A spoiler free write up…
The current paradigm shift has made us more digital than we already were. Now, everyone has become cinephile, everyone has collections of their favorite shows and movies. Entertainment is subjective. However, if you are anything like me, I tend to gravitate towards the characters that I relate to and watch them see where they are headed, what they are doing with their life, also how they end up, happy, sad, content, at peace or empty and dead. I try to imbibe something new from them. For me, it is more than entertaining escapism; it is an actual consumption that stays with me until my memory permits.
Last month, I finally started watching The Good Place that I was trying to avoid since it came on Netflix. This show for me wasn’t appealing at the time, as it dealt with a premise that takes place in After Life. I was so uninterested because for me living life is the hardest job in the world and the idea of again living even after death sounds like such a daunting task. I don’t believe in the afterlife, heaven or hell, I respect all the religions but I am an atheist. However, I do believe in trying to be good, do good, be empathetic, and respect different perceptions and opinions.
When I was in school, history always intrigued me but the way it was written in the textbook made all those interesting facts and stories extremely boring. I always thought to myself, I wish these lessons were taught to us in a form of good storytelling like movies. So my dream came true because this show is a crash course in philosophy. I know many people find philosophy boring but when something so profound and a learning experience comes to you in a form of a comedy sitcom, you should give it a try. Plus it is created by Michael Schur; he was one of the writers of The Office, the Creator of Parks and Recreation, co-creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So you are in good hands. Also, the show is consulted by moral philosophy professors, hence it is legit. You will become more familiar with Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Immanuel Kant’s ideologies and theories.
The basic premise is about four totally different human beings ending up in The Good Place, a heaven-like utopia designed and run by an afterlife architect Michael played by very charming Ted Danson with help of Janet, an artificial being who assists him and the residents. Two of the humans quickly realize they are mistaken for someone else. So, Eleanor Shellstrop played by Kristen Bell tries to hide her morally imperfect past behavior while trying to become a better and more ethical person so that she could continue to stay in The Good Place (because who wants to live in a Bad Place) with the help of Chidi, a Moral Philosophy professor. They completely avoided religion aspect in the entire storyline, which was a very smart move as it helped us the viewers to see without any partial and heavily influenced lenses.
I have always been curious about the matter of life and death, meaning of life, philosophy of life, etc, the search never ends. The Good Place is not about answering the above questions but it is about how to live a fulfilling life by being a good human, sound preachy, but it isn’t. The show does an amazing job of not making it preachy. It is so entertaining that you might judge the characters when they do something wrong but the irony is, it is easy to judge others while we commit those same mistakes again and again by giving ourselves excuses to fulfill our motives and be in denial.
You must be thinking philosophy is all about how to be a nice good person and it is so easy. If you think in such a way then you are wrong my friends. Life is complex and so are the decisions we make. That is perfectly explained in the most hilarious scene, where two concepts, Utilitarianism and Deontology are explained in a very practical way. “The Trolley Problem” is the most famous and basic theory that is taught in the philosophy schools.
The Trolley problem: Say you are driving a train; you have two routes to choose from. So do you turn the runaway trolley on the one person to prevent killing five people or vice versa? Most of us will say it’s better to kill one person than five people.
Enter: the organ donation conundrum. “Then there is a transplant case”, “You can kill one healthy person and take their organs and save five people. And you might say ‘no you can’t do that.’
So the conflict between Deontology and Utilitarianism is about whether the end always justify the means. Utilitarianism says, ‘Yes, that’s the only thing that justifies the means.’ And the Deontologists are, ‘No, there are some things you can’t do even though it would bring about a better outcome.’ It gets complicated.” Hence, life is complicated and so is decision making.
We all are aware that one day everything is going to end. But there are some special moments when it hits us hard. Mostly in such circumstances, people like me tend to gravitate into a darker zone and stop giving a shit about life. Few enlightened people get up and start over again to create meaning out of this existentialism and such people become wiser and more empathetic. In this show, they changed the narrative; they gave meaning to this existentialism in a very beautiful and positive way.
This line from the show strikingly captures the essence of it,
“People are a little bit sad all the time because they know they are going to die, but this in itself gives life meaning”.
“Beauty lies in the mortality of things”.
Lots of cloud computing, database collection, creating and updating Artificial intelligence is also going on in this story, every person’s decision is being stored. There is a point system to send people to a good place and a bad place and yes there is also a medium place which has only one resident. The point system is so rigid that it is difficult to score enough points to get to The Good Place. This whole design is based on the idea of cluelessness that the consequences of our actions are so unpredictable and impossible to account for. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that The Good Place’s criteria for entry are too high. It encapsulates how it is difficult to fathom the harm done by our pure intentional actions. And the carbon footprint we are leaving by indulging in today’s hi-tech comfortable living adds a lot to it.
