Michael Schur & Joel Rosenthal at NYU's Center for Global Affairs, Global Ethics Day, October 19, 2022. CREDIT: Terence Hurley.

How to Be an Ethical Individual in an Interconnected World, with Michael Schur

Oct 19, 2022 64 min listen

In this special Global Ethics Day event, Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal speaks with Michael Schur, creator of the hit TV show The Good Place and author of How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. They discussed how each of us can use ethics to improve our daily lives, the power of humor as a force for good, and how collective ethical action can help address the global challenges that impact us all.

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CAROLYN KISSANE: Hello, everyone, and a very warm welcome. My name is Carolyn Kissane. I am the assistant dean here at the New York University Center for Global Affairs (CGA). For those of you who may be new to the CGA, we host two Master's programs, an MS in Global Affairs and an MS in Global Security, Conflict, and Cybercrime. We also have a robust continuing education program, and we do public events.

We are so thrilled to be partnering today with Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I also want to extend a very happy Global Ethics Day to everyone here today and those who are joining us virtually from around the world. I know that Joel will be telling us where a lot of viewing parties are happening for this special event.

I want to extend sincere gratitude for the team here at NYU. We are delighted to partner with Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs to help celebrate this very important and special day. Each year on Global Ethics Day Carnegie Council calls upon schools, organizations, and individuals from around the world to take action to empower ethics so that together we can raise awareness and work toward addressing the most critical issues facing society.

As all of us here today know, we have a number of critical issues that are facing society today. We often think about ethics in a philosophical, academic, or even abstract way. However, ethics is much more than that. It is an active process that each of us can engage in to improve our lives, strengthen our communities, and to build a better world.

It is within that framework that we have organized today's discussion, which will focus on how each of us can use ethics to improve our daily lives, the power of humor as a force for good, and perhaps most importantly how collective ethical action can help address the global challenges that impact us all.

Our moderator of today's discussion is Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council and editor-in-chief of the Ethics & International Affairs journal. For nearly 30 years Joel has championed ethics as a force for good in both international affairs and daily life.

I would like to insert a personal note. When I graduated from graduate school at Columbia University, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs was my first fellowship. It was an extraordinarily welcoming environment and was foundational in many ways for where my career went, so it is especially delightful and a privilege to be bringing Carnegie Council here to NYU.

Joel is joined by Michael Schur, the author of How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question and an acclaimed writer and producer of hit shows such as The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. I told Michael earlier but I will share with everyone that I am also deeply grateful to Michael because during COVID-19—I am the mom of two boys—The Office, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place became a happy place for my family. I have to say that it was very, very important.

With that it is my pleasure to hand the program over to Joel, and thank you all again for joining us today.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Carolyn, thank you NYU for hosting, and thank you for the right salutation, happy Global Ethics Day. That should be happy Global Ethics Day.

Michael, from the moment I read your book earlier this year I knew that you would be our speaker for Global Ethics Day.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Absolutely, so thank you for accepting the invitation.

MICHAEL SCHUR: I retroactively feel pressure to accept this invitation.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Nine years ago, by the power of assertion, Carnegie Council declared Global Ethics Day, and we have engaged with thousands of people, hundreds of institutions, and over 75 countries. We are going to hit them all eventually. We are recognized now—it's on Wikipedia, so it must be true—the third Wednesday of every October is Global Ethics Day by the power of our assertion, so you are making us credible now.

As we start, just a quick shout-out to the live watch parties that are going on right now at University of St Andrews in Scotland; Emory University in Atlanta; Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York; Pepperdine University in Malibu, California; among many others, and a special shout-out to those who got up early—8:00 in the morning in California—to see this. We have hundreds of people I know in addition to these watch parties that are watching.

Based on that empirical evidence it seems that ethics itself—we have The Good Place, we have your book, we have all these people who are tuned in—my first question just to kick things off is: Why do you think ethics and how do you think ethics resonate today? Is there something in the zeitgeist that people are responding to?

MICHAEL SCHUR: To some extent that was the bet that I was making when I conceived of the show, that this subject—which almost as a hobby had become very important to me; I was like an enthusiast more than a scholar—was interesting enough to resonate with people. I did not know when I was creating the show that, thanks to a former United States president who shall remain nameless, the word "ethics" was going to appear in the headlines of every major newspaper for four consecutive years. So I think that to some degree the events of the nation supported the idea that ethics mattered in a very weird way.

Also I felt like the problems that face us are so massive, global, systemic, and overwhelming that something like ethics, which doesn't ask you to identify with any kind of political party, tribe, organization, or anything else, but is just the rules for good living, were being observed by everyone. This obviously redoubled during the pandemic because, as we were saying before, the pandemic led to a situation where every single human being on Earth was facing this exact same questions at the same time for I think the first time ever.

I believed when creating the show and writing the book that ethics, if presented in a way that lowered the barrier to entry—because very few people wander into a Barnes & Noble, pick up Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and say, "This looks like a fun beach read"—and simply present the ideas, which I think are fascinating, my bet was that they would also think they were fascinating. I think to some extent that was proven true.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: One way we were thinking about it at Carnegie Council was ethics as an antidote to cynicism or even nihilism that we see in public life, and our sense was that our audience or our constituents are looking for hope, not the idealistic sense of hope but actionable hope, things that we can do. Is that how you think about ethics, as something that is actionable, something that you can do, something that you can apply for yourself and then turn it toward society?

