The inadvisability of publishing intro philosophy textbooks by TV producers: a review of How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur

How to Be Perfect

At the conclusion of How to Be Perfect, Michael Schur proposes an ethic which is essentially derived from Aristotle and Montesquieu modulated vial Rawls and the concept of the veil of ignorance. In the course of establishing this, well let’s be honest, this apologia for the American Liberal order, he states, “Humans have this problem: we’re kind of trapped inside our own brains. Our default setting is to think about ourselves – how to keep ourselves happy and safe and protected.” It’s remarkable that he brings about this statement only at the end of the book, considering its proximity to the Allegory of the Cave, because in the entirety of this book the only thing Schur has to say about Plato is a single sentence stating that he was Socrates’ student and that Aristotle was, in turn, his student.

That’s it. That’s all the Plato. And yet the conclusion depends on this idealist idea of a world entirely mediated by individual minds. Schur’s central ethic seems to come down to two of the Delphic maxims: “Know thyself” and “nothing in excess.” But, of course, in The Gift of Death, Derrida points out that one cannot ultimately serve two masters:

“If I obey in my duty towards God (which is my absolute duty) only in terms of duty, I am not fulfilling my relation to God. In order to fulfil my duty towards God, I must not act out of duty, by means of that form of generality that can always be mediated and communicated and that is called duty. The absolute duty that binds me to God himself, in faith, must function beyond and against any duty I have.”

Ultimately the self is the God to whom Michael Schur must serve beyond and against any duty he has, and for all that he lionises Aristotle’s mean even that council toward moderation must fall away in the defense of the individual. Within this book the greatest ethic is to know thyself. In the end it is Polonius and not Aristotle who is the ethical lodestar How to Be Perfect follows most fervently.

It’s evident that this text has great scorn for utilitarians in specific. This is not surprising, I suppose, from how The Good Place, authored by the same person, problematized the utilitarian urge to quantify the Good starting from its very first episode but what becomes evident here is something that was absent from The Good Place and that is why Schur seems to have such contempt for, “good little Utilitarians.” Specifically he seems uncomfortable at how Utilitarianism attacks the centrality of an indivisible self.

Utilitarianism especially runs the risk of placing a person into an ethical situation in which he might be divided against himself. This is a critical failure. How to Be Perfect cannot entertain that a person should ever have to be divided. All people must be fully individual.

There is a real hatred for Communism in this book. This arises early when Schur posits an hypothetical in which North Korea has undertaken one of the war crimes the United States is notorious for. This is not framed as an absurd reference back to American crime. Far from it. It’s a comical aside about how to make ethical decisions in the face of an implacable Other.

Sometime thereafter the book randomly uses the famous video of a protester during the Tiananmen Square Incident standing in front of a tank as an example of a moral martyr. Of course the identity of the figure from that third-of-a-century old videotape is entirely unknown and we cannot possibly make any comment about his moral character aside from in that moment. Perhaps How to Be Perfect is simply assuming anyone who opposes a communist must be a moral martyr.

This distaste for Communism is most egregious when the text has to tackle existentialism. Schur attacks Sartre for the apparent tension between Absolute Freedom and Being-In-The-World (he doesn’t use the Heideggerian term; he makes it clear very early on he has no interest in learning anything of Heidegger and despite my Sartrean understanding of Heidegger’s concepts I can understand this impulse even if I think it’s ultimately self-limiting however his meaning is clear nonetheless). Schur posits that Sartre’s philosophy is being clouded by his dalliance with communism. He elides that Sartre was fully aware of this tension, saying at the end of Being and Nothingness, “Will freedom by taking itself for an end escape all situation? Or on the contrary will it remain situated? Or will it situate itself so much the more precisely and the more individually as it projects itself further in anguish as a conditioned freedom and accepts more fully its responsibility as an existent by whom the world comes into being? All these questions, which refer us to a pure and not an accessory reflection, can find their reply only on the ethical plane. We shall devote to them a future work.”

But, of course, Schur admits that he couldn’t make heads or tails of Being and Nothingness and, again, fair cop. It’s a very difficult book. But to assume that the final word from Sartre on ethics and existentialism was Existentialism is a Humanism is disingenuous at best. Of course this is something of a joke on my part because Sartre also famously never got around to writing his ethic.

