5 Moral Philosophy Concepts Featured on The Good Place
NBC’s The Good Place could be the most compelling comedy on network television based purely on its clever non-curse words and Ted Danson’s extensive bowtie collection. But it also happens to cover some impressive philosophical ground in a way that advances the plot and adds intrigue without weighing the story down or feeling like you're trapped in a classroom. If you’ve watched all three seasons, you probably have a pretty good understanding of the moral philosophy tenets that recur throughout the series—Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, for example, lay the groundwork for much of the narrative and character development. Other terms, however, are delivered via quick character dialogue or single-episode arcs that might leave you under-appreciating the artful manner in which creator Michael Schur has just fed you a giant, delicious meal of moral philosophy.
To prepare for the fourth and final season of The Good Place, brush up on five important moral philosophy concepts that you might have missed.
*Spoiler alert: Spoilers for the first three seasons of The Good Place below. Proceed with caution.*
1. Moral Imperative
After Kristen Bell’s Eleanor first realizes she doesn’t belong in The Good Place, she asks Chidi to teach her how to be a good person. Chidi has some qualms and questions about such a morally ambiguous undertaking, including: “Is there a moral imperative to help you?” He’s referring to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, or the idea that we must all act according to an unwavering moral code that has nothing to do with situational variables.
By Kant’s rationale, lying, stealing, and other immoral behaviors can never be justified—even if you’re lying to spare someone’s feelings or stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Chidi, then, is trying to figure out which decision is most in accordance with Kant’s moral code. On one hand, Eleanor doesn’t belong in The Good Place, and helping her might be considered a violation of the categorical imperative if it’s considered a form of cheating. On the other hand, Eleanor is asking for help in becoming a better person, and denying someone help—especially when their morality depends on it—seems like the opposite of “doing the right thing.” The moral imperative to help Eleanor wins out, of course, which is the first of many times we see Chidi make a choice based on Kant’s very uncompromising system of ethics.
2. The Doctrine of Double Effect
In season 2, episode seven, Janet has created a doltish rebound boyfriend named Derek to help her get over her lasting feelings for Jason—feelings that generated a slew of malfunctions like spontaneously summoning a roughly 10-foot-long sub and vomiting thousands of pennies. While Jason and Tahani bask in a love-drunk paradise, Michael, Chidi, and Eleanor struggle to devise an ethical strategy to fix Janet and prevent Derek from blowing their cover to the very meddlesome demon Vicky. All of their potential solutions, however, call for one of two decidedly immoral behaviors: Killing Derek, or wrecking Jason and Tahani’s happy relationship. So Chidi offers up an ethical loophole called the doctrine of double effect, coined by Thomas Aquinas.
According to the doctrine, you can act in a way that causes an immoral side effect, as long as your primary intention is morally sound. For example: Michael could tell Jason that he was married to Janet in a previous reboot, knowing that this would cause emotional pain for Jason and Tahani (and could also result in Janet’s decision to off Derek in favor of Jason), as long as his primary goal in spilling the beans is to spare them all from Vicky’s future wrath and Janet’s potentially catastrophic future glitches.
Though the doctrine of double effect fuels that episode-specific plotline, it also subtly advances the story of Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship by prompting Eleanor to show Chidi the video footage from an earlier reboot in which they confess their love to each other. Her primary intention is the hope that it will rekindle their romance, and if she also unwittingly (OK, wittingly) serves Chidi a big bowl of emotional turmoil with a side dish of stomachache at the same time? Aquinas would say that’s a morally acceptable combo meal.
3. Moral Desert
In the season 2 finale, a dispirited, drunken Eleanor confesses to a bartender (Michael in a Cheers-inspired disguise) that her six months of commitment to good behavior after her near-death experience left her woefully unfulfilled. In other words, she had expected to receive some type of cosmic reward for her virtue that would make it all worth it. Michael identifies her mindset as an expectation of moral desert (pronounced like dessert); i.e. if you’re a good person, you deserve something in return. But, to quote every parent everywhere, life’s not fair—and, as Eleanor discovered, the pride of a job well done isn’t really enough to sustain a lifetime of unerring virtue. So, if you can’t count on moral desert, why even try to be a good person?
For self-centered Eleanor, the idea that the answer might be related to our relationships with other people is more than a little mind-blowing. After looking up What do we owe to each other?, a pointed question that Michael dropped during their conversation, Eleanor stumbles upon a video lecture that Chidi gave on the subject, which prompts her to pay him a visit in Australia and drives forward the plot of season three—and Eleanor’s character development—in a big way.
4. Happiness Pump
When Janet and Michael meet Doug Forcett in episode eight of season 3, they’re horrified. After accurately predicting the afterlife points system while high on mushrooms (but having no confirmation of his hypothesis, of course) decades ago, Doug has dedicated himself to the type of utilitarian existence so often mentioned throughout the series: Act in a way that maximizes the overall good. In doing so, Doug eats only radishes and lentils to preserve the environment, tests harmful cosmetics on his own face to spare animals from pain, and completely unravels when he accidentally steps on a snail. While living so selflessly sounds good in theory, Doug illustrates how such a severe commitment to utilitarianism is actually a terrible idea. He has become what Janet calls a happiness pump; in other words, he’s trying to pump as much happiness into the world as possible at his own expense.
In his book Moral Tribes, Harvard University professor of psychology Joshua David Greene argues that being a happiness pump might create more societal harm than good. If you contribute to the greater good while still remaining happy and comfortable, he explains, then other people will recognize that charity and service can enrich their own lives, too. “If, instead, you push yourself just shy of your breaking point, you may do more good directly with your personal donation dollars, but you may undermine the larger cause by making an unappealing example of yourself.” And nobody could possibly look at Doug and decide it’s worth modeling their behavior after his. Though the series has always heavily hinted that being a good person isn’t as easy as racking up as many brownie points as possible, it’s our introduction to the human happiness pump that really spells out the beginning of the end for The Good Place’s utilitarian system.
5. John Locke’s Theory of Personal Identity
John Locke believed that personal identity is based on a continued consciousness, i.e. memories. For most of us, this seems logical: We grow into ourselves as individuals by learning and changing based on past experiences. For Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, however, it’s not so straightforward. Over the course of hundreds of reboots, they’ve read books, fallen in love, made mistakes, and eaten lots of mediocre frozen yogurt of which they have no memory. Chidi mentions the theory in episode nine of season 3, while the four humans are in Janet’s void and Eleanor is struggling to retain her personal identity. To prevent her from utterly losing her sense of self, Chidi starts listing her memories back to her in a clear endorsement of Locke’s theory.
That episode isn't the only time Chidi leans on the Lockean line of thought—he also uses it to rationalize why his previous romantic love for Eleanor doesn’t count anymore, since it happened in an earlier reboot that he no longer remembers. In a slight philosophical plot twist, the way Chidi finally brings Eleanor back to herself is by kissing her, suggesting that personal identity somehow exists on an even deeper level than memory, and Eleanor and Chidi are inherently wired to be together. For viewers, that idea is a thread of hope that sustains us through the devastating season 3 finale, when Chidi decides that their only chance at succeeding in their new Good Place neighborhood experiment is if he gets rebooted, losing all memory of his most recent and meaningful romantic relationship with Eleanor. If the fairytale logic behind their redemptive kiss holds up, Chidi and Eleanor will likely find their way back to each other in season 4.