“You’re a good person,” announces the first sentence of Todd May’s A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us. “The fact that you even picked up this book is proof.” May, a professor of philosophy at Clemson University, intends to provide a guide to living a “morally decent” life—not a life of moral excellence, or “sainthood,” which he judges most people incapable of, but a life lived by the sort of person who might be called a standup guy. He considers the kind of everyday moral dilemmas that tend to trouble people—whether to give money to the homeless, whether to eat meat—and offers his own solutions.
May’s book takes its place alongside the innumerable advice columns and self-help books that provide their own forms of reassurance, as well as Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, to which May pays a winking homage with his own “Nine Rules for Moral Decency That Should Be Followed Strictly and Without Exception.”
Of the two books, Peterson’s is the much stranger exercise. Though his own prescription is discipline and control—which he demonstrates through, among other things, holding down a struggling child until it falls asleep—he backs up his system with insights gleaned from his practice as a clinical psychologist as well as myth and even his own dreams. His body of work, which includes two books and a large YouTube presence, is straightforwardly therapeutic, fitting the struggles of everyday life into a larger mythos of order and chaos. Life, as he says over and over, is essentially suffering. The world is hierarchical, and most people inevitably end up at the bottom. The best we can do is stand up straight, shoulder the burden of Being, and struggle onward.
Being a “good person” is not a uniquely contemporary fixation, but there is a particular need for moral reassurance these days that I tend to associate with the election of Donald Trump and the anxieties of people (like me) who read The New Yorker. (Sample offering from this year: a review titled “Two Début Novels Explore How to Be Good,” on novels which explore “a sustainable form of moral idealism.”) The world is not exactly worse than it was, but we live with a pressing sense of moral crisis that makes us feel personally responsible for saving the world yet convinced that we are doomed to failure.
Prestige dramas depict struggling bad boys, while multiple TV comedies—The Good Place, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bojack Horseman—address head-on what it might mean to become a “good person.” (A critic at the New York Review of Books has dubbed this second type “ethical television.”) A character in The Good Place, having been consigned to hell, complains that as a “medium” sort of a person, neither good nor bad, she deserves a medium sort of afterlife.
It is natural to seek reassurance that we are good people, but from whom we seek reassurance is an interesting question. Should you give money to a homeless person? You’re going to look for the answer not from a homeless person but from other people in your situation: comfortably off. Social media overflows with people who feel bad because they don’t feel bad enough about this or that political crisis. The only action available seems to be attention. So they pay it, consuming images and stories of horrors they often can do nothing directly about. Collectively, the images present a world that is so bad and in which action is so impossible that all you can do, if you’re a winner, is gloomily acknowledge that you shouldn’t be. And by whose standards are you seeking to be good? The answer is the same: those of your peers. Being a good person is being thought well of.
So what we often want to be told is not just that we are good people but that we are normal. Such validation tells us that to be otherwise would be somehow against nature. Evolutionary psychology gives you a just-so story about why you are “wired” to respond to others the way you do. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which examines the challenges of personal change through mental illness and addiction, the title character sings a song called “(Tell Me I’m OK) Patrick,” in which she laments to the man delivering her mail, “It just feels like there’s something fundamental I’m missing out on.… It just feels like everyone is in this cabal of normal people, and they’re all laughing at me.”
Some commentators find this situation silly and mock those who go on about trying to be a good person. Yet the seekers are responding to real moral problems, and the feelings of being lost and failing describe something that is not simply an emotional state. Very few people do live up to their own standards, let alone those of others.
It’s easy to see how May and Peterson, in their own ways, step into this cultural moment and offer comfort. Peterson imbues your life with heroism and a sense that whatever you have, you’ve snatched it from chaos itself. Meaning is imposed and created by order, “a triumphant bringing forth from the void of pattern after pattern upon beautiful pattern.” As one Peterson fan wrote in the New York Times, “He makes tasks like cleaning one’s room or finding a career sound like dragon-slaying voyages.”