MICHAEL SCHUR: Absolutely. My interest in it came directly from blundering into a situation, doing something that I felt in my gut wasn't right, and not knowing how to explain to myself or to anyone else why it was wrong. I write about a bunch of them in the book, but that led to me thinking: Someone must have written his down. I am not the first person to enter a situation, screw up, and then need in order to feel better about myself an explanation for what happened.

If your car breaks down, you take it somewhere, and someone who knows about cars says, "Here's what's wrong with your car." If you make a mistake in an ethical situation, there are mechanics who have done this before and who can say, "Oh, here's where you blew it.” The process of reading those people, synthesizing ideas, talking to smart people who teach this stuff, and everything else gave me this incredible sense of calm because I was still blundering around and making mistakes, but at least when I made them I could understand, I had a vocabulary, a structure, and a scaffolding to explain to myself and the people I had injured when I apologized to them what I had done that was wrong, why it was wrong, and how I was sorry in a specific way. I used to go to therapy, and therapy is the same thing for the soul or for the brain in some way. It's:

"Why do I keep doing these things?"

"Well, here's one possible reason why you're doing them."

That sense of calm has never left me, of, oh, there's an explanation, or at least there is an understanding I can approach. Ethics to me is that exact thing for our behaviors, our interactions with other people.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Let's think about the context that we are in today. As we sit here I was thinking about the headlines in the world that we are in: Sixty percent of Americans will have an election denier on their ballot next month; kamikaze drones are hitting Kyiv; the pandemic lingers; climate change is now often referred to as a climate "emergency."

Some people will say—and I get this question a lot: "What are you talking about? Ethics don't matter at all."

MICHAEL SCHUR: Who is saying that to you? Who are you hanging out with?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Meaning that the world we are living in is not operating by any sense of principle.

MICHAEL SCHUR: So they're saying it's not that ethics don't exist, it's that no one is using them.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: No one is abiding by them.

MICHAEL SCHUR: Look. If no one were using seatbelts and everyone who got into a car accident was flying through the windshield, the answer wouldn't be: "Well, who cares about seatbelts? They're not being used anyway.” It would be: "Well, you should use seatbelts, and that way you won't fly through the windshield when you get into an accident.” Those are all examples of ways in which, were ethics being applied more rigorously or cared about more intensely, I don't think those problems go away.

If you and I sat down with Vladimir Putin and were like, "Listen, buddy, there are some ethical problems with what you are doing," I don't think he would suddenly go, "Oh, my goodness, you're right, I hadn't thought about this.” It's not that it solves problems immediately. It is simply that there are people who could greatly stand to benefit from understanding the rules of ethics or the theories of ethics. Those problems don't get solved, but they might be lessened for a number of people.

A big moment in my personal journey with this stuff was realizing that the question that ethics is asking very broadly isn't what is good and what is bad but rather what is better and what is worse. It is all on this graded scale. Even the purest of philosophers, the most rigorous and intense philosophers, didn't necessarily believe that you had to be perfect or that you had to nail everything. It was simply, "Here's a way to make perhaps a better choice than the one you were about to make.” So, yes, those problems don't get solved if ethics is a more fundamental part of human life, but they are lessened. What are we here for if not to lessen pain, agony, and anguish for people the world over?


This is a nuanced question, judging and not judging. In other words you want to find your true north and you want to have some moral compass that can help you get there, but others are going to make different decisions. I was thinking about Pope Francis, who famously said, "Who am I to judge?" at the end of one of his commentaries. You are the pope, that is your job, to judge.

MICHAEL SCHUR: It would be funny to go back in time, grab some 14th-century popes, bring them to the present day, and have them listen to him say, "So who am I?"

JOEL ROSENTHAL: But you see what I'm getting at, this sense of making a decision and perhaps a commitment but also being humble about it. That seems to be a problem in our society today. Ethics is often seen as another sort of challenge: Oh, it's your right versus somebody else's right or somebody else's wrong and so on. Have you thought about how to open up that space a little more for judging/not judging?

MICHAEL SCHUR: When someone is presented with an action that maybe one person thinks is the ethical thing to do, a frequent rebuttal is to say, "That impinges upon my liberty.” That is a very American thing, liberty, liberty, liberty, freedom, American flag, bald eagle, get-off-my-lawn kind of liberty. The thing that bums me out about it is that I believe the idea here is as an individual alone in your house, go nuts. You have all the liberty you want. You can listen to whatever music you want, you can say whatever you want out loud, and you can do anything that you believe is you expressing your true beliefs.

You leave your house and you bump into other people. Imagine a sphere around you and that sphere bumps against the sphere of another person, and now it is not just liberty. Now it is a negotiation. Now this person has a liberty, you have a sense of liberty, and those two things meet, and where they meet is ethics. When your actions start to affect other people, you don't have unfettered liberty. It has never been intended as that.

It is two sides of the same coin. The first side is that you have to understand that your sense of the world and what you are allowed to do changes when you enter a public sphere. The other side is that when you do bump into those people, when you are negotiating in these little or big moments about what is allowable, what is permissible, what ought we do, what should we do, and what can we do, the people who are bumping into each other come from very different places, they have very different upbringings, they have very different worldviews, and the answer isn't simply, "I'm right and you're wrong," the answer is—this is a very contractualist argument.

