Michael Schur is the kind of funny and smart-without-trying-too-hard friend you would have loved to hang out with in college. The kind you could spend hours talking to, feeding off their energy and zeal. You would probably agree if you have seen the show he created, The Good Place (2016-20; on Netflix), where Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop tries to be ethical and morally sound in the afterlife when a clerical error sees her in a non-Christian heaven, aka “the good place”. But in case you haven’t, or didn’t agree, his new book, How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer To Every Moral Question, will dispel any doubts.
Schur’s book is likely one of the freshest, funniest and friendliest works on practical morality and ethics. It’s easy to latch on to the breezy, sometimes sassy, TV-narrator style of storytelling. It is conversational and catchy, never straying from its almost frantic need to be entertaining. Despite this “fun-friend” energy, it never compromises on the thoroughness of its research and has detailed and diverse footnotes and cross-references. It even explains the need for certain possibly problematic references.
It is well-researched but light. More importantly, there are moments that elicit a cackle—not just because Schur is funny but because there’s relief in knowing that even the most “uncool” of things (remember “moral science” lessons in school?) can actually be enjoyable and stimulating.
The book builds up its lessons—starting with the seemingly simplistic “Should I Punch My Friend In The Face For No Reason?”, which takes us through the basics of Western moral philosophy, it inches towards more complex themes. So the chapter “This Sandwich Is Morally Problematic. But It’s Also Delicious. Can I Still Eat It?” is pegged to the conundrum of patronising an American fast-food chain whose CEO publicly opposes gay marriage.
This is especially relevant today as we discover that well-loved artists and creators nurture views we don’t agree with, or as we navigate personal and professional relationships with individuals who hold opinions very different from ours.
At first glance, some may find the chapter titles, and the overall tone of the book , a bit OTT. Is there any other book that can casually throw in a reference to, and photograph of, the French philosopher and author Albert Camus and call him, in the footnotes no less, “a stone cold hottie”? But the tone holds its own, offsetting the dry lecture-like boredom that is often associated with such an education.
“Parents and moral philosophers, I’ve come to learn, are annoying in exactly the same way. Both groups spend their lives thinking about what makes a person good and trying to convince other people to buy into their theories,” Schur says, highly self-aware, in the final chapter that’s written as a letter to his children.
But it soon segues into a heartwarming summing up of the book that acknowledges, just as it did in the beginning, the very real exhaustion that comes with trying to be an ethically sound person in a world that seems to set up the good guys to fail.
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