The Good Place and Philosophy
The Good Place, the Bad Place, and Other People
George A. Dunn
In 2016, NBC premiered The Good Place, surely one of the most unique half-hour sitcoms of all time. It’s unique not only due to its principle protagonists all being dead (except for one who’s an anthropomorphized vessel of knowledge and another who’s an Eternal Being) and all of the present tense, non-flashback action taking place in the afterlife. Nor is it unique only because it continually takes its own dramatic premises, shreds them to pieces, and then pastes the ribbons back together in wholly unexpected ways. These things certainly set The Good Place apart, but perhaps most unique is its being the first sitcom in human history to feature regular shout-outs to such philosophical luminaries as Socrates, Aristotle, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard—about whom one of the characters even composes a rap: “My name is Kierkegaard and my writing is impeccable / Check out my teleological suspension of the ethical”—and, for some curious reason, T. M. Scanlon, whose book What We Owe to Each Other has probably seen a big sales boost owing to its prominence in several episodes.
The Good Place has also featured episodes based on such philosophical chestnuts as the trolley problem and the doctrine of double effect, in addition to building a major plot twist around an idea obviously inspired by No Exit, Jean Paul Sartre’s famous play about an ingeniously cruel form of torture in the afterlife. It comes as no surprise that the show employs not just one but two professional philosophers as regular consultants (UCLA’s Pamela Hieronymi and Clemson University’s Todd May). For someone like me, always on the lookout for new ways to enlist pop culture on behalf of philosophical pedagogy, discovering The Good Place was stumbling into a gold mine. The show is like a fast-paced and funny Introduction to Philosophy class, enlivened by the charming presence of Kristen Bell and the occasional fart joke.
Everything is Fine—Or Not!
The basic premise of The Good Place is the familiar idea of a retributivist cosmos, in which good people enjoy their postmortem rewards in The Good Place, while bad people get paid back everything they dished out and then some in The Bad Place. But, since every religion was only about 5% right in its guesses about the afterlife (as we’re told in the first episode), the cosmos of The Good Place differs from most canonical views of the final reckoning in several important respects. First, there’s no Supreme Being—or, if there is, the Almighty has retired from any direct involvement in doling out deserts and delegated that task to a supernatural bureaucracy as full of infighting, inefficiency, and incompetence as any counterpart on earth. Moreover, the decision about each individual’s final destination has been fully automated, with every action on earth assigned an either positive or negative numerical value according to a rigid scheme. As expected, you gain points for acts of kindness and lose them for crimes like murder and arson, but also for such transgressions as using “Facebook” as a verb, reheating fish in an office microwave, and paying money to hear music performed by California funk-rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The system is unforgiving, so that failure to meet a certain very high point threshold lands you in The Bad Place, where at least you’ll have the consolation of sharing the neighborhood with all of the greatest philosophers in history, along with Mozart, Elvis, and basically every artist ever. It’s all played for laughs, but the system’s patent silliness raises serious doubts as to whether we could ever score goodness and badness precisely enough to compare the moral worth of different individuals with any kind of reliability. This automated system of cosmic retribution bears more than a passing resemblance to the current Chinese government’s plan to assign a “social credit score” to every citizen, based not only on whether you pay your bills but also on more dubious indicators of character, such as how many hours you spend playing video games and whether you share “positive” or “negative” content online. Those with low tallies could be refused service in restaurants or denied the right to buy airline tickets. If that sounds ominous, just imagine your eternal destiny being at the mercy of such a system!
As with any allegedly foolproof algorithms, we shouldn’t be too surprised when it makes the occasional mistake. That appears to be what happened to Eleanor Shellstrop, a shallow and self-centered telemarketer, the top salesperson at a company that sells fake medicine to gullible old people, who opens her eyes one day to find herself seated in the waiting room of The Good Place, facing a huge sign with the reassuring greeting: “Everything is Fine.” It seems like the opposite of a Kafkaesque nightmare—instead of an innocent everyman persecuted by an implacable bureaucracy, an apparent glitch in the system has rewarded her with eternity in The Good Place after a lifetime of selfishness. She quickly realizes that she’s landed here by mistake, but she’s understandably reluctant to call attention to where she really belongs. When various freakish events start to occur in her “neighborhood”—The Good Place is organized into small designer communities—she concludes that she must be the wrench in the works disrupting the smooth machinery of heaven. And that’s where the fun begins.
Fearful that she’ll be found out and exiled to The Bad Place, she apprentices herself to Chidi Anagonye, a professor of moral philosophy and her alleged “soul mate,” hoping to learn from him how to become a good person and truly earn that spot in The Good Place the universe has bestowed on her by mistake. So begins Eleanor’s grueling regimen of tutorials on moral philosophy, with regular reading assignments from the great philosophers of the Western tradition. Like most college freshmen, she often finds these readings abstruse and boring, but she soldiers on in the belief, not generally shared by freshmen, that studying them will be morally edifying. But there’s one problem Eleanor and Chidi never consider—if, as the show informs us, all of the great philosophers are in The Bad Place, why should we think that studying their works would be anybody’s ticket to The Good Place?
