Book Review | How to Be Perfect

I can finally mention The Good Place in a book review and it will make sense!

In How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur, we examine the three major schools of Western philosophical thought — virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism. We see examples of difficult ethical scenarios (like the famous trolley problem, but also the idea of whether it’s right to take the shopping cart back to the front of the store, or leave it in the parking lot), and use each school of thought to answer it. We are asked to think about issues in multiple ways, to question ourselves, and to push ourselves to do better every day.

Listen, I love The Good Place. It’s one of my favorite shows, and so I was so excited about Schur’s philosophy-for-the-non-philosopher book. But best of all, the audiobook version is not only read by Schur himself, there are appearances from the entire main cast of The Good Place, plus philosopher Todd May. It’s a delight to listen to.

Schur manages to be both incredibly thoughtful and incredibly entertaining throughout this text. He asks us to ponder tough questions, and introduces lots of ideas we might not know about, but never talks down to us. For him, we’re all on this ride together (though I hope it’s not a trolley). I picked up on lots of references to the show, but also this book perfectly stands on its own; you don’t have to have seen a single episode of The Good Place to get a lot out of this book.

One thing I particularly loved is how aware of social issues Schur is. He doesn’t hide the fact that most of these philosophers, particularly the ones from millennia ago like Aristotle, were not actually the greatest men. Aristotle defended slavery, after all, and Schur doesn’t ignore that. In fact, he dedicates an entire chapter, chapter ten, to talking about things or people we love and admire that turn out to be morally problematic in some way. His examination of the nuances of one’s personal feelings in these situations is insightful and compelling, and incredibly helpful for people wondering what to do when, say, their favorite author from childhood turns out to be quite hateful toward a certain group within the LGBT+ community. (Okay, Schur doesn’t use this example, but it’s what I kept thinking about during this chapter.) I loved every word of this chapter especially, even while the rest of the book was awesome.

In the end, How to Be Perfect, despite the title, is not about how to live a flawless, exemplary life. It’s an acknowledgement of how complicated life is, and an education in the different ways to approach problems. It’s an examination of how one can live, all while seeking to be better. The thesis is really that no one is perfect, but that’s no excuse not to strive for improvement. It’s a kind, hopeful thought—that the act of trying to be better is messy, but worth it. If you read this you will be educated but also so entertained. I highly recommend it!

(Also, side note for anyone who reads this book, is no one else a little intrigued by Kant’s treatise on wind? Is it only me?)

How to Be Perfect is published now!

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