5 Moral Philosophy Concepts Featured on The Good Place

William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell in The Good Place.
William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell in The Good Place.
NBCUniversal Media, LLC

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.

12 Epic Facts About David Lynch's Dune

Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In 1984, more than a decade of development hell culminated in the release of Dune, the long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel about a messianic figure rising from a desert planet where a mysterious spice was harvested. After several different filmmakers tried (and failed) to bring it to the screen, Dune finally arrived via David Lynch, a then up-and-coming filmmaker who’d never been tested on a film of that size and scope.

The result was one of the most fascinating cinematic messes of the 1980s, the product of a tricky adaptation process, editorial clashes, and a filmmaker who never felt satisfied with the work he was doing under the watchful eye of his producers. In celebration of its 35th anniversary, here are a dozen facts about the making of Dune, from last-minute casting choices to battles over the final cut.

1. It took years to get Dune made.

Though Dune didn’t make it to the big screen until 1984, the journey from page to film actually began more than a decade earlier with producer Arthur P. Jacobs, best known for science fiction hits like Planet of the Apes. Jacobs announced his production of Dune in 1972, seven years after Frank Herbert’s novel was initially published. Jacobs’s production eventually unraveled and the producer passed away in 1973, leading to an effort from French producers to get the film made. That, too, eventually fell apart, leaving the rights to be claimed by yet another producer.

By the late 1970s, producer Dino De Laurentiis had purchased the rights to Dune, hoping to make the film with his daughter Rafaella, who adored Frank Herbert’s original novel. Then came the problem of finding a director, which Dune had struggled with before.

2. Several directors tried to make Dune.

Back in 1972, when Jacobs was working to get his adaptation of Dune off the ground, he announced that director Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) would direct the film. Ultimately, the adaptation proved too unwieldy and costly for Jacobs to mount, and the rights were passed along to French producers who’d purchased them for director Alexandro Jodorowsky, best known at the time for his surreal Western El Topo.

Jodorowsky launched an extravagantly ambitious plan to adapt Dune into something that was very much his own vision, conceiving the project as an epic that would run as long as 14 hours, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a cast including everyone from his own son Brontis as Paul Atreides to Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí as the Emperor. After three years in pre-production, Jodorowsky had already burned through much of the film’s budget, and the project stalled while gaining its own legendary reputation. Jodorowsky’s vision for the project was ultimately immortalized in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

In 1980, with De Laurentiis now driving the project, the director’s chair was offered to Ridley Scott, then fresh off his own sci-fi success with Alien. Scott was interested, but several factors—including Universal Pictures’ anxiety over the project’s budget—led him to ultimately walk away in favor of yet another sci-fi project: Blade Runner.

With Scott out, Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis went searching for another director. That’s when they saw a new historical drama called The Elephant Man.

3. David Lynch was hired for Dune because of The Elephant Man.

A photo of David Lynch
Getty Images

At the end of 1980, David Lynch only had two feature films to his name: The experimental nightmare Eraserhead and the acclaimed historical drama The Elephant Man, both of which were black-and-white films that showcased Lynch’s knack for striking visuals. The Elephant Man catapulted Lynch into mainstream visibility and critical acclaim. The film earned eight Academy Award nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, and won three BAFTAs, including Best Film. It also drew the eyes of Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis, who saw Lynch as the perfect up-and-coming visual stylist to tackle Dune. Despite their love of The Elephant Man, the De Laurentiises did not go back and watch Eraserhead until after Lynch was hired.

“If I had seen it without knowing him, I probably would have walked out,” Rafaella De Laurentiis later said of Lynch’s debut feature.

4. David Lynch turned down Star Wars to make Dune.

After The Elephant Man became a massive critical success, Lynch began work on the film that would become Blue Velvet, but at the same time other filmmakers were looking at the director to take on more commercial projects. According to Lynch, he was at one point considering working on an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (which was finally adapted as Manhunter by Michael Mann in 1986), but an even bigger offer had also arrived on his table. George Lucas was looking for a filmmaker to take on directing duties for his third Star Wars film, and wanted Lynch.

“I went to meet George Lucas, who had offered me the third Star Wars to direct, but I’ve never even really liked science fiction,” Lynch later recalled. “I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing.”

