10 min read

How To Be Good

Thousands of years ago, in a part of Greece called Delphi, some people built a temple. They were worried about their kids too … so they chiseled a couple of sayings into a column of that temple to tell their kids, and their grandkids, and their great-grandkids, in as few words as possible, how to try to pull off the nearly impossible task of living a good life on earth. Here’s what they wrote:
Know thyself.
Nothing in excess.
- Michael Schur, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

“If we care about anything in this life, we ought to care about whether what we’re doing is good or bad" writes Michael Schur in How to be Perfect. Even if fulfilment is our primary motivation, we know that being good is a vital component there too. Schur's is the best, most accessible primer on moral philosophy that I've ever read - I highly recommend you read the whole thing after I summarise and analyse it here.

Most will know Schur as a comedy writer, writing the US version of The Office, co-creating Parks and Recreation, and creating The Good Place - the starting point for Schur's exploration of ethics. The Good Place was a commercial and critical success, validating Schur's thesis for How to be Perfect - that there is a large audience for moral philosophy explained in an accessible way. That is exactly what the book became. Jeff McMahan, a philosophy professor at Oxford University, called it “an enjoyably boisterous guide to the moral life" on its way to becoming a bestseller.

Here I'll explain how Schur's pragmatic approach to ethics can be a guiding approach for us, now and in our ideal future, and reflect on each of the major philosophies he draws on in his ethical toolkit. I'll then comment on Schur's theory of Moral Exhaustion and what that might mean for our future vision and strategy.

“Who we are and what we do matters… we should care whether we’re doing something good or not, and thus try to do the best things we can", writes Schur. It's a straightforward argument but Schur admits that it is much harder in practice. It is hard to be good, not in small part because moral philosophy as a field of research has been largely inaccessible... until now. How to be Perfect provides all the information you need to take a pragmatic approach to being a good person. Not only will this create a better world today and enable our ideal future vision, it will leave us all feeling more fulfilled. Schur writes, “in those rare times when you have to make a decision and you assemble the pieces in exactly the right way, so the image of what to do comes sharply into focus—you will feel alive and fulfilled and elated. You will feel like you’re flourishing.”

Pragmatic Ethics

Schur didn't invent pragmatism in ethics, that credit likely belongs to William James. Rather than taking any one philosophy as gospel - as had been the common practice previously - he proposed considering multiple moral philosophies to reach the best answer. This is the approach Schur takes and is why it resonates so much with the WFW? mission - pragmatism and seeking truth are two of our guiding principles. Do not let the ambiguity of ethics paralyse you. Do not use a lack of obvious answers as an excuse to simply do nothing.

The sad truth considering the title of the book is that it is impossible to be perfect. At the other extreme from the paralysis of ambiguity some may ask: why would I bother to be good if it's impossible to be perfect? That question brings a deeper meaning to the adage credited to Voltaire, "don't let perfect be the enemy of good". There may be no entirely correct answers but there is at least one wrong one: never bothering to at least strive for self-improvement.

The book introduces three main philosophical schools that have emerged in the Western world over the last few thousand years: virtue ethics, utilitarianism (within consequentialism), and deontology. I'll also reflect on Schur's treatment of contractualism and Ubuntu - within deontology - and Rawl's Veil of Ignorance, as I think both have particular relevance for our ethical toolkit.

Virtue Ethics

Aristotle is presented as the father of virtue ethics, the approach to ethics that centres moral virtue. Aris­to­tle’s ul­ti­mate goal for hu­mans is fulfilment. He believed that it is the thing we want with no further aim other than it­self. It’s the highest priority for humankind. He believed that the way we achieve it is through living virtuously - being the best people we can be - and therefore put a lot of work into de­fining what makes a per­son 'good'. There are numerous lists of virtues credited to him but he apparently proposed the following nine as the most important: wisdom; prudence; justice; fortitude; courage; liberality; magnificence; magnanimity; temperance. It is easy to see the similarity with the list of six virtues we took from Peterson and Seligman who drew a great deal on Aristotle's millenia-old work.

