** This post contains lots of spoilers for The Good Place, don’t read if you haven’t finished the show! **
After four wonderful seasons, The Good Place has finally come to an end.
Like the other notable sitcoms Mike Schur has turned his hand to (The US Office, Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, specifically), the show was wildly funny, endearing and optimistic without being saccharine. But The Good Place was also wickedly smart, and through its incredibly unique concept and approach, it achieved great depths. Through its weekly half-hour slots, it also managed to get us talking about ethics and moral philosophy, to ponder what it means to be human, and to consider the notion of justice more thoroughly and more accessibly than I think any sitcom has ever achieved before.
It was, without a doubt, one of the smartest things I’ve ever watched.
The thing about the philosophy on The Good Place is that it creeps up on you. You tune in for the laughs, wondering where the completely unpredictable story is going to turn next. But before you know it you’re thinking about buying a copy of ‘What We Owe to Each Other’, debating the trolley problem with friends, and wondering what a truly fair moral system looks like.
Because beyond the humour lies a very real heart. One that asks how our world has gotten to where it is today, and how we might change it for the better.
We can’t know what we don’t know
I remember the moment in season three when The Good Place hit home for me. It touched upon how the modern world has become so complex that almost everything we ever do is muddied by some form of unethical interference.
As season three goes on, the idea of cluelessness, that the consequences of our actions are so manifold and unpredictable and impossible to account for — a constant concern in contemporary ethics raised by writers like James Lenman and Hilary Greaves — also gains force as a critique of highly demanding moral theories. By the end of the season, it becomes clear that the Good Place’s criteria for entry are too high: It knocks people excessively for harms they could never have anticipated.
One example the show lays out: In 2009, Douglas Ewing of Scagsville, Maryland, gave his mother a dozen roses and lost moral points per the Good Place’s tally — because the flowers were picked by exploited migrant workers, grown using toxic pesticides, ordered using a cell phone made in a sweatshop, delivered through a process emitting excessive greenhouse gases, and profiting a delivery company with a racist sexual harasser for a CEO. Each moral action has spiraling consequences that are hard if not impossible to anticipate.
In this one example, I felt the whole moral quandary of trying to write about sustainability and social justice was laid bare. For those of us who dedicate our time to trying to write about these things, we’re always trying to think about each step in the chain mentioned above. But ultimately, there is often something we miss due to lack of transparency, globalised supply chains, or thinking we’re choosing something better which later turns out to be worse.
Ultimately, we can’t know what we don’t know. And it suddenly becomes difficult to categorise things as simply good or bad. The more I write, the more grey areas I find, and the more I become convinced that all we can do is try our best and advocate for wider systemic change.
From this point onwards, The Good Place started building to an overarching idea of looking at intent and action separately. It reminded me of an old episode of This American Life that talked to a prisoner named Richard, who was set to be released soon. He had been incarcerated for 28 years for arson. On paper that’s a pretty clear cut situation – don’t burn down buildings – but his full life story told a more complex tale. Isolated from childhood, subject to abuse and unable to deal properly with his mental health, he started lighting fires which he found released his emotions. No one was ever hurt, and he only burned things that were empty or abandoned. The arson that resulted in a sentence of up to 60 years was a restaurant in a big condominium building, which ultimately led to harsh prosecution because of its size and how quickly he violated parole, not because anyone was harmed.
If we look simply at the acts of arson we get one idea, but if we widen our lens it becomes clear that Richard’s actions were informed by myriad factors including a society steeped in toxic masculinity, lack of access to mental health resources, and failings and abuses of his family. Instead of dealing with these systemic root issues a man was simply sent to jail. Luckily, in Richard’s case, psychologists at the jail were able to help him move past his isolation, and after release, he got married and moved to Colorado. But it just goes to show that these acts can often be complex, and not everyone has access to the same help that Richard ultimately found.
Like the point system in The Good Place and the judgement that ensues, the issue at hand is dealt with based on action alone, but is this really the fairest option?
The concept of cruelty
This notion of true justice and questioning cruelty was where Schur finally ended up in a recent episode of the final season when The Good Place laid forth its deeper convictions most clearly. In an attempt to redesign the entire moral system of the universe Chidi cites the 1982 essay “Putting Cruelty First” by Judith Shklar. The essay posits that cruelty is society’s primary flaw while pointing out the frequent inequality between the cruelty of an act, and the cruelty of the punishment that follows. Schur had previously stated that he wanted the show’s point system to also work as a critique of the prison system, something which is most clear in how Chidi explains the issue of cruelty:
This becomes explicit in Chidi’s opening speech in the episode, when he says, “Imagine someone sells a joint and then gets locked away in a dangerous prison for years. The crime isn’t cruel, but the punishment is. That’s a problem.”
