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How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question PDF

Author: Michael Schur

Publisher: Simon & Schuster


Publish Date: January 25, 2022

ISBN-10: 1982159316

Pages: 304

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

Today, you’ve decided to be a good person.
You don’t know why, really—you just woke up this morning full of vim and vigor and optimism, despite a world that offen seems hell-bent on bumming you out, and you hopped out of bed determined to be a little bit better today than you were yesterday.
This shouldn’t be that hard, right? You just need to make some small changes in the way you live. You walk outside, see a plastic cup on the street, pick it up, and throw it away. That feels good!Yesterday you might have ignored that garbage and kept on walking, but not today, baby. Today you’re better. At the grocery store you spend a little extra to buy cage-free eggs and milk from humanely treated cows. It makes you smile to think of those cows munching happily on organic grass instead of being cooped up in some awful factory farm. Remembering an article you read about the impact of the beef industry on climate change, you even pass on the hamburger meat in favor of veggie patties. Now the cows are even happier!Because they’re not dead!
You’re doing great today. The New You is crushing it.
You take a quick jog around the neighborhood (for health!), help an old lady across the street (for kindness!), watch a documentary (for knowledge!), check the news (for citizenship!), and go to sleep. What a great day.

But then you lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. Something’s nagging at you. How much “goodness” did you actually achieve? You feel like you did some good stuff, but then again you also felt like you could pull off wearing a zebra-print fedora to your office holiday party last year, and we all know how that turned out.
So now imagine that you can call on some kind of Universe Goodness Accountant to give you an omniscient, mathematical report on how well you did. Affer she crunches the numbers on your day of good deeds and the receipt unspools from her Definitive Goodness Calculator, she gives you some bad news.
That plastic cup you tossed? It’s eventually going to flow into the ocean, joining the Texas-size trash island that’s threatening marine life in the Pacific. (You read about that when you checked the news before bed, but you didn’t think you had anything to do with it.) The veggie patties were shipped to your local store from someplace very far away, rendering their carbon footprint massive, and the cows you pictured are in fact penned up in a factory farm, because the legal definitions of “organic” and “grass-fed” are embarrassingly loose thanks to shady legislation written by agribusiness lobbyists. The cows aren’t happy. They’re sad. They’re sad cows.
It gets worse: The sneakers you wore on your jog were made in a factory where workers are paid four cents an hour. The documentarian who made the film you watched is a weird creep who likes to sniff strangers’ hair on the subway—nice work putting ten bucks in his pocket—and the streaming service you watched it on is part of a multinational conglomerate that also makes killer drones for the North Korean air force. Oh and by the way, that old lady you helped collects Nazi memorabilia. “But she seemed so sweet,” you say. Nope! Secret Nazi. She was actually on her way to buy more Nazi stuff—that’s what you helped her across the street to do.
Well, great. Now you’re miserable. You tried to be good, in your own small way, and the world smacked you across the face. You’re also angry. You had good intentions, and at least you put in the effort—shouldn’t that count for something?! And you’re discouraged. You can’t afford to do much more than what you did, because you’re not a billionaire who can start some giant charitable foundation, and given everything else we have to deal with in our everyday lives, who has the time and money and energy to think about ethics?
In short: being good is impossible, and it was pointless to even try, and we should all just eat hormone-filled cheeseburgers, toss the trash directly into the Pacific Ocean, and give up.
That was a fun experiment. What now?
Most people think of themselves as “good,” and would like to be thought of as “good.” Consequently, many (given the choice) would prefer to do a “good” thing instead of a “bad” thing. But it’s not always easy to determine what is good or bad in this confusing, pretzel-twisty world, full of complicated choices and pitfalls and booby traps and bad advice from seemingly trustworthy friends like stupid Wendy, who said the fedora was “ugly-cute” and convinced you to buy it. And even if you do somehow navigate the minefield of modern life and succeed at being good, you’re just one person! This planet contains eight billion people, and a lot of them don’t seem to care at all about being good. There are corrupt politicians, and conniving CEOs, and people who don’t pick up the dog poop when their dogs poop on the sidewalk, and evil dictators, and stupid Wendy (what is her deal? Does she enjoy making other people miserable?), so it’s hard not to wonder if one person being “good” even matters. Or, to phrase it the way I did when I started reading moral philosophy and thinking about this enormous, knotted, tangled mess:
What the hell am I supposed to do?
This question—how can we live a more ethical life?—has plagued people for thousands of years,1 but it’s never been tougher to answer than it is now, thanks to challenges great and small that flood our day-to-day lives and threaten to overwhelm us with impossible decisions and complicated results that have unintended consequences. Plus, being anything close to an “ethical person” requires daily thought and introspection and hard work; we have to think about how we can be good not, you know, once a month, but literally all the time. To make it a little less overwhelming, this book hopes to boil down the whole confusing morass into four simple questions that we can ask ourselves whenever we encounter any ethical dilemma, great or small:

What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?
Is there something we could do that’s better?Why is it better?

That’s moral philosophy and ethics2 in a nutshell—the search for answers to those four questions. And while the Universe Goodness Accounting Department had mostly bad news to offer us, here’s some good news: Philosophers have been thinking about those exact questions for a very long time. They have answers for us—or, at least, they have ideas that may help us formulate our own answers. And if we can get past the fact that a lot of those philosophers wrote infuriatingly dense prose that gives you an instant tension headache, we might arm ourselves with their theories, use them when we make decisions, and be a little better today than we were yesterday.
I became interested in moral philosophy when I began the work of creating a TV show called The Good Place. If you’ve seen it, you’ll recognize many of the ideas in this book because we explored them on the show. If you haven’t seen it, (a) how dare you insult me like that, (b) I’m just kidding, and (c) don’t worry! Because the whole point of this project is to take you on the journey I went on, from a guy who knew almost nothing about this subject to someone who could write a book about it. (Or at least, convince Simon & Schuster that I could write a book about it.) I fell in love with ethics for a simple reason: 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. We share this planet with other people. Our actions affect those people. If we care at all about those people, we ought to figure out how to make the best decisions we can.
Another thing I love about ethics is: It’s free!3 You don’t need to apply for a license to be ethical, or pay an annual fee to make good decisions. Think of the world as a museum, and ethical rules as a volunteer museum worker, standing silently in a green sport coat, hands clasped behind her back. We’re all walking around the museum looking at art (in this metaphor: morally confusing situations), some of which we understand and some of which we definitely don’t, because it’s all swirly and abstract and confusing. And when we see something we don’t know how to interpret, we can just ask the nice lady in the green sport coat what we’re looking at and what it means, and she’ll tell us, for free! I mean, we could just nod thoughtfully and pretend we understand it—a time-honored tradition, in both art museums and life—but there’s just gonna be more confusing stuff in the next room, so we might as well get some help making sense of whatever we’re looking at now.
Before we get started, I have one more piece of good news. The very act of engaging with these ideas and asking these questions means we’ve already taken a crucial step: we’ve simply decided to care about whether what we do is good or bad. Which means: we’ve decided to try to be better.
That alone is a big deal. A quick glance around will reveal a ton of people who have clearly decided they don’t care about being ethical, so they’re not really trying. Part of me doesn’t entirely blame them, because attempting to be a decent moral agent in the universe—a fancy way of saying “trying to do the right thing”—means we are bound to fail. Even making our best efforts to be good people, we’re gonna screw up. Constantly. We’ll make a decision we think is right and good, only to find out it was wrong and bad. We’ll do something we don’t think will affect anyone, only to find out it sure as hell did, and man are we in trouble. We will hurt our friends’ feelings, harm the environment, support evil companies, accidentally help an elderly Nazi cross the street. We will fail, and then fail again, and again, and again. On this test, which we take daily whether we want to or not, failure is guaranteed—in fact, even getting like a C-plus ffen seems hopelessly out of reach. All of which can make caring about what we do—or in the modern parlance, “giving a crap”—seem pointless.

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