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Michael Schur On Ethics And Morality In A Crisis

Michael Schur, creator of the “Good Place,” writer and producer for “The Office,” and co-creator of “Parks and Recreation.”  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Michael Schur, creator of the “Good Place,” writer and producer for “The Office,” and co-creator of “Parks and Recreation.” (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“The Good Place” creator Michael Schur joins us to talk about morals and being good during a global pandemic.


Michael Schur, creator of NBC’s “ The Good Place,” a comedy about the afterlife and redemption. Co-creator of “Parks and Recreation.” Producer and writer for “The Office.” Author of “How To Be Good,” out in 2021. ( @KenTremendous)

T.M. Scanlon, professor emeritus of natural religion, moral philosophy and civil policy at Harvard University. Author of “ What We Owe to Each Other.”

Interview Highlights

On what it means to be a good person in the midst of a pandemic

Michael Schur: “I feel like the simplest answer is to say, ‘Well, there are some things, there is a sort of minimum requirement of all of us right now that applies to literally everyone.’ It applies to … any socioeconomic status, anywhere on earth you live, anything. There’s a sort of minimum that we all have a responsibility to accomplish, to the best of our ability. Not that it’s the same amount of easy for everyone, but we all have to do some minimum things. Things like try to stay inside as much as we can. Try to stay away from other people. Try to cover our mouths if we walk outside. Act responsibly with respect to the spread of the virus.”

How do you think “The Good Place” characters Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason would have responded to the coronavirus in their Earth lives?

Eleanor: “Eleanor, Kristen Bell’s character, was extremely selfish. And she would have been … until very recently, out on the beach at spring break, just being like, ‘I’m young, I’m healthy, it doesn’t matter to me. If I get sick, I get sick. Who cares?’ Like she would not have understood or really cared about the idea that she could be asymptomatic and could be spreading [the virus]. … She would have been like, ‘My life matters more than other people’s. I get to do what I want to do.’ And she would have been out sunning herself at the beach, rubbing suntan oil on her arms and not caring. Because her problem was selfishness.”

Chidi: “Chidi’s problem was [hyper-morality]. And he spent most of his life sort of paralyzed and indecisive because … he was so carefully thinking through the results of all of the actions that he was about to take that he never actually did anything. He basically just cowered in fear. And so that’s what he would be doing, even more. In fact, times 1,000 right now. I mean, I think, you know, people who aren’t necessarily prone to that behavior have these very basic questions right now, which is like, ‘Well, I need toothpaste. Is it worth risking getting sick or spreading this disease to go to the pharmacy and get toothpaste? What are the ramifications of this for me, for my family, for other people, for my teeth?’ Chidi would be balled up in a corner unable to move or think or do anything.”

Tahani: “Tahani’s main problem was that she sought glory through good deeds. In other words, she liked to throw galas and fundraisers and brag about how much money she had raised for charity. But really, she didn’t care about any of that. She only cared about the hobnobbing, and the celebrity and that sort of thing. So she would probably be doing the same thing, right? She would be doing what appears to be an enormous amount of good. Although I don’t know how you throw a gala fundraiser right now, virtually. But that’s what she would be trying to do. She would be trying to sort of win the contest of being the best person by, you know, raising money and doing stuff. On paper, she would be doing the best. Because people would say, ‘Wow, she did this and she did that. And look at all these things she’s doing.’ But her motivations for doing that were sort of corrupt and bad.”

Jason: “Then there’s Jason, who is just an idiot. And Jason, I don’t know if you saw one of the craziest photos to me of all of the photos we’ve all been looking at, it was that county line in Florida. … Where one county had shut down its beaches, and the other county had not. And so as a result, the beach was entirely empty. And there was just like suddenly just a wall of people extending further out, down the beach, because that county’s beaches were open. Whatever county that is, that’s where Jason would be. … So he and Eleanor probably wouldn’t have been dissimilar in terms of the way they approached this, but for different reasons. Eleanor was selfish, and Jason was just sort of impulsive and didn’t really think anything through.”

What do we owe each other?