He left that to Beauvoir and this makes her exclusion from this book the only one almost as egregious as the exclusion of Plato. Schur, having refused to read Heidegger because of the Nazi stuff, having refused to read Kierkegaard because he’s too religious and having refused to read Nietzsche as being both too conservative and too catty narrows existentialism down to Sartre and Camus then compares Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus to Sartre’s least-well-received work, an off-the-cuff speech he gave out of frustration, in order to declare Sartre, the communist, wanting.

This book never mentions Beauvoir at all. It certainly doesn’t mention that she, four years after Being and Nothingness, put forth an ethic that attempted to discover the Good from the tension between Freedom as an end and collective responsibility. After all, that would be letting the communists win.

This book does have to eventually cite some Anarchists and Communists. In one memorable moment it comes across an Anarchist utilitarian who puts forward a compelling case for intentionally breaking laws.

The text provides the quote in reasonably intact condition. It even includes the author describing himself as an Anarchist. But the commentary the text provides is to weaken the position, reducing law-breaking to breaking nebulously defined rules and then conceding that he can be morally good in an Aristotelian pursuit of the mean to break some rules so long as nobody is hurt by doing so. The fact that the anarchist thinker who put forward this position was persuading people to prepare for revolution is ignored.

In the same chapter the book constructs an elaborate and very weakly argued defense for why Bill Gates’ charitable giving is a moral good. Schur quotes Thich Nhat Hanh quite a bit. He disagrees with the famous monk while defending Bill Gates as he imagines Thich Nhat Hanh would likely care “more about the person doing the thing than what happened when he did it. The Buddhist view of happiness requires that it be the right happiness – the mindful happiness that comes from devotion to the Buddha’s teachings.”

He does give Thich Nhat Hanh quite a bit of respect – he even cops to the very Buddhist series finale of The Good Place being largely based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings. But he leaves out that the monk once wrote of the Sangha, “We are those who are truly without possessions, we are the true communists.”

This text does this a lot whenever it encounters a communist – something which is somewhat unavoidable if you start involving yourself in a study of moral philosophy. When talking briefly about Ubuntu, it brings up a time that Nelson Mandela was asked about the concept and replied, “In the old days, when we were young, a traveler to our country would stop in our village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, and attend to him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it [has] various aspects…. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question, therefore, is: are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve.”

Now this sounds awfully Marxist. Because Nelson Mandela was a Marxist and applied a Marxist lens to social issues regularly. But Schur footnotes this saying, “Mandela doesn’t elaborate on what he means here. I choose to see “enabling the community to improve” as a nonmaterial kind of thing; meaning, like, when we enrich ourselves we shouldn’t do so at the expense of the community, or in such a way that those around us suffer.” I have literally never read a more egregious footnote in any book than this one.

The text seems almost terrified that an ethical choice might make a person change who they are at an intrinsic level and so its author establishes, “know thyself” as his ultimate good. In one section he ties himself in mental loops trying to justify being a fan of “problematic” artists because he cannot imagine approaching comedy without his love of Woody Allen. He spends most of a chapter splitting various hairs over appreciation of problematic art. I don’t discourage this impulse in a way. Schur is at his very best in this book when he’s talking about artists. These moments are rare but his prose comes alive in a way that it often otherwise does not when he talks about improv theatre. A brief passage in which Schur uses improv theatre practice as an example of Aristotelian virtue is easily the best writing in the book. Honestly my biggest complaint is that I would have preferred that book to a survey that so clearly took the author out of his depth. A book on Aristotelian aesthetics by Mike Schur is actually one that might be worth reading.

It’s unfortunate it is not the book we received.

However it is somewhat telling how much this specific problem seems to trouble him. Schur is caught in a bind because most of the ethical tools he has at his disposal point against contributing to the career of an artist who does actual harm as a side-effect of their work. Examples like Allen, Polansky and Daniel Snyder – the owner of a football team with a famously racist name – are effective tools for picking at the duty of an audience, the actual impact of consuming media produced by these people, the role of shame in ethical decision making and other such questions. But it leaves him in a moral bind because Schur does not seem able to imagine who he would be if he wasn’t a man whose love of comedy came from Woody Allen. And so he has to find some way to justify that he is still good. He is insistent a person must be the end and so the idea that a Good beyond one man such as the movement toward freedom can be an end in itself, that it is neither necessary nor possible for one person to be Good as an intrinsic quality, is something he seems to struggle with.

