Article ID: JAR1908MCT | By: Melissa Cain Travis
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Television Series Review
The Good Place
Creator and Executive Producer: Michael Schur
Number of Seasons: 4
(Seasons 1-2 Streaming on Netflix. Also on Amazon, Apple, NBC, Sept. 2016-2020)
This review was released on August 29th, 2019.
***This article contains story line spoilers for the series***
It isn’t often that a network sitcom becomes all the rage in the halls of academia, but that is precisely what happened in the fall of 2016 when The Good Place, NBC’s fantasy comedy about four humans in the afterlife, made its debut. Earlier this year, Meredith College in North Carolina ran a news article about the use of The Good Place in a course on religious ethics and social issues. The professor, Stephen Benko, has even co-edited a book entitled The Good Place and Philosophy (Open Court Publishing, 2019), which releases next month and is bound to quickly make its way into many philosophy departments.1 Nominated for several Golden Globes and Emmy awards,2 the enormously popular show will soon enter its fourth and final season,3 but the associated classroom discussions will no doubt go on for years to come. It’s witty, intelligent, and it explores ideas that matter — a lot.
Thus far, The Good Place has had three hilarious yet thought-provoking seasons that tell a riveting story while examining crucial philosophical questions, such as what it means to live a good life and whether we have any moral obligations to our fellow man. Along the way, viewers have been exposed to the ideas of several major figures of Western philosophy, such as Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Hume, Mill, and Sartre, as well as a few contemporary thinkers, such as Todd May, the Clemson University philosopher who serves as one of the show’s consultants. In addition to its value as a fun pedagogical tool, The Good Place has turned out to be a rich resource for apologetics; many elements of the storyline and character dialogue can be used in conversations about human nature, objective morality, and why the exclusion of God results in a failure to make sense of things in an intellectually satisfying way.
What it’s About
The central theme of The Good Place is the relationship between morality and attaining eternal life in the paradisiacal Good Place (rather than the torturous Bad Place), but the writers intentionally circumvent the topic of religion. In the premiere episode, viewers are introduced to Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell), a young woman who has died and entered the afterlife. Upon learning that her time on Earth has ended and that she has entered the “next phase” of her “existence in the universe,” Eleanor asks Michael, a white-haired, bow-tied angel figure played by Ted Danson, “So who was right, I mean, about all of this?” Michael responds, “Let’s see, Hindus are a little bit right, Muslims a little bit, Jews, Christians, Buddhists. Every religion guessed about five percent.” Eleanor then asks where she has landed: up or down. “Well,” says Michael, “it’s not the ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ idea that you were raised on. But generally speaking, in the afterlife, there’s a Good Place and a Bad Place. You’re in the Good Place. You’re okay, Eleanor.”
After a brief tour of her heavenly neighborhood, an idyllic little town with cobblestone streets lined with shops like Your Anticipated Needs and The Small Adorable Animal Depot, Eleanor is directed to take a seat alongside dozens of other residents in an outdoor theater for an orientation video. This is the scene that explains the moral economy of the universe — an accounting system based upon the positive and negative point values assigned to every human action according to the amount of net goodness or badness it produces. For example, ending slavery is worth +814292.09 points while committing genocide is worth –433213.68 points. Many of the listed actions are quite humorous, such as “blowing one’s nose by pressing one nostril down and exhaling” (–1.44 points) or “maintaining composure in line at a water park in Houston” (+60.48 points). Michael, the host of the video, explains: “When your time on earth is ended, we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measurement system. Only the people with the very highest scores — the true cream of the crop — get to come here, to the Good Place.” This is resonant with the basic idea that many people (including an unfortunate number of Christians) have about their ultimate fate — that if they do more good than bad during their earthly life, they will make it into some sort of heaven or (particularly in Eastern belief systems) enjoy a fortunate reincarnation.
