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What the Creator of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place Gets Wrong About Ethics

Michael Schur the writer and producer who created Parks and Recreation and The Good Place wants to help us out. The reading he did on ethics and moral philosophy that eventually led to the latter show imbued him with a strong conviction that being good is very hard for most people. With that difficulty in mind he set out to condense this material for his readers who presumably are mostly also his shows viewers and to show them in the words of his new books title How to Be Perfect.

The premise seems simple enough a basic orientation in ethics as discussed by philosophers with the practical aim of giving people a tool kit that might help them think more clearly about what they do and why. But this project has serious problems the most obvious of which is its strong aversion to sustained thinking of any kind. Yes Schur is a comedy writer but that doesnt excuse the constant joking in the book mostly because the jokes can be called such only under the most expansive formal definition of the term but also because these pseudo jokes ensure that no discussion of ideas goes on for too long or assumes too urgent or serious a tone.But more gravely Schur sees the project of ethics as one of doing just enough to placate our conscience and he does not bother to ask whether the ability to do this in the midst of a society built on extraction dispossession and murder might be a symptom of deep and lasting moral sickness.

That said helping philosophy to go down easier isnt a bad thing and it isnt new. In Lucretiuss De Rerum Natura On the Nature of Things his six book epic poem on the motion of atoms and its theological anthropological and ethical consequences he likens his verse to honey smeared on the rim of a cup of bitter medicine. The pleasant form of verse makes the bitter medicine of Epicurean philosophy easier to swallow and ingesting such medicine nourishes the soul.Schur sets out to do something similar. The structure and unspoken premises of his book however stymie this endeavor. Focusing on the level of individual choice Schurs tool kit approach reduces ethics to a set of glib mottos instead of the urgent and critical reflection on the significance of human action that undergirds Socratess repudiation of the unexamined life.

About Ahmad Raza

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