Rather than fight over the best list of virtues it is more helpful to focus on Aristotle's concept of the Golden Mean. He wrote, “flourishing, you see, doesn’t just require us to identify and then acquire all of these virtues—it requires that we have every one in the exact right amount. We have to be generous but not too generous, courageous but not too courageous, and so on". For example, Schur writes that “the golden mean of anger—which, again, Aristotle calls “mildness”—represents an appropriate amount of anger, reserved for the right situations, to be directed at people who deserve it. Like fascists, or corrupt politicians, or anyone associated with the New York Yankees". [Disclaimer - as a Boston Red Sox fan I felt compelled to include that example.]

Aristotle also focussed on action over theory. “Virtue comes about,” he writes, “not by a process of nature, but by habituation.… We become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions". Schur writes that "this habituation, the practice of working at our virtues, is really the whole shebang here.” [Disclaimer - as a fan of the word shebang I felt compelled to include that quote.] Aristotle shows the value of action, of pragmatism. Stoicism is a form of virtue ethics that teaches a simple yet helpful heuristic to help with this: to imagine what a virtuous person might do and then follow their example. Schur concludes that “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.”

The strongest criticism of virtue ethics is that it is vague, especially given the complex social contexts of the modern day. Virtue ethics can sometimes come up short given a particularly tough ethical dilemma. You might know that being virtuous means acting with the golden mean amount of anger but not whether shouting at a corrupt politician constitutes this golden mean or is taking things too far. Still, this is a useful concept to have in our toolkit and augment with the others below.


Consequentialism is the branch of moral philosophy that focuses on the consequences of actions, not their intent. You may try to be virtuous but if your action has a negative consequence that is no bueno. Utilitarianism is the most famous branch of consequentialism and was developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In his Fragment on Government, Bentham stated the “fundamental axiom” that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. This leads to a mathematical approach to ethics; a process of adding up all the happiness created, subtracting all of the unhappiness created, and arriving at a score to determine if an action will cause net good.

While the simplicity is helpful for pragmatism it raises innumerable hypothetical questions where the simple rule would propose some intuitively heinous actions. This is what made the trolley problem thought experiment famous and has lead to adaptations of the simple rule. Negative consequentialism proposes that we minimise harm rather than try and secure the best possible outcome. Rule consequentialism proposes that we can assess an action according to whether it abides by certain ‘rules’ that generally lead to positive outcomes. Lying, for example, generally leads to negative outcomes and is therefore always an immoral act even if it results in a desirable outcome.

These alternatives highlight the question of what we are solving for. Consequentialism is a mathematical problem that can be solved, maximised, or optimised in some way. Here is the important connection to AI. AI of all different forms will need to be programmed with a 'utility function' - the mathematical equation that will guide its behaviour by dictating what outcome it should seek to create. A self-driving car, for example, could be programmed to say that saving five lives is greater than saving one life. It's just one example but shows how this sort of thinking, and therefore this branch of moral philosophy, has a vitally important role to play in our future.

Beyond the critiques highlighted by 'trolley problem' hypotheticals there are questions of practicality. It is impractical, many argue, to attempt a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of every decision that you make. You could write a moral philosophy thesis on which brand of cheese to buy at the supermarket but you'd likely be very hungry by the time you finished it. And have been kicked out of the supermarket. It also proves unwieldy in situations of urgency. If I only have two seconds to decide whether to pull the lever for a trolley problem, I need a faster rule of thumb. Nobody is that good at high-stakes mental math. Even in situations where utilitarian thinking might prove ideal, for example in evaluating which charity to give a grant to, important questions can be asked at every stage of quantification. How 'valuable' is it to save a life? How do you define happiness? There are many valid questions and given the importance of consequentialism to programmable ethics I think it's important we develop the philosophy further.


Immanuel Kant’s deontology is the study of duties or obligations. Here, the morality of an action is based solely on the nature of the action regardless of its consequences. Think the Ten Commandments or the Hippocratic Oath. This is a rigid, logical system: following the right rules = acting morally. Among the major challenges of deontology is to determine the basis of one’s duties and the nature of one’s duties. Kant argued that duties could be defined based on reason alone and that we are obligated to act such that the rules guiding our actions could be made universal. This is Kant’s categorical imperative: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

A commonly cited criticism of strict deontology is the “do not lie” hypothetical. Imagine you are hiding someone from a murderer and the murderer comes to your home and asks if the person, their intended victim, is there. Kant's deontology would say it is moral to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. Clearly not an ideal outcome.