So, Lynch turned down what would become Return of the Jedi, ultimately in favor of taking on Dune.

5. David Lynch hadn’t heard of Dune before he was offered the film.

David Lynch, despite his leaning toward various genre quirks in his works, was never a particular fan of science fiction, which put him in an interesting position in the early 1980s when he was offered two major science fiction projects in the wake of The Elephant Man’s success. He was so out of the loop on major sci-fi stories, in fact, that when Dino De Laurentiis called him, he had a difficult time understanding exactly what he was being offered.

“And Dino says, ‘I want you to read this book, Dune,’” Lynch recalled. “I thought he said ‘June,’ you know, and I said, ‘June’? He said, ‘No, Dune.’ And so then a friend of mine said, ‘Man! That is a great science fiction book,’ and I said, ‘I know, that’s what I heard.’ So I started reading it.”

Lynch went on to get so deep into Dune that he wrote half a dozen drafts of the screenplay, and consulted frequently with author Frank Herbert.

6. Kyle MacLachlan was cast in Dune because he was an unknown actor.

Kyle MacLachlan and Ramón Menéndez in Dune (1984)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When it came time to cast Dune, Lynch and Rafaella De Laurentiis knew it was important to strike the right tone with the actor who would play the film’s hero, Paul Atreides. To do this, they decided that instead of pursuing a known star, they would seek out an unknown young actor who could lend a somewhat mysterious presence to the film. De Laurentiis sprang into action and organized casting agents for a nationwide search to find the film’s Paul. While casting scout Elizabeth Leusting was combing the Pacific Northwest for talent, she came across a 25-year-old actor who’d been performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Kyle MacLachlan was nearly finished with school and was already planned to make a move to New York City to begin auditioning on his way to an acting career. Instead, he was put on the fast track by winning the lead role in Dune.

MacLachlan’s casting wasn’t just the launch of his screen acting career. It was also the beginning of a lengthy collaboration with Lynch which included Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet, as well as the iconic cult TV series Twin Peaks.

7. Helena Bonham Carter was Dune’s original Princess Irulan.

As the cast of Dune was coming together and preparing to begin production on the film in Mexico City, the producers ran into a major obstacle. Helena Bonham Carter, the original choice to play Princess Irulan, had a scheduling overlap between Dune and A Room with a View, which she was already shooting. Because the schedules conflicted and A Room with a View “wouldn’t let her out” of work on that film, there was what Virginia Madsen later called a “mad scramble” to find a replacement actress.

Madsen, then an relative unknown, went in to audition in an all-white outfit which David Lynch later saw a Polaroid of. Based on her “classic look,” he chose her as Princess Irulan, which she later called her “big break.”

“Really all I had to do was that monologue, and I was really a glorified extra,” Madsen said.

8. David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis clashed over the edit.

Dune is a massive, densely detailed novel that establishes a vast sense of place and continuity, which made it a particular challenge to adapt. Once Lynch had a usable screenplay to make the film, the massive scope of Dune translated over into production in Mexico City, where 75 sets and thousands of costumes were made to bring Lynch’s vision of Herbert’s universe to the screen. By the end of production, Lynch had put together a work print that was 4-5 hours long, and eventually trimmed that down to a cut of the film that was somewhere near three hours.

De Laurentiis was having none of that. The producer believed the film needed to be closer to two hours in order to be theatrically successful, and set about condensing Lynch’s original cut down to his preferred runtime. Sequences were cut or heavily abbreviated, and De Laurentiis even oversaw reshoots to add certain elements, including the opening in which Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) speaks directly to the camera to set the stage for the story. The additions were made after test screening audiences complained the film was hard to understand, but they arguably only muddied the waters even more.

Though he was dissatisfied with his lack of final cut on the film, Lynch has resisted any opportunity to go back and recut Dune, so much so that when the film was expanded for a television release, Lynch asked that his name be replaced with “Alan Smithee,” the traditional pseudonym for directors who don’t want to be credited on films they’re unhappy with.

