‘The term cancel culture is reductive and stupid’: The Good Place creator on modern morals

Michael Schur explains the relevance of great philosophical theories to everyday life

Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Michael (Ted Danson). The Good Place explored complex ethical dilemmas including The Trolley Problem, arguably the most famous thought experiment in modern philosophy. Photograph: NBC

Everything about Mike Schur smacks of niceness. He was a producer and writer for the American version of The Office, which wasn’t nearly as dark or nihilistic as the Ricky Gervais UK original. He co-created Brooklyn Nine-Nine, one of the feel-good sitcoms of our times, and he was the brains behind The Good Place, the NBC hit series starring Ted Danson, whose humorous exploration of the nature of immortality makes death itself seem, well, nice.

Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Schur is just as you’d imagine: a kind of sensible older brother to his madcap cop creation Jake Peralta, and someone who is happy to field some very un-Hollywood-like questions from The Irish Times via Zoom. For example, do you have to be nice to be good?

"That's a great question," he says, which is nice of him. "I think that generally being good will lead to being nice", although there's no guarantee. Elon Musk, for example, "has done more to make electric vehicles and solar energy viable, at least in this country, than anyone else by far" – which is obviously good – but "he just happens to be emotionally like a 12-year-old boy who has no filter on his behaviour".

Mike Schur: ‘I deeply hate the term cancel culture. I believe what we’re really facing is something more like consequence culture.’

While there are different schools of thought on the matter, "I don't think a lot of Kantian rule-following would lead someone to say, 'Oh, what a nice guy'," Schur continues, "and I could imagine scenarios where being nice would not lead to being good. Like, you might think to yourself, 'The nice thing to do here would be to lie and say I do like my friend's ugly shirt'."


Every single action of every day has an ethical dimension, from buying a cup of coffee to cheering for a football team

Welcome to the world of moral philosophy, which, if you're a fan of The Good Place, you'll be familiar with even if you've never met a real-live Kantian. The TV comedy series, which ran for four seasons and 53 episodes, riffed off inquiries into everyday ethics without ever feeling like an Open University lecture. Fans were treated to dollops of Aristotle's virtue theory, Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. There was even a blood-splattered episode on The Trolley Problem, arguably the most famous thought experiment in modern philosophy, in which one of the main characters, Chidi, a professor of moral philosopy, repeatedly drove over innocent bystanders to explore the nature of consequentialism.

A month after the series finished, Schur signed up to write a book which has now come to fruition: How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. “I wrote it partly because I wasn’t quite done talking about [moral philosophy] or thinking about it”, and partly because he saw a gap in the market. The average philosophy book is “600 pages long and written in German”, he points out, exaggerating just a little.

The title is itself an invitation for laughs. There is an entire genre of listicle-style, self-help bestsellers – witness Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, or Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – and it must have been very tempting, especially for a naturalised Californian, to follow suit. But, fair play to Schur, he stays true to the material: we are too complex and paradoxical to be governed by life-hacks.

“Yeah, those books are fine. I’ve no problem with anyone who has any theory on how we can improve ourselves… but I’m not interested in the simplicity of ‘make your bed in the morning’, or something like that. We all should be beyond that point by now.

“To me, the interesting thing was there are these people, who are the smartest people who ever lived, and for thousands of years they have been writing these really intricate guides on how to be good, not in the simplistic day-to-day ‘Here’s what you do when you wake up; here’s what you do after lunch’, kind of deal. But more, ‘Here’s how you infuse your life from the very foundation of your existence with a theory or an ethos’. That is fascinating to me.

“The problem was those people wrote books that were so long and dense and boring that no one got through them, including me by the way, in many cases. So I had this thought, to try to take what they wrote and be a middle-man between their theories and the average person who thinks of moral philosophy, correctly in many cases, as something with a barrier of entry that is too high to engage with.”

The book succeeds in its mission with some elan. It’s not only very funny – you won’t find a wittier take-down of Heideggerian metaphysics than Schur’s – but there is real meat to the work too. It provides a rough guide to the three main approaches to morality associated with philosophers: first, cultivating virtue; second, maximising happiness and minimising harm; and, third, coming up with universal laws, what Schur calls “The Most German Idea Ever”.

There is a fundamental divide, certainly in America, between people who acknowledge our reliance on others, and people who simply want to live their lives in an unfettered way

Schur favours a less abstract version of the third approach called contractualism. Developed by Harvard philosopher TM Scanlon, this encourages people, as Schur puts it, “to sit across from one another and simply ask: Do you agree that this is okay?” It works off the principle that “a person is a person through other people”, and suggests that morality is not handed down in a great book but rather derived from, and understood through, human relationships.

