Editor’s Notebook: Do the right thing
One of these books is easier to read than the other. At left, “What We Owe to Each Other” by T.M. Scanlon; at right, “How to Be Perfect” by Michael Schur. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
In the late 1990s, T.M. Scanlon – then the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard University – wrote a book that likely sold far more copies than were actually read. The title is among the most arresting I have ever seen: “What We Owe to Each Other.” Who wouldn’t want to know what an expert in moral philosophy thinks about that? When the book landed on my doorstep a few years ago, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to read it and got started right away.
A few pages into Part 1 – “Reasons and Values” – I became hopelessly lost.
It wasn’t the first time I failed to make it even 20 pages into a book I was excited about, but this one hurt. Scanlon, and this particular volume, were repeatedly referenced in a TV show I love called “The Good Place.” To stay well clear of any potential spoilers, I’ll just say that the show is a funny, irreverent, and sweet master class in moral philosophy. Although not actually a character in the show, Scanlon manages through his challenging book to serve as the afterlife’s resident “contractualist” – the philosophy at the heart of that great book title.
Over the years I’ve largely made my peace with not reading Scanlon, but I think about that book every time it feels like American society is coming apart at the seams. Amid the chaos and carnage, the contractualist’s question rises like smoke: What do we owe to each other? Because it can’t be this.
On Thanksgiving, one of my nephews asked me if I had heard of “How to Be Perfect.” I hadn’t. Then he explained that it was this thoughtful, funny, enlightening book by Michael Schur, the creator of “The Good Place,” about his exploration of moral philosophy. The description on the back of the jacket, I would discover after the book arrived on my doorstep a few days later, reads: “A Foolproof Guide to Making the Correct Moral Decision in Every Situation You Ever Encounter Anywhere on Earth, Forever.”
I love the book for a lot of reasons, not least of which are Schur’s self awareness, humor, and humility. Here’s what he wrote when introducing Scanlon: “I emailed a UCLA professor named Pamela Hieronymi and asked her to meet me for coffee one afternoon, where I was hoping she could explain all of moral philosophy in a tight ninety minutes so I could beat the traffic. When I explained the show’s premise and asked her for some guidance, her first recommendation was that I read a book called ‘What We Owe to Each Other’ by T.M. Scanlon. So I did. Well, more accurately, I read the first ninety pages, got lost, put it down, picked it back up a month later, got lost again, tried one more time, gave up, and haven’t looked at it since. But I feel like I got the gist. And Pamela explained it very thoroughly. Whatever. Don’t judge me.”
So thanks to Schur, and my nephew, I’ve now fully made my peace with failing to read Scanlon – but the big question lingers.
What do we owe to each other?
The book of course doesn’t offer “The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question” as the subtitle boasts, but Schur does manage to pull off something nearly as extraordinary: He helps simplify the pursuit of trying to do the right thing.
While there’s no magic passage in Schur’s book – and I assume there isn’t one in Scanlon’s either – there is one that comes pretty close.
His summation, framed as a letter to his two young children, includes this: “You can think to yourself, before you do something, ‘Would it be okay if everyone did this? What would the world be like if every single person were allowed to do whatever I’m about to do?’ If that world seems twisted, or unfair, or nonsensical, you should probably do something else.”
That’s a pretty good place to start – and it doesn’t require any heavy reading. See, moral philosophy isn’t so complicated after all.
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