Fools and Philosophers: On Michael Schur’s “How to Be Perfect”
By Steven A. MillerJune 26, 2022
How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur
On release, the book appeared at number two on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list, in part because it received advance marketing unlike that for any other philosophy text: blurbs from celebrities, appearances on Today and Late Night, an author’s profile in The New York Times. In this last one, Schur admitted, “I’m terrified of people who know what they’re talking about reading it and saying, ‘You fool.’” In fact, the book foregrounds this concern, starting with a Q-and-A section that addresses the complaints of imagined “smarter, professor-type” people, while a late footnote offers a preemptive defense against “mean, learned professors” who might critique his claims. I’ve studied philosophy for decades and taught moral philosophy to college students, so I’ve never felt less welcome as a reader! Despite Schur’s best efforts, by the end of this article, I’ll call him a fool — promise.
Before that, there’s an obvious question to ask when confronted with yet another ethics text: why? This book follows the same outline and employs the same examples as many others. There’s an introductory chapter on why morality matters: “Nearly every single thing we do has some ethical component to it, whether we realize it or not. That means we owe it to ourselves to learn what the hell ethics is and how it works, so we don’t screw everything up all the time.” Then follows a few chapters on “the ‘Big Three’ in Western moral philosophy” — utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics — plus one covering T. M. Scanlon’s contractualism.
After that, there’s a series of chapters applying these theories to concrete cases and a few summing up what we’ve learned and why it matters. Aren’t there dozens of well-regarded ethics textbooks covering roughly the same ground, following roughly the same structure, and aren’t they written by people with PhDs? That, Schur suggests, is exactly the problem. Though philosophers “have answers for us — or, at least, they have ideas that may help us formulate our own answers,” they write “infuriatingly dense prose that gives you an instant tension headache.”
The distinctive Schur-twist (Schurprise?) of How to Be Perfect is, of course, comedy. The text is studded with riffs on philosophers and their theories, along with the occasional funny observation about contemporary life. The joking tone varies from playful absurdism to winking irony to hyperventilating histrionics, as if Schur were playing an improv game of “yes and” with himself. For example, when explaining the demanding complexity of strict utilitarian analyses:
If we were having lunch with our best friend, Carl, and across the street a woman got frustrated by a malfunctioning parking meter, we would have to leap up and rush to help her … unless doing so made Carl upset, because he was right in the middle of an emotional story about his ongoing troubles with his sister, and thus the act of helping the parking meter lady would cause him more unhappiness than the happiness we would create by helping the woman with her parking meter troubles … but then as we’re making that calculation we happen to overhear someone talking about a flood in Missouri that displaced thousands of people, all of whom are more in need than Carl or Parking Meter Lady, so we rush to the airport …
On he goes, without a period in sight. Extended, humorous descriptions are mixed with shorter gags about objects of Schur’s disdain, such as pineapple on pizza, the New York Yankees, Immanuel Kant’s rigidity, and Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder. With so much jesting, How to Be Perfect is clearly unlike most philosophy texts.
It’s not as if philosophers conscientiously avoid humor. We just aren’t good at it. Our best efforts amount to puns and wordplay. Take, for example, one of my professors: anytime he overheard someone discussing Indian thought, he’d shout, “Well, Samkhya very much!” Or Neil Sinhababu, whose “Possible Girls” — a play on the philosophical theory of possible worlds — got him featured in The Washington Post. Philosophical humor is often comedy as concept, of the “oh, I see what you did there” sort, not anything actually funny. (There are exceptions. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, peppers his books and talks with outrageous and ribald humor to make philosophical points. Much of the rest is dross.)
Part of philosophers’ difficulty with humor stems from the discipline’s historical suspicion of comedy. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates insists that ideal citizens should avoid laughter, “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.” On Plato’s account, laughter is unworthy because it destabilizes, drawing people away from their best, most philosophical part — their reasoning. He isn’t alone in this condemnation: Aristotle and the Stoics highlight a similar tension between humor and reasoning, though his contemporary Diogenes the Cynic used mockery to disrupt moralists and their mores. The Church Fathers held laughter in suspicion; after all, the Bible records God laughing only in derisive scorn, not pleasant amusement. (This trend isn’t true in non-Eurocentric thought: early Buddhist religious figures, for example, are depicted as laughing delightedly.)
This tension between reasoning and comedy is furthered because of philosophy’s usual subject matter. Abstract questions and convoluted answers just aren’t any good for joke-making. No matter one’s jesting aptitude, there’s nothing funny about bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism. Even more problematic is the unserious attitude humor may disclose. If an author finds a way to make a dry topic hilarious, they may appear not to take their subject seriously enough. The danger of such a misunderstanding intensifies in Schur’s chosen subfield, ethics. Consider an author attempting to land a gag while making a case against eating animals. (“Do we condone that farmers and butchers mete out brutality to our meat? Can’t they be tender as they tenderize?”) Such a move trivializes more than it illuminates, thereby undermining what is at stake.
Without attempts at levity, though, there’s another risk: moral philosophers come across as either tremendous bores or humorless scolds. It’s hard to do much but squirm as a utilitarian thinker describes animals’ factory-farmed suffering over dinner at the Texas Roadhouse. There’s a social ineptness here, an ill fit between situation and response. In short: Moral philosophers are no fun at parties. Schur’s book contains multiple reminders of how generally awful and unlikable ethics professors can be.