9. David Lynch learned a valuable filmmaking lesson from Dune.

Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984)
Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Dune was David Lynch’s third feature film, and it turned out to be his first and, to date, only exercise in big-budget franchise filmmaking. Ever since Blue Velvet his career has been marked by smaller budget, often downright experimental, feature films so singular that they’ve earned their own adjective: Lynchian. There’s a reason for this, even beyond Lynch’s pursuit of his own particular filmmaking interest. On Dune, he learned a very specific lesson that would help to define his future as a director.

“When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death, die the death. And died I did,” he recalled. “When you have a failure, like they say there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s so freeing. It’s beautiful, in a way.”

10. Dune helped get Blue Velvet made.

David Lynch has come to look back on Dune as a disappointing exercise in compromise, but he also acknowledges that making the film was “both great and horrible, side by side.” Though he clashed with De Laurentiis over the cut of the film, he did still find a kinship with his producers that went beyond the difficulties of making the film.

“I love Dino and I love Rafaella and I loved working with them,” he later said. “We were like a family. I just know the way they are and they know the way I am. We loved each other in spite of it.”

De Laurentiis obviously loved Lynch back, and had faith in what he could do if he was granted more artistic freedom on a smaller film, because the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group financed Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet. That film, a nightmarish mystery that once again starred Kyle MacLachlan, is still considered among Lynch’s greatest artistic successes.

11. There were big sequel plans for Dune.

At the time Dune was in production, Frank Herbert had already published four novels in his Dune series, with two more – Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune – set to follow in 1984 (the year Dune was released) and 1985. That meant there was a vast sandbox of intellectual property for De Laurentiis and company to play in if the film was successful, and the producers certainly intended to keep going. After completing work on Dune, Lynch went right into working on the screenplay for a sequel, and MacLachlan was contracted to return for up to four more films if Dune proved a success. Years later, Virginia Madsen recalled that her own contract for Dune was for three movies, as the producers “thought they were going to make Star Wars for grown-ups.”

Of course, Dune ultimately grossed a little more than $30 million worldwide on a budget of at least $40 million, so no sequels were in the cards.

12. Frank Herbert enjoyed David Lynch’s Dune.

Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984)
Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Nearly two decades passed between the time Frank Herbert published Dune and the release of David Lynch’s film adaptation. Along the way, Herbert saw the many different attempts to bring his story to the screen, and he spent a good deal of time in consultation with Lynch as the director developed his version of the Dune screenplay. So, when it was completed, how did he feel about the film?

In an interview with Lynch from around the time of Dune’s release, Herbert seemed quite pleased with the film, particularly the visuals.

“I get asked a specific question a lot of times, if the settings, the scenes that I saw in David’s film match my original imagination, the things I projected in my imagination. I must tell you that some of them do, precisely,” Herbert said. “Some of them don’t, and some of them are better. Which is what you would expect of artists such as David and Tony Masters. I’m delighted with that! Why not take it and improve on it visually? As far as I’m concerned the film is a visual feast.”

Additional Source: Lynch on Lynch, Revised Edition (2005), edited by Chris Rodley

Rewind Time With This Blockbuster-Themed Party Game

Amazon/Big Potato Games
Amazon/Big Potato Games

With only one Blockbuster location left in the world, the good old days of wandering video rental store aisles and getting chewed out for late fees are definitely a thing of the past—but like so many relics from the '90s, the pull of nostalgia has ensured that Blockbuster (or at least the brand) won't disappear for good. Now the video store is back in the form of a party game from Big Potato Games that is designed to test the movie knowledge of you and up to 11 friends.

Marketing itself as “a movie game for anyone who has ever seen a movie,” the Blockbuster party game consists of two parts. In part one, players from each team compete head-to-head to name as many movies as they can that fit under specific categories (e.g., movies with Tom Cruise, famous trilogies, movies with planes). In the second half, two teams face off against each other to test their skills at a game of movie-related charades. The catch? Players can only describe movies in one of three randomly chosen ways: acting out scenes, rattling off a famous quote, or describing the films with one word.

The real selling point of the whole package is that Big Potato fit all the game cards and buzzer into a box that is virtually identical to the old-school Blockbuster VHS rental cases, right down to its distinct color scheme and shape. All it's missing is the membership card. 

The Blockbuster board game costs $26 on Amazon and $20 at Target. That’s a fair price for getting the chance to rewind time.

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