For those of you who are real philosophy nerds, contractualism was invented by a man named Tim Scanlon, emeritus at Harvard, who believes that when coming up with rules for our society we ought to sit around a big table, we start pitching rules, everyone can veto those rules and say we will not adopt that rule as long as that person—and this is the key—is being reasonable. The only people who get to sit at the table are reasonable people. How do you define "reasonable?” Uh . . . that is one thing philosophers are great at, putting out awesome ideas and then not explaining them.

But essentially what he says is that you are a reasonable person if you restrain your own needs and desires to the same degree—not more or less but to the same degree—that I restrain my needs and desires. It is a little bit technical but it essentially means that everyone has to give a little bit, everybody has to understand that their way of thinking about this situation is not the way, that there is another person involved in the transaction. When it comes to judging other people I think it is important to take all of this stuff into account, into context, and to remind yourself that in order to sit at this table you have to restrain your needs, wants, and desires to the same extent that you want them to.

Once you get into that mindset you are a lot less likely to simply write someone off or judge them with a broad brush or whatever because you now understand that there is a mutual tension here. You have to limit yourself in the same way you would like that person to limit him or herself.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That was great, very helpful, and very persuasive, but I'm going to judge. I am going to judge the free riders. We are dealing with global-scale issues. Global-scale issues are almost by definition collective-action problems, and people don't cooperate.

Here we are. We need to think of ways that go to values and go to interests that will encourage international cooperation around shared challenges like climate, refugees, and so on. What do we do with the free riders? How do you think about that?

MICHAEL SCHUR: For those of you who don't know, the free-rider problem is a very famous problem in philosophy. A crowded subway train or trolley, jam-packed, not any more room for anyone to board, all of the people onboard have paid their requisite fee to board the trolley. A person comes running up just as it's leaving, grabs onto the outside, and gets a free ride. The question is: Did that person do anything wrong?

What is interesting about the free-rider problem is that if you go through different schools of thought in philosophy, you can arrive at a point where you might say there is nothing wrong with it. For example, in the utilitarian worldview—which is simply "maximize pleasure and minimize pain and suffering"—you might say: "Well, none of the people onboard were inconvenienced. They paid a fee. They got to where they were going to go," and this extra guy jumped on and hung on, so you get a little extra happiness because he got a ride to where he is going to go. Maybe there's nothing wrong with it.

But if you follow it through, another thing the utilitarians said was that when you are calculating how much pain or pleasure was created by an event, you have to take into account the fact that everyone in the society knows that this thing happened, they understand that it could happen to them someday, so now you should imagine all of the people inside the train just staring a hole through the back of the head of the guy who has gotten the free ride. It's like: "I paid three bucks, I got on the trolley, and am trapped in this sweaty, awful space, and this guy got a free ride. That's not fair.” So their pain actually rises in the calculation.

You can go through all of the theories, deontology, Kant's theory, or virtue ethics, which is Aristotle, and you can basically come to the same conclusion, which is that the free rider is among the most annoying people that we have on the planet.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So you are judging him?

MICHAEL SCHUR: I am hardcore judging him. The reason I think it is annoying is because what happens when you know this problem is you start to see it everywhere.

I live in Los Angeles. We have a terrible drought. It has been going on to some degree since I have lived there, long before I moved, and there are severe water restrictions. You are only allowed to water your lawn one day a week right now because of the lack of water. So in my neighborhood you walk through, and it is almost a badge of honor. People's lawns are dying, and that is good. It doesn't look good, but it means that everyone is following the rules. Then, in a couple of houses, it is like a rainforest. It is lush green grass and beautiful rose bushes.

This is a free rider. This person is saying, "Everyone else needs to do this, but I don't have to because I am special.” That is really the attitude: "The rules don't apply to me. I can do whatever I want, and I will benefit from everybody else following the rules.” So water restrictions. I am guessing you may know a person who said, "I'm not going to get vaccinated, but it'll be okay because everybody else will get vaccinated so I will be safe.” Super-annoying, right?

The people who follow this mindset have declared that they are special and that they want to keep participating in the society. They just don't want to do any work, they don't want to chip in, they don't want to throw into the pot the way that everybody else is doing, and they still want the benefits, people who don't want to pay taxes but still want their garbage collected. Again, once you are aware of the free-rider problem you see it everywhere, and it is always vexing and annoying.

I think one of the very basic underpinnings of a successful, flourishing society is that everyone follows the rules that that society has put out there as being necessary to have that society thrive, and when there are too many free riders things start to crack and fray and you start getting weird protests about wearing masks before the vaccine is out. You start to sense this behavior, which is that you don't want to pitch in.

It is the most basic thing. Our parents taught us this when we were little: "You make a mess, you clean it up. You want to be part of the group, you have to go by the rules of the group.” These are very basic lessons—again, I think it is this idea that unfettered liberty and freedom supplants everything else—and you start to see the society crack and fray when that happens.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You highlight this concept of Ubuntu in the book, and I thought you did it beautifully. I don't know if this was your definition or someone else's: "A person is a person through other people.” I thought that was part of ethics as the antidote.

