A decent proposal: Philosopher talks goodness at all-night idea festival

A decent proposal: Philosopher talks goodness at all-night idea festival
Gregg Richards

Call him the voice of reason.

How can you be a good person when it feels like you’re in the Bad Place? The philosophy consultant behind the NBC afterlife comedy “The Good Place” will reveal the answer at an all-night celebration of big ideas at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch on Feb. 2. His lecture “Decency in an Indecent Place” can also apply to our most fraught political debates, said the author and academic.

“How do we look across at people that we don’t necessarily agree with? If we bring decency to the table, that actually helps make things a little less polarizing,” said Dr. Todd May, who also teaches philosophy at Clemson University in South Carolina.

May will deliver his 30-minute talk at 11 pm, during the library’s free, third-annual “Night of Philosophy and Ideas,” a 12-hour philosophy fest, co-organized with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, that will feature dozens of discussions, lectures, and performances between 7 pm on Feb. 2 and 7 am the following morning.

The scribe’s lecture will cover ideas that he examines in more depth in his upcoming — and 15th — book, “A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us,” which argues that empathy and awareness can create more compassionate and fulfilling relationships, he said.

“The fundamental recognition behind decency is that other people have lives to live — they want their lives to be meaningful, they’re probably afraid of death, they have periods of loneliness — and that that recognition can motivate us towards a sense of treating other people as if they actually are people,” he said.

May said the main character in “The Good Place” — a woman working to become a better person to justify her cushy spot in the afterlife — illustrates the idea that connecting with others can help make us better people.

“One of the lessons [of the show] is opening ourselves to the humanity of others can have this cyclical effect, so that as we see that humanity, that allows us to become a little bit better than we were,” he said.

In addition to May’s lecture, the night will also feature a keynote address on “defeating tribalism” by the New York Times Magazine’s “Ethicist” columnist, Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, at 7 pm; a puppet show featuring the figures of Noam Chomsky and Karl Marx, at 10 pm and 2 am; free coffee from Nespresso, and a French poetry reading delivered directly into the ears of audience members, among many other events.

“A Night of Philosophy and Ideas” at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch [10 Grand Army Plaza at Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights, (718) 230–2100, www.bklynlibrary.org]. Feb. 2 at 7 pm to Feb. 3 at 7 am. Free.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
The thinking place: Dr. Todd May will deliver a talk on “decency in an indecent place” at the Brooklyn Public Library’s third annual “Night of Philosophy and Ideas” on Feb. 2.
Todd May