Chasing Goodness in The Good Place
The Good Place poses a central moral question: can people become “good” simply by trying hard enough? In addition to exploring differing answers to this question, the show adds its own moral imperative, namely, that whether or not we can become good people, part of our obligation to one another entails that we at least try. One of the philosophical and ethical touchstones in the entire series takes its lead from Tim Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other (published in 1998). Note that this book is not titled, Do We Owe Each Other?, rather it is taken as a given that we do owe each other something, perhaps even many somethings. Scanlon argues that we have mutual obligations to one another. It is in the fulfilling of these obligations that it is possible for us to become ‘good people’.
“Eleanor, find Chidi.” This is the note Eleanor writes inside a copy of the book, What We Owe to Each Other. She rips out the page and hides it somewhere so that she may find it later. With memory wiped clean, this note is intended to serve as a reminder of the central task she must fulfill in order to solve the puzzle of her afterlife predicament. This note indicates that Eleanor sees herself to be in community with at least one other being, someone with answers and perhaps even similar goals and obstacles.
Scanlon’s proposal in What We Owe to Each Other is called contractualism. Contractualism is part of a broader ethical camp known as social contract theory (SCT). SCT, in its modern incarnation, begins with Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Hobbes casts human beings as barely civilized beasts. The Hobbesian worldview is one in which people are in constant strife, beset by jealousy, fear, and a primitive instinct to survive at all costs. This ugly universe is the Hobbesian “state of nature” wherein humans are “solitary and poor” living a life that is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes rightfully observes that this is not a life any human would wish for themselves and that, being the clever animals we are, humans enter into a mutual pact with one another wherein we sacrifice our natural urge, and natural right, to club one another over the head in order to amass goods and safety for ourselves, lest our own heads be bashed. Freedom is sacrificed so that our skull may be kept intact. To this end, Hobbes supports a monarchy in which fealty is pledged to a king or queen in exchange for a promise to protect and preserve our lives. We barter our freedom for personal safety.
Modern western versions of the social contract dispense with the monarchical head but preserve the idea of relinquishing some type of freedom in order to enjoy important benefits of some kind. The type of social contract considered “suitable” very much depends on one’s view of human nature. Hobbes thought people were tamable beasts, inclined toward selfishness and violence but capable of peace motivated by self-interest. This view of humans leaves little room for communal inclinations. In contrast, later variations of SCT take their lead from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Rousseau replaces the bestial view of humankind with a more moderate, optimistic view. Humans are essentially self-contained and peaceful creatures who will leave each other alone as long as they are left alone themselves. Rousseau borrowed from his predecessor John Locke (1632–1704). Locke, whose version of the social contract is perhaps the most influential in western, democratic governments, places reason as the moderating force between human relations. Locke recasts the original state of nature among humans as one of constrained freedom, neither complete warfare nor idyllic bliss. The Lockean state of freedom becomes restricted when two agents live in proximity to one another and are forced to determine how the freedom of one might interfere with the freedom of the other. Locke’s social contract is placed within a community of individuals, starting with the family and extending outward. While Hobbes sees individuals as isolated from one another and in constant friction, and Rousseau sees individuals as isolated from one another, but essentially peaceful and self-contented, Locke sees individuals striving to co-exist in communities, while preserving individual freedoms.
The Lockean emphasis on community informs all the more robust versions of SCT that come later, including contractualism. Contractualism starts with the idea that morality can only be expressed in community. If we see examples of flourishing morality, be they individual or societal, it is only within the context of other people that these actions are rendered moral. Conversely, moral sensibility is stunted when opportunities for communal exchange are thwarted, deformed, or discouraged. This is the philosophical idea behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s central conceit in No Exit that, “Hell is other people.” Sartre does not mean that we are de facto designed to torment one another, but rather that living amid people and not being able to connect in a meaningful way with them is a torment to which humans are uniquely sensitive. In The Good Place, Michael’s hellish innovation regarding eternal torment is to put humans together and design an afterlife in which they are constantly positioned to dehumanize one another. When Eleanor realizes that this is what is happening, she is able to form a cohesive group in which the communal strengths outstrip individual defects and where members of the group ultimately desire to help one another. Eleanor is the first to recognize that the well-being and potential of the individual can only be realized in the context of the larger group. The fate of the one contains the fate of the other. The climax of Season 2 witnesses Eleanor refusing to go to the real Good Place if it means abandoning the group. If hell is other people, so is heaven.
