Notes & Quotes: How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur

The following are my favorite quotes from Michael Schur's How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.

  1. We get better at the thing by doing the thing, and if we stop doing it, we'll get worse.
  2. Extreme deficiency or excess of any one quality then becomes a vice, which is obviously what we're trying to avoid.
  3. If we take the time to mull over what we've done, if we really commit to examining both our own actions and the actions of those around us, we can eventually come to understand what's too little, what's too much, and what's "just right."
  4. The best thing about Aristotle's "constant learning, constant trying, constant searching" is what results from it: a mature yet still pliable person, brimming with experiences both old and new, who doesn't rely solely on familiar routines or dated information about how the world works.
  5. Utilitarianism often runs into problems like this, because human beings, it turns out, are weird, so searching for actions that create the most "total happiness" can create bizarre situations. It doesn't seem fair to prefer a ton of pleasure for one Hawaiian pizza-loving sociopath over smaller pleasures for a large number of more decent and stable people, who understand that the proper places for ham and pineapple are in sandwiches and fruit salads, respectively.
  6. The most important idea in Kantian ethics is fairly simple to understand. It's called the categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
  7. In 2006, Nelson Mandela was asked to define ubuntu and said this: In the old days, when we were young, a traveler to our country would stop in our village, and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, and attend to him. That is one aspect of ubuntu, but it [has] various aspects...Ubuntu does not mean that the people should not enrich themselves. The question, therefore, is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?
  8. Buddhist philosophy suggests that true happiness comes from remaining focused on the things we do, and doing them with no purpose other than to do them.
  9. Whataboutism is most commonly deployed as a defensive strategy. Someone is caught doing something bad--anything from an actual crime to saying something mildly offensive on the internet--and then instead of owning up to it, he says, "Well, what about [Way Worse Thing X]?!" or "What about that bad thing you did?!" or "What about the fact that I also did [Good Thing Y]?" It's a way to throw sand in the eyes of the people making the charge, blinding them momentarily and giving the accused a chance to wriggle free. Nearly all whataboutisms are indefensible, because by definition they fail to address the moral shortcoming the bad actor has exhibited.
  10. Shame has a function in a healthy world, because it gives us a weapon in the war against bad behavior. If people were incapable of feeling shame, they would do whatever they wanted with impunity, never worrying that their reputations might suffer in the public square.
  11. No one--not even excessively rule-following dorks like me--follows every rule. It's impossible. But if we're trying to be good people, we should know how to deal with the moments when we actively choose not to be.
  12. The choices we make may be our own, but the life into which we're born, and many of the events that befall us after that, are things we often have little or no control over.
  13. It's not a meritocracy if some runners start the race ten feet from the finish line and some are denied entry to the race because of systemic biases within the Racing Commission.
  14. People who achieve (or inherit) a high level of wealth and success are invested in the idea that they earned it. That belief allows us to feel like we have control over this big dumb scary world--that if we're smart and work hard we will be appropriately rewarded and everything will be fine. Conceding that a lot of this dumb luck--including, most significantly, embryo-related stuff that happened before we even conscious beings--is to concede that there were other factors at play beyond our own incredibleness, and that we're maybe not as amazing as our lot in life would indicate.