May, meanwhile, counsels that there is something you can do, but to be the kind of person who could really do something—give away all of your income, for example—you’d probably have to be a different sort of person entirely. The kind of altruists who get by only on what they need to survive are few and far between. So don’t compare yourselves to them. If we are incapable of real heroism, but are still given plenty of opportunities for self-reproach, the alternatives are self-dramatization or acceptance.
Each of these options is enervating in its own way: May’s because it restricts possibility, and Peterson’s because it reduces most systems of ethics or mythology to therapeutic guides. Though Peterson is fond, for instance, of discussing various religious stories, he uses religion as a way of relating to oneself. But religion is not necessarily reducible in that way. The sacrifice of Isaac, the sufferings of Job, and Christ’s commandment to hate your own parents and love your enemies are all examples of how religion upsets social and moral systems as much as it enforces them. In the end, Peterson can’t offer anything more sophisticated than a bedtime story: You can tell yourself that cleaning your room is like killing a dragon, but at the end of the day, all you have done is organize your socks.
There are any number of ghosts haunting this conversation, but the greatest may be Simone Weil, the French philosopher whose intense ascetism seems like a constant rebuke to the idea that no one could live up to high principles. When she taught in French schools, for instance, she donated a portion of her salary to charity so that she would never earn more than the lowest-paid teachers. Weil was also a good friend to her friends and a fierce intellectual, and managed to be both while suffering chronic illness—hardly someone who did not have a full life.
Weil also died young, from self-starvation, her last years occupied with a struggle with Catholicism that her own anti-Semitism never quite allowed her to bring to completion. (Though Weil was herself Jewish, she did not identify as Jewish in any significant sense, and her sense of solidarity with the oppressed did not extend to other Jews.) She represents one way of thinking about and then living a moral life, but also seems to have undermined her own ethical commitments with her early death. If this is what goodness means, one is tempted to side with May—most people are never going to make it. But if that is so, the good of being good is also somewhat doubtful.
That neither May nor Peterson engages with Weil is surprising; less surprising is their aloofness from another Simone. Simone de Beauvoir is mostly known for her feminist philosophy, something Peterson has little time for and May refers to only in order to establish his credentials as a feminist. Nor are Weil and Beauvoir natural allies; they met once and, at least as Beauvoir tells it in her memoirs, didn’t get along.
But Beauvoir also wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity, a book intended to prove to existentialism’s critics that it is not the case that existentialism is a philosophy without moral content. Instead, she roots existentialist ethics in the recognition of freedom and contingency. “We assert,” she writes, “that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place.… Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.” An ethics of ambiguity recognizes both that failure is inevitable and that ethical decisions happen within life itself, not above it. Beauvoir ends her book with these lines: “Any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive…. If it came to be that each man did what he must, existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death.”
Perhaps Weil and Beauvoir had little use for each other in life, but their works perform complementary functions. One is to help us see that the first step toward “being a good person” is to let go of the idea of the “good person” as our goal and to focus on goodness rather than how other people think about us. People are social—men among men, as Beauvoir might put it—and many of our ethical commitments emerge from our social context. To act without regard for people around us is its own kind of ethical misstep. Existentialism acknowledges both our social needs and obligations and the way in which we are ultimately the ones responsible for what we do. What our neighbors can’t provide us is satisfying moral reassurance or a definitive labeling of our intentions or our goals as good, bad, or decent. Nor can they, in a lasting sense, expiate our failures.
Beauvoir was an atheist, and Weil was not, which is one point of friction between them intellectually. Still, reading Beauvoir’s work alongside Weil’s can make it clear that freedom exists not only in what we do but in what we do not do. Rising to the challenge of our freedom does not mean living a life of hedonism or selfishness. It might mean living more like Weil—taking what you need, and giving away the surplus—with the caveat that one takes what one actually needs. With the acceptance of our moral freedom comes a widening of our moral imagination—that we do not have to relegate heroism to others or tell ourselves comforting stories to get through our lives. If we live in a time of moral crisis, in which people feel lost and anxious, Beauvoir and Weil might be the guides we need: philosophical moralists who can speak to precisely our situation without resorting to nostrums, and who understand the ways in which we are always, simultaneously, together and alone.