MICHAEL SCHUR: A hundred percent.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I know we don't have any answers, but I want to bear down a little bit more about what to do about the free riders. Is it revealing them, shaming them, educating, or do you just say it is just the power of recognition and understanding it for what it is?

MICHAEL SCHUR: I would love to believe that modeling would work. I think that has been proven not to be the case.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Where you can just show it.

MICHAEL SCHUR: Yes. I think we go a little too easy on free riders in this country, and that doesn't mean throw them in prison or something. It just means that too often there is an explanation that is proffered for the thing that they are doing that intends to over-mitigate the reasons why they are doing it or something. I think it is okay when everyone in your neighborhood is saying, "there's no water.” One thing you need for a city is water. There is no water in LA, and so we are all going to cut back, and when someone doesn't there is no good explanation that I can possibly think of—I am open to hearing them—a good reason for that.

Aristotle writes about shame. He says that a person with no sense of shame feels no disgrace. I think that sometimes light shaming—"light" shaming—is helpful. In theory. It is possible that person doesn't know about the water restrictions. Maybe that person doesn't live in this house full-time. Maybe they live somewhere else, and this is a second home, or maybe they have spent a year overseas and haven't heard about it.

By "light shaming" I literally mean calling to attention the rule that is not being followed in a polite, pleasant, friendly, kindly, and neighborly way might work. They might go, "Oh, my god, I'm so sorry.” I think we ought to be a little better about pushing back on free-rider problems than we are now. Right now I think we are all afraid, we are all timid, there is a sense of, "Well, maybe this person has some good reason for it" or "I don't want to get involved"—there is a lot of "I don't want to get involved"—and I think the solution has to be again politely, pleasantly, and straightforwardly bringing to attention the situation. Maybe that is where we start.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That is a good transition into another theme that you highlight in the book, and it's a challenge that we face at Carnegie Council—not among our friends or the people watching but those who are skeptical—which is moral exhaustion: "Here come the ethics people. What do you want me to do?” You have thought about that. Could you share some of your thoughts about how to deal with this endless—part of it is social media intake and all of that, but there is a sense of moral exhaustion, and I know you have thought about that.

MICHAEL SCHUR: I am glad you brought this term up because in the book I wrote I decided I was going to try to coin a term that could be the thing that makes me academically famous, so I just invented a term called "Moral Exhaustion," and I capitalize it everywhere. It has to be capitalized because if it is not capitalized, people won't know it's important. I just straight up asserted that this is my idea.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We have you against the NYU School of Professional Studies banner, so you are certified.

MICHAEL SCHUR: There you go.

What I mean by moral exhaustion is the sense that if you start to care about ethics and you start to care about doing the right thing or the better thing instead of the worse thing, here's what happens: You have to buy a car and you buy a hybrid car, or better yet you buy an electric car because you're like, "This is better than buying a car powered by gas.” Then you are at a cocktail party and your most annoying friend approaches you and says: "Oh, you bought an electric car. Do you know how those batteries are made? They have to mine the elements from these mines in Africa"—or Southeast Asia or somewhere—"and it's actually on balance worse for the environment and it's worse on a human rights level to buy an electric car because of the human toll and the earth toll that comes from making the battery."

Then you think, Oh, god, and you go home and do some research and that points you to this other article, and the other article says, "No, actually that's not true, and here's the blah blah blah," and then you look at the clock and it's 4:00 in the morning and you are nowhere. You have come to the conclusion that every single possible option you could make leads to pain, suffering, misery, sadness, and the world is going to end, there is nothing you can do about it, and you watch a rerun of The Bachelor and go to sleep.

That feeling overwhelmed me personally. The more I got into ethics the more I started questioning all of my decisions, consumer and otherwise, and came to the conclusion that they are all bad, that life is impossible, and that we should all give up and hide in our basements. That is a very real feeling. I still have it all the time. I poured water into this cup, which is made of plastic and then came out here and saw this cup, which is made of glass and immediately was like, I blew it, I ruined it, this is refuse, this is petroleum-based, it's going to go into the garbage and go to a landfill, it's going to poison the water, animals will drink the water, the animals will die, we'll eat the animals, we'll get the plastic in our bodies, we'll get sick, and we'll die because I did this instead of this.

What I am arguing for is to give ourselves a break from time to time, to understand again that we are after better or worse, not good or bad. There is a woman named Susan Wolf who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and who is an excellent writer and philosopher. She has a paper called "Moral Saints" in which she talks about the impossibility of achieving something like perfection in the world of morality. Whether you are a utilitarian, a Kantian, or anything, perfection is both impossible to attain and also a bad goal to even achieve, and the reason she says this is that, among other things, there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand, meaning you cannot make everything you do about morality, for two reasons: 1) You will get exhausted and you will lie down, put a cold compress on your head, and never want to leave your house; and 2) You become a very boring person. If everything is about morality in your life, if everything is about trying to maximize good in whatever way you define good, you don't learn how to cook French food, you don't learn how to play tennis, you don't just go to a movie with your friend, or you don't hang out with your kids because you are constantly calculating: "Is this okay, is there something I can do that would be better than this?" That is not what living a life is. Living a full, three-dimensional, verdant life means doing things that are outside the definition of moral or immoral.

