Book Reviews

Book Review: How To Be Perfect by Michael Schur

4 1/2 of 5

While the book doesn’t teach you how to be perfect, you’ll be a better person for reading it.

If ever I teach an intro to moral philosophy class, this book will be prerequisite reading. Sold as a fun book about ethics from the creator of the TV show “The Good Place,” this is actually a solid introduction to the academic subject of ethics, sprinkled with humour and real-life anecdotes to make it relatable.

“How To Be Perfect” is a semi-biographical story about a TV writer who goes on a journey through moral philosophy to try to figure out how to be a better person. And maybe more importantly how to teach his young children how to be the best they can be. Not to spoil anything, but at the end of the book there’s an entire section where the author talks to his kids about how to be good people, and it is wonderful. 

The book introduces a variety of branches of moral philosophy with questions like “Should I lie and tell my friend I like her ugly shirt?” and “Do I have to return my shopping cart to the shopping cart rack thingy?” and “Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?” And this is where the book truly shines: It succeeds at framing real moral problems in a comedic yet relatable way and introducing ethics to people in a way that actually makes practical sense to them.

Something we all need more of.

I suggested “How To Be Perfect” to my design ethics book club as a light read for the holidays. Two chapters in I dreaded the comments I’d get from my friends. “Light read? I bet Kant would have some opinions on passing off a textbook as an enjoyable holiday treat!” Then I continued reading and realized I’d sold my friends and the book short.

“How To Be Perfect” is an imperfect but damn fine effort at making the exceptionally challenging and often mind-numbingly turgid topic of ethics and moral philosophy fun and engaging. If you’re interested in ethics at all, and you’ve wondered where to start or worried it would be either too boring or too depressing, I recommend this book. In fact I recommend this book, period. And I’m not just saying that because I am a philosopher by education and deeply fascinated by ethics.

This book sets out to do something moral philosophy sorely needs: Make ethics make sense, in a human and relatable way. Moral philosophy has a bad tendency of being at the same time overbearingly moralistic (“here’s how you’re doing everything wrong in your life, and here are some impossible standards you must follow to right yourself!”), philosophically partisan (“my form of ethics, in my specific interpretation, is the only real ethics. All other ethics are wrong!”), and fundamentally unrelateable (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”) Michael Schur tries (and mostly succeeds) in balancing on a knife’s edge between staying true to the academic foundations of moral philosophy while also framing the many theories covered in real-world scenarios, funny anecdotes, personal experiences, and a heavy helping of yelling through a bullhorn at the ivory towers of academic philosophy.

This last point is probably best exemplified in the chapter on charity where Schur points out how moral philosophers of different traditions will contort themselves into Gordian knot over the moral failings of massively wealthy people using charitable giving as a self-congratulatory popularity contest while in the real world the money they raise actually does some good.

Schur also does something extraordinary in the book: He tries (and I sincerely hope he succeeds!) to introduce a new term both to philosophy and to our common language: “Moral Exhaustion.” Let me quote from the book:

“even if we scale the triple-peaked mountain of Daily Stress, Serious Problems, and Circumstance, and (running on 5 percent battery power) try our very best to do the harder/better thing, we often fail miserably despite our best intentions. It. Is. Exhausting.”

Michael Schur, How To Be Perfect

I think moral exhaustion is a great description of the malaise we are all feeling in our lives and our work today, and I’m now using the term freely in my everyday language thanks to this book.

One major problem with moral philosophy (aka ethics) – and I say this as someone who studied moral philosophy for years at university – is its detachment from the real world and its separation into distinct traditions. You are either a Utilitarian or a Deontologist, a Virtue ethician or a Contractualist, and whatever position you hold, you must defend your tradition against the others. (I am oversimplifying here, but this is a real struggle. Call it trauma from years of being an analytical philosopher taught by a faculty almost entirely composed from Kantians.) Through the book, Schur attempts to line up these and other moral philosophy traditions and theories and thread a needle straight through them to show that rather than treat ethics as One Theory to Rule Them All we are best served with an Everything, Everywhere, All At Once approach to our decision making.

As an introduction to ethics and moral philosophy, “How To Be Perfect” does a good job introducing the main branches of western philosophy (Virtue, Duty, and Consequentialist ethics), newer traditions like Contractualism, and even non-western traditions including Ubuntu and Bhudist ideas. This breadth stems from the impressive research Schur did while writing the TV comedy show “The Good Place” which in reality is a covert psy-op to secretly educate people about ethics by making ethics fun.

Side note: Watching “The Good Place” I would typically at least once in every episode jump up and yell “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?!? They are doing a WHOLE EPISODE on [insert obscure moral philosophy thing]???!?!?!” To which my wife of endless patience would say “Sit down and watch the show.” Point being that show was astounding and if you haven’t watched it, I cannot recommend it enough. Because it is hilarious. And well written. And exceptionally acted. And also, it contextualizes ethics in a way that just makes sense.

Another side note: I recommend getting the audiobook version of this book. It is narrated by the author and the entire leading cast of “The Good Place,” with snarky footnotes from the book’s academic advisor Todd May and even occasional cameos.

How is “How To Be Perfect” not perfect? In brutal honesty I’ll say it reads like what it is: An introduction to moral philosophy written by someone who is at an introductory level in moral philosophy. Schur finds fascination in the typical places: The vileness and eye-watering absurdity of Ayn Randy’s Objectivism, the spectacle of Jeremy Bentham’s posthumous existence as a cadaver on display at a random university (content warning on that link), the turgidness of Immanuel Kant’s writings, etc. We’ve all been there. 

In the same vein, in my opinion he makes two significant blunders – one historical and one of lack of foresight: 

He writes off Heidegger’s works due to their impenetrability and his much discussed association with Nazism, ignoring the enormous impact Heidegger had on moral and other philosophy. As one of the members of my book club said “I wish he (Schur) would go beyond just hints and snarky remarks to actually explain why he sidesteps Heidegger. I felt like he was making excuses for not reading the work.”

Schur also spends a fair bit of time towards the end of the book celebrating the works of Peter Singer and his longtermism. Anyone paying attention to the collapse of crypto and the bizarre politics driving many Silicon Valley founders will know Singer’s ideals have become a breeding ground for … let’s call them problematic ideas from white men of enormous wealth and power about how we should structure and organize our society today to protect the people of tomorrow. I can’t help but think had “How To Be Perfect” been written in 2022 that entire section of the book would have been very different. So in honesty my critique on this point is a perfect example of an anachronism.

Let me be perfectly clear here: I consider these issues minor to the point of being irrelevant. This book is not an academic textbook, it’s a deeply personal book about morals and ethics that tries to do right by the subject matter and the reader and succeeds more than any similar book I’ve ever read.

Final thoughts

If you’re still with me at this point, you’re definitely the type of person who will enjoy this book, so go out and get it in whatever format you prefer. If on the other hand you are looking for a book to give to your friend who refuses to return their shopping cart to the shopping cart shed thingy, or to subtly tell your family member that it’s not OK to tell people their shirt is ugly even if it is, chances are it’ll be a nice decoration on a shelf and will eventually end up in a donation box. “How To Be Perfect” is not light reading for an airplane ride, in spite of how it’s marketed. It is so much more, and because of this it demands much more from the reader. Just like real life demands so much more from us all. And why this book is wroth reading.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.