In Season 3, which takes place primarily on earth, it is discovered that the entire interconnected global system has become so flawed that virtually every single action eventually leads to harmful effects that outweigh any good produced by that action. Chidi decides to abandon factory farming, giving up dairy for almond milk, only to discover that the pesticides used to produce the almonds devastate entire swaths of land, leaving them barren and drought-striken for decades; he finds that boycotting t-shirts made in sweatshops puts entire families out of work. The moral underpinnings of the global community are seen to be defective and rotting. Indeed, there is “no exit” from the institutional systems created by humans and which appear designed to bind the world in a perpetual-motion pain machine. Individuals de-value one another and create entire systems that de-value all of them, in return.
It’s reasonable to wonder whether the practice of an ethical life is even possible in a system so broken. One thing is clear, however: the ethical world of the individual is the ethical world of the larger community. There is no way to succeed or fail in only one of these spheres while leaving the other untouched, so closely intertwined are they. The question of moral obligation only becomes meaningful when asked, not as a means of ensuring my own “moral salvation” but rather when I see myself as essentially a communal being, one built for standing in relationship to others. It is the world of community that is the moral grounding for The Good Place. Moral agents are formed and come to know themselves in their interactions with one another. Immoral behavior is made clear to the person performing the action primarily because it serves to isolate her from her friends and community.
So then, what DO we owe each to other? The show looks to Scanlon’s text itself to answer this question and finds the following directive: right action is determined by reflecting on how one would justify one’s actions to those affected. An action is wrong if the principle that allows an action cannot be justified to the people affected by the action. Would the affected parties, acting as rational agents, find the justification convincing? Using this criterion, the quality that all wrong actions share is that they cannot be justified to the people affected. Note that, unlike the philosopher John Rawls (another modern contract theorist), Scanlon is not saying we should find terms to which the rational parties would all agree, rather we are asking if those parties would find actions to be wrong. It might seem odd to focus on “wrongness,” but this is because contractualism is very much concerned with what it means to wrong another person or be wronged by them. In this emphasis we see glints of the famous Kantian maxim that we are morally obligated treat people as an end in themselves, not as a means to an end.
Contractualism never views the moral agent as being divorced from a larger community affected by the actions in question. The intrinsic requirement that a moral actor must justify herself presupposes this community from the outset. Moral action is not performed in a private, individual sphere, but rather requires other people in order to be considered a good or bad action in the first place. Morality does not make the moral agent aware of her effects on others a posteriori (after the fact), rather the effects on others are what brings the action into the moral sphere to begin with. Community is a priori to moral understanding, not the other way around. This is why Eleanor writes, “Find Chidi,” as a self-reminder. She needs to link herself to at least one other person before anything else is morally possible. For his part, Chidi also leaves himself a self-reminding note that reads, “There is no ‘Answer’, but Eleanor is the answer.” The moral journey starts with other people.
The Good Place, while made in America, and evidencing many uniquely modern American characterstics, is in many ways antithetical to much of what modern America espouses. Since the dawning of the age of neo-liberalism in the 1980s, America has become uniquely fixated on invidual responsibility and individual rights. What we have sacrificed however, is our sense of responsibility to a larger community. It is often taken for granted that individual rights should take precedent over communal ones, but this is not an assumption most other peoples have made historically or that many nations currently make outside of the U.S. America is mainly a “rights-based” country, whereas most European, and particularly Scandinavian, countries are “obligation-based.”
It is in the world of obligation that The Good Place unfolds. The show is an examination of the relationship between the individual and the larger group of which she is a part. Ultimately, The Good Place argues that a good life, a moral life, is only possible in a world with other people who we value. Further this world must be ordered in a certain way so as to allow us to live our lives without degrading others, even unintentionally. The Good Place offers a political critique that strongly suggests our current world is not such a place and that our institutions are broken. To seek to become a “good person” is to recognize the interconnectedness of our broken world, and the people living in that broken world. In such a world our moral agency is limited, but it still allows for the fulfillment of certain crucial obligations. These “crucial obligations” are precisely what we owe to each other: mutual recognition, valuation, and respect, practiced in such a way that we can justify our treatment of other people reasonably and without falsehood.
Why should we do this? Why should we choose to be good? In the ever-wise words of Chidi Anagonye, “We choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”