5 concepts of moral philosophy presented on The Good Place

NBC The right place might be the most compelling comedy on network television, based solely on its clever words and Ted Danson’s extensive collection of bow ties. But it also happens to cover impressive philosophical ground in a way that advances the plot and adds intrigue without weighing down the story or feeling like you’re trapped in a classroom. . If you’ve watched all three seasons, you’ve probably got a pretty good grasp of the principles of moral philosophy that recur throughout the series – Aristotle’s ethics of virtue and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, for example. lay the groundwork for much of the storytelling and character development. Other words, however, are delivered via quick character dialogue or single episode arcs that might leave you underestimating the artful way creator Michael Schur just gave you a giant and delicious meal of moral philosophy.

To prepare for the fourth and final season of The right place, review five important concepts in moral philosophy that you may have missed.

* Spoiler alert: spoilers for the first three seasons of The right place below. Proceed with caution. *

1. The moral imperative

After Kristen Bell’s Eleanor first realizes that she doesn’t belong at The Good Place, she asks Chidi to teach her how to be a good person. Chidi has qualms and questions about such a morally ambiguous business, including, “Is there a moral imperative to help you?” “He refers to Immanuel Kant categorical imperative, or the idea that we must all act according to an unshakeable moral code that has nothing to do with situational variables.

According to Kant’s reasoning, lying, stealing and other immoral behavior can never be justified, even if you lie to spare someone’s feelings or steal a loaf of bread to feed a hungry child. Chidi therefore tries to determine which decision is most in accordance with Kant’s moral code. For one thing, Eleanor has no place in The Good Place, and helping her could be seen as a violation of the Categorical Imperative if it is seen as a form of cheating. On the other hand, Eleanor asks for help in becoming a better person, and refusing help from someone – especially when their morality depends on it – seems to be the opposite of “doing the right thing.” The moral imperative to help Eleanor wins, 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 created a silly rebound boyfriend named Derek to help her overcome her enduring feelings for Jason – feelings that spawned a host of dysfunctions like spontaneously summoning a submarine to ‘about 10 feet long and throwing up thousands of pennies. As Jason and Tahani bask in a love-drunken paradise, Michael, Chidi, and Eleanor struggle to devise an ethical strategy to fix Janet and prevent Derek from revealing their cover to the very indiscreet demon Vicky. All of their potential solutions, however, call for one of two decidedly immoral behaviors: either killing Derek or destroying Jason and Tahani’s happy relationship. Chidi therefore proposes an ethical flaw called the doctrine of the double effect, invented by Thomas Aquinas.

According to 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 leave Derek in favor of Jason) , as long as her main objective in spilling the beans is to spare them all from Vicky’s future wrath and Janet’s future potentially catastrophic glitches.

While the Double Effect Doctrine feeds into this episode-specific plot, it also subtly advances the story of Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship by having Eleanor show Chidi the video footage from a previous reboot in which they confess their love. Her main intention is to hope that this will rekindle their romance, what if she also unintentionally (OK, consciously) serves Chidi a big bowl of emotional turmoil with an upset stomach side dish at the same time? Thomas Aquinas would say it’s a morally acceptable combined meal.

3. Moral desert

In the Season 2 finale, a disheartened and drunk 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 unsatisfied. In other words, she had expected to receive some sort of cosmic reward for her virtue that would be worth it. Michael identifies his state of mind as an expectation of moral desert (pronounced like dessert); that is, if you are a good person, you deserve something in return. But, to quote parents around the world, life isn’t fair, and as Eleanor discovered, pride in a job well done isn’t really enough to sustain a life of infallible virtue. So if you can’t count on the moral wilderness, why even try to be a good person?

For self-absorbed Eleanor, the idea that the answer may be related to our relationships with others is more than a little mind-boggling. After having watched What do we owe each other?, a pointed question that Michael left off during their conversation, Eleanor stumbles upon a video talk Chidi gave on the subject, prompting her to visit her in Australia and pushing the plot of season three forward – and the development of the character of Eleanor – in a big way.

4. Happiness pump

When Janet and Michael meet Doug Forcett in episode eight of season 3, they are horrified. After accurately predicting the afterlife’s point system when it was mushroom-rich (but having no confirmation of its hypothesis, of course) decades ago, Doug devoted 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 save the environment, tests harmful cosmetics on his own face to spare the animals pain, and collapses completely when he accidentally steps on a snail. While living so selflessly sounds good in theory, Doug illustrates how such a stern commitment to utilitarianism really is a terrible idea. He has become what Janet calls a happiness pump; in other words, he tries to inject as much happiness into the world as possible at his own expense.

In his book Moral tribes, professor of psychology at Harvard University Joshua David Greene argues that being a pump of happiness could create more harm than good for society. If you are contributing to the common good while remaining happy and comfortable, he explains, then other people will recognize that charity and service can enrich their own lives as well. “If, instead, you just move away from your breaking point, you can do more good directly with your personal donations, but you can undermine the larger cause by making an unappealing example of yourself. And no one could look at Doug and decide that it’s worth modeling his behavior on his. While the series has always strongly implied 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 defines the start of the end of The Good Place utility system.

5. John Locke’s Theory of Personal Identity

John locke believed this personal identity is based on a continuous consciousness, that is to say memories. To most of us, this makes sense: we grow as individuals by learning and changing based on past experiences. For Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani, however, it’s not that simple. Over hundreds of reboots, they’ve read books, fell in love, made mistakes, and ate a lot of mediocre frozen yogurt that they have no memory of. Chidi mentions the theory in Season 3 episode nine, as the four humans are in Janet’s void and Eleanor struggles to maintain her personal identity. To keep her from completely losing her self-esteem, Chidi begins listing her memories to her in a clear endorsement of Locke’s theory.

This episode isn’t the only time Chidi has taken Lockean’s line of thinking – he also uses it to rationalize why his previous romantic love for Eleanor no longer matters, as it happened