But these are all jokes, right? Schur’s just a funny guy, poking fun at the severe nerds. Maybe. I hope. It’s exactly this uncertainty that makes philosophy and any sort of comedy except the obvious and ham-fisted a difficult fit. Insofar as even the most basic philosophical reasoning is carried out by the valid connection of true premises, it’s difficult for readers to follow along when they’re never quite sure the presented statements are true — or at least taken to be true by the author.
Consider this, from a discussion of weighing harms: “Is the destruction of a city more important than a crease on a [car’s] bumper? Of course. No one in the world would disagree. […] Weirdly, the Scottish philosopher David Hume would raise a question about it. […] This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.” This series of statements plays as a joke, but the original statement, that no one would disagree, is never corrected. Ironic humor allows a conceptual slippage and narrative disengagement that ensures the author cannot be critiqued and the reader may not need to feel challenged.
Likewise, when an argument demands extreme moral action, Schur, rolling his eyes, describes it as no longer “within reason,” a phrase that should never appear in a philosophy book. If the founders of utilitarianism are “two deeply weird dudes,” and Kant is a “freak,” perhaps their ideas can be set aside without loss. And then there are invented quotations and farcical histories. Many of these are immediately copped to, but their inclusion can be disorienting to a focused philosophical reading.
Perhaps reading this book should be disorienting, as on Schur’s account, ethical life is pretty confusing, even overwhelming. There are innumerable relevant factors for us to consider in our moral decisions, all of which must be evaluated constantly. With always-on media and nigh-omniscient information-gathering technology, we never run out of access to ethical problems to solve and difficult facts to consider. There’s always more, and this evaluation should be happening all the time, amid our busy and complex lives.
Schur terms the results of this situation “Moral Exhaustion” — his coinage, his “own cool, pithy, philosophical idea.” Such exhaustion arises because “every day we are confronted with dozens of moral and ethical decisions […] and some options are certainly better than others.” We feel never-ending pressure to make all the right choices, yet we realize that doing so would require significant effort, impossibly complete knowledge, and profound luck. In such a situation, it’s understandable to want to shrug and give up. To laugh rather than try.
Encouraging readers’ effort to be good people despite Moral Exhaustion is one of Schur’s key aims. Rather than pushing for moral monomania, he suggests striving for improvement, doing a little better tomorrow than yesterday. Though he mostly avoids today’s biggest moral questions, in hopes of perhaps not “drifting into the thorny world of politics,” the book still functions as moral instruction, a guide for using theoretical philosophy to improve one’s ethical efforts. By the end, he’s shown how the presented theories might work together to aid in an attempt at moral living.
Lacing such an effort with humor, though, presents challenges often seen when my philosophy students watch Žižek’s lectures. They laugh as they repeat his dirty jokes, having no idea what his jokes are about, nor any seeming desire to find out. Žižek, for them, is merely a fool. Perhaps my students aren’t the right audience for Žižek, but they are Schur’s. More than a few of them have signed up for my classes specifically because they enjoyed The Good Place. On recent semesters’ first days, they already knew some of the course’s zany examples: the Trolley Problem, the Surgically Attached Violinist, the Utility Monster. When pressed about the meaning or import of these thought experiments, however, they sputter. Humor has been enough to catch their attention — it functions, in Lucretius’s phrasing, as “honey on the medicine cup.” It, though, isn’t the medicine. Developing someone’s moral ideas, let alone encouraging them to be better people, takes real work.
For all its comedy, How to Be Perfect isn’t solely, or even primarily, concerned with scoring laughs. Rather, Schur cares about the underlying topics and wants to share them as broadly as possible. His humor contributes to what is a remarkably companionable book, a text that invites the reader to learn, explore, and grow. He’s clearly spent years working through the details of philosophy’s complications to render it comprehensible for television viewers and nonspecialist readers. He does this, in part, by showing how these theories apply to his own choices, including some he’s screwed up. The text most fully succeeds when Schur-the-comedy-writer pivots to Schur-the-person. He reveals how he’s been shortsighted, haughty, and pedantic, and we learn from his example in a way we wouldn’t if we’d been presented with only the adventures of a carefully constructed ethical exemplar.
Except for the jokes, Schur’s summaries and applications of ethical theories are of a piece with those a reader might find in most any introductory ethics textbook. What a reader won’t find in those standards, though, is anything like Schur’s earnest vulnerability and willingness to open himself for critique to make a point, not just a joke. Such inclusion reminds us that ethics isn’t simply a field of abstract study but a set of tools to be used for getting through daily life without nagging regret and constant self-hatred.
Another comedy writer’s words make sense of this shift’s importance. Nine days before his death, in an interview with Psychology Today, George Carlin noted how he’d been influenced by Arthur Koestler’s conception of creative interrelation: “The jester makes jokes, he’s funny, he makes fun, he ridicules. But if his ridicules are based on sound ideas and thinking, then he can proceed to [another role], which is the thinker — he called it the philosopher. The jester becomes the philosopher.”
Michael Schur is a jester, a fool. He makes us laugh. But, as he put together this funny and sound exploration of theoretical and applied ethics, something else happened. With his careful attention to the complexities of moral life, development of a novel concept to explain one of our era’s defining features, and an unflinching analysis of his own character and foibles, Michael Schur has shown us something of how to be a philosopher, too.
Steven A. Miller is a peripatetic philosophy professor. Next stop: Temple University’s Japan campus, in Tokyo. He likes cats and justice.
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