Michael Schur attends Universal Television's FYC "The Good Place" at UCB Sunset Theater on June 19, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty Images
Lessons in Morality From “The Good Place” Creator
In an excerpt from Michael Schur's book, "How to Be Perfect," he discusses the ethical implications of truth and white lies in his quest to be a better person / BY Susan Grimbly / February 18th, 2022
You might think philosophy is so out of date. But in this vapid age of video-sharing apps like TikTok, YouTube and IGTV, which provide minuscule slices of contemporary life, one human being cares deeply about big questions.
Hello, Michael Schur, creator of the popular TV show The Good Place, in which he slyly introduced old-school ethical conundrums, and made you care about them. (Remember the Trolley Problem?) Schur used the COVID pandemic to gather his philosophical thoughts and put them down on paper in a charming book called How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.
Is it serious? I am afraid so. Is it funny? Hell, yes! Even the footnotes!
Schur studied philosophy in college, and was able to explore morality and ethics through the lens of comedy in a show that people actually watched, and loved. The program stars Kristen Bell as bad girl Eleanor Shellstrop, who inexplicably goes to Heaven when she dies, or does she? Surprisingly, it was one of NBC’s highest-rated shows among 18- to 49-year-olds.
The core of the book is: What does it take to be a good person? It is difficult to find the right answer, and to get there, Schur boils it down to four key questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Is there something we could do that’s better? Why is it better?
In Part One, he lays out big theories going back 2,400 years, starting with Aristotle, in a chapter titled “Should I Punch My Friend in the Face for No Reason?” He moves on to the Trolley Problem, which was developed by an English philosopher, Philippa Foot, in 1967. Remember The Good Place episode where Michael, the Bad Place architect, transports philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye to a runaway tram and gives him seconds to decide whether to stay on the track and hit five workers, or switch tracks and kill one?
In Part Two, Schur asks tougher and tougher questions, applying the principles this way and that, so that you learn while you read (and laugh). By Part Three, “In Which Things Get Really Tough, but We Power Through… ,” he addresses all the examples he set up earlier, without definitive answers. You feel empowered to make decisions on your own, Kant or Aristotle be damned.
Schur is not alone on this journey; a couple of practising philosophers help work through the knottier issues, so we know we are in good hands. And, naturally, he has great recommendations from top-flight comedians, like Mindy Kaling, Steve Carrell, Amy Poehler and even Ted Danson (who played Michael on The Good Place).
It this excerpt from Chapter Three, “Should I Lie and Tell My Friend I Like Her Ugly Shirt,” Schur explores the ethical quagmire around truth and white lies.
“Which of these false excuses have you used to avoid an annoying social obligation?
- “Sorry, I didn’t get your text. My phone’s been weird lately.”
- “I can’t make dinner tonight — our babysitter dropped out at the last second.”
- “I would love to attend your daughter’s middle school orchestra concert, but my lizard is depressed. She isn’t sitting on her favorite rock, and she won’t eat lettuce, and I just need to be there for her.”
“Should I tell the truth?” is one of the most common ethical dilemmas we face. Most of us don’t enjoy misleading people, but the gears of society do mesh more smoothly if we grease them with white lies. It certainly seems easier (and maybe even more polite) to tell someone we have to look after our sick lizard, rather than saying, “I do not want to go to your kid’s concert, because it will probably suck and be boring,” or worse yet actually going to the concert. However, we also sense that there must be some ethical cost when we lie. We know we’re not supposed to do it, and every time we do, we feel a twinge of wrongness; it feels bad, or at least iffy . . . but the feeling usually fades quickly, we just go about our lives, and in most cases, no one seems the worse for wear. So . . . is it actually bad?
When we’re first confronted with one of these situations — a friend bought an ugly shirt to wear to a job interview, say, and asks us for our opinion — we might do a couple of consequentialist calculations:
Good Things About Lying and Saying We Like the Shirt
- We don’t hurt our friend’s feelings.
- In fact, we make her happy.
- We don’t seem like a jerk.
- Our friendship continues apace.
Bad Things About Telling the Truth and Saying the Shirt Is Hideous
- We make our friend sad.
- We may have to have a difficult conversation and argue that true friendship means always being honest, which can be a tough sell when someone is upset at you for being honest.
- We seem like a jerk.
- Our friend may react badly, double down on her own opinion in order to prove us wrong, wear the ugly shirt to the interview, fail to get the job because the interviewer questions the decision-making ability of someone who would buy such an ugly shirt, fall into a deep depression, sever ties with her friends and family, turn to a life of violent crime, and spend twenty-five years in a maximum-security prison.
If we are being good little consequentialists, we might also try to anticipate the larger, broader set of consequences — what will be the effect of living in a world where our closest friends don’t always tell us the truth? We may then conclude, correctly, that such a world already exists, and it’s not so bad, really, so maybe we should just avoid any conflict and proclaim that the lace collar really pops and the oversize neon green buttons are a cool conversation starter.
But as we’ve seen, consequentialist accounting is fuzzy and imprecise. Not to mention that this experiment seems a bit tainted, because the benefits we identified are largely to ourselves — we will either avoid some pain (the tough conversation with our friend, hurting her feelings) if we lie, or feel that pain if we tell the truth, and since people generally try to avoid pain whenever possible, our judgment may be skewed here. Generally speaking, the best ethical decision is probably not “take the easy route out of self-interest.” It would be awesome it if were! But it’s probably not.
 This isn’t verbatim, but a girl once told me something very similar when I asked her out on a date in ninth grade, and it took me like a week to realize it was probably not 100 percent true.
 Admittedly, a worst-case scenario.”
From HOW TO BE PERFECT: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur. Copyright © 2022 by Michael Schur. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.