I have three principal complaints with this book. The first is that I felt it was marred by the omissions of Plato and of Beauvoir. Both would have been necessary to confront in order for the text’s ultimate thesis to hold. It depends far too much on Aristotle to avoid talking about Plato. Considering this is a survey text this omission strikes me as very odd. Beauvoir’s exclusion also rankles because I felt it a disservice to a reading public to slight existentialism in the manner this book did. It would have been better for Schur to say nothing about existentialism than to write the chapter he did on the topic. If you are writing a chapter on existentialism and ethics and use neither Kierkegaard nor Beauvoir it would imply that you should have perhaps read a bit deeper before writing that chapter. If you are writing a survey and you don’t feel you have the grounding in the material to speak on it there’s no shame in moving along.

The second is that I found the knots this work ties itself in to protect the capitalist order frustrating. Shur’s reading is weakest whenever a philosopher is suggesting that, perhaps, there should not be billionaires at all, that charitable giving is not the most efficient method of redistributing wealth, or that a self should not be an end of ethics.

This leads to a reading of Utilitarianism so visibly contemptful that I found myself actually wanting to defend Jeremy Bentham of all people. This book implies Bentham was a pervert and spends nearly as long going over the gory details of Bentham’s idiosyncratic funeral arrangements as the actuality of Bentham’s work. Strangely it never even brings up the Panopticon which would, you know, be where I would probably start if I wanted to attack Bentham’s ethics.

Instead most attacks on Utilitarianism are abstracted. Rather than quoting a Utilitarian the text will often propose an ideal Utilitarian who is compelled to obey the extreme limit opinion of various classical ethical thought puzzles, mostly those composed by Philippa Foot. Again it’s worth noting that Schur does seem to have a solid grasp on Aristotelianism. I would have preferred not to have more than one chapter just on the variations on the Trolley Problem though. He did this material far better in the Good Place. Michael’s diabolical maximum-kill solution was an excellent joke.

But it was short.

Getting through a whole chapter of, “but what if he was a famous violinist?”, “but what if you knew her?”, etc. was a slog.

If this book were funny then all this critique of the incompleteness of reading it demonstrates, all these complaints about how the book flinches away from criticizing Capitalism or accepting any Communist premise, all these arguments about how the book shows contempt for Utilitarians without seeming to have engaged deeply with their texts might be irrelevant. It would just be a funny book telling jokes about philosophers.

If it were funny.

This is my third complaint. The Good Place was funny. I laughed a lot. The actors in it had great comedic timing but, what’s more, the script was funny. But, whether these jokes were the product of Schur or of one of the writers he collaborated with on that series, something is lost in the transition from situation comedy to non-fiction prose. There are a lot of attempted jokes. They rarely land.

The jokes don’t land in part because, especially when discussing utilitarian moral calculation or Kantian rigidity, they seem petty. And there are occasions where the author will say an explicitly untrue thing in service of a joke – which is something I would avoid when writing a book in which there’s a whole chapter on Kant and how he universalized truth-telling. This book describes moral philosophy as an unbroken conversation of 10,000 years and, I mean, Schur’s clearly read Aristotle, he has to be aware that even there we find breaks in the conversation. Where is Aristotle’s book about comedy? In fact I think I remember him bringing up the fragmentary nature of Aristotle’s corpus later. So I’m sure he had to know. But setting up the joke needed the word “unbroken” in there so here we go.

But I must be fair. At the start of this review I demanded that this book’s divided ethic – know thyself and everything in moderation – must ultimately serve one master and that this master was self-knowledge. Then I’ve set up three complaints against the text. I’ve already shown how, if there had been amusing jokes in the book, I’d have been more open to the obvious gaps in Schur’s reading within those domains he chose to write upon. So if I am to say I serve just one master in this review it is not that of academic rigor. The truth is though that my second complaint – the centering of self-actualization as a principal Good in service of a defense of capitalism is my principal complaint. This is because of how it distorts the three philosophers this text ultimately seems to like best.