I think the key is engagement in the issues. Care about the issues. Pay attention, learn about them, read about them when you are making your choices about what car to buy, what pair of jeans to buy, or where to go on vacation, how to get there or anything, be aware of the moral component to those actions. No one can be a free rider in that regard. Everyone I believe has to be aware of it, think about it, mull it over, crunch it down, figure out what the right move is, and then occasionally cook some French food, play tennis, and don't think about it because if all you do is think about it it will wear you out and you won't be a good moral agent anymore because you will be annoying, no one will want to hang out with you—I can say this from experience—and you won't be living what amounts to a human life.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. The last chapter in your book is a letter to your children, which I think is very significant. Now they have to hang out with you. They have no escape.

MICHAEL SCHUR: Tell them that. That's not what they believe.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I understand you were using it as a way to gather conclusions that you could pass along to your children, but I wanted to push you a little bit to think about the next generation. Do you have any thoughts not just for your children but for the next generation, about the world they are coming into and the influences and influencers on them when it comes to ethics? It seems like it is an extremely challenging moment right now. In the past institutions used to transmit values, places like universities, places like Carnegie Council, places like churches, schools, and so on. There is so much skepticism in the world today. Our influencers are Elon Musk and other people. That is who people are listening to and paying attention to. Anyway, long question, but next generation, the world that they are seeing, how do you pass the baton to them?

MICHAEL SCHUR: I will say that I am greatly encouraged by what I perceive to be a lot of what I guess you would call "self-possession" on the part of younger folks. They don't seem to have reverence in the way that I think our generation did for whatever the institutional or systemic modes of thought and behavior were that preceded them. They seem to be very much thinking along the lines of: You have all blown it—meaning our generation—you have totally blown it. We don't believe you when you talk. We don't care about what you have to say. You have ruined the Earth. The world is a disaster, and it's up to us to fix it, and so we are going to try to go about this our own way, which I believe is absolutely the right way that they should be thinking because we have blown it. Certainly from a systemic political or social way we have done very, very little to ensure a good future for them. I think they should basically be trying to kick us out of power as quickly as possible. I am 46 years old. Everyone my age and up, gone as quickly as possible.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's a scientific 46.

MICHAEL SCHUR: I crunched the numbers, and that is the right age.

Certainly when it comes to something like climate justice, most people first thought about this when Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, which was in [2006.] Between [2006] until eight weeks ago we did nothing about it, literally nothing. It got so much worse between the time that a very well-known and thoughtful person raised his hand and said, "Hey, I just want to let you all know that if we don't do something, the planet will be uninhabitable.” We deeply ignored it, mocked it and ignored it, for [almost] 20 years.

So if you are a 25-year-old person right now, why in the world would you entrust the future to people who made that happen? There is no reason to. There is a massive amount of evidence that we have ruined everything. I think that ultimately the folks that I have spoken to and talked to who are let's call it roughly "college age" give or take five or ten years on either side, seem much more determined to not only fix some of the problems that we ignored but also to pay attention to things like ethics, like morality, and like justice that traditionally have been afterthoughts in America. My great hope is that they are no longer afterthoughts but are something closer to the core of what this generation cares about and believes in.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great.

I want to open it up to questions, so please get ready. I am told that online we have representation from Nigeria, Ghana, India, Botswana, Uganda, the United Kingdom, Austria, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, South Africa, Bahrain, Qatar, Tanzania, and in the United States Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Utah, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Carolina, and California. That is pretty impressive, although it is interesting in the United States that we have to break it down by states, so there is a significant difference.

Let me start out with one question from our online audience and then I am going to come to in-person, so please get ready. There is a great question here: "How can society use storytelling and comedy to promote ethics?” I would even broaden that out to arts and culture generally as part of the way we think about ethics.

MICHAEL SCHUR: Traditionally an enormous amount of social change has come about through storytelling. It is not hard to think of movies, TV shows, plays, and moments in time that captured a social issue that were made much more comprehensible or understandable just because it's dramatic and entertaining. You absorb things I think better from a story than from a lecture. That isn't to say that lecturing is bad. It is just that I think different people learn in different ways. A lecture hall seats 500 people. A TV show can be watched by millions of people around the globe.

The Greeks knew this. For thousands of years social or political messages have been worked out through stories. I think it is always a good medium.

Comedy specifically I think is an excellent delivery mechanism for a message. When I pitched The Good Place to NBC, the thing I said to them was: "I promise I won't make this seem like homework. This is not going to be a lecture. This is going to be a funny comedy show with jokes, and then baked into the middle of it is going to be lessons or interesting ideas about ethics and morality."

JOEL ROSENTHAL: So this is important, the comedy is what connects us as being human. You mentioned the Greeks. What makes it classic? In some ways it's because it's timeless. It travels across time in a way because you recognize that there is something essential in it that is human, that bonds us. Even if we disagree or whatever, but there is some kind of recognition.

MICHAEL SCHUR: Yes. Also, people like to laugh. It is a very human art form. It is ancient and sustained through time because it's the most joyous thing you can do. Nothing beats going to a movie that is funny and laughing with another group of people.

