Review: How to Be Perfect

I don’t usually review non-fiction books, least of all books on philosophy, yet when I started the ironically named, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, I should’ve known that I would be jotting down my thoughts the second I finished it. Michael Schur, writer for The Office, co-creator of both Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and creator of The Good Place, builds on the moral questions he explores in The Good Place but in a way that doesn’t not produce a migraine.

If you are looking for a dry, serious analysis of the history of philosophy, this is not that thing. If you earned PhD in, I don’t know, epistemology and you’re looking for the newest piece of scholarship to further your specific content area, this is probably not that thing either. If you studied philosophy/anthropology in college, enjoy reading or reading about moral philosophy, and enjoy books with lots of jokes, then this is definitely that thing. One doesn’t help create four of the funniest shows in recent history without being able to write some very smart and very funny stuff, and Schur does not disappoint just because he set his sights on moral dilemmas rather than penguin weddings and sensitivity trainings.

Fans of The Good Place may be familiar with T. M. Scanlon’s philosophical work on contractualism, What We Owe to Each Other. (The book Chidi gives to Eleanor and she then basically ignores until the very end of the series.) While contractualism is present in How to Be Perfect, Schur doesn’t belabor this single theory. Instead, he presents three schools of thought central to Western philosophy, analyzing different moral dilemmas through these lenses. Those basic schools of thought are Aristotelian value ethics (the golden mean); deontology (Kant’s moral imperative); and utilitarianism (the most happiness for the most people). Through these lenses, Schur considers theoretical dilemmas like the Trolley Problem (and a ton of it’s variants), daily problems like tipping 27 cents on a $1.73 coffee, but only when the barista can see it, and gigantic issues like world hunger and global warming and how-in-the-world to pronounce “eudaimonia” or even more how-in-the-world to work it into casual conversation.

When he does come to contractualism, he does so in a logical way, built up from those three schools of thought, so that even a reader relatively new to philosophy has a solid understanding. And in the end, Schur does introduce a new idea (newish idea?), which he calls “moral exhaustion.” Similar to “compassion fatigue,” moral exhaustion is when our good intentions wear us out. Compassion fatigue primarily affects teachers and counselors who take on the problems of their students and patients, offering so much compassion that it negatively affects their own mental health. Moral exhaustion, in contrast, can affect anyone who struggles to make a thousand moral decisions a day–just to throw up their hands and do whatever they want instead.

Much of moral philosophy is written in order to not be misunderstood (at least that is the intention), so jokes and generalization are not the norm. Thankfully in Schur’s book they are. This is both laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking–and a must-read for those of us often paralyzed by what to do and why.

Review: Standard Deviation

Graham Cavanaugh is on the twelfth year of his second marriage, Audra is his beyond-outgoing wife who works as a graphic designer part-time and may or may not be having an affair, Matthew is their middle-school-aged son with Asperger’s and an obsession with origami, and Elspeth is Graham’s ex-wife, a successful attorney who Audra is convinced they should become friends with. The characters of this novel are richly imagined, unique yet believable. The story itself is just as new and real as the people. Just when you think you know what’s happening or what’s coming, the story takes a hard left.

I have read a lot of funny books, but Katherine Heiny hangs with the best of them. Like very few authors–Dave Barry, Steve Martin, Nora Ephron–she is able to deliver real laughs almost every page. I was impressed and also wildly discouraged as a writer. Like all great books, this made me want to work a whole lot harder at my craft.

I just finished reading Standard Deviations and wrote this review immediately, because you have to read it!