From the perspective of Aristotle it’s evident that billionaires such as Bill Gates are not in service of an economic mean. The accumulation of power via wealth into the hands of so few is not the moderating influence of virtues in conflict a “good little Aristotelian” would want to see in the world. I don’t need to construct some bizarre thought puzzle regarding electric lines, football matches and unlucky workers to demonstrate this either, a simple examination of the material conditions of contemporary life suffices.

After all, what is the fruit of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation? It’s the privatization of the AstraZenica vaccine. The primary purpose of charitable giving is not to redistribute wealth but rather to grant to the wealthy another vehicle by which to shape the use of the means of social reproduction and in this case it’s incredibly clear how that worked.

The use of Montesquieu and his sense that knowledge makes men gentle is next and quite vulnerable. First, of course, it’s trivial to point out that how Montesquieu constructed the category of “knowledge” was in service of a colonial project by supposing a knowledgeable colonial class and a barbaric colonized subject. Under Montesquieu’s terms it was seen as a social good to force those who had been colonized into colonial subjectivities – to grant them knowledge and thus gentility. Marx was quick to point out Montesquieu’s failings railing against Montesquieu in one of his spicier letters to Engels in 1859 as a source of the inaccurate monetary theories of one of his rivals.

Marx also includes several cutting critiques of Montesquieu in Capital vol. 1 – mostly, again, to Montesquieu’s construction of value and of the use of precious metals in monetary systems, although he does take a few small shots at Montesquieu’s anti-Tatar racism too.

But Montesquieu is a weak fit for this book’s treatment of self-knowledge as an ultimate Good. This is because Montesquieu was rather skeptical of self-knowledge as attainable at all. An example often cited is in the Persian Letters where, in letter 6 he writes in the voice of Uzbek the despot, “Mais ce qui afflige le plus mon cœur, ce sont mes femmes. Je ne puis penser à elles que je ne sois dévoré de chagrins.

Ce n’est pas, Nessir, que je les aime: je me trouve à cet égard dans une insensibilité qui ne me laisse point de désirs. Dans le nombreux sérail où j’ai vécu, j’ai prévenu l’amour et l’ai détruit par lui-même: mais, de ma froideur même, il sort une jalousie secrète, qui me dévore. Je vois une troupe de femmes laissées presque à elles-mêmes; je n’ai que des âmes lâches qui m’en répondent.” (Apologies for this quote being in French, I couldn’t find a good translation.) The despot undertakes the oppression of his wives and slaves for reasons that aren’t even clear to him. His jealousy isn’t derived from love nor even from hate but rather from a coldness in his heart. He destroys love and doesn’t know why beyond a sense that his slaves are too cowardly to overthrow him.

Not precisely a good fit for “know thyself.”

Finally there is Rawls. This book depends on this liberal to reinforce its Aristotelianism in the face of capitalism much the same way as it does the older liberal Montesquieu. But again an ethical thought experiment cannot go far when it hits the ground of facticity and this is where Rawls’ Original Position crumbles. We are not constantly entering into some form of contract wherein we all agree certain compensations are commensurate to certain duties. Class exists! Classes reproduce themselves! There is no Original Position; there is only ever a contingent struggle over where a position stands. We cannot insert an original moment outside of history wherein these arrangements are agreed upon like the rules to a poker game. I don’t believe great athletes deserve more money than garbage workers; I don’t want a monied economy at all but even if I did I wouldn’t personally value the labour of hit-ball-with-stick-man over the labour of the person who keeps cities from choking to death on their own waste. The Original Position is a fantasy constructed by a man who was far too sheltered from the facticity of people who were not brought up as the middle son of a wealthy and influential member of the American bourgeoisie.

Sunzi showed that a general standing upon a hill would observe his army differently from the same general standing in camp. Subjectivity is always relative its position and all positions are within the world. You cannot escape the world by declaring the entire contents of the world to be within someone’s head and then playing games of the mind to discover an outcome that fits your ideological preconceptions.

And this is ultimately where How To Be Perfect displays its greatest failure. This text is trapped fully and completely within American Liberal ideology. It cannot even recognize an outside to this worldview. The text recoils from contemporary materialism such that it must reframe the most basic Marxist statements, such as that the accumulation of wealth should serve a communal good, and reframes it as immaterial “rising tide raises all boats” rhetoric. At its heart this book is not a guide to being a good person. It’s a guide to being a good subject of capitalism.

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