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How to be a Better Person: The Ethics of Now with Michael Schur

Michael Schur and Adriane Lentz-Smith sit in armchairs on the stage of the Nasher Museum of Art lecture hall in front of a full audience
Schur and Lentz-Smith spoke to a capacity audience in the Nasher Museum of Art auditorium.

On Friday, October 14, 2022, the Kenan Institute for Ethics welcomed Michael Schur, Emmy Award-winning comedy writer and creator of “The Good Place,” to its Ethics of Now series, hosted by Associate Professor of History Adriane Lentz-Smith. The event was held at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Schur discussed how his interest in moral philosophy led him to create “The Good Place” and write the recent book “How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.” Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

On “What We Owe to Each Other”

“What We Owe to Each Other” is a book by a philosopher named Tim Scanlon. That book, of all the books I read, was the most meaningful to me and struck the greatest chord. And I should say, as a caveat, because this is a discussion of ethics, I never actually finished the book. It’s very hard to read, in my defense.

The title, meaningfully, is not, “Do we owe things to each other?” The title is “What We Owe to Each Other.” It is saying we do owe things to each other, and now our job is to figure out what those things are.

[John Stuart Mill] just says, ‘Create as much happiness as you can,’ and if you follow that to its logical conclusion, I wouldn’t be here right now,” said Schur, on the limits of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. “I’m creating some amount of happiness, in theory, by speaking to you fine folks. But I could easily be creating more happiness by going to Florida and helping victims of Hurricane Ian, and so, ‘Goodbye,’ and I would leave, and I would fly to Florida, and I would find the people who are suffering the most, and I would max out…so if that becomes the only objective in your life, then you just become like a battery, powering the lives of other people.”
On how he started thinking about how to be a good person and how it led to “The Good Place”

I got into a number of situations in my life where something happened, I waded into this messy situation and did something that I felt pretty strongly was wrong, but I didn’t know why. And eventually, in the year 2005, one of these things happened, and it sent me into this zone of…I think I need to read about this, I think I need to learn. I need a vocabulary. I need a scaffolding, or some kind of structure, so that when I blow it, I can explain how I’m blowing it, instead of just being bummed out.

And so that then started the more official journey through ethics. For me, it was purely a hobby for ten years, and then in 2015, when the show “Parks and Recreation” ended, and I was given the opportunity to do a new show, my bosses very nicely said, you can do anything you want.

I had been working on this idea about ethics—about an afterlife that is reserved for the most rarefied of the best of the best. Like, life on Earth is a video game, and if you are one of the very best players of that game, you get your initials on the home screen, and everybody else is tortured forever. And the idea that I was toying with was, a woman is granted admission to this very exclusive club who clearly did not belong there. There has been some mistake. There’s been a clerical error…

Part of the pitch to NBC was, this is gonna be a show about ethics, and not on the margins—this is the core of this show. And that went over great. No—to their credit, they were wary, but they were committed at this point. They [had] told me I could do whatever I wanted.

I said, “Listen, I understand that this is atypical, and so I will make you a promise, a solemn vow: I will not make the show feel like homework.”

And then in the third episode of the show, Chidi Anagonye is standing in front of a blackboard, and it says “Philosophy 101” on it.

On why “The Good Place” “gently endorses” Aristotelian virtue ethics

When I was sampling, like at a buffet, all of the various ethical theories that have existed in the universe for the last 3000 years, the one that I found myself drawn to more than the others—I wavered, but ultimately I landed at Aristotle. And part of the reason that I landed at Aristotle, slightly above the others, who I think are all valuable and interesting, and have important things to say…just in case Emmanuel Kant is here somewhere…is because he’s asking a slightly different question than the other folks. Most of the other folks are saying, “What should I do in a given situation?” And Aristotle is saying, “What kind of person should I be?”

On the limits of utilitarianism

I care a great deal about ethics and about trying to live a good life. But you can’t make that all you care about, because then you’re not actually living a good life at all, or really any life that we would recognize as good.

Michael Schur speaking, gesturing with one hand
“From the moment that you sign up for a career in Hollywood, you are morally compromised,” Schur said in response to a student’s question about whether you can be ethical while pursuing a career in entertainment. “There’s no way around it. The people I work for, I really like, generally speaking. There are also people…who have made donations to every single politician in the world that I actively hate and wish harm upon. Not physical harm,” he quickly added. “Just, like, existential sadness.”

On practicing philosophy “in the wild”

Scanlon’s theory is basically like, you’ve got to sit around a table and actually hash this out with each other. These are the people we live with, they’re the people that we have to survive with and exist with, and the rules need to be worked out in conjunction with other people, even when those other people are irritating or annoying or seemingly unreasonable.

On liking art by problematic people, and where we draw the line

I became a comedy writer largely because of Woody Allen, a totally unproblematic person who has no issues surrounding him, and so I’m fine. No. Obviously, I grow up and I learn about him, and then I have this problem, which is, I’ve seen Annie Hall 250 times. I can quote the entire movie from beginning to end. It had a profound effect on me. I don’t know, honestly, whether I am supposed to rip Woody Allen out of my soul and throw him in the garbage pail, or whether I am allowed at some level to engage with him still.

This, to me, is the thorniest question. There is not a person in this room, nor a person on earth who does not confront this problem. You are a fan of someone who has done something that you would consider to be problematic, and the answer to how we negotiate that is endlessly complicated and difficult, and, I think, different for different people.

John Oliver, whose show I greatly admire, has this thing where, when people say, “Where do you draw the line?” his answer is “Somewhere!”

You draw it somewhere. The fact that the line is blurry is not an excuse to not draw it. You gain more information as you get older, you erase the line, you draw it somewhere else, and as soon as you draw it, you are guaranteeing that one of your smartass friends is gonna come up and say, “Oh, this is okay. But this isn’t? How is the line here?” and you go, “All right. I agree with you,” and you erase it, and you redraw it.

That’s sort of the best we can do. It’s not a great solution. I don’t know of a better one. I think that the only thing you can do that’s truly a mistake is to pretend that it doesn’t matter, or that there’s nowhere to draw the line.

On whether you can work in Hollywood…or anywhere, and still be ethical

I think you can be an ethical person and work within an industry that has a lot of ethical problems. I do. I believe that. But you shouldn’t fool yourself…the ethical challenges endemic to it are real, and they require daily thought and maintenance to understand what you won’t do and what lines you won’t cross, and it’s hard. It’s really hard.

Schur signed copies of his book and posed with fans for photos at a reception following the event. Photos: Luke Taylor.