Contractualism and Community

It was from this failing of Kantian deontology that T.M. Scanlon developed contractualism, which adds much needed societal rules and “reasonableness” to deontological theory. It is rules based, and therefore a branch of deontology, but claims that "an act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement". It proposes a social contract, a mutual agreement over the morality of an action. It values the community as much as - and possibly more than - the individual.

We've explored the balance and tension between the ethic of autonomy and ethic of community in The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt would agree with Scanlon for the benefits of community-enforced values and constraints on ethical behaviour. Schur uses this opportunity to highlight the philosophy of Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term meaning "humanity" that is sometimes translated as "I am because we are". One interpretation is that it is an extreme form of contractualist ethics.

Schur presents individualism as a mutation that has seemingly overpowered Ubuntu in Western society (in the short term at least). Individualism, for example not wearing masks in the Covid pandemic due to the discomfort, is ethically wrong based on contractualist, Ubuntu beliefs. Schur writes, “Descartes saw his own singular consciousness as proof of existence. Practitioners of ubuntu see our existence as conditional on others' existence".

That said, Schur appreciates that not everything can or should be about morality, or community, or Ubuntu. He argues that without individuality we are not *people* so it is a question of where on the scale - rather than which end - is ideal. In this sense it validates our research agenda to better understand the optimal point between the ethics of the individual and the community. Schur's conclusion, “as odd and annoying and unpredictable as the people around us can be, given that they’re the people we have to live with, I think it’s often a better idea to design the moral boundaries of our world with their cooperation than it is to do it abstractly, in their absence. And I further think it’s a better idea for them to do so with our cooperation".

Veil of Ignorance

Schur finds John Rawls' Veil of Ignorance thought experiment highly valuable - even relative to the many other tools of moral philosophy discussed above. Much like the lottery of birth, we don't choose to find ourselves in ethical dilemmas. He argues therefore that people with greater wealth and power have likewise greater ethical obligations. As I'll discuss below, being ethical requires mental bandwidth and therefore someone stealing food to feed their family has less moral responsibility than, for example, a corrupt official who embezzles public money to become even richer.

We now have our ethical toolbox. Rather than dogmatically follow one particular philosophy in all contexts, we can use any one of our tools depending on the particular ethical decision we have to make. More likely, in fact, is that we will combine multiple approaches to give us the best chance of making ethical choices. And then we will still get things wrong! But, as we have seen, it is most important that we try and learn from our mistakes.

Moral Exhaustion

Moral Exhaustion is Schur's humble contribution to the field of moral philosophy. He states that all the other major philosophers he cites have cool-sounding theories and so Schur presents Moral Exhaustion, capitalised so it catches on. It is the mental fatigue from making moral decisions. As we've seen, being good is hard. It takes real effort to pull out ones ethical toolbox and consciously decide to do the right thing, weigh up which of our ethical approaches is most helpful, arrive at a proposal that is in no way conclusive, and determine to make the decision anyway. And then possibly deal with the anguish of it being wrong. This is a drain of energy and Schur explains the phenomenon of 'good people doing bad things' through this model - good people are sometimes morally exhausted and don't have the energy to expend to make a good judgment.

This resonates with my theory of Mental Bandwidth. Moral Exhaustion is the same phenomenon as a single mother feeding her children fast-food instead of cooking something nutritious. Without sufficient mental bandwidth we make bad choices, either ethically or any number of other dimensions. It explains why those privileged to have high mental bandwidth have a greater ethical imperative, as Schur proposes. It also gives us reason for hope and excitement.

Our post-work future should give us abundant mental bandwidth. We will all have the bandwidth we need to be make better, more ethical choices every day. Imagine how much better the world would be simply if everyone had the mental bandwidth to ethically engage with every decision they have to make. Now we are envisioning our ideal future world...

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