How Not to Become Good
One of Chidi’s heroes is the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who was convinced that the contemplation of the abstract idea of moral duty in all its exacting purity could be a powerful moral tonic, unmatched in its power to instill in us a desire to be good. As he put it:
For the pure representation of duty and the moral law in general, mixed with no alien addition from empirical stimuli, has, by way of reason alone (which thereby for the first time becomes aware that it can for itself be practical), an influence on the human heart so much more powerful than all other incentives that might be summoned from the empirical field, that reason, in the consciousness of its dignity, despises the latter, and can gradually become their master; in place of this, a mixed doctrine of morals, composed from incentives of feelings and inclinations and simultaneously from concepts of reason, must make the mind waver between motivations that cannot be brought under any principle, and can lead us only very contingently to the good, but often also to the evil (27-28).
Yet, most students do not report any such stirring of the heart from reading Kant, more often just a dull throbbing of the head. If Eleanor can even make it to the end of the sentence quoted above—and, yes, it is a single sentence—without slipping into a coma, she might very well conclude that Kant is in The Bad Place as punishment for having written it and many others like it. And it’s even debatable whether his lifelong study of Kant has had a salutary effect on the moral character Eleanor’s teacher, Chidi. Indeed, there’s reason to believe that it only reinforced his unhealthy tendencies to rigidity and indecisiveness.
The philosopher Aristotle (382-322 BCE), on the other hand, believed lectures on ethics are totally wasted on those who don’t already have some experience of being good under their belts, since “one judges well only the things he knows” (5). If the student has an entrenched habit of surrendering to whatever passion grips her at the moment, as Eleanor most definitely does, then merely acquiring theoretical knowledge will produce only a more erudite wanton, not someone with a virtuous character. Under the circumstances, Eleanor seems like a poor candidate for self-improvement through the study of moral philosophy. Yet, improve she does, becoming what everyone agrees is a much better version of herself.
So what’s the cause of her transformation? One possible answer is fear of retribution. Encouraging good behavior and inhibiting wrongdoing has always been regarded as one of the chief jobs of retributive justice here on the mortal plane, so maybe the cosmic reckoning in the afterlife has a similar objective. Indeed, once Eleanor learns that The Bad Place is not only real but will be her eternal abode if she doesn’t straighten up, she suddenly acquires a powerful motivation to learn how to be good. But if there’s one thing about which the great philosophers are in nearly unanimous agreement, it’s that retribution alone doesn’t have much of a salutary effect on moral character, whatever its utility for scaring more timid reprobates into toeing the line.
“Punishment is supposed to have the value of arousing the feeling of guilt in the guilty party,” observed Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), though it could hardly be more poorly suited to the task. Instead of pricking the conscience, it’s more predictable consequence is just the opposite: “On the whole, punishment makes men harder and colder, it concentrates, it sharpens the feeling of alienation; it strengthens the power to resist” (54). But the chief problem with punishment as an instrument of moral correction is that it teaches the wrong lesson, for “the mere sight of the judicial executive procedures inhibits the criminal himself from experiencing his act, his mode of conduct, as reprehensible as such: because he sees the same kind of action practiced in the service of justice and given approval, practiced with a good conscience.” Being condemned to an eternity of torment by flying piranhas and lava monsters, having hotdogs shoved in every hole, being forced to organize baby showers for people you don’t know, and eating egg salad from a hospital vending machine in Azerbaijan—all actual tortures in The Bad Place—sends the message that none of these abuses is “a depraved and condemned act as such, but only in certain respects and applications” (55). It’s hard to imagine how suffering such tortures or even just anticipating them could improve anyone.
Immanuel Kant, who’s probably gagging on rancid egg salad as we speak, points to another problem. For an action to have real moral merit, it’s not enough for it to be merely “in conformity with duty,” the sort of thing a good person would do but in fact done from an entirely self-seeking motive such as dodging eternal damnation. Instead, it must be “done from duty,” dutifully motivated, so to speak (13). In other words, for your actions to count as the deeds of a genuinely good person, you must do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do, from the motive of pure good will. The great score keeper in the sky evidently shares this view, as Eleanor learns when she tries to raise her total by performing good deeds around her neighborhood. To her consternation, holding the door open for people and apologizing for the myriad ways she’s complicated everyone’s afterlife barely nudges the point counter northward. Her frustration is the prelude to a Kantian epiphany: “There’s no way to increase my point total because everything I’m doing is out of self-preservation. … Even when I do nice things, I’m only doing them so I can get something out of it, the ability to stay here, which means that none of this had any real moral value” (“What’s My Motivation?” 1.11). In fact, the knowledge that she inhabits a retributive cosmos, where every act of kindness boosts her score and every misdeed subtracts from it, makes it next to impossible for her to act from the pure motive of good will, since in every interaction she’s inevitably calculating her own profit or loss, rather than allowing the needs of others to motivate her. Fear of retribution does not make people better. Its effect is more likely to be just the opposite.
