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Television & Film

The Tao of The Good Place: Profs Discuss TV’s Most Cerebral Sitcom

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Woman and man standing on a trolley.
Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) in "The Trolley Problem" episode. Credit: Colleen Hayes, NBC Universal.

NBC’s TV series The Good Place is a peculiar mix of contradictions. It’s a show about death that leaves its viewers inexplicably happy. Moreover, it’s a breezy, ebullient, half-hour sitcom that’s conversant in academic moral philosophy. If you Google network TV programs that deploy the names “Kierkegaard,” “Kant,” and “Hume,” you’re unlikely to get many hits.

In fact, The Good Place creators consulted with two contemporary philosophy professors, Pamela Hieronymi at UCLA and Todd May at Clemson University. And it’s become popular with other academics, including faculty members in American University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Assistant philosophy professor Asia Ferrin is a fan, and graduate students in her Ethical Theory seminar wrote midterm papers about the show. Mark Schaefer, the university chaplain and an adjunct professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department, never misses an episode and talks about it with colleagues in Kay Spiritual Life Center.

In interviews with University Communications and Marketing, Ferrin and Schaefer discuss how the show explores serious philosophy in delightful and engaging ways.

“I’ve seen enough television where religion and philosophy are dealt with by someone who clearly doesn’t understand them,” says Schaefer. “It’s fascinating watching this show, and seeing subtle, philosophical, theological questions addressed. And just addressed in hilarious fashion.”

Warning: Seasons one and two spoilers ahead!

 

Where Shall Goodness Be Found?

After Eleanor (Kristen Bell) dies, she realizes she’s been sent to the afterlife “Good Place” by mistake. Her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), had been a moral philosophy professor on Earth, and he tries to teach Eleanor how to be a better person.

Ferrin has taught similar ideas in her classes. “We’re looking for something more robust than the 10 Commandments, or the Golden Rule. We’re trying to figure out why these commandments, or why these moral rules, should matter,” Ferrin explains. “The show also asks, ‘What does it mean to be a good person?’ And it’s showing that’s more complicated than just, ‘Follow these rules.’”

The shocking first season finale reveal is that Chidi and Eleanor were never in the Good Place—despite the gorgeous pastel-colored villages and unlimited frozen yogurt—but banished to the Bad Place. With Chidi’s history of moral exploration, he appears to be a more ethical individual than the accidental-Good Place-occupant, Eleanor. But we learn that they’re being judged the same way.

That begs the question—riffing off Immanuel Kant—of whether edification and the earnest study of ethics can make you ethical. The show pokes fun at Chidi: Despite the knowledge he’s amassed, he’s paralyzed by indecision.

“Philosophers have been criticized for sitting in their ivory tower and trying to reason their way to the right answer. In the show, we see how it’s not clear that you can just reason your way to the right answer,” Ferrin says. “We really find moral truth and our moral selves when we are in complicated situations with other individuals.”

 

The Trolley Problem

The Good Place features an intriguing thought experiment called the Trolley Problem, devised by British philosopher Philippa Foot and taught by Chidi. You’re riding on a trolley that’s about to kill five people. But you can personally pull a lever, steering the trolley onto another track and killing only one person. What would you do?

Whatever you decide, Schaefer says it’s a worthwhile exercise. “It really gets into questions of ethical responsibility for an act of omission,” he says. “It’s very easy for people to feel like they’re opting out of some ethical or moral quandary, without realizing that inaction is itself a choice. So I think that’s what makes it potent. The inaction of this results in more people dying than the action does.”

“It’s illuminating because it takes two seemingly obvious moral intuitions and pits them against each other,” adds Ferrin. “We have the intuition that it’s clearly better if fewer people die. That seems obviously true to us. But it also seems obviously true to us that we should not participate in the killing of others.”

 

Free Will and Karmic Justice

Early on, the demon-neighborhood architect Michael (Ted Danson) notes that few people end up in the Good Place. And the main characters on the show are constantly being judged, in what Schaefer describes as Karmic justice.

“That’s not a particularly Christian worldview, because Christianity relies a lot more on grace than earned merit,” he says.

If it appears to echo retributive justice in the Old Testament, Schaefer says the Hebrew scriptures are different from the merit-based evaluations we see on The Good Place.

“The rules in the Hebrew bible are meant to govern the way that people live in the covenant, but the covenant was established by God’s grace,” he explains. “Even in Islam, which has very high notions of accountability for sins, there are notions that God is the most merciful.”

Surprisingly, for a show about the afterlife, you won’t hear the word “God.” But Schaefer sees significance in Gen, the judge portrayed by Maya Rudolph. “What’s interesting is that the judge doesn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m the one who wrote these rules.’ They’re all serving this higher system, but it goes unnamed,” he says. “That’s how they could be dealing with the God idea, as a principle of justice or principle of mercy.”

During a recent episode, there’s a noteworthy exchange between Michael and the omniscient Janet. Michael cooks up another harebrained plan to manipulate his human-subjects, but she insists that he can’t keep meddling in their lives. “It’s time to park the snowplow and trust that the humans will make progress on their own,” Janet says.

Is this a debate about how much a higher power and fate intervene in our lives?

“It gets to the question of divine free will,” Schaefer says. “If the divine comes in and removes the agency from us, then are we really making the moral decisions? Or are we simply being put into a position where we have no choice but to make the correct decision? In which case, what is the value of that?”

 

Moral Growth and Community

As issues of predetermination are introduced, The Good Place also examines whether people change. Ferrin notes how even the demon Michael achieves moral growth, eventually trying to help save the souls of the four main characters.

“He’s so hilariously terrible at utilitarianism,” she says. “He realizes that you sacrifice yourself, and I think that’s an emotional, compassionate awakening for him. And that’s how he comes to develop his moral self.”

In season two, Eleanor is put back on Earth and has the chance to conduct her life differently. She becomes a committed environmental activist, but later gets bored and blows off an important strategy session to go watch a “Taylor Swift reggae cover band.”

“This raises the question about whether we are inherently good or bad,” says Ferrin, who delves into these issues in moral psychology. “For example, someone with psychopathy might struggle more to do the right thing, and that seems to be due to some cognitive wiring. So, what does that mean for those of us who don’t have psychopathy? Will we inevitably be good people?”

The characters on The Good Place aren’t depicted as evil or saintly, and they’re left figuring out how to coexist. Michael admits his original plan was to put disparate personalities together, so they’d drive each other crazy. Yet these polar opposites adapt as soulmates: Chidi, the erudite college professor, and Eleanor, a hard-drinking misanthrope; and Tahani, a socialite who hobnobs with British royalty, and Jason, a dimwitted slacker only devoted to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Series creator Michael Schur highlighted the value of community on his other shows, such as The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And while The Good Place meanders and often subverts expectations, that might be the show’s overarching theme.

“That’s really important given the kind of social and political divisiveness that we’re currently facing. It’s harder to be moral when your assumptions or your biases are challenged,” says Ferrin. “I like this idea that the show is giving us something hopeful.”