OK, so if book clubs were actually for, like, discussing books? I would recommend this book for your book club, and also I would recommend you set aside like five months of meetings for it or at least four.
How to Be Perfect is not itself Perfect but. Every ten pages or so I kept setting it down and just kind of wandering off into my own thoughts about my own life and given how often I was putting it down I had to think … is this book boring? And the answer was No, it’s just actually provoking thoughts beyond those explicitly and handholdingly laid out by the author, and how sad is it how rare that is, and how awesome is it that this book does it.
Michael Schur, the author, is a prolific comedy writer and showrunner and a not-so-closeted moral philosophy nerd. Most relevant (of MANY shows) to the creation of this book, he is the dude behind The Good Place. And in here, he essentially assembles a starter kit of moral philosophy principles and uses those tools to poke at increasingly thorny moral questions, starting with “Should I Punch My Friend in the Face for No Reason?” and working up to the more challenging “Oh, You Bought a New iPhone? That’s Cool. Did You Know That Millions of People Are Starving in South Asia?!”
I am flipping back through the book right now ’cause I folded down a BUNCH of corners to remind myself of things I wanted to talk about. But I’m gonna make the call right –>here<– to have this review be like 500 words not 10,000, so eeny meanie miney … moe. Of the many pages I mangled lo unto preventing me from ever reselling this book, we’re gonna talk about the time Schur’s wife dinged the fender of a Saab and they raised $27K for charity and felt guilty really about it. He refrained from calling this tale of woe a Saab story, because he’s a professional comedy writer and he has a reputation to maintain, but I’m not and I don’t so … #momjoke #chicksarecornytoo #normalizecorn
Anyway the basic gist is, his wife (JJ Philbin, also an accomplished writer INCLUDING THE EPISODE OF THE O.C. CALLED “THE O.SEA” IS THERE ANYTHING BETTER) got into a fender bender with a Saab, and she was at fault, and a few days later they got a claim from the guy for $800, the cost to replace the whole bumper. And Schur was like, that’s a silly amount to spend to replace a dinged car part, how about I make a donation to the Red Cross for the same amount and you live with an imperfect bumper. And the guy said he’d think it over. Meanwhile Schur starts telling this story around and his friends are all like “Dude $800 that’s ridiculous” and also (’cause his friends are also relatively well-off entertainment people and this is the kind of thing that’s in-range) “I’ll match it” — so soon if this guy agrees to not fix his bumper, there’s $1600 going to the Red Cross … then $5000 … $10,000 … over $20,000 …. and right around here Schur starts to feel weird.
Well, because … he’s kinda shaming and guilting this guy for … wanting to get his car fixed? Like, he didn’t ask to get bumped into, he didn’t come up with the $800 number, and he DEFINITELY didn’t, like, march to the local Red Cross office and flip over the little change buckets and shake out $20,000 … so what on earth gives Schur the right to be all “don’t you care about Hurricane Katrina??????” when the guy’s just sitting there like “… but my car? That maybe I rely on? That you messed up? And you have no idea of my life or priorities or needs?”
Anyway so Schur tangled with this in real life before he really had any grounding in moral philosophy … spoilers, the dude got his bumper fixed and a lot of the shamers donated to the Red Cross anyway so everything is perfect hurray … but in the book, he comes back to it now that he has a few tools in his belt, and pokes at it. What would Kant think … is there a categorical imperative (a universal moral rule) that should be followed that would resolve this case? Or how about utilitarianism … is there a way to act that maximizes happiness at the end? What about virtue ethics … what particular characteristic of a good and moral life is out of whack here, and how can Schur act to nudge himself back toward balance? He goes through this case study using each of these lenses and kind of assesses what’s going on:
Were he around to witness all of this, I think Aristotle would’ve said: “Dude. You super blew this.”
And that’s what the book gets right, or at least what makes it work for me … it’s the work of a self-admitted 1) non-expert 2) non-perfect 3) super-privileged-and-lucky 4) person who is trying. And if we can’t all be the first three things, this book can genuinely help us be the fourth.