11/10/21, 1:37 PM Mike Schur and Todd May: What We Believe About Freedom – The New York Times
THE BIG IDEAS: WHAT DO WE BELIEVE?
Mike Schur and Todd May: What We Believe About Freedom
We have a moral obligation to others. Refusing to recognize that endangers all of us.
By Mike Schur and Todd May
Mr. Schur is a television producer. Mr. May is a philosopher.
May 24, 2021
This personal reflection is part of a series called The Big Ideas, in which writers respond to a single question: What do we
believe? You can read more essays by visiting The Big Ideas series page.
Freedom, perhaps the most sacrosanct concept in American life, is under attack. Weâ€™ve heard this drumbeat for some
time, but itâ€™s been especially loud this past year, when requests for tiny sacrifices of freedom (like wearing masks) were
repeatedly met with anger, scorn or calls for some kind of nebulous revolution.
For Americans, the concept of freedom is and has always been a third rail; it cannot be touched without sparks flying.
Recently, this freedom has too often been interpreted as the limitless ability to believe what one likes, regardless of
where the facts lie. This in itself might not pose much of a problem except for the fact that our beliefs donâ€™t merely lie
dormant inside the belief cabinet in our minds; they give rise to action. What we believe and how we act are
Philosophy requires us to interrogate our own beliefs in addition to the beliefs of others. But before we begin that
interrogation, we need to locate an â€œur-belief,â€ a principle that underlies or informs all the beliefs that come after. This is
ours: As members of a society, we have obligations to others.
Why do we need to believe in obligations to others in order to adequately approach many of our other beliefs? Because
to believe adequately, we must first understand that our beliefs are inseparable from our responsibility for the safety
and happiness of those with whom we share our planet. Without that, we will lose the possibility of a common social
existence. We will fulfill Margaret Thatcherâ€™s infamous quip: â€œThere is no such thing as society.â€
Consider this: What we believe about the climate matters because we have an obligation to future generations. What we
believe about masking during a pandemic matters because weâ€™re obligated to protect the vulnerable. What we believe
about elections matters because we have an obligation to our fellow citizens. And what we believe about the beliefs of
those who disagree with us matters because weâ€™re obligated to respect them, just as theyâ€™re obligated to respect us. As
Gandhi said, nobody has access to all of the truth.
We hasten to add here that although many of our beliefs are bound to obligation, not all of them are. We can all believe
that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is best made with raspberry jam, or that Marvel movies are overrated (or
underrated) without any reflection on what this means for other people. Huge parts of our lives can be lived in
But other times the ripples of our choices will collide with the lives of others, and our freedom to do and believe what we
want needs to be tempered. When we act or commit to a belief, we often consciously or unconsciously run through a
checklist of reasons for why weâ€™re doing so, and to what end. If the first item on that checklist is always: â€œBecause I have
a right to do and believe whatever I want,â€ then Thatcher is right. There is no such thing as society. There is only Steve,
Jamel, Selena and 332 million other siloed ego-states; a confederacy of individuals for whom freedom, safety and the
ability to flourish are zero-sum competitions.
But if instead the first item on that checklist is: â€œBecause I care about the lives of those around me and understand that
they have the same right to flourish as I do,â€ then we acknowledge that we are not alone on Earth, and that our freedom
isnâ€™t any more important than anyone elseâ€™s. If we do that, society holds.
11/10/21, 1:37 PM Mike Schur and Todd May: What We Believe About Freedom – The New York Times
It will be pointed out â€” and rightfully so â€” that â€œobligations to othersâ€ is a nebulous concept. How much should we
consider those around us before we decide how to act and what to believe? To what extent should we limit our own
freedom in consideration of those around us? Is there a calculation we can do? A scale we can use? An app we can
In short, there isnâ€™t. But there are benchmarks that can serve as guides to belief. For instance, we can trust scientists
about scientific matters and doctors about medical matters instead of relying only on ourselves and other nonexperts.
But even these benchmarks have their limits (which we can capture with a single word: economists).
There are other areas in which the benchmarks are unclear. What, for instance, should we believe about the proper
constraints on free speech? Here we must feel our way, using Gandhiâ€™s dictum and recognizing the various others who
are affected by our speech. And in feeling our way, we recognize that we often fail. Perhaps this is why believing in
absolute freedom is so tempting â€” if we follow that path, we are always â€œright,â€ which is easy.
One of the authors, in designing the TV show â€œThe Good Place,â€ came to the conclusion that a key ethical concept is that
of trying. (Which author this was â€” the professional TV show runner or the other guy â€” we will leave as an exercise for
the reader.) We try to believe rightly about choices and actions that affect other people. Then, when we fail, we try to do
better. Itâ€™s not as easy a path, but itâ€™s certainly a more compassionate one, and importantly a more human one.
This is what we think of as our ur-belief: Before we decide what to believe, we have to believe that other people matter.
If we act with this obligation in mind and we fail to get it right, then we have to reconsider, learn more, aim to improve
and try again. Our inevitable failures will mean more, and be more productive, if they are grounded in what we might
simply call â€œconsideration for other peopleâ€ â€” the notion that there are people around us who are affected, directly and
indirectly, by so much of what we believe and say and do.
Conversely, if we act only out of a sense of unlimited personal freedom, our failures will mean nothing. The refusal to
recognize that we have obligations to others and that our beliefs and our behavior should respond to that recognition, is
one we allow ourselves at our peril.
Mike Schur is the former showrunner for the NBC series â€œThe Good Place.â€ His book, â€œHow to Be Perfect,â€ will be published next year. Todd May is
serving as philosophical adviser for the book.
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