The Philosophy of The Good Place – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of The Good Place!
Written by: Claire Pickard
Directed by: Elizabeth Yarwood
Narrated by: Helen Floersh
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Jackson Maher
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of The Good Place – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Helen here. So, Jared’s on vacation, which gives me the chance to tell you all about the philosophy of a show about philosophy. This could get meta. The Good Place is a fascinating piece of television because while it includes philosophy lessons as a major plot point, it also incorporates its own ideas on human nature, fate, and ethics. For a show ostensibly about teaching people to be good in the afterlife, The Good Place asks a more profound question: “can those lessons actually make us better people? And if they can, does that matter?”
Welcome to today’s much-requested episode on the Philosophy of The Good Place. Spoilers ahead.
Ok, so a recap for any uninitiated into the world of The Good Place. The premise of the first season is that coworker-betraying, senior-scamming, tequila-slugging human garbage Eleanor Shellstrop dies and accidentally ends up in The Good Place, — “There’s been a big mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.” — which is basically heaven, except without all the religion-y stuff. Which, weirdly, makes it way, way more elitist. Only the very best get into The Good Place, based on an intense point system to determine exactly how good you are. “You need me to lie to old people and scare them into buying fake allergy medicine. I get it, man. Which one’s my desk?” Even though Eleanor probably doesn’t belong in any religion’s Good Place, the points system gets absurd. “Every single thing you did had an effect that rippled out over time, and ultimately, created some amount of good or bad.”
She’s joined in her paradise neighborhood by Tahani (a beautiful, wealthy philanthropist), Jianyu (a Buddhist monk), and her supposedly-soulmate, Chidi — a philosophy professor specializing in… you guessed it: Ethics. Also, there’s a lot of frozen yogurt. “What is it with you and frozen yogurt? Have you not heard of ice cream?” “Oh, sure! But I’ve come to really like frozen yogurt. There’s something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little, so you can have more of it.” Although the Good Place is supposed to be heaven, for Eleanor, being surrounded by people who are better than her is actual hell. After Eleanor tells Chidi her secret – that she’s there by mistake – he decides to teach her to be a good person by conjuring up a chalkboard and giving her daily philosophy lessons. This leads to some of the best philosophy jokes on television. “Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” “Plato!”
Oh, and Jianyu is actually Jason, a trashy Florida wannabe-DJ who is also there by mistake, so he joins in on the ethics classes, too. “This is your first step toward not sucking.” “Cool. I just have two questions: when are football tryouts? And does this school have a prom?” “Oh, no!” For most of the show, Eleanor’s moral progress runs parallel to her ethics lessons. The more she internalizes philosophy, the more we see her making decisions that are halfway decent, if not downright sweet. The show, at face value, sets up the premise that learning ethics makes you act more ethically. At least, that’s the premise that Chidi and Eleanor are working from, as he goes through the grueling task of teaching Contractualism to someone who abandoned dog-sitting duties to go to a Rihanna concert. “You broke your promise as soon as it wasn’t convenient for you, and now I have a very bulbous dog!” But that idea — that learning moral philosophy can make you a better person — is an ethical theory in itself.
The question of whether or not ethics can make you a better person (and if so, what ethical system best accomplishes that), is called “metaethics.” Fundamentally, The Good Place is a show about metaethics, even as it presents relatively straightforward ethical theories through Chidi. And when Chidi teaches you ethics, he goes hard. “Well, now that you’ve become acquainted with existential crises, I thought we could read ‘Death’ by philosopher Todd May!” “Sounds like the perfect beach read!” Eleanor gets the rundown on Rawls, Locke, Lao Tzu, Plato, Sidgwick, Mill, Hume, Scanlon, and quite a few other moral philosophers, including Todd May, who just happens to be one of the philosophy consultants for the show. Nice one, Todd.
All these competing philosophical concepts are meant to teach Eleanor and Jason how to be moral enough to remain in The Good Place. But as any Ethics 101 student could tell you, learning a bunch of contradictory theories on what makes someone act good does not actually help answer the question:“how the fork should I act?” Eleanor frequently expresses her frustration with this, but she keeps on. “Dude!” “You want to prove you’re not selfish? Here’s the perfect test. There’s something fun that you wanna do, and then there’s something less fun that people are doing for the common good.”
From the beginning of the ethics lessons, these frustrations hint that the real question isn’t “which of these philosophers should I base my moral system on,” but rather, “is this the right way to learn how to be ethical in the first place?” After all, Chidi’s inability to decide anything, driven by his thorough knowledge of philosophy, is his main flaw. “I missed my mom’s back surgery because I had already promised my landlord’s nephew that I would help him figure out his new phone.” “I don’t need the Chidi who once had a panic attack during rock, paper, scissors because there were, and I quote, ‘just too many variables.'”