One example the show lays out: In 2009, Douglas Ewing, gave his mother a dozen roses and lost moral points per the Good Place’s tally — because the flowers were picked by exploited migrant workers, grown using toxic pesticides, ordered using a cell phone made in a sweatshop, delivered through a process emitting excessive greenhouse gases, and profiting a delivery company with a racist sexual harasser for a CEO. Each moral action has spiraling consequences that are hard if not impossible to anticipate.
There’s even a character on The Good Place who lived a life following Altruism, Doug Forcett, a man who successfully predicted the afterlife during a magic mushroom trip and went on to live a life of almost impossible altruism, inspired in part by Singer’s book “The Most Good You Can Do”. Still, he wasn’t good enough for The Good Place because instead of imbuing his life with meaning, he focused too much on having a spot in The Good Place. His quest to live a perfect life has seemingly deprived him of all happiness. Hence, if you indulge in any of these theories too much, if you go too far in any one direction, you are in trouble. Moreover, it is also very precisely shown in the show, few characters are also not contenders for the good place, because one of them, though did nothing wrong, instead donated millions of dollars in charity but the intention behind it was self serving and selfish. One another character also did nothing wrong per our moral policing angle but that person’s indecisiveness made others life miserable.
All this complexity of moral dilemma leads towards a more sympathetic flexible moral values. That brings us to this amazing Bernard William’s idea of a “subjective motivational set”, the idea that you have to understand each person’s moral behavior as the consequence of motivations and convictions internal to them. But this again might lead to a spectrum of state called Relativism and Nihilism. Though this show doesn’t go into that direction much, Nihilism is touched by Chidi’s character for a brief time, when he realizes whatever he is doing will ultimately lead him to one singular outcome i.e. being stuck in a place where he doesn’t want to be.
They also covered my favorite theory “Moral Particularism” by Jonathan Dancy that says, “there are no fixed rules that work in every situation”. When Chidi and Eleanor find themselves at a cocktail party in hell, trying to blend in with demons, Chidi begins to have a crisis about lying to get through the situation since he believes that lying is always bad (even when you’re doing it to be nice). But a moral particularist would say there’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation.”
This show is heavily inspired by the novel “What we owe to each other” by T.M Scanlon. In this story, all four human characters are different from each other, they might never socialize with each other in normal earth life. However, here in The Good Place, they help each other; they learn from each other, imbibe each other’s good qualities to be a better person. This book’s name is quite intriguing, as it is not what it seems to be. It assumes that we owe things to each other. It starts from that place, it’s not like, and do we owe anything to each other?
It basically signifies: Given that we owe things to each other, let’s try to figure out what they are. It is quite a subversive notion and very insightful.
This shows premise is also kind of inspired by Jean-Paul Satre’s play “No Exit”, where three different characters are kept in a room and they torture each other because they are so totally different. While being stuck, their insecurities are manifested on to each other making it impossible for anyone to live peacefully. So this show subverts that idea into… different kinds of people end up helping each other to be better by converting their insecurities into an inspiration.
The Good Place sitcom is very much aware about its storyline, they do accept the fact that it is easy to concentrate on being good after death because the other factors are not there to distract them from achieving the goal. Anomalies such as money, paying rent bills, sexism, racism, politics, etc, this is the time when this show becomes so Meta. They conduct experiments to see if human beings after their death minus all the burden of human life are capable of becoming a better person. So this thought experiment works for the show and also works for us. Currently, we are alive, living with all the factors, anomalies and the pandemic, so can we become a better version of ourselves?
The Good Place is in the belief that as hard, frustrating, and contradictory the process of moral learning is, it can lead you to a better fulfilling life. You don’t necessarily live like Doug Forcett going full-on altruistic. You just have to think about it, all the time about what you are doing whether you could be doing something a little better, a little differently each day.
“We try, we won’t always succeed but we try,”
“We’re going to try but we’re going to fail and the key is trying knowing you’re going to fail.”
The best thing here I learned, every good thing comes to an end. Even, when the characters reach the ultimate place, they realize nobody is happy even in the happiest place in the Universe. Why? because there is no end. You will be tired of enjoying everything that you ever wanted to do after a certain time. Everything looses its meaning when we are aware that there is no end. Hence, End is equally important but how to make it fulfilling is upon us. Finally, the show’s philosophy turns from western influences towards eastern philosophies i.e.”Spiritualism“. The End gives meaning to the beginning and the middle, life do completes a full circle.
There are so many things i didn’t cover, however, I hope, i did convince you to watch “The Good Place”. You will learn one thing or two that you may never have given a thought about. After watching, let me know what you think about Philosophy. You can stream all the four seasons on Netflix.