are, is the choices we make while we’re alive. … Existence precedes essence. … No one is keeping score or enforcing rules. … You’re responsible for your actions. … Man is condemned to be free” (p. 211).

Albert Camus was a rough contemporary of Sartre. Schur indicated his existentialism is “sharper, more intense, more potent. … Humans desire meaning from the universe, but the universe is cold and indifferent. … We can embrace some kind of structure to manufacture meaning (e.g., religion) or acknowledge the absurdity and live with it. … Reasons make us feel better because they reframe our choices as inevitable, thus absolving us of responsibility. … It’s always our choice. … Of course, some choices are made for us (p. 215, 220-1).

Chapter 12. I gave a 27-cent tip to my barista, and now everyone’s yelling at me on twitter … Kant’s “zero-tolerance policy” does not work if your life takes a wrong turn. John Scalzi’s blog was “straight white male: the lowest difficulty setting there is.” Scalzi is a science fiction writer. Imagine if this was a computer game called “the Real World.” Step one is the difficulty setting. Default is straight white male now. You can consider any number of increasing difficulties, like being a slave in 18th century America or a gay Afghan female from a minority group. You can build on history, socioeconomic development, gender, and so on. Perhaps the game is based on success by meritocracy. What would help make it equal? Affirmative action? Gender balance?

People should start from the same point of origin. Generally, people closest to the top rise to the top, the idea of “being born on third base,” (not the same as hitting a triple). The rich white dude does not suffer from: racism, sexism, misogyny, poverty, low quality schools, poor medical care, etc. Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family versus the rich guy stealing. They are the same according to Kant, also Sartre because each made a choice, but not most other ethical systems.

One big deal is luck. I was drafted into the Army (bad luck), but had good luck (commissioned in air defense, stationed in South Korea, met my wife, went to graduate school on the GI Bill). Schur lists the circumstances for his success, which included considerable luck (presumably he made it to Harvard based on some ability).

John Rawls based much of his philosophy on Kant and Mill and created “the veil of ignorance” (the original position, the just society should be created before we know our role). When creating an ethical system, you should not consider what your current role is: slavery is really unjust if you could be a slave. It should be a just world that everyone thinks is just. People are different and should have different roles, but they should be fair.

Chapter 13. I screwed up. Do I have to say I’m sorry? “A person incapable of shame, said Aristotle, has no sense of disgrace” (p. 244). Philosopher Harry Frankfort wrote On Bullshit [I’ll abbreviate it to BS]: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much BS” (p. 248). He distinguishes BS from lying: “A liar knows the truth and deliberately speaks in opposition to it. A BSer, however, is unconstrained by a concern with truth” (p. 248). The issue is not if what s/he said was false, but it’s phony. “Contemporary Republicans may have raised it to an art form” (p. 249).

The expected apology: “’I’m sorry if you were offended’, which of course is less an apology than an accusation. That’s saying both ‘I did nothing wrong’ and ‘You’re so dumb you thought I did something wrong’ and ‘You’re so dumb you thought I did something wrong’” (p. 249).

Coda: Okay, kids, what have we learned? Stay away from the traps: selfishness, callousness, cruelty, hypocrisy, and snobbery. The book is the “virtue starter kit”: “how to be good, how we should act, what we owe to each other. … Before you do something, would it be fair if everyone did this? … Kindness, generosity, loyalty, courage, determination, mildness” (p. 255).

Temple of Delphi has: Know thyself and nothing in excess [also, certainty brings insanity].


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