Todd May has worked as a professor of moral philosophy for over thirty years. In that time, he’s taught at Clemson, raised three kids, taught Rawlsian philosophy to incarcerated South Carolinians, written a handful of books, and, most recently, become an unofficial philosophical advisor of sorts to Mike Schur, sitcom producer extraordinaire and brilliant brains behind “The Good Place.” Schur read May’s book on death, which is out now and called “Death: The Art of Living.” They chatted it out over Skype a few times. And now, May is working on another book — one that feels like a nod to the show itself: about how to be decent in a world where moral philosophers have set the bar so high that being a good person feels impossible. Fatherly caught up with May to talk all things justice, goodness, death, and raising kids. You know, the normal stuff.
So you’ve been teaching moral philosophy for thirty years, at universities, in prisons, and to a staff of writers on The Good Place. What have you learned?
I went into moral philosophy because I was fascinated by it, and because there were questions I wanted to think about and answer myself. Questions about how to live. Questions about what a just society would look like. How I could contribute to a just society. Things like that. It seems to me that those questions are still relevant.
Have you figured out any answers to those questions?
I’ve come up with some answers for myself, but in philosophy, your answers are always tentative, because other things could come along and change your mind. But in that sense, it’s like science. If science is falsifiable, any result you get is something that can be overwritten by further research. In philosophy, too, any conclusions you come to can be overwritten by further research.
I should add that it’s not that philosophy is the same thing as science. In science, there is an agreed upon method to come up with answers. Philosophy is more wide open. Philosophical method tends to be looser and have reasons of different kinds. Because of that, some people think that philosophy is all opinion. It’s not. It’s reason. But the reasons aren’t tied to the strict methods that science has.
So, if I am to hear you correctly, there is no sense of “right” or “wrong” because at any moment, I could learn new information and figure out that murder is good.
People have moral intuitions. What moral philosophy does is it gives us a chance to reflect on that. To turn those intuitions over. To subject them to criticism. We don’t necessarily take the initial intuitions about right and wrong for granted. Why should we? Those are some of our most important beliefs. They should be subject to reflection and critical thought. That’s exactly what philosophy seeks to do.
If you have a belief about something, and somebody gives you good reasons to believe something else, you change your beliefs. It’s not that we don’t believe anything. It’s that we should recognize that the beliefs we have are open to further challenge. I think that’s very different from saying “If my beliefs are potentially fallible, then how do I believe anything?”
As I understand it, you’re a parent to three kids. When you were raising them, were you having these types of discussions with them? Did you raise them with moral philosophy?
Certainly, like all parents, we raised our kids in accordance with some of our values. We also encouraged them to think about their values, and not simply to take them for granted. My youngest, who just graduated college, majored in philosophy. When he was a senior in high school, we would read some philosophy and once a week we would go have lunch and talk about that philosophy. So, I will say, I didn’t raise them through theory. But we certainly raised them with a set of values, and the philosophically relevant part is that we raised them to think about their values and not to take things that they were told for granted.
You raised skeptics.
In many ways, young people are natural philosophers. They’re asking ‘why.’ They want to know how things hang together. If you introduce them to philosophy, it’s simply a matter of pressing that inquisitiveness further. It isn’t like you have to stand up and lecture them, right? But teaching them and discussing with them what different people believe, and reflecting on their emerging values with them, all of that seems to me to be a philosophical project, one natural to do with kids. In that sense, when my own kids were growing up, they were asking the questions that I ask on a more sophisticated level.
I try to engage them with that. They expand their world, evolve, and think from other angles from the ones that they might naturally think of. I think it’s actually about expanding the curiosity and expanding their natural curiosity.
Before you began your tenure as a non-official adviser for The Good Place, you worked on a book called “Death: The Art of Living.” Can you tell me about that?
I was trying to press this idea: death is bad, because we live forward in our lives. We project ourselves into the future. Death is an evil for us. But immortality would also be bad.
Because if we were immortal, our lives would lose their shape. We wouldn’t have the same urgency and commitment to life that we do since we’re mortal creatures. Our mortality doesn’t give us a theory of how we should live. It gives us an urgency to think about what we want the shape of our lives to be. That urgency may lead different people in different directions, but it will give them a sense of commitment to lives that, after all, are temporary. A commitment they wouldn’t have if they had, literally, all the time in the world.
When I started working with Mike Schur, one of the phrases of the book that he found striking was that, “Our mortality gives us a sort of urgency in our living. Our morality helps us navigate all that.”
So death isn’t a bad thing to you?
It doesn’t simply serve in a negative role. It can also serve in a positive role.
I was thinking about the show this morning, and the fact that there is a critically acclaimed and really wildly popular show that has a moral vector. A show about being “good.” Does that surprise you? That it’s that popular?
The show raises a serious question, and it points us in a direction, which is to think about what it is to be good, without bludgeoning us with it. And of course, part of the deal is that the show is so funny, that I think it makes everything easier to think about, partly because you’re thinking and laughing at the same time.
[Spoiler alert.] After the mid-January break, that whole revelation that no one has gotten into the good place in 500 years — I thought about that for a day or two. What it might mean that there is no redeemable goodness. If there is anything beyond death. That really made me think.
One question could be: “Is there no goodness which is redeeming?” Another question could be: “Are we thinking adequately about what a good life consists of?” They have a certain way of totaling it up, the accountants in The Good Place. Is it simply that we’re not living the way we should, or is it that the way we account or goodness to one another that needs rethinking?
So, as an expert, what does a good life make to you?
It’s interesting that you ask this. I have a book coming out in two months, called, “A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest Of Us.” The idea is that many standard traditional moral philosophers set the bar so high that it is despairing to try to achieve it.
There are other people who have lives that are important to them, as well as I have a life that’s important to me. That manifests itself in different ways, and can appear in different ways. In one of the chapters of the book, I talk about how when we get angry at people, we tend not to look at them. We don’t look at their face. To look at someone’s face is to recognize that there’s another person there. A person who has a life. What I think decency often consists of is that recognition: what it means to know that people around you also have their own lives that they are trying to live, and acting out of that recognition.