The pivotal crisis arrives when Eleanor realizes that she is in the Good Place by mistake. Michael praises a career she never had — getting innocent people off death row. In fact, Eleanor made a living by defrauding the elderly. Then, the highlight reel of memories of her earthly life shows scenes from humanitarian work that she never did. Eleanor is terror-struck and desperate for a solution that doesn’t involve confessing to Michael and being transported to the Bad Place where she belongs. She confides in her assigned soul mate, Chidi Anagonye (played by William Jackson Harper), who was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and begs him to teach her how to be good and legitimately earn her right to stay. He is hesitant, because the more he learns of her earthly life, the more skeptical he is that someone as selfish and unprincipled as she is can ever truly reform. Finally, he acquiesces and the ensuing episodes feature the formal lessons, conversations, and thought-experiments-come-to-life that allow Eleanor, Chidi, and their other human friends to explore different views on morality and ethical decision making.4
Thus, while the main storyline of The Good Place involves the pursuit of eternal security in “heaven” through exemplary living, this is merely an entertaining plot device. The substantive focus of the show is an accessible examination of various philosophical perspectives on what defines moral living. The afterlife question aside, what does it even mean to be good? This is a surprising and laudable theme for a secular television program, and the insightful philosophical content is worth enduring the occasional moments of bawdy humor.
Theories About How to Be Good
One of the over-arching messages of The Good Place is that human beings living in society have moral obligations to one another. There are ways we ought and ought not to behave toward our fellow man. This perspective is colorfully illustrated through numerous flashbacks to the earthly lives of the human characters and underlies the various theories that are tried on for size. The reality of objective moral values and duties is an essential assumption; viewers cringe when Eleanor harshly berates an environmental activist5 and when she abandons the dog she’s supposed to be pet-sitting so she can party in Las Vegas.6 It’s important to notice that the show’s plotline succeeds only because the audience, using moral intuition, judges Eleanor to be a terrible person based upon her flagrant disregard for the wellbeing of others. This is to assume the existence of objective right and wrong, a point which will be revisited. Many Western philosophers and several prominent schools of thought are discussed or mentioned in the series. A few are theories about how to live a morally good life, and two that come up repeatedly are Kantian deontology and utilitarianism.
Early on, viewers learn that Chidi (whose name, interestingly enough, means “God exists”) favors Immanuel Kant’s deontological theory of ethical behavior.7 Kant believed that decisions about how one should act in a given situation can be made by using what he called pure practical reasoning paired with a central principle. He said, “Act only according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”8 In other words, if everyone in the world did (in every situation) what you are considering doing, would that world be desirable? If the answer is no, then you ought not to do that thing. This is known as Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Chidi is convinced that lying is always and everywhere wrong, regardless of the circumstances and the potential consequences. After all, a world in which lying was considered acceptable for all would be horribly dysfunctional. In practice, this led to one of Chidi’s earthly relationships being damaged when he finally confessed to hating a friend’s ultra-tacky cowboy boots despite knowing that hurt feelings would result from telling the truth.9
Kantian deontology is also concerned with the motives behind an action. Through an ongoing series of flashbacks, the viewer learns that Eleanor lived an earthly life of selfish hedonism; she behaved only in ways that maximized her own pleasure. So, when she does an outwardly good deed in the Good Place in an effort to convince Chidi to take her on as his ethics student, she is actually keeping with her old ways. Chidi has to explain to her that trying to be good while having corrupt motives is not genuinely moral. If all Eleanor cares about is how her actions ultimately benefit herself, then she is not truly being a good person. 10 Intuitively, this seems correct. No matter how wonderful the consequences of someone’s actions are, if those things are done mainly for self-serving reasons, such as a vain hunger for public recognition, then they typically aren’t regarded as morally commendable. Being a good person is about much more than behaving in certain ways. Yet, in many (if not most) cases of ethical decision making, multiple motives can be involved, and it may not be possible to discern which one is predominant. Chidi is often paralyzed by indecision for this very reason; he realizes that it is impossible for anyone to know not only their own motivations perfectly but also the type and extent of all the consequences that may result from even a small decision, like buying a blueberry muffin.
Kant’s goal — like that of many contemporary secular thinkers — was to ground objective morality without using theology or traditionalism. One major problem for his theory involves the assumption that pure reasoning can be used by everyone everywhere to discern universal moral imperatives. However, as philosophers James Dew and Paul Gould have explained, “increased globalization, discoveries about the way people in different cultures actually think, and the advent of new intellectual disciplines like psychology, sociology, and anthropology have seriously challenged this assumption.”11 Simply put, ideas about truth, rationality, and rightness are not the same in all times and places, so different conclusions will be reached by different people at different times. How are we to determine who is correct? Who gets to judge?