As the show progresses, Eleanor becomes a decent person, Chidi gets slightly better at making decisions, and Jason gets married to a robot. “Oh, that’s enough out of you, robot-lover!” “Hey! That’s racist!” “Not a robot.” We’re still not sure if that last one has any secret moral significance. While you might say, “hey, Chidi’s classes are helping,” it could be argued that Eleanor and friends are progressing in spite of his philosophy class. That’s because there’s a big difference between LEARNING ethics and DOING ethics. And here’s where we get back to metaethics — those questions about what morality actually is and how we ought to approach it. There’s actual data to support the idea that studying moral philosophy doesn’t necessarily make you more ethical.
Contemporary philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel conducted a study between 2007 and 2009 that resulted in a maybe-not-so-surprising conclusion: ethics professors do not generally perform more ethically than their non-ethicist and non-philosopher peers. In fact, many of those peers believed that ethics professors actually performed less ethically than their counterparts. This is consistent with the story of Chidi, who, despite knowing a buttload about ethical theory, ended up in The Bad Place because of the people he unwittingly hurt through his struggle to apply those theories. “This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.” Oh, did we mention the Good Place is really the Bad Place? We’ll get to that. “Hahaha. Oh, man! I can’t believe you figured it out!”
Schwitzgebel also studied the effects of university-level ethics classes on student behavior and concluded that there is little to no correlation between taking ethics classes and moral behavior. Again, not a shocker. We often see Eleanor struggling to weigh competing theories when deciding how to act IRL, — “Kant says that lying is always wrong, and I follow that maxim.” “So, you can’t even lie to demons? They’re trying to torture us, man! We’re behind enemy lines.” “Well, principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them!” — and she’s actually trying, which can’t exactly be said of freshman in ethics class. The Schwitzgebel study even showed that ethics books go missing from the library more often than other kinds of philosophy books. Draw your own conclusions on that one. “I might not have been a saint, but it’s not like I killed anybody. I wasn’t an arsonist. I never found a wallet outside of an IHOP and thought about returning it, but saw the owner lived out of state, so just took the cash and dropped the wallet back on the ground.” “Okay, that’s really specific, and that makes me think that you definitely did do that.” Much of the show’s comedy comes from the absurdity of what moral theory looks like when played out in reality, whether that’s the panic of indecision or the hilarity and gore of the infamous trolley problem happening with a real trolley. “Here are the levers to switch the tracks. Make a choice.” “The thing is, I mean, ethically speaking-” “No time, Dude! Make a decision!” “Well, it’s tricky! I mean on the one hand if you subscribe to a purely utilitarian worldview-”
We see some of the clearest moral improvement when the characters stop weighing choices based on theory and simply follow their gut. “Which one of these confusing French books will make him normal again?” “It’s not that easy. I mean, emotionally, he’s all over the map right now, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t think this can be solved with a book.” This suggests that, while the fact that Eleanor is trying to be a better person is certainly helping her make better choices, it’s not the theories themselves that do the work. It’s a little more subconscious than that. Eleanor’s progress might be explained by a metaethical concept called Moral Intuitionism. Moral Intuitionism argues that it’s our intuitive awareness of what is right and wrong (not book-learnin’) that informs our ethical knowledge. That might seem to be a problem for our main characters since none of them appear to have any moral intuitions whatsoever. “Plus, we already have a ton of pre-orders! Here is your first cut of the profits.” “Holy mama!” “I can’t believe you sold the t-shirts.” “Does it help if they basically sold themselves?”
However, there are branches of Moral Intuitionism that suggest intuitions can change. While memorizing Hume may not zap Eleanor into a perfect, shrimp-free angel, it does open up a space for self-reflection that was previously… pretty closed off. “Hey, I’m on kind of, like, a self improvement kick. Do you think you could help me out? Teach me to get all horny for the environment or whatever?”
We could also read the show through the rules of Aristotle’s virtue ethics — the idea that the best path to morality is by following the example of virtuous people. The Good Place does seem to make the case for the power of friendship. But the problem with this theory is that, at least in the beginning, there are no truly good people for any of them to copy. So, Chidi teaching Aristotle is actually pretty ironic. Things get really intriguing when Eleanor goes back to Earth at the end of Season 2. From the get-go, she acts way more morally than she did in her old life, despite having zero memory of the lessons she learned in The Bad-Good Place.
This suggests that those experiences — whether with books or with her friends — have altered her moral intuitions, even though she can’t remember them. Sure, she falls off the ethical wagon once or twice, — “I quit! Eat my farts, Benedict Cumberbatch!” — but it doesn’t take a lot of prompting from Michael the Barkeep for her to seek out some help. Something about Eleanor is undeniably different. Also, I bet Michael makes a mean screwdriver. Because of, you know, all the torture and stuff.
Although we aren’t really gonna talk about predestination in this video, the ending of Season 2 pretty much whacks you over the head with their answer to “can people change?” Yes, they can. However, this comes after an entire season of Eleanor and the gang making similar decisions over and over (and over times 802) every time Michael resets their neighborhood. So, although we can make our own destinies, changing habits sure is a bitch… er, bench. “Son of a bench.”
