I grew up going to a Unitarian Universalist church in Rhode Island. I now go to one (on and off) in New York City; it was actually in that church that I decided to start this YouTube channel. Like many UUs, I do not believe in God or an afterlife. It is a religion without a creed – just seven core principles.
The Good Place feels pretty UU to me. In it, no earthly religion was “right” – and all of them were wrong. There is no “God” deity watching over benevolently or maliciously. To the extent that any eternal beings are watching, it is with detached amusement. Some of them enjoy humanity’s TV shows, but humans? Meh.
In The Good Place, a person is judged by math, clinically objective arbiter that people feel it to be. Every action they take over the course of their lives is given a numerical value by impartial accountants in a neutral zone. Hold the door for someone and get a few points. Write a mean comment on this video and lose a lot of them. After a person dies, that sum total must reach a certain threshold. If it does, they go to The Good Place. If not, off to the Bad Place.
(Now, the rules as presented in Season One are not quite the same as they are in Season Three, and late revelations make the presence of Mindy St Clair’s Medium Place seem to break the show’s internal logic, but rules change as shows evolves and ultimately the changes here were for the better, so whatever… Had I not binged the entire thing over the course of four days last week, I likely wouldn’t have even considered that.)
Critically, these counts are weighted by intent.
My girlfriend, who was raised Catholic, told me about a sermon her pastor once gave concerning good deeds wherein he mentioned atheists. Specifically, the fact that atheists have a purity of intent that no one who believes in an afterlife can have. If an irreligious person does something good, it must be because they feel compelled to do good, not because they’re concerned about eternal damnation.
This is, of course, an oversimplification and not really correct; Tahani raised billions of dollars for charity but not because she cared about the causes so much as the fact that she could raise a lot of money for charity. Her religious beliefs or lack thereof (no one in The Good Place has a religion) play no part in the selfishness of her motivations.
But the pastor’s broader point is something I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about. For example, when I hear the disconcerting admission that people believe atheists are incapable of morality, which says so much more about that person’s fundamental values than it does about mine. Because I do consider myself a generally moral and ethical person – at least, I try to be. And that trying is not driven by what happens after I die but by a fervent belief that not being awful will make the time we do all have generally more pleasant. But, of course, trying to figure out what that even means can be exhausting and I’m frequently unsuccessful. We’ll get to that.
Within a few years, college seminars will teach The Good Place. But not as, like, a one-off class in larger study of primary sources – no, its take on the philosophy of ethics and morality will be the focus of the curriculum. A bunch of 18 to 22 year olds will sit around a table with the coolest professor in school and not just discuss Kierkegaard and Kant and Hume and etc. but the way their philosophies function in the show.
It is perfectly suited to this, as each season has seen the scope of its ethical explorations expand. First, it is narrowly focused on four individuals; then it looks at how a group forms individuals, using those same four and their captor-turned-compatriot as the case in point; and now it’s blown the whole thing wide open, as it attempts to reckon with society as a whole – particularly in 20-ex-teen. Presumably the next season will take that baton and run with it. And I can imagine a few places where it could go from there. This sort of layered approach is perfect for pedagogy.
To be honest, just watching The Good Place at all feels like it should get you a certification from ClemsonX (a Clemson professor vets the show).
While season one gives some fundamentals and cute ways to incorporate moral thinking into your life, it’s season 2 that really gets into it by offering more realistic, practical discussions. I particularly enjoyed Chidi’s forced attempts to solve the ethical conundrum that is the Trolley Problem, brought to “life” with all the gore that a broadcast comedy can provide. This lays the groundwork for a more invigorating discussion later in the semester – one that those dumb 18- to 22-year-olds can bring to their dumb college parties while holding hands and drinking boxed wine. Or whatever.
Season 3, particularly in its final episodes, is The Good Place at its most optimistic and metatextually pessimistic. The revelation that the accounting system considers not just direct intent but also the unintended repercussions of, say, the decision to buy some flowers for your grandmother completely upends everything, destroying any hope anyone could have of being good. This is a dark timeline indeed, but the show rejects that conclusion, leading into what will surely be a fascinating fourth season; but it also speaks to a larger real-world concern for anyone who would really like to be ethical.