Another theory of ethics The Good Place explores is utilitarianism, the view that the morality of an action is determined by the amount of good (pleasure) or pain (suffering) it introduces into the world. When faced with multiple options, the moral person makes the choice that brings about the most good and the least harm. For the utilitarian, it is the overall consequence that matters. Eleanor expresses a preference for this theory, but Chidi warns her: “If all that matters is the sum total of goodness, then you can justify any number of bad actions, like torturing one innocent person to save a hundred, or preemptive war.”12 The difficulties with this type of consequentialism are explored in a much later episode, when Chidi introduces the Transplant Patients thought experiment. “Let’s say you’re a doctor, and you can save five patients, but you have to kill one healthy person and use his organs to do it.”13 In this scenario, killing one to save five is the proper thing to do under utilitarianism, since the outcome is saving five lives at the expense of only one. Yet, the action of intentionally taking the life of an innocent person to benefit others goes against our moral intuition.
An additional difficulty with utilitarianism is well illustrated in the character of Tahani, a wealthy philanthropist who raised billions of dollars for charity during her time on earth. Her actions did an enormous amount of good for countless people, yet her personal motivations were anything but honorable. She was entirely driven by a desire for celebrity status, public adoration, and an ongoing mission to one-up her more favored and successful sister, Kamilah.14 Thus, despite the abundant good that resulted from Tahani’s choices, it is difficult to say that she was being an authentically good person. Many would agree that doing good is only part of the equation when it comes to morality. Deeds, no matter how wonderful their consequences, don’t seem to indicate that the doer is moral if his or her motives are largely self-serving.
Although the human characters have yet to discover a philosophy of ethics that, in practice, doesn’t turn out to be problematic, there is a running meta-theme that is subtly yet repeatedly emphasized: the idea that humans living in society owe it to each other to behave in certain ways. Philosopher T. M. Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other, makes several appearances, most notably in the finale of the second season.15 Scanlon’s brand of contractualism says that we ought to treat other people only in ways that could be reasonably justified to those people. Indeed, the humans in The Good Place make positive progress in their pursuits only when they resist selfishness and help one another. It certainly stands to reason that it is often the case that acting respectfully toward our fellow man in the spirit of social cooperation usually yields very important benefits to the individual, but it remains a fact that it is entirely possible to make self-serving choices at the expense of others without enduring any significant personal repercussions. That being the case, why shouldn’t we choose that path when we can get away with it? In her earthly life, Eleanor got away with an awful lot. Besides, wouldn’t the naturalist affirm that evolution progresses by competition and survival of the fittest? Why shouldn’t we be kind and helpful to other people only when we can reasonably expect to receive some benefit in return, either immediately or over the long term? In other words, what obligates us to kindness for kindness’ sake?
More Useful Points for Discussion
The weaknesses of the theories of ethics outlined above are quite relevant in discussions about how to be good, but we can go even further. There are two fundamental ideas that must be affirmed for The Good Place to function as a conceptually coherent story, and it turns out that these are especially useful in apologetics-oriented evangelistic conversations.
- Human beings must have free will — the ability to choose how they behave — if there is to be any such thing as morality. However, if human beings are nothing more than physical bodies, their actions are physically determined by genetics, physics, and chemistry. Eleanor sums it up: “Everything in my life has been determined by my upbringing, my genetics, or my environment…there is no such thing as free will.”16 But if there is going to be any such thing as morality, people must be able to self-direct their thoughts, words, and deeds. This is highly problematic for the materialist worldview, in which the physical stuff of the universe is all there is. Free human agency seems to require (as many theist and some non-theist philosophers have cogently argued) the existence of an immaterial soul working in conjunction with the physical brain. Interestingly, The Good Place affirms both the existence of souls that survive the death of the body (referring to them as personal “essences”) and the reality of human free will.
