Watching Philosophy in The Good Place
For fans of The Good Place, especially those who either teach philosophy or who enjoy the geeky pleasures of reading obscure philosophical works, the brainy Chidi Anagonye is a sitcom hero made in philosophical heaven. From the first season of The Good Place onward, philosophy nerds had one pressing question, namely what shining gems of intellectual achievement are contained in Chidi’s philosophical magnum opus titled (deep breath): Who We Are and Who We Are Not: Practical Ethics and their Application in the Modern World: Moral Reasoning and the Human Paradox of Self-Preservation in Relationship to the Social Contract; a Treatise on the Value of Universal and Mutually Beneficial Ethical Responses as Displayed in Everyday Interactions. Take that, Immanuel Kant!
The Good Place writers are clearly poking fun at academics who toil in obscurity and write books that are so pedantic and deadly dull that no one reads them, not even other philosophers. But Chidi, surely, is not like other philosophers. What exactly do we know about Chidi’s life work? We know it is obscenely long (at least two thousand pages), we know that at least one supernatural being finds it insufferably dull (arch-angel and arch-critic Michael), and we know that Chidi refers to his book as being an accurate representation of the ethical and philosophical ideas he intended to express and to embody.
What clues might the book’s title reveal about the enclosed content? The two opening clauses of the title tell us quite a bit: Who We Are and Who We Are Not: Practical Ethics and their Application in the Modern World. Firstly, we can surmise that the book is an examination of personal identity (Who We Are and Who We Are Not) and secondly, the treatise can be classified as “applied ethics” (Practical Ethics and their Application in the Modern World). The placement of these two ideas at the beginning of the title tells us that Chidi is likely making an argument that our personal identity is expressed by the manner in which we exercise our ethical agency. In other words, we are what we do.
What else might we infer about Chidi’s book and the types of ideas he explores there? Time and again in the show, Chidi refers to the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) as a moral guide. One example of the influence of Kant is revealed in a flashback in which we see Chidi receiving a pair of red cowboy boots as a gift. Initially Chidi thanks his friend for the gift and wears the boots, which he secretly hates. But after several sleepless nights, Chidi decides he must tell his friend the truth about his repulsion for the boots and return the gift. Chidi’s conscience won’t let him do the thing that most of us would likely do, which is to thank our friend and then put the boots at the back of our closet and forget about them. Instead Chidi invokes Immanuel Kant and the Kantian directive to always to tell truth. Chidi resolves to tell his friend the truth, thus correcting the previous lie. Even when he discovers his friend is in a hospital bed, having barely survived an accident, Chidi tells his vulnerable friend about his real feelings for the boots. How can this type of hurtful truth-telling be ethical? According to Kant the consequences of truth-telling don’t matter, the suffering one might inflict by truth-telling doesn’t matter, all that matters is that the truth be told. Truth itself is what is valuable, and we don’t get to decide when truth telling is best, rather, we proceed from the assumption that the truth is always best.
Chidi’s dogged determination to the tell the truth, consequences be damned, makes him what philosophers call a deontologist. A deontologist adheres to a few basic moral rules, rules that are non-negotiable, or very nearly so. These rules are crucial to morality and they provide directives for how we should treat other people. While a utilitarian might suggest we consider the “greatest good for the greatest number,” a deontologist will think in terms of moral duty, not consequences. A utilitarian might encourage us to tell a fib if it would spare the feelings of other people and make them happy, but a deontologist will insist that truth-telling honors the inherent dignity of other people. I cannot decide on your behalf whether or not you can “handle the truth,” my only obligation is to tell the truth.
Kant outlines a few basic ethical principles he calls “categorical imperatives.” These imperatives are the moral principles from which all moral action flows. The two most famous of Kant’s imperatives are, first, act in such a way so as to treat other people as ends and not as means to ends. In other words, don’t use people. The second principle is to act in such a way that any action you take could be made into a universal moral law. Before you pocket that pack of Juicy Fruit gum from the Piggly Wiggly, ask yourself if you would condone everyone stealing Juicy Fruit gum whenever they felt like it. If the answer is no, then don’t do it. Kant argues that these basic moral imperatives are non-negotiable. We don’t get decide when to invoke them and when to ignore them. So, when I say Chidi is a deontologist, I am referring to his belief in universal moral principles and behaviors.
The second primary strain of Chidi’s philosophical thought as expressed in the show is called contractualism. Contractualism is part of a larger school called “Social Contract Theory,” but it is of a very special type of social contract. The contemporary version of contractualism is sourced in the philosophy of John Rawls and is furthered in the writing of T.M. Scanlon. Scanlon is the author of the book that is featured most often in The Good Place. It is called, What We Owe to Each Other. Scanlon makes the argument that we are morally obligated to behave toward others in a manner they find morally acceptable. In other words, I must be able to justify my actions in a manner that would find support by those affected by my actions. Scanlon picks up on Kant and argues that treating others as ends in themselves ensures that I perform actions that recognize the dignity of others. Since I am treating others with dignity, my actions will be of such a nature that I can justify them to others.
It is exceedingly likely that Chidi’s ethical recipe, the one expressed in his book, is equal parts Kant and Scanlon. This makes Chidi a “deontological contractualist.” This simply means that he adheres to a few basic moral rules (that’s the deontological part) that are intended to mediate and inform our social conduct (that’s the contractual part). Morality, after all, is derived from our relationship to one another and has no meaning when removed from this communal sphere. Ask yourself if you think it is possible to practice morality all by yourself, divorced from any community. What would that kind of morality even look like? Morality is, at its heart, a social activity.
In the universe of The Good Place, moral perfection and transgression is a group endeavor. Initially the inhabitants of The Good Place wish to become good so as to possess the riches of heaven. They see themselves as ethical free agents, each trying to “out-good” the other. But they slowly realize that the only way to become better people is to elevate one another. In one of his lecture’s Chidi says, “We choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity.” There is no moral journey except for that experienced in relationship to other human beings. To ask what is in Chidi’s book is to dive into Chidi’s moral universe, which is a universe of human community. It is a place where cheerful obligation to others allows us the possibility of “becoming better people,” of pursuing ethical excellence. It is to accept the Aristotelian premise that we can become better people by actively choosing to become better people, which is to say, by choosing to fulfill our obligations to one another in our everyday actions. Who knew binge watching television could be such an ethical endeavor?