I believe that using humor to get a message across is among the most effective ways that we have to get a message across. The message itself isn't always going to be the purest version of the message, but it does work, and that is why with both the show and the book it was like: "I'm going go write this like a comedy writer engaging in this stuff. No one's going to listen to me if I wag my finger and tell everyone about philosophy.” No one wants to hear from me on that. If you want to study philosophy, you go to college, you go to a Ph.D. program, and you study philosophy. If you want to learn the essence of what ethics is and why I think it matters, I am going to get those ideas across much better if I can make people laugh.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Do we have a question from the audience?

MICHAEL SCHUR: He told you to get ready. You didn't listen.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In your book you mention that there are people who are "luckier" than others and that the people who are luckier owe or need to do a little bit more. I found that fascinating, and I kept reading that commentary. For our audience here and virtually I would love for you to explain that a little bit more to them because I think it is an interesting concept that may spur some of Joel's points about action and maybe a point of action.

MICHAEL SCHUR: As quickly as I can I will explain this. A sociologist named Robert Frank wrote this book on luck which was very meaningful to me. He was playing tennis and had a heart attack, and there happened to be an ambulance nearby because it had responded to another accident. That ambulance got to him in two minutes and saved his life. If it had taken five minutes, he would have died. So he woke up and had this very lovely realization, which was that from that point on every moment that he had of any kind was due purely to luck, and that led him to the conclusion that people underestimate the degree to which they have been lucky.

The book is fascinating because it talks about various famous people like Bill Gates. He is a genius, a visionary, all of those things. Bill Gates also happened to go to a high school I think that had the very first computer that ever existed. Then he went to Harvard, and Harvard had the first primitive internal Internet that ever existed. So to some degree his career is due to good fortune. He worked hard to get into Harvard, but he could have worked equally hard and gone to Yale and then he wouldn't have had that exact situation unfold in front of him. It was luck that Harvard happened to have that thing.

The point that Frank makes is that people don't tend to ascribe their success to luck because it makes them feel like they're saying, "I don't deserve what I got," and that is anathema to most successful people: "How dare you. I worked hard, blah blah blah.” Yes, but also you got super-lucky.

Warren Buffett, alone amongst billionaires in the world, at least to my understanding, talks about this constantly. He talks about winning what he calls the "ovarian lottery," which is to say he was born a white male in America at the moment he was born, and that removed from his life a thousand obstacles that other people would have had to jump over simply to come up to even with him in terms of the beginning of his life. That is a lovely observation for anyone to have. It is an even lovelier observation for the seventh-richest man in the world to have because he is acknowledging that this isn't just all because of his brilliant genius.

I have thought about that a lot in my own life, in my own career, the degree to which, yes, I worked hard, I did all my homework, I was very nerdy, I read all the books, and I got good grades on all the tests, but also at various moments in my life—and I list 20 of them in the book—something happened that had nothing to do with how hard I worked, how brilliant I am, or anything else, where the next card in the deck for me was an ace a thousand times in a row.

Understanding that and deeply internalizing it I think allows us to approach something closer to what I would consider to be justice because it gives you empathy for people who maybe are just as brilliant as you are and worked just as hard as you did but didn't win the ovarian lottery and the next card that came up was a seven of clubs and they really needed an ace, and things didn't break the right way.

I believe that when you are calculating what it is you owe to other people there are minimums that we all face. This is not a situation where if you are an unlucky person—in whatever that means—that you get to do whatever you want. There are contractualist minimums as Tim Scanlon would say; there are virtue minimums, as Aristotle would say; deontological minimums; utilitarian minimums; however you care to calculate them. There are certain things we all have to do to participate in society and to be good people.

After that, if you are Warren Buffett or me—there is probably a bigger gap between Warren Buffet and me—or anyone who got a bunch of aces off the top of the deck, you owe a little bit more to other people. I think of it as paying off the gods of luck. I think of it as: I got super-lucky in a number of different ways, and when it comes time to take a moral accounting of my behavior I should be judged much, much, much more harshly than people who didn't get as lucky as I did.

That doesn't mean you have to give more money to charity, although it does mean that, but I can afford to do more in my life than a lot of other people in whatever way you mean "do more"—volunteer, pay money, hold myself to a higher standard—I can afford to take a few days off and fly to New York and come to this event without it ruining my life. Most people can't do that. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't do it. So I believe that what you owe to other people scales up as you consider how lucky you have been in your life, and I think the people who are at the top of the systems of power, status, prestige, money, and everything else should be judged accordingly, and I think it's fair to hold those people to a much higher account than we hold the average citizen. That's my belief.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That was beautifully said. If you want a nice complement to that, read the chapter where Michael does a great takedown of Ayn Rand. It's classic.

MICHAEL SCHUR: When I first pitched this book I had this idea that I would read all of one of her novels and then just basically go line by line and make fun of her, but I remembered that her novels are 1,400 pages long and I bailed on that.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: But it's amazing how seriously it is taken in certain quarters in our public life.

MICHAEL SCHUR: It is wild to me. It is truly, truly shocking. But again, liberty, freedom, right? These things are so deeply ingrained into the American psyche that they are hard to shake.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That is a good lead-in to another question from online: Is ethics something that people just fall into, or do you feel there is a major opportunity and need to actively weave ethics into all levels of education? Of course there you have to deal with whose ethics, what ethics, and so on, but we talked a little bit before about education, and I will also preview this by thinking about again the standing particularly that churches used to have in intellectual formation and also public life. That has definitely faded in contemporary times. Let's focus for a minute then on education and how we might think about ethics in education.

