I’ve read a number of introduction to philosophy, or ethics for the ordinary person books. The latest, and it’s as good as any of them, is How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur. The title is tongue-in-cheek. The book is not significantly different from the stuff I read years ago when I did a master’s degree in philosophy, except that it strives to avoid unnecessarily specialized vocabulary and inserts silly asides for laughs.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some philosophy professors think that popularizing books like this make their work seem dumb. I don’t disagree. I just think very little effort is needed in that regard. Worse than dumb, I think such books, just like the more academic versions, are lacking in morality.
How can a book that surveys all the basic concepts of Ethics 101 be itself unethical? How can Ethics 101 be unethical? Michael Schur begins with an example of how someone might try to do good one day and discover difficulties. This person picks up litter, but, Schur tells us, it will end up in the ocean anyway. They eat veggie patties, but those were shipped from far away creating a large carbon footprint. They buy milk from “organic” and “grass-fed” cows, but those words on the packaging were basically lies. They go running, but their sneakers were made by workers getting 4 cents an hour. They watch a good documentary, but do so on a streaming service owned by a company also making killer drones for the North Korean air force. Etc.
Your first clue that something is wrong here might be the specification that the killer drones are for the North Korean military. They can’t be, of course, because of U.S. sanctions. But the author is trying to list bad things and clearly believes that he can’t just say “killer drones” since that could mean killer drones for the U.S. military and nothing would be bad about those killer drones. Robot missile murders have to be North Korean robot missile murders to be bad.
Your next worry might be that going jogging and watching movies and drinking milk and all the rest of this nonsense has very little to do with what is needed to make the world a better place. If you hold onto that worry through the end of the book, you discover that what might have been, in the book’s early pages, simplistic small-scale examples of actions later to be expanded upon, are never expanded upon. The author never moves from “How do I be a good consumer in a corrupt system?” to “How do I help change the system?” Utterly absent from this book, every book I’ve ever seen like it, and as far as I know every philosophy program in the United States are: collective action, systemic change, nonviolent direct action tools, and the notion that morality involves moving a society to a better conception of what is moral — as distinct from a better collection of words for justifying what is generally considered moral already.
Schur doesn’t come back and tell us at the end of the book how to properly go jogging in slave-made shoes, or how to properly watch movies on an evil monopolistic corporate system, or how to better dispose of plastic, or which veggie patties to buy. But neither does he recommend living without the crazed consumption, organizing labor movements, pushing governments toward trust busting, or getting active in campaigns to ban plastic or to source sustainable food locally. By the end of the book we’re just supposed to feel better about our inability to consume with a clear conscience because we have so many tricks for better contemplating our bad choices.
Schur’s next big topic is “Should I punch my friend in the face for no good reason?” He never provides a list of what the good reasons would be. This leads into that staple of ethics classes: fantasizing about mass murder. Schur asks us to trust him that thinking hard about bizarre scenarios that will never happen — most of them involving trolleys and tracks and picking whom to kill — is required for “modern ethical decision making.” This reminds me of the time I asked the director of “Eye in the Sky” whether his nonsense plot scenario had any overlap with reality. Instead of trusting Schur on this point, you could also withhold judgment, read to the end of the book, and discover that all the fantasizing about murder and seeking articulate reasons for which murders you feel more comfortable with than others has been, by the book’s final page, never once transformed into a useful means of making the world a better place.
While Schur occasionally dabbles in scenarios that could conceivably happen perhaps once in your life — such as what to do if you see a house on fire and someone who needs rescuing — he never moves on to the question of what you should actually do to help transform the rotten systems that make things so tricky for the well-intentioned consumer/voter/litter-remover. Like any good ethics professor, Schur critiques the ethical theories he surveys on the basis of how they help analyze the things he currently does, not what they might tell him about the need to spend most of his time doing very different things.
When Schur gives us actions to consider, they are all very personal, either “Should I lie to my friend and tell him his shirt looks nice?” or “Should I push one guy onto the tracks to save five guys?” By personal, I mean immediate and small-scale. We have a desperate need for people to work actively to reduce environmental collapse, to prevent nuclear apocalypse, to end war, abolish poverty, outgrow prisons, and develop systems of democratic accountability and justice. Curiously, all the good books I’ve read on eliminating the livestock industry or living more safely without armed police forces have made not the slightest mention of any of the ethical theories in any of the ethics books — all of which avoid systemic change as if it were a disease. There’s a virtually complete divide between writing about doing moral things and writing about morality. (And those who write about morality famously fail to behave particularly morally.)
Schur comes closest to what I think is critically missing when he devotes a half a paragraph to noting that governments are choosing whom to get COVID vaccines to. But there’s no mention of the dire need to apply public pressure on those governments to get them to share, collaborate, cooperate, and universalize the response so as to avoid horrible death, suffering, and endless mutation and re-spreading of variants. U.S. morality is morality for an individual, and since an individual cannot sway a government or a corporation or a culture alone, why even mention such activities?
But the moral responsibility of the individual must not be simply to learn and respect every cockamamie ancient bit of sophistry ever put into a text book, from the “we didn’t intend that bomb for you so we’re not guilty of your death” excuse to the “I felt I was doing right, so the consequences be damned” excuse. The slickest trick in the book — this book or any like it — is the sliding in of the notion of “the right moral answer” without ever having explained what that is — as in Schur’s arguing that certain philosophies help put into words why some people have different gut reactions to different trolley-murder scenarios even though the basic math in them is unchanged. The “right” answer turns out to be what your gut tells you — in other words what people in your culture already think is the right answer. But this amounts to finding theories to justify what you already think you would do in an impossible situation that you will never be in. That’s very different from improving what you will do now in the world you actually inhabit.
How should I drive? How should I shop? How should I tell my friend his hat is ugly? Who the fuck cares? Are you or are you not helping to build effective movements to decarbonize, demilitarize, and deplutocratize?
Schur takes a few tries at getting serious. One involves the house on fire, which he explicitly recommends we think about since it’s unlikely most of us will get to be heroes in a war. He tells a war-propaganda tale about a young man who lies about his age to get into the military, then protects his buddies in a trench by diving on some grenades. This follows a section of the book devoted to the problem of lying, but here the lying is not addressed at all. Nor is there any consideration of how many other people’s buddies these guys killed in the other trench, or whether the people in that trench should have been tossing grenades into this one or vice versa. Normalizing war in a culture that has normalized war is, of course, the norm. But why call it a book of morality? Why not call it How to Be Just Like Most of the Other People in a Society Bent on Mad Extraction, Consumption, and Destruction That Will Soon Kills Us All?
Another effort by Schur at seriousness is focused on charitable donations. Should billionaires give away their money? Should you give away your money? How best should people raise money to help hurricane victims? But never is there the slightest notion of giving your time to organize public funding of what’s needed or public taxation of billionaires to take away their option to ponder being charitable (something they’re grotesquely failing at). Toward the end of the book, Schur takes a little step in what I consider a significant direction. He decides to stop griping about evil banks and move his money into a less evil bank. But he makes no mention of even considering or weighing from different angles the possibility of engaging in campaigns to get governments and institutions to divest from the worst industries, no mention of working to break up or regulate banks, no idea of helping to create public banking, etc.
It’s as if self-governance and civic life have been surgically removed. Everybody’s an individual philosophical hermit devoted to proper shopping, viewing, voting, and traffic etiquette. Schur seems unable to even imagine collective systemic change, confessing to facing “moral exhaustion” from the difficulty of choosing what car to buy. To my mind “moral exhaustion” sounds more like what one gets while reading books on morality and remembering what the world actually desperately needs right now.