I distinctly remember the day I learned about NBC’s comedy series The Good Place. I get a lot of pop culture recommendations, but this one stuck out. None of the advertising had given me any reason to think this nondescript-looking sitcom would appeal to me. Yet there came a day when three different people commanded me to watch the show as soon as humanly possible.
They were not wrong.
As an atheist AND an ethics professor, The Good Place feels like a weirdly specific boon from a typically indifferent universe. The show takes place in the afterlife, with an ethics professor as a central character, where the overarching theme involves rich questions like, “Can people learn to be better?” and, “Is it moral to punish people who failed because of bad luck?”
As I binged my way through season one, the question I kept asking myself was “how did this show get made and how has it not been canceled yet?!” It’s so philosophically heartfelt, and that seems to be what people are looking for right now.
Plato in play
So what does The Good Place have to say about ethics that has people so engrossed? First, it makes the case that people can get better if presented with the right education and, more importantly, the right community. The show commits strongly to a form of virtue theory, the ethical view developed by Plato and Aristotle that unpacked the concept of human flourishing and argued we achieve it through a combination of habituation and luck.
The virtue theory ethos at the heart of the show also manifests as a rejection of punitive justice systems, in this case in the form of a points-based afterlife system. In theory, many of us might like a system that tallies up scores at the end and allocates out rewards and punishments in order to create a just universe. In practice, though, such a system seems doomed to mistreat some and benefit the privileged few.
The show is at its best when it addresses the question, “Why is a punitive afterlife unjust?” It’s not merely that the system is poorly calibrated, or that it should send the vast majority of people to a “medium” place, as Eleanor advocates for initially. The reason this system is unjust, as we see extensively in season two, is because of moral luck.
“Moral luck” is the term for when someone is held morally accountable for things beyond their control. In his seminal paper on the subject, Thomas Nagel laid out several kinds of moral luck. There’s the “luck of consequences,” like when the young Chidi tries really hard to ethically pick his soccer teammates, and ends up wasting all of recess. While we may be sympathetic to situations of bad consequential luck, the most philosophically problematic kind of moral luck is the luck of constitution. “Constitutive luck” includes the vagaries of birth and parentage and all the factors that made you who you are, long before you had a say in any of it.
The humans in The Good Place, as we come to learn in a series of flashbacks, are all saddled with bad constitutive luck, and it is that bad luck that gets them sent to “the good place”. Eleanor and Jason come from impoverished and neglectful backgrounds. Tahani is wealthy but her parents are emotionally abusive. We know very little of Chidi’s childhood beyond that he was born in Nigeria and raised in Senegal. We don’t ever see his parents, only a place that could be either a school or an orphanage.
The point is that each of these individuals is shaped by serious traumas, and those traumas lead directly to their problematic behaviors. The uncertainty of Chidi’s youth makes him incapable of making decisions. Tahani’s abusive parents leave her desperate for validation, while Eleanor’s neglectful parents teach her to only look out for herself. Jason, well … Jason is Jason. The reveals about his upbringing are some of the darkest moments in a comedy show that has a running gag about murdering a main character.
One might worry that all this talk of moral luck and the rejection of punitive justice amounts to not holding people responsible for their actions, which seems just as wrong as an imperfect system of justice. There are alternatives to a punitive or retributive model of justice though, and the show’s virtue theory makes a strong case that a rehabilitative model would be far more justice, given that it’s clear humans can improve, even in tough circumstances, if they have the right kind of help. One of the reason’s for The Good Place’s success may be the comfort it gives people right now to understand that the bad things happening to us are the result of things beyond our control — but also, that it can get better.
I’m hoping that season three, debuting tonight, will continue to develop this theme of moral luck, in the form of a confrontation between our protagonists and the creators of this system. There’s a time-honored tradition of great philosophical artwork culminating in a debate between the main character and the people in charge. The savage and Mustapha Mond in Brave New World. Neo and the architect in The Matrix. Art is how we challenge the systems we’re trapped in, and how we force them to serve us better.
Honestly though, I’ll be able to die happy if I just get to see Eleanor call God basic.
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