MICHAEL SCHUR: I firmly believe that the things that we teach in this country, starting in kindergarten and going through university, are not wrong but less useful than certain other things we could teach. The Greeks nailed this to me. The Greeks taught civics, ethics, rhetoric, philosophy, and then other sciences.

Civics, ethics, and rhetoric. Think for a second of the ways we might be better off if certain subjects were made optional in our education system and what we were taught every year were civics, ethics, and rhetoric: Learn how to be part of a society, learn how to talk to other people and engage in debates and arguments with other people, and learn how to act in an ethical manner. You would have to figure out which ethics to teach, but you could teach them all and let everyone take from it what they—that was my theory: Teach them all and not say this is right and this is wrong.

My kids are 14 and 12, and they have gotten to the age now where they have started to ask me, "Why do I have to know this?" which is a question I asked my parents and which kids have been asking their parents for generations: "Why do I have to learn pre-calculus? Why do I have to learn this subject? I'm never going to use it."

There is no good answer to this. Parents have been lying to children for generations because most kids are not going to need precalculus in their lives. They're not going to need chemistry in their lives. They will need civics, ethics, and rhetoric in their lives to be good flourishing people.

If I could snap my fingers and redesign the American education system Thanos-style I would say: "Look, chemistry is vital, chemistry is important. Biology is vital and important. We need to have those things available for kids to learn because we need engineers, we need scientists, we need research chemists.” We need all that stuff. I'm not saying get rid of it. I am saying that as the core of what we want to relay to young people, you can't do better to me than civics, ethics, and rhetoric. That I believe would lead to a healthier society if everybody truly understood what it meant to be a citizen, how to participate in government action, and how to be in the world—how to talk to people, how to argue with people effectively and efficiently, how to learn from people through argument, and then how to act in an ethical way. That is my Thanos dream. I am like benevolent Thanos. I am going to get all those gems in the big glove, snap my fingers, and everyone will learn civics, ethics, and rhetoric.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. That's something we can do.

MICHAEL SCHUR: Oh, good. Where do you keep the glove? Is it nearby?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Question from the audience, over here.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for being here. My name is Samantha. I am here today with Fordham as a graduate student in ethics and society. I am also here as a member of the entertainment industry here in New York. I am mindful in these two worlds that we have an outsized platform in the entertainment industry. I am also mindful that that platform is under ethical scrutiny for very good reasons.

I am wondering from your position in the industry and all of it that you bring, which is more than I bring, where do you sit with that. The entertainment industry is wonky, but if you can expand it beyond the entertainment industry too. We come together in these groups where we try to do stuff and we call it work. Some of it is more ethical than other of it, but we try to bring our ethic selves and create a better world as we do it. Tell me about your place in the industry and how that expands outward.

MICHAEL SCHUR: Some of the stuff you are talking about, the reckoning—largely speaking I would say is the #MeToo movement, and then the corollary is post-George-Floyd social and racial reckoning—was so long overdue that it is embarrassing. An enormous number of people in the industry have been called to the mat for things they had been doing with impunity since Hollywood was founded.

Hollywood is not unique among industries, but it is one of a rare small number of industries that essentially never had any kind of reckoning at all with its behaviors and practices. If you go back and read about the old days, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the people who were held in the highest esteem were the people who were the best at covering things up. The people who got to the top, when someone gets drunk and kills someone in a drunk driving accident, were like, "This guy did a great job keeping that out of the public eye," and that is how you achieved power and status. I am thrilled and overjoyed that that reckoning has begun. It is not close to ending, but it has begun.

I will defend Hollywood a little bit by saying that the number of systemic problems and horrors in the entertainment industry, which truly was shocking and blew people's minds as well it should have, I don't think there are not those problems in the banking industry, the insurance industry, and the auto parts distribution industry. It's just that the people in Hollywood are famous. It seemed for a while that the way it was being was reported was, "This is the worst place on Earth."

It's not the worst place on Earth. It's not good, but it's not the worst place on Earth. These problems exist in every corner of America and the world, and I am weirdly happy that because the people in Hollywood are famous, the digging up of those roots and the overturning of those rocks to reveal all the slimy creatures milling around in the dirt did a massive amount of good for the movement and for movements like it.

As far as where I sit with it, I am happy that it is happening. I hope it continues to happen. I think it will. There seems to be a genuine commitment on the part of leadership at pretty much every major studio to saying: "This is the beginning. We are not done. We are not going to pretend this doesn't exist. We're going to get something closer to gender parity in terms of pay. We're going to get something closer to equal representation of traditionally marginalized groups of people ethnically and gender-wise. All sorts of groups of people now have inherent value. Their stories need to be heard. They need to be working not just in front of the camera but behind the camera.” That stuff feels real to me, it's lovely, and I hope it continues. I believe, again because a lot of the people we are talking about are famous, that it draws more scrutiny and it should, and it hopefully can then be a model for other industries and the way that they go about their own reckoning.

QUESTION: I have always wondered this about ethics. We have a lot of different schools and a lot of different ideas. Is there a standard of ethics that everyone follows because we could have an ethical problem, and virtue ethics would have a different answer and the categorical imperative would have a different answer. Is there something that is universal, that everyone follows?