Although we over here at Wisecrack think that The Good Place ultimately rejects the idea that teaching ethics directly leads to more ethical action, it’s not totally clear. Chidi’s lessons are no joke, and the most profound evidence of that is in Michael, who, after just a few weeks of lessons, becomes a decent person. “You guys! I was so scared for you!” Or at least an honorary person. If anyone’s had to fight off predestination, it’s that guy.
There’s just one more thing. One philosophical inspiration in The Good Place that, no matter how tangential it is to our main argument, we just have to talk about. The show gets a looot of inspiration from a Wisecrack favorite: Jean-Paul Sartre.
So, in season 1, the finale reveals that they are ALL trash humans, and “The Good Place” is really an experimental neighborhood in The Bad Place, where Tahani, Eleanor, Jason, and Chidi are meant to torment each other for all of eternity. Michael— the demon architect who designed the neighborhood— has a theory that four carefully-selected people will torture each other far more effectively than “butthole spiders.” “We’re trying out the new butthole spiders.” “Ah!” “They’re enormous.”
Eleanor (unknowingly) tortures Chidi by forcing him to make difficult choices, his real-life nightmare. “We are trapped in a warped version of Nietzsche’s ‘Eternal Recurrence.'” “Oh, cool! More philosophy! That’ll help us!” Chidi tortures Tahani by refusing to make a decision to pick her over Eleanor, a reminder of the second-best status she had with her sister before her death. “I grew tired of objective representation. I trust my audience.” “My birdie has a hat!” “Yes, well done, Tahani.” Tahani (maybe-knowingly) tortures Eleanor by providing a constant reminder of how much better she is. “It’s just so sweet and teensy. Just like you! Boop!” “Ooh!” “Oh!” “You booped me, ha, ha.” “I did!” “That’s fun.” And everything tortures Jason because all he wants to do is be himself, and he can’t even tell people his real name. “I miss being myself. Myself was the best.”
Also, he never got to see the Jacksonville Jaguars win their division title last year. I’m not convinced that a life with no Florida dance crew will ever be scarier than assh*le-arachnids, but hey, I’m not a literal hell monster, so what do I know? Another way to read the first season is a modern retelling of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” In it, Sartre riffs on his famous idiom, “hell is other people,” with three sh*tbags locked in a room in the underworld who make each other miserable through lies, love triangles, and everything you could imagine from people who ended up in, well, hell.
And in Season 1, the neighbors of The Good Place manage to make each other very, very miserable. It’s important to clear up a common misconception, hell is not other people because someone brought their crying toddler to see Deadpool, but because, in No Exit, and in the Good Place, your eternal neighbors will bring out what you hate most about yourself. The torture is predicated not by say, attending an eternal dinner party with people who use the word “mouthfeel,” but letting those people decide how you see yourself, leading to the ultimate existentialist sin: bad faith.
The similarities to No Exit don’t end with the dope existentialist themes. Some of the characters themselves have a lot in common with their Good Place counterparts. Inès, who describes herself as a “damned bitch,” is pretty much the 1940s Eleanor, except a lot worse. She turns people against each other for fun, causes misery wherever she goes, and thrives on her own selfishness. Estelle is a high society socialite who’s obsessed with her own beauty and wishes desperately for a mirror. She insists that she does not belong in hell and for much of the play, refuses to believe that she was a bad person on Earth. “I belong in The Good Place. The real one with the good people. Who do I speak to about correcting this?” “Me. And you’re wrong.” “Very well. I would like to speak to your manager.”
Estelle’s snobbishness about the working class is more than a little familiar. “It’s just that I’m not used to dressing like a plumberess. Is that what you call a female plumber, or is a toilet sweep or, or clog wench? In any case, that’s how I’m dressed.” She also murdered a baby, which Tahani has probably never done. Probably. “We don’t make any sense together, and yet, when I’m with you, I can really let my hair down, metaphorically speaking of course, because I’d never have it up in the first place. I’m not a factory worker.”
Chidi doesn’t have quite the same amount of overlap with his counterpart, Garcin, but there are certainly some character traits that ring a bell. Garcin is a coward, which gets him killed, and Chidi is terrified of making decisions, which is just its own brand of cowardice. “I’m sorry, everyone, I just have some worries, as well as some concerns that could potentially turn into outright fears. Ah, there they go, uh, they’re fears now.” Also, remember how Chidi refuses to pick Tahani over Eleanor? Totally happens in No Exit. Sadly, there is no Jason. God, that play would be so much better with Jason. “Whoa. What is happening?” “Is she having an orgasm? Did I do it, somehow?”
So, The Good Place is initially a show about hell being other people. And also a show about the philosophy of philosophies, of which we’re discerning the philosophy of. Also, probably something about cacti. But the real question to end on is: did watching this video on the ethics of The Good Place make you a better person? And if you didn’t learn anything from this video, well, don’t say we didn’t try to save your ass. Literally. “All those ethics lessons paid off. Whoever said philosophy was stupid?” “You- you did! Many times!”