Michael Schur: “I said before that there’s a certain sort of minimum that is required of everyone, to the best of our abilities. The basics, right. Staying inside, staying away from people, trying to kind of stop the spread of the disease. But then beyond that, there’s an enormous sliding scale, I think. If you have the ability to, for example, pay your dog walker, if you have the financial means to continue to pay your dog walker who can’t walk your dog anymore, or someone who helps you clean your house, or anybody who works for you in any capacity. If you have that ability, I think you need to do that. And then, you know, you keep sliding up the scale. If you have the ability to keep people on the payroll at your business who are working for you, even if it means you lose money, I think you have to do that, too. And it just keeps going up and up and up.

“I think, in other words, we have to hold people who are billionaires to a much higher standard of what is expected of you and what are your responsibilities. And I think some of the saddest stories and pictures that have come out are stories of people who essentially have all the money in the world — and all the freedom and ability in the world, and for whom this has disrupted them the least, really, except for just, you know, line items and a spreadsheet in terms of how much profit or loss they’re making over the next couple of months — who are not kind of stepping up and doing that stuff.

“Now, some of them are, you know, Jack Dorsey, who owns Twitter, who’s not a guy I particularly had any admiration for until pretty recently, because I have a lot of problems with the way Twitter is run, just donated, you know, 28% of his net worth to helping stop the virus. … He put $1 billion into a fund. And he started putting his money where his mouth is. And I don’t understand, frankly, why anyone who has that ability isn’t doing that. I mean, some people are. Bill Gates is. And, you know, there are people who are doing it. But I mean, free market economics is great sometimes. But if there’s no market, the market’s gone. Then it’s sort of incumbent upon the people who own and operate it to help get it back on track. And that’s been the saddest thing, I think, is seeing the lack of sort of stepping up of the people who have the greatest ability to step up.”

On the ‘trolley problem’ of the coronavirus pandemic

“The joy and the frustrating, maddening thing about the ‘trolley problem’ is that it presents you with two terrible options. The whole point is you’re on a trolley. The brakes fail, you’re about to smush five people. There’s a lever you can pull and you can switch onto another track. But if you do, you’re going to smush one person who’s standing there. And so there’s no good outcome. There’s no Superman scenario where you pick up the trolley and fly it off the track to safety and everybody claps.

“So it’s a weirdly apt metaphor for the situation we’re in now. Because at least in my experience, the simplest actions end up sort of resulting in — or potentially resulting in — two kind of crummy outcomes. And so, you know, what’s interesting about the trolley problem isn’t the problem itself. It’s what happens to the human brain as it thinks through what the right answer is.

“Because after you ask that first basic question, you start asking other ones, ‘What if you knew one of the people standing on the track? What if you weren’t a passenger on the train, but you were the driver and ostensibly had taken some kind of course in what to do if the brakes fail, or whatever?’ And the questions get more and more complicated. The results are always the same. Either five innocent people die, or one innocent person dies. But your answers keep changing, which is really interesting.

“So I think that the end result of all of the actions we take is sort of unknowable right now, except in very specific circumstances. Except when you say, ‘OK, well, if I stay inside as much as I can, and I stay away from other people as much as I can — to the best of my ability, whatever that ability is — that’s the best I can do.’ That’s the only thing that we know for sure really helps.”

From The Reading List

The Washington Post: “ Michael Schur knows moral philosophy can be a drag. With ‘The Good Place,’ he made it fun.” — “Several years ago, Michael Schur went to a Starbucks and pondered the human condition. He had purchased a cheap coffee and waited until the barista turned toward him to toss his change into the tip jar, realizing immediately how silly it was that he wanted recognition for such a small act. Stuck in traffic later on, he mulled over his ‘corrupt and bad’ motivations — only to have his thoughts interrupted by another driver pulling into the breakdown lane to speed past everyone else.”

Vulture: “ Mike Schur’s Upcoming Book Will (Hopefully) Help You Become a Better Person” — “It’s a hellish and confusing time to be a human, but thankfully The Good Place creator Mike Schur is writing a book filled with tips on how to get through it while being a (hopefully) decent person.”

The Wrap: “ Mike Schur Calls Back to ‘Good Place’ Trolley Problem to Explain How Not to Solve a Pandemic” — “Among the many lessons ‘The Good Place’ tried to teach us, along with how to be ‘good’ and what we owe to each other, was how to make a difficult decision when there is really no good choice. The now-ended NBC comedy did this through its ‘The Trolley Problem’ episode, which forced Chidi (William Jackson Harper) to actually live out the ‘trolley problem’ thought experiment that forces you to choose between killing five people or just one person.”

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