MICHAEL SCHUR: Well, a philosopher named Derek Parfit had the same question. He is maybe the most brilliant man who lived in the 20th century. He decided that there was a universal ethics or something approaching that, and he spent his entire life writing one book that was going to explain the whole thing. It came out. It is like 2,500 pages long. It is impossible to read.

He described these different ethical theories as "people climbing the same mountain on different cliff faces.” Utilitarians are coming up this way, Aristotle is coming up this way, Kant is coming up this way, and Tim Scanlon is coming up this way. He really believed that there is a peak we can reach where we can unify all of these theories into one giant theory. I don't know. I have no idea. I am not nearly the scholar. If he can't figure it out, I'm not going to figure it out in the next five minutes.

But what I believe is true is that while in a given situation you might have a different view of what is right and wrong based on your own personal preference for an ethical theory, but it is not going to be wildly different. If you are talking about people who all believe that ethics matters, you might come to different conclusions, but one person is not going to say it's okay to murder this person and another person says, no, it's not, although in classic philosophy fashion my brain just came up with three ways that that might happen.

I believe that what matters isn't finding universality. I believe that what matters is that if the people you are talking to and you all have a basic understanding of the concept of ethics, you are going to be okay. You're going to muddle through. You are going to pitch slightly different ideas, have a debate, and argue about who's right, but you are ultimately going to make a decision that is beneficial instead of detrimental because you all care. It is about the attempt at virtue, the attempt to conceive of a deontological maxim, or the attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. As long as the attempt is there, the striving and trying are there, I think you are going to be okay, generally speaking.


QUESTION: Hello. I do agree that there is no universality to ethics, but I am also sitting here wondering that that causes a very existential problem of me thinking about what is ethical for the world around me but the world not necessarily believing that is the ethical thing to do. In those situations would it be right for me to do what the world considers ethical, or do I go on to do what I think is ethical? Where do the consequences for my actions come into play? Am I going to be responsible for what I do, or is it just me accepting that I did the best I could do, so it doesn't really matter what consequence my ethical decision had?

MICHAEL SCHUR: It is so funny to ask that question with 60 seconds left.

Okay, I think lines of distinction would need to be drawn here if you are talking about laws versus simply ethical choices, which are overlapping but not identical things. When you are talking about who's responsible, a little bit depends on what the choice is and whether the choice that you would make as an ethical person would violate a law in the country in which you existed. By the way, it doesn't necessarily mean—obviously we can all think of examples of people who made ethical choices that did violate laws, and we would all say that those people were right and the law was wrong. That's why they overlap but are not identical.

As far as the difference between you doing something that you think is ethical versus what the world thinks is ethical, that is a tough one. If we take laws out of the equation for a second, that is a really hard question.

A philosopher named Bernard Williams, who I really like, talks a lot about integrity. He doesn't mean being a morally upstanding person. He means you are a whole person and cannot be divided into little parts, some of which you wouldn't recognize as being you.

His thought experiment is this if you don't know it: You are on a vacation, you go for a walk, you come upon a sheriff holding ten locals at gunpoint, and the sheriff says to you: "Oh, hello, nice to see you. What we do here in this town is every once in a while, every month or so, we pull ten random people out of the town, and I kill them. That's how I maintain law and order. I let them know who's boss by killing ten people at random. But since you're here, this is a special occasion, and I will give you the gun and you can just kill one person and that will be our law and order lesson for the day.” The question is: Should you do it?

If you are a utilitarian, you might say: "Well, one person dying is better than ten people dying, so I guess I should do this."

What Bernard Williams says is, "That's absurd. The question isn't whether it is right for someone to do this. The question is whether it is right for you to do it, and you are a person with integrity.” You have a set of beliefs and core principles. One of those core principles is don't shoot random people for no reason when you're on vacation. So if you do it, the utilitarian argument falls to pieces because after you do this, you are going to back to your bed and breakfast and sit with the fact that you just killed someone, which is not okay in your worldview.

So what he believes is that we have integrity, we have a sense of completeness, of wholeness, a set of principles and values to which we adhere, and it is not okay for any theory, no matter how well-intentioned, to try to cut a little chunk out of our souls and say, "But sometimes it's okay to murder people."

I think what he would say at least is: "You do what you think is ethical. If you are a thoughtful person and you put the time and energy into conceiving the right action in this situation, I think you do what you think is ethical, and if the world says 'That's not ethical' or 'You did something wrong,' then you say: 'Bring it on. Let's come to the Carnegie Council and have a debate about this and see who's right.'"

I think I agree with him. I don't think you should violate a core principle or a core belief of yours simply because popular opinion or universal systemic belief of the nation you're in, the town you're in, or anything else, says, "Oh, here we believe this.” If you believe something different, I think you stick to your guns. No pun intended.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. We're at the end of the hour, so I am going to have to conclude this, but one of the great things about Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is that this is what we do. We do this all the time in an iterated fashion, so I hope we will be able to engage you more in the future and continue this discussion.

Thank you so much for showing us the applied nature of ethics and how ethics can be something positive in our lives, something we can do, that we can do it with humanity and humor, and that there is something deeply life-affirming about what we are doing right here and right now.

Michael, thank you for the book, thank you for the coming, thank you for all you do. We are adjourned.

MICHAEL SCHUR: My pleasure.

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