“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.