But how do you get people to accept contractualism?

“This is the central question I think facing all of us right now. There is a fundamental divide, certainly in America and I think in most places, between people who acknowledge our reliance on other people, and people who simply want to live their own lives in an unfettered and unrestrained way.

“Contractualism appeals to me because it requires us to think about other people from the very beginning. From the very start of any decision-making project, one of the things – in fact the main thing you’re factoring in – is: Can I justify this to my friend, or my enemy, or to anyone? Can I justify what I’m doing?”

The pandemic has “set into high relief” the problem of how to engage with people who have “no interest in justifying their behaviours”, he says. And his frustration at how some people won’t do “the bare minimum” to support Covid-19 prevention measures bubbles over on his Twitter account; he blogs and posts, mainly on sports but also politics, under the pseudonym Ken Tremendous.

“There is no issue facing us greater right now than whether we should all obey the rules that are set up to lessen the effects of the pandemic on other people, and there are 30-35 per cent of [people in the US] aggressively fighting those rules, and I don’t understand it. It doesn’t make sense to me, and if those people could be injected with some kind of serum that would make them follow contractualism as a guiding principle, I think we’d all be out of this mess a lot sooner.”

Maybe a two-in-one-shot with the vaccine?

Schur laughs charitably at my little joke (I told you he was nice).

On a serious point, it’s not just anti-vaxxers who get miffed by moralising. All of us can experience “moral exhaustion”, Schur points out, due to the fact that every single action of every day has an ethical dimension, from buying a cup of coffee to cheering for a football team. Even a simple question like whether or not you should return your shopping trolley to the store, or leave it in the car park, can demand a spirit-crushing amount of moral arithmetic. (Schur takes 15 pages to address this one dilemma, and he doesn’t entirely resolve it.)

This infuriating aspect of philosophical discourse is played for laughs in The Good Place. “Everyone hates moral philosophers” is a recurring line told at Chidi’s expense, and there’s no doubt life would be simpler if you didn’t have to think about right or wrong. “Can I cheer for a team whose owner gets sexual pleasure from strangling baby giraffes?” Schur asks in the book.

"If you're a Chelsea fan, or a Manchester City fan, there is no escaping this," he tells me. Not the giraffes bit, obviously, but the questionable owner part. The Premier League team that Schur supports, Liverpool, "are not the worst". However, they were part of the failed breakaway Super League "and that was not exactly unethical but it was certainly very uncool". And on the subject of mixing ethics with entertainment, "I wholly admit it makes things a little less fun… but I think it's an absurd and a false notion that you can just not think about these things, or accept one without the other".

What we are seeing is a revolution in how bad behaviour by the rich and powerful is being dealt with

The issue gets more personal in respect of Woody Allen, someone who he describes as "part of my core identity". While he still admires Allen's comic talent, he has been appalled by accusations surrounding his behaviour. In cases such as this, is "cancelling" the answer?

“I deeply hate the term cancel culture. I think it’s reductive and stupid. I believe what we’re really facing is something more like consequence culture. There is a quote I love which I believe was first said by Joseph Stalin, who is not a guy you want to be quoting all the time, but he said something like: Revolutions are like people; they are cruel to their children and kind to their grandchildren.

“And I think what we are seeing is a revolution in how bad behaviour by the rich and powerful is being dealt with. And right now it’s a little bit cruel to its children, there is a lot of flailing around and wild accusations, and my hope is that, five or 10 years from now, we get a better handle on how we approach these problems, how people are punished or held to account, and how we as a society cope with those exposés.”

As part of this, “in some cases, where the person is truly sincere, I think we can get better at saying: ‘Okay, I’m going to give you another chance’”.

One thing Schur has inherited from Allen is an ability to work highfalutin dialogue into his comedy, The Good Place being an obvious example. What next for its creator? A sitcom on metaphysicians in Heidelberg?

“I’m not sure if I’ll write something specifically with this stuff in mind. I don’t think it leaves you though. Because I’ve been writing on this for so long, I have this weird little niche among my friends where I’ll get texts to say, ‘Hey I’ve got a weird moral dilemma, can I ask your advice?’. It’s wonderful because I get to keep thinking about it and talking about it, and I don’t think that’ll stop.”

How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur is published by Quercus £14.99