What the creator of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place have ethics wrong

Michael Schur, the writer and producer who created Parks and recreation and The right place, wants to help us. The readings he did on ethics and moral philosophy that ultimately culminated in this latest program imbued him with a strong conviction: that to be good is very difficult for most people. With this difficulty in mind, he set out to condense this material for his readers, who are probably also mostly viewers of his show, and show them, in the words of the title of his new book, how to be perfect.

The premise seems simple enough: a basic orientation in ethics as discussed by philosophers, with the practical purpose of giving people a toolkit that might help them think more clearly about what they are doing and why. But this project has serious problems, the most obvious of which is its strong aversion to any form of sustained reflection. Yes, Schur is a comedy writer, but that doesn’t excuse the constant banter in the book, primarily because “jokes” can’t be called that in the broadest formal definition of the term, but also because those Pseudo-jokes ensure that no discussion of ideas goes on too long or takes on too urgent or serious a tone.

But more seriously, Schur sees the project of ethics as doing just enough to appease our conscience, and he doesn’t bother to ask whether the ability to do so in the midst of an extractive society , dispossession and murder could be a symptom of deep and lasting moral illness.

That said, helping philosophy go down easier isn’t a bad thing, and that’s nothing new. At Lucrece’s From Rerum Natura (On the nature of things), his six-book epic poem on the movement of atoms and its theological, anthropological and ethical consequences, he likens his verses to honey smeared on the rim of a cup of “bitter medicine”. The pleasant shape of the worms makes it easier to swallow the bitter medicine of Epicurean philosophy, and the ingestion of such medicine nourishes the soul.

Schur sets out to do something similar. The structure and unspoken premises of his book, however, frustrate this endeavor. Focusing on the level of individual choice, Schur’s “toolbox” approach reduces ethics to a set of flippant mottos, instead of the urgent and critical reflection on the importance of human action that underlies Socrates’ repudiation of the “unexamined life”.

No overview of moral philosophy can hope to be complete, and one could do worse than Schur’s trifecta: Aristotelian virtue ethics, Benthamite utilitarianism, and Kantian deontology: indeed, these remain the main schools of thought in Anglophone ethics scholarship today. He supplements them with occasional toppings from other thinkers, though his principles of selection are contradictory. In his introduction, Schur notes that he avoided religious writings on ethics, but it is unclear how one would classify the Andalusian Torah scholar Maimonides or the Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh without considering the training of their thought in religious traditions. He avoids specifically Christian ethical writing, however, which is a flaw since many Christian accounts of virtue ethics are both more developed and more accessible than those of Aristotle or even Schur.

A broader reading of religiously grounded ethical thought might also have rescued Schur’s book from perhaps its most frustrating obsession, the paradox of the “moral saint” whose life revolves around being as good as possible. Such a person, according to Schur and Susan Wolf, who coined the term, can be unhappy and certainly won’t be much fun to be around. There is, Schur repeatedly warns us, such a thing as wanting too badly to do good. Spending all your time feeding the poor or raising money for cancer treatments makes people . . . he’s not willing to say “bad”, but it makes them odd in a way that often makes us uncomfortable. Schur does not seriously entertain the idea that these people may be right and that we who pursue the good with a little less zeal are actually the problem.

In Christian theology, our inescapable tendency to fall short of moral ideals is called original sin. It’s a way of making sense of a set of undeniable facts: that we know what kinds of steps need to be taken to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings, and that we are mostly reluctant to take those steps. The lives of holy people, however, open our eyes to the wickedness we truly allow ourselves to be. Many religions have traditions of such examples: Buddhist bodhisattvas, Taoist sages, and legendary rebbes of Hasidic Jewish traditions all highlight the qualities these communities consider essential for living a good life.

In particular, virtually all of these people were extremely weird and frequently very boring according to the standards of the times and places where they lived. Socrates himself was such a pest that it earned him multiple lawsuits and ultimately execution by the state. Their examples are helpful not because they were nice, well-adjusted people, but because they show us that there can be something very wrong with being adjusted to a social order that rewards naked ambition, deception or exploitation.

On the contrary, Schur assumes that the society in which he himself is comfortable is fundamentally decent, and so he cannot afford to imagine that someone unable to function in such a society could, in fact, be a model worthy of our admiration. and aspirations.

For Schur, ethics is what Plato would have called a technical: a body of knowledge about how to accomplish a task.

A technical is a form of knowledge, like using Excel or first aid, which is mostly about following the right steps in the right order. Schur provides a toolkit for making ethical decisions within the framework of a society whose values ​​he accepts as fundamentally good and consistent, and thus the goal of moral action is some kind of satisfaction within the constraints of the liberal social order. We want to relieve suffering, he thinks, and we want some internal coherence, and we want beautiful things for ourselves – and those are goals that a judicious and selective application of utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics can help us achieve. If we study ethics and learn to use certain cognitive tricks skillfully enough to answer our questions and satisfy those desires and anxieties, we will live something like the good life according to Michael Schur.

But we have to ask ourselves: is this a good life? Schur’s essentially competency-based view of ethics seems to trivialize the all-important task of thinking about the meaning of what we do.

For Herbert McCabe, an Irish Dominican friar and socialist, ethics is precisely this study of sense of human action. McCabe observes that meaning is not under our private control: our ways of expressing meaning in words are given to us by our communities and shared by those communities, and revised and renegotiated within communities – and so even with the meanings expressed by our actions. If you cry on the New York subway because you just had a bad breakup, you might find yourself completely alone, because New York is a city where private space is scarce, and so the people who live there show their concern by offering each other small pockets of intimacy in public. Their reservation is, in this context, a kind of gift of space to someone who needs it and understood as such. If, on the other hand, you were crying among friends in a private apartment, this kind of inattention would almost be a form of cruelty.

It also involves questions of political ethics. It may very well be, for example, that devoting some of a left-wing organization’s scarce resources to direct aid rather than political agitation is detrimental to other useful campaigns or activities. But providing such help nevertheless communicates something. Responding directly to people’s needs, in addition to a more concretely strategic organization, demonstrates our values ​​and builds credibility: it dictates, in miniature, the type of society we want to build. An organization that refuses to provide such assistance is also communicating something, and it sends that message regardless of its members’ private thoughts about the urgency of meeting workers’ needs.

Any conversation about ethics must therefore also be a conversation about what we want to say, and any conversation about political ethics must also be about the world we want. This is perhaps the greatest failure of Schur’s book: it lacks any serious consideration of how the world could or should be other than it is.

Socialists envision a world of true human unity which, as McCabe notes, does not yet exist. A toolkit for staying content under capitalism will not suffice the task of building this world, nor will the imaginations confined by the current order of things.

Living towards a reality that does not yet exist is difficult, no doubt, but it is our fundamental task. We are not yet united in universal love. . . but we could be. We are not yet giving everyone what they need. . . but we could. The possibility is real, and so we must ask ourselves: how are we going to experience the meaning of this possibility? How to show and say that another world is really possible?

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