When the judge goes down to earth and sees how impossible it is to know if the profits from a tomato are actually funding dictatorships while the system continues to knock them for doing just that, her feelings change. The bar lowers, because it has to. They all see this as an opportunity to change the way their society values (in a literal sense) goodness to one that more closely aligns with, I would think, the way most actual humans do.
They believe that in a vacuum – represented metaphorically by a deliberately constructed afterlife – even not-so-good people have the ability to be good. That the reason people are not so good is because life is bad, and taking life away and adding a basic curriculum on morality and ethics to the proceedings will result in a better class of people.
But where does this stop? Because, taken at face value, this bar lowering makes the case that taking steps to mitigate one’s adverse side effects has no real value. And I don’t think that’s right. But, of course, nothing is simple.
When Chidi is given the initial revelation that he is in the bad place, he leaps to the very wrong conclusion that it is a result of his decision to ingest almonds despite their environmental impact. Because a single almond takes a heckuva lot of water to produce… though so do most other foods. And, if you were to compare almondmilk, to, say, dairy milk? No comparison, and you have all of the other environmental impacts beyond just water use that come from dairy farming.
Of course, dairy has far more nutritional benefit than almondmilk. Soy milk comes closer, but none of the altmilks can match it. These are all side effects, unintended consequences of individual decisions. The math will inevitably fail us.
Which is where the philosophy comes in. Because these questions being complicated doesn’t mean they should just be ignored. In the past few years, I have radically changed certain things about how I shop and eat and etc. in order to reduce various negative impacts of my lifestyle on, like, the environment or whatever. But it’s also true that I am not, for example, vegan. Or even vegetarian – though I guess I’m closer than not at this point. Does knowing that factory farming is genuinely horrific while still eating meat with every meal mean someone is bad? Probably. Does me knowing that but still having it periodically mean I am? Sure. Chickens suffer far more than cows but have much less environmental impact. How do you weigh those against each other? Trick question: we should probably all be vegan.
But then there’s the rub that no single person’s decisions mean a damn thing. My decision to eat and/or shop differently doesn’t affect anyone’s anything – it just makes me feel like I’m a better person than people who don’t do those things, despite the fact that what I do inevitably has myriad problems of its own – non-GMO food is bad as heck for the environment and we need to stop lionizing it based on junk science by making any snack food that’s low in sugar also high in pretension.
Everything becomes about trade-offs. But no two people will see the trade in the same way. And Season 3’s brief digression seeing the life of the only man who ever figured out how he would be judged and adjusted his behavior to match shows an awful and miserable life that is *still not enough.*
Look, if there were a Good Place, then 80something years of general unhappiness caused by as purely moral a life as possible is probably worth it for an eternity of bliss. But when there isn’t a Good Place or any other Place and this is all we’ve got, how much sacrifice is it even fair to ask someone to make? And fairness is as fundamental a philosophical problem as we’ve got, now mixed with the literal worth of a pleasant life against all the bad things that must exist in order to make that life possible.
And to follow that nightmarish spiral results in nothing less than you staring at two hats for 80 minutes trying to understand the moral repercussions of a wrong selection. And that’s why everyone hates philosophy professors.
Ha ha. Show references. This is a review.
I spent a lot of the nearly 900 minutes of The Good Place laughing. A whole lot of them just sort of feeling, with the last few straight-up crying. But in all of that, I was thinking. I was thinking about my own morals and ethics, about the life I have lived and the plan I have for keeping that whole thing going. And when the credits rolled on season three, I didn’t stop thinking. And that’s the sign of something truly special, that this unassuming fantasy comedy on NBC has pushed me wrestle with these fundamental questions. I’m not sure what answers I’m going to find on the other end, but I’m grateful for the show that got the gears turning.
Nine-Point-One out of Ten