The idea that one can be treated as no more than the worst thing one has ever done is a recipe for cruelty, one that infests much of the prison system in this country. As someone who teaches regularly in a maximum-security prison, I am well aware of this. It is likely that many of the people I teach have done terrible things; but it is just as true that they are not only that, and our time together is an exercise in that recognition.
The underlying cruelty of The Good/Bad Place point system is in how it paints people with a broad brush. The Bad Place argues that it’s ok to be cruel, because humans are bad and deserve it. They see people as frozen, defined by the things they’ve done regardless of intent, or context, or circumstances.
We see the opposite of this in how the characters react to each other. When Eleanor, fully aware of all the things she did on earth, let’s Chidi read the file on her life she is convinced that he will hate her. Instead, he accepts her fully, saying that she did pretty well, considering her circumstances. He didn’t just see the things she had done, he saw all the factors that had led Eleanor to be and act the way she did. He saw that it is these things that need to be considered too, something which is ultimately demonstrated in the new system they design. People, rather than being judged on acts alone, are given the chance to improve. To try again and again, until they get it right.
The problem of the point system and, on another level, many of our approaches to justice is clear. In the rush to categorise everything in a good/bad binary (through literal numbers on the show) we miss the opportunity to deal with the wider issues that can lead to individual acts. The failure to acknowledge, for instance, that systemic inequality is baked into our systems, means we don’t deal with the root issues that lead to a lot of crime or violent culture. We can send people to prison, argue that they should work their own way out of poverty, or say that the state doesn’t owe anyone a handout. But this runs the risk of never working to helping people find alternatives. To truly make our world better is to work systemically, and to acknowledge that it can take time and work to help people become more than their worst acts.
One example could be the UK’s attitude to knife crime. When we become focused on the punishment, looking at knife crime as simply a policing issue, we miss the chance to actually makes things better. In contrast, Scotland decided to look at it as a public health issue, funnelling funding into youth programs, mentoring, and education. While not perfect, this approach has seen a decrease in violent crime, particularly in Glasgow. It suggests that where a punishment-based approach can result in more cruelty, taking a chance to believe that people can get better with the right encouragement can achieve real, systemic results.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. I’m certainly not arguing that every murderer is simply misunderstood. After all, even in the show’s new system, there is no guarantee that everyone eventually makes it to The Good Place. It is also true that there will always be people who weaponise intent as an excuse not to do the work of becoming better. In the case of situations such as racism, for example, it’s important to acknowledge that impact matters more than intention and to right wrongs we have caused, regardless of what our intentions might have been.
In the long run, I think it’s also about encouraging people to unlearn the systems they’ve internalised and move towards better understandings of our world to achieve systemic change, and that usually takes difficult learning, research and education from others.
What I’m really trying to say is that becoming better rarely happens in a vacuum.
The power of other people
This is another concept that The Good Place has looked at extensively.
This idea that redemption is an interpersonal affair, one that requires others, recalls Aristotle’s view in his “Nicomachean Ethics” that ethics is a branch of politics — that the ability to become virtuous requires a political arrangement, a social context, that can foster it. Aristotle, however, seemed to think that to become ethical requires the exposure to people who are already virtuous, people who can act as models for others. “The Good Place” begs to differ on that score: The show’s characters are hardly models of virtue when they meet. They are deeply flawed human beings who make one another better.
The Good Place shows that people (with a demon and a Janet thrown in) can help each other become better if the right circumstances allow it. In the case of the show, this circumstance wasn’t pure ethical motivation, it was a survival instinct. Eleanor believed she was in the wrong place, and learning to become better was an act of self-preservation. Her motivations didn’t start in the right place, but over time those shifted. She became better, to the point where she becomes crucial to saving humanity a few seasons later. By forming important connections with others, Eleanor moved beyond the isolationist, selfish worldview she’d held on earth and towards believing that people can be worth fighting for.
And it’s the fight that matters. T. M. Scanlon’s ‘What We Owe to Each Other’, a key text in the show, lays out the idea of contractualism: the idea that we must live up to our duties to each other, through creating moral rules that can’t be reasonably rejected by anyone. But the show has also referenced Aristotelian virtue ethics, which argues rather than duties to others or rules to follow to be a good person, we live up to what it means to be good by acting in accordance with deeply held ethical values.
