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Did anyone else watch The Good Place?
Created by Michael Schur, the show started airing in 2016 and wrapped up in January 2020 after four seasons. The show revolves around Eleanor Shellstrop who dies and finds herself in the Good Place, her apparent reward for living a moral life.
She quickly realizes, however, that a mistake has been made — she didn’t live a moral life at all. It’s a case of mistaken identity; she’s been confused with a lawyer who helped exonerate people with wrongful convictions. As Eleanor tries to hide this mistake from everyone else in the Good Place, she’s also on a journey to figure out what makes a good person and what it means to live an ethical life.
I don’t want to say anymore and spoil the show for anyone who still hasn’t watched it, but I will say that it’s a delightful, funny, and fascinating exploration of morality, philosophy, and the human condition.
And I’m now working my way through Michael Schur’s book, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. Schur wrote the book as a kind of follow up to The Good Place, based in part on all the research and reading he did to create the show.
Think of it as a kind of beginner’s guide to moral philosophy. I have to confess that I was a dreadful philosophy student in college — how I successfully made it through our two required philosophy courses is anyone’s best guess. But Schur’s book is accessible, summarizing and breaking down various philosophical thought so that even I can understand (and enjoy!) it. Chapter titles include “I Just Did Something Unselfish. But What’s in It for Me?”, “Should I Lie and Tell My Friend I Like Her Ugly Shirt?”, and “This Sandwich is Morally Problematic. But It’s Also Delicious. Can I Still Eat It?”
The most recent chapter I’ve read has been my favorite so far. It combines T.M. Scanlon’s ideas about contractualism with the Southern African philosophy of ubuntu to answer the question: “Do I have to return my shopping cart to the shopping cart rack thingy?”
It’s a silly chapter title, but Schur uses it to dig into some deeper questions: What do we owe each other and why? And how does our answer to this question shape the way we live? Contractualism and ubuntu offer similar answers. Scanlon’s theory is about finding shared rules for living that all reasonable people can agree on and he argues that “our moral lives are dependent on our mutual relationships with other people.” In Scanlon’s vision of the world, we’re all in this together! Schur notes, “Scanlon wants us to figure this stuff out with each other — to sit across from one another and simply ask: ‘Do you think that this is okay?’” Ubuntu also emphasizes our interconnectedness as humans.
Schur offers the following proverb as a definition for ubuntu: “A person is a person through other people.” He goes even further to explain that ubuntu is “not just that we owe things to other people — ubuntu says that we exist through them.” Our vision of morality and ethics can only be understood through our relationships with others.
One of my first thoughts reading the chapter was how this sounds a little bit like the Golden Rule — do to others what you would have them do to you. And Schur notes that many faiths have a similar command about loving others. However, Schur uses contractualism and ubuntu to push this even further, emphasizing community and our total interdependence on one another.
My second main takeaway was how this is a much-needed corrective for American individualism and how difficult it would be to get people on board. Schur wraps up the chapter addressing that exact concern, one he acknowledges many people might have. So we want to build an ethical and sustainable society in partnership with our fellow humans, but what about people who are just jerks and refuse to do even the bare minimum to live with their fellow humans in society? Schur says we must persevere. In this model, he argues, it’s fair and necessary to reject unreasonableness, but at the same time, “it’s up to us to exert a little more effort, to try a little harder, if we really want to improve both ourselves and our world.”