- There must be an objective standard of goodness for anything at all to be judged as morally good or bad. Obviously, goodness and badness are affirmed as very real qualities in the fantasy universe of The Good Place; they’re even rated with mathematical precision. In the real world, the vast majority of people acknowledge the existence of good and evil; as the show’s creator Michael Schur puts it, “At the extreme ends of the spectrum, everyone agrees on things that are universally bad and universally good. Murder is bad. Loving your children is good. That applies to everyone.”17 But what is the standard of measurement that makes this so? It must be one that is not manmade. The Good Place does not include any mention of a transcendent creator God, only a governing Judge (introduced later in the series) who claims to have come into existence with the physical universe. (She says her name is Gen, short for Hydrogen, because that was the only thing in existence when she was born.)18 She makes judgments on goodness and badness in cases of dispute, but there is no explanation for how goodness is grounded if it is merely a facet of the universe like the judge herself. If the judge is the final arbiter in all matters of morality, if the buck stops with her, a finite being, couldn’t she simply change the rules from one moment to the next? Christian theism doesn’t suffer from this problem, because it understands goodness as being rooted in the perfect character and nature of a transcendent, eternal creator God. Moreover, humanity has objective value because we are creatures bearing God’s image.
At the end of the day, the implicit theology of The Good Place is incorrect, and it shares the plight of all non-theist philosophers of past and present: the inability to fully explain meaning, purpose, and morality without positing the existence of God. The writers do attempt to downplay this shortcoming in the finale of the third season, when viewers are fed the typical lines about how the universe is special because of the absence of ultimate answers and how it’s enough that humans create their own meaning and value in the midst of cosmic chaos (ideas that are diametrically opposed to the show’s assumption of objective moral truths).19 Nevertheless, The Good Place is an entertaining goldmine of philosophical and theological discussion fodder, much of which can be used in thoughtful conversations with nonbelievers. —Melissa Cain Travis
Melissa Cain Travis, PhD, is an assistant professor at Houston Baptist University, where she teaches graduate courses in science and faith and philosophy of religion. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation between Faith and Science Reveals about God (Harvest House, 2018).
- Sarah Lindenfeld Hall, “Making Aristotle Accessible — With Help from a Hit Sitcom,” Meredith College, April 1, 2019, https://www.meredith.edu/news/making-aristotle-accessible-with-help-from-a-hit-sitcom.
- “The Good Place,” Los Angeles Times, advertisement, n.d., https://envelope.latimes.com/awards/titles/the-good-place/.
- Kevin Fitzpatrick, “The Good Place Will End with Season 4, Creator Mike Schur Confirms,” Vanity Fair, June 8, 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/06/the-good-place-ending-season-4-canceled.
- The Good Place, “Pilot—Everything Is Fine,” season 1, episode 1, created and written by Michael Schur, aired September 19, 2016, NBC, accessible at Amazon.com and Netflix.com.
- The Good Place, “Mindy St. Claire”, season 1, episode 12, written by Megan Amram and Jen Statsky, aired January 19, 2017, NBC.
- The Good Place, “What We Owe to Each Other”, season 1, episode 6, written by Dylan Morgan and Josh Siegal, aired October 13, 2017, NBC.
- The Good Place, “Flying”, season 1, episode 2, written by Alan Yang, aired September 19, 2016, NBC.
- Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 30.
- The Good Place, “The Eternal Shriek”, season 1, episode 7, written by Megan Amram, aired October 20, 2016, NBC.
- The Good Place, “Flying”, season 1, episode 2, written by Alan Yang, aired September 19, 2016, NBC.
- James Dew and Paul Gould, Philosophy: A Christian Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 249.
- The Good Place, “Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis,” season 1, episode 5, written by Matt Murray, aired October 6, 2016, NBC.
- The Good Place, “The Trolley Problem,” season 2, episode 6, written by Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan, aired October 19, 2017, NBC.
- The Good Place, “Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis.”
- The Good Place, “Somewhere Else,” season 2, episode 12, written by Michael Schur, aired February 1, 2018, NBC.
- The Good Place, “A Fractured Inheritance”, season 3, episode 6, written by Kassia Miller, aired November 1, 2018, NBC.
- Elizabeth Angell, “The Good Place Creator Michael Schur on How He Made Philosophy a Pop Culture Phenomenon,” Town and Country, December 6, 2018, https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a25426147/michael-schur-interview-the-good-place-season-3/.
- The Good Place, “The Burrito,” season 2, episode 11, written by Megan Amram and Joe Mande, aired January 25, 2018, NBC.
- The Good Place, “Pandemonium,” Season 3, episode 12, written by Megan Amram and Jen Statsky, aired January 24, 2019, NBC.