Ultimately, the show holds space for both. Eleanor initially works to live up to what it means to be a better person, but the gang end up saving the whole of humanity because they feel it’s their moral duty. It is also this moral duty that allows Eleanor to finally let Chidi leave, in the end, because she knows that there could never be a good enough justification for creating a rule to make him stay.
The characters in The Good Place grow beyond actions to simply save themselves. As time progresses they act based on what they see as their moral duties to everyone else on earth, and to each other. As they have moved forwards as individuals, they recognise that everyone deserves the same chances they have had.
Schur suggests that contractualism and virtue ethics need not be in conflict — they could just be different ways of accounting for the same moral truths. Virtue ethics explains our duties to each other in humanity’s existence as a social animal; contractualism prioritizes our social life as part of a community, before turning to human nature. But they might arrive at the same endpoint.
It’s about trying
In one of the most famous Western morality tales, To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch sets out to do the right thing, though he already knows he will probably fail. He argues that this is real courage:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what
The Good Place seems to think the same:
The Good Place has laid out a moral vision that’s surprisingly sophisticated and deeply informed by academic philosophy — a vision that puts learning, and trying, to do good front and center…
“The idea that Mike keeps coming back to is that you try — you won’t always succeed but you try,” says Todd May, a Clemson professor who started advising The Good Place in later seasons after Schur encountered his book Death (which argues life’s finitude gives it meaning). “He says we’re going to try but we’re going to fail and the key is trying knowing you’re going to fail.”
It makes sense that the new eternal system the gang design would give someone infinite chances to try, to fail, and to try again. If our whole lives are exercises in trying to become our best selves, this shouldn’t end at the point of death. Especially if some people have had a disadvantaged beginning.
Why should we care about any of this?
Good question. This is something I’ve thought about a lot because I don’t quite know why I have such a personal fascination with pop culture.
However I recently learned about the idea of New Sincerity, and it clicked with me.
you can’t determine the ethos of an entire age by looking at a sub-sub-sub-sub-culture. Rather, there are far more prominent indicators like, for example, a society’s cultural output. Take that into account, and a different picture emerges. The success of filmmakers like Judd Aptatow, the increasing popularity of ultra-sincere indie artists from Arcade Fire to Vampire Weekend, and the proliferation of wholesome, though not traditional, family-centered television…
All across the pop culture spectrum, the emphasis on sincerity and authenticity that has arisen has made it un-ironically cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbors, the environment, and the country.
A society’s cultural output can reflect its values. The Good Place reflects a society that cares about getting better and that cares about understanding what has gone wrong, in order to fix it. Whether it be a broken point system sending everyone to eternal torture or a broken system that destroys the planet and oppresses others, the answer to both problems is the same. It is ordinary people, the team cockroaches of the world, who will refuse to let things continue as they are. In the attempts to make ourselves better we can also recognise that it is vital to uphold the moral duties we have to the service of others too.
It is said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. This is not a call to sit back and wait for things to naturally get better, it is a call to action.
Ultimately, it is up to us to reform what true justice is. It is up to us to help each other, to right the wrongs of the past, to live by our virtues, and to think about moral duty. Like the characters of The Good Place, it is up to us to achieve the seemingly impossible and design an entirely new world system built on different values.
What The Good Places tells us is that, despite being difficult, not only is this possible, but it is worth the hard work. Because it’s the right thing to do, and because the trying makes it worth it. If we want to be the best version of ourselves, we also need to build the best world possible for everyone else. And that is true justice.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with these words from the AV Club’s review of the finale:
The Good Place has always been about how the individual is worth more than the systems designed to judge it, corral it, or punish it, as inconvenient as that is…
Thinking about it as I watched and rewatched this series over the past four years, it struck me how much Michael Schur’s shows all examine this conflict between organizations and individuals, how individuals are perpetually and inevitably screwed by those systems, and how justice involves flipping the priorities between expedience and humanism. Everybody deserves a chance to— as Eleanor puts it when speculating on how Michael is doing once he finally gets his greatest wish—fuck up, learn, change, fuck up again, and keep on trying. Maybe there are those individuals too broken to ever earn the right to a peaceful, complete, and satisfying ending, but even the Judge concedes that her position as the benignly dispassionate dispenser of mandatory minimums (eternity-scale) is obsolete.