The Bad Book

'The Good Place' creator Michael Schur has written a new book on moral philosophy, and it’s not great

Morten Høi Jensen

When he isn’t writing or producing television shows like Parks and Recreation or The Good Place — and presumably making a ton of money doing it — writer, producer, and actor Michael Schur thinks about how to be a good person. In fact, it’s preoccupied him for as long as he can remember. Why, just the other day he was telling the New York Times that “the smartest people who ever lived have been working really hard for thousands of years to try to explain to us how we can be better people, and how we can improve ourselves.” Which is indeed reassuring. But there is a problem: “They wrote so complicatedly and densely and opaquely that no one wants to engage with it. It’s like a chef had come up with a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that were both delicious and also helped you lose weight, but the recipe was 600 pages long and written in German, and no one read it. And I thought, if we could just translate that to, like, a human language, this would be very helpful.”

With How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, Schur has attempted to do so: 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. By page 14, we have encountered the word “stuff” ten times, as in: “I like to watch basketball and stuff,” or, “I spent a lot of time studying this stuff.” On page 20, we get: “Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 BCE, and wrote the most important stuff about the most important stuff.” By about page 50, I yearned to be doing something else (like curling up with Being and Time — in German).

Somewhere in this book is an admirable enough project: to write a general introduction and how-to manual about moral philosophy in layman’s terms. There are flashes of such an undertaking, as Schur, with the acknowledged aid of Clemson University professor of philosophy Todd May, crashes his way through concepts like virtue ethics, utilitarianism, consequentialism, and deontology, among others. One aim of such a project, however, would surely be to encourage people to continue their philosophical education, perhaps even read a classic text or two, yet for all his high-minded talk about wanting people to better their daily lives, Schur suffers from an affliction Dwight Macdonald, in his 1960 essay “Masscult and Midcult,” said is typical of most American cultural entrepreneurs: “A masochistic underestimation of the audience for good work in every field.”

Like many products of American culture, 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. A paragraph that begins with the word “Technically” and goes on to discuss the Greek word “eudaimonia” (often translated as “happiness” or “flourishing”) is quick to degenerate back into the reassuringly demotic: “Like, it’s hard for me to imagine a greater happiness than watching a basketball game and eating a sleeve of Nutter Butters, but am I flourishing when I do that?”

Schur, so as not to be confused with some highfalutin academic elitist type, likes to tell us how many works of philosophy he has given up reading.

The problem is not that Michael Schur is trying to be funny — he is a writer and producer of TV comedies, after all. The problem is that Michael Schur is not funny. A furtive glance at the cover tells you all you need to know about the level of comedy that awaits you in these pages. Aligned on the right against an almost perfect blue sky are the sun-glazed words How to Be Perfect — except the t is missing! It has ended up on the left side, as if by a typing error, beneath a rudely encroaching cloud.

Even if Schur’s sunny brand of silliness is to your taste — even if you actually like his TV shows — How to Be Perfect’s condescension to the reader ought to occasion some reevaluation. In her blurb on the book’s jacket, the actress Kristen Bell, star of Schur’s sitcom The Good Place, asks: “Have you ever wanted a friend to explain ethics so that you could understand the subject completely with minimal effort on your part?” In other words, here is a book that assumes its reader is either unbelievably stupid or incorrigibly lazy. Walking through Aristotle’s arguments in the Nichomachean Ethics “takes a little patience and time,” Schur at one point cautions us. “Some of the thinkers we’ll meet later have theories that can be decently presented in a few sentences; Aristotle’s ethics is more of a local train, making many stops. But it’s an enjoyable ride!”

Schur, so as not to be confused with some highfalutin academic elitist type, likes to tell us how many works of philosophy he has given up reading. He made it five sentences into Introduction to Metaphysics by Martin Heidegger. (“Later I found out that Heidegger was basically a fascist, so I feel like I made the right call”). He gave up on Hegel “after two minutes.” The hardest book he has tried to read is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — “which, like, don’t even try.”

The few books he does manage to suffer through are recommended despite the appalling effort involved in reading them. Aristotle’s virtue ethics are valuable “despite being written so long ago.” T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other is “a slog, but his theory is not.” In a coda, a banal letter addressed to his children, Schur says that the philosophers whose ideas he has explored “wrote super-confusing books that will give you an instant headache.”

At its worst, Schur’s anti-intellectualism carries a whiff of down-home nativism. Bertrand Russell “has the distinction of being one of the most British people who ever lived” — because, among other things, he was born at “Ravenscroft in Trelleck, Monmouthsire—an extremely British-sounding place.” Existentialism — “famously difficult to understand” — is “so French,” layered with “Galouises smoke and Gallic angst.” Sartre’s decision to turn down his Nobel Prize was “super punk-rock and extremely French.” The categorical imperative is “the most German idea ever.”

Schur, of course, is a liberal, and throughout the book he checks all the right progressive boxes (How to Be Perfect is almost offensively inoffensive): he worries about climate change, regrets that most philosophical texts use male pronouns, and makes fun of Ted Cruz. Yet in his fear of sounding intelligent, his aversion to the nabobs and eggheads of academe, Schur is all too typical of our cultural and political moment.

At one point, he approvingly cites Tom Scocca’s 2013 Gawker essay “On Smarm” — an awkward lapse in self-awareness. Scocca defined smarm as “a type of bullshit” that “expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.” The same holds true of How to Be Perfect: it parades as a crash course in moral philosophy while constantly lamenting the effort thinking about moral philosophy requires. It wants you to feel good when you’re thinking about being good. It has not even been written so much as produced — by Schur and a crack unit of marketing and publicity personnel at the publisher and the production company.

But who exactly has it been produced for? Who is the intended audience, other than the author’s children? A reader of this book could easily come away assuming there aren’t actually any “bad” people around; human beings are fundamentally good, some of them just don’t know it yet. This is moral improvement for the already moral: people who care about the environment, use nongendered pronouns, and whose greatest moral quandary apparently consists of deciding whether they can be a good person and enjoy Woody Allen films at same time. Needless to say, at no point does Schur stoop to address the kind of person he presumably does believe to be in need of moral improvement: a Trump voter, say, or a Covid anti-vaxxer.

The result is a moral echo chamber as childish as the candy-colored sets on The Good Place. Seen in this light, Schur’s dismissal of Heidegger and Nietzsche (he claims the latter “accidentally” helped “create the Nazis” — a stupid and irresponsible remark) is a refusal to take seriously any arguments against moral philosophy. And if Schur’s view of morality isn’t entirely serious, then neither is his view of immorality: In the first episode of The Good Place, we see Kristen Bell’s character commit the unpardonable sin of throwing her disposable coffee cup on the ground in full view of an environmental activist. Perhaps a more honest title for this book would have been: How to Be a Virtuous and Conscious Consumer.

Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Works of Jens Peter Jacobsen. He lives in Brooklyn.