The Good Place is Other People
And it’s not just fear of punishment that counts as an impure motive. Another character on the show considers herself the moral crème de la crème for having raised a jaw-dropping $6 billion dollars for charity over the course of her short lifetime. But it turns out that this otherwise worthwhile accomplishment is absolutely worthless morally-speaking, since it was motivated not by a genuine concern for the recipients of her charity but by her mimetic rivalry—her lifelong contest of one-upmanship—with her insufferably self-satisfied sister. The term “mimetic rivalry,” derived from mimesis, the Greek word for imitation, is closely associated with the French theorist René Girard (1923-2015). According to Girard, we acquire our desires secondhand by copying others, sometimes deliberately but often unconsciously. Whenever the objects of our intersecting desires are things we cannot or will not share, such as status, prestige, or dominance, the result is jealousy, envy, and resentment, incitements to conflict and even violence. Herein lies one of the greatest sources of human misery and wickedness. To the extent we allow these mimetic rivalries to poison our relationships with others, we each become the architect of our own Bad Place.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) brilliantly illustrated this idea in his play No Exit. Set in the afterlife, it’s about how three damned souls do the work of hell’s minions by torturing each other with their gratuitous scorn and malice. “There’s no need for red-hot pokers,” declares one of the characters: “Hell is other people!” (45). The Good Place points to a similar conclusion, while also suggesting that under the right circumstances the opposite might be true. In addition to the contagion of animosity and spite, there can be positive forms of mimesis, in which one person’s act of kindness calls forth kindness from others. And perhaps that’s where we should look for an explanation of what launches Eleanor’s postmortem transformation from a callous narcissist to a conscientious and caring person, albeit one who retains a fair share of adorably rough edges.
It’s neither fear of retribution nor the study of moral philosophy that transforms Eleanor, though it was fear that prompted her to ask Chidi to teach her moral philosophy. But what made the difference wasn’t really the content of his lessons—from which she mostly just acquired a casuistic talent for tailoring her moral principles to the exigencies of the moment—but the example set by her teacher, his generous donation of time that could have been spent doing more afterlife-y things, like rowing a boat on a lake while drinking wine and reading French poetry. He provides Eleanor with a model of kindness and decency that she had apparently never before experienced up close. That he puts himself at grave risk in helping her—aiding and abetting a Bad Place truant is probably sufficient to get him banished from The Good Place—even makes him kind of a moral hero, as does his willingness to endure the stomach-churning agony of navigating the steady torrent of moral dilemmas that helping Eleanor brings his way. None of this is lost on Eleanor.
Through flashbacks, we learn that she has always envisioned the world as a place where everyone is on her own, where people encounter each other as isolated individuals who owe each other nothing (and keep it that way if they’re smart), and where sacrificing for others is the height of folly. Her role models in this regard were her self-centered, alcoholic parents, whom she as a teenager had urged to sign emancipation papers, promising that once they affixed their signatures, “I won’t owe you anything; you won’t owe me anything” (“Mindy Sinclair,” 1.12). Chidi, on the other hand, supplies her with the immensely more attractive model of someone for whom the phrase “what we owe to each other” points to the deepest roots of our humanity and the richest source of meaning for our lives. And that explains the prominence The Good Place gives to T. M. Scanlon’s book What We Owe to Each Other—its importance for Eleanor rests not with Scanlon’s particular moral theory (contractualism), but in the very idea that there’s a “we” and an “owing” that binds us together. Compared to that insight—which Eleanor encounters not just as an abstract proposition but embodied in the concrete practice of another human being—the details of this or that moral theory are secondary. What, then, enables Eleanor to become good? She herself explains: “I’m a different person now because of the person who helped me and I want to be like him. I want to be like all of the people who are here” (“… Someone Like Me as a Member,” 1.9).
Though The Good Place is about retribution in the afterlife, at the end of the day it’s really a powerful argument against the idea that extrinsic punishments and rewards are decisive or even particularly helpful in character formation. By the conclusion of the second season, Eleanor and the friends she’s made in the afterlife have gone through a succession of ordeals that none of them could have predicted at the outset of the series. All of them have been changed, not from fear of threatened punishments that might befall them individually but because they have learned to care for each other and look after each other’s welfare. It would be unforgivably spoilery of me to say anything more about Eleanor’s madcap ride through the afterlife, but it’s not giving away too much to mention a scene that occurs in the season’s final episode. We witness Eleanor on earth, watching what she describes as “a long nerdy video” on YouTube. It features someone unknown to her at the time, an earnest young philosophy professor named Chidi Anagonye delivering a less than riveting three-hour lecture on “What We Owe to Each Other.” Despite its length and tedium, Eleanor for some reason can’t stop watching it.
“So why do it, then?” Chidi asks from behind his podium. “Why choose to be good everyday if there is no guaranteed reward we can count on, now or in the afterlife. I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone” (“Somewhere Else,” 2.13). Riffing on a line from Shakespeare, we might say: There is neither Good Place nor Bad Place, but our bonds with Other People make it so.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Kitchener: Batoche Books, 1999.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
George A. Dunn has taught philosophy in both the United States and China and is the editor or co-editor of six books on philosophy and pop culture, including The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan (Lexington Books, 2017) and Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), both co-edited with Jason T. Eberl. He credits The Good Place with helping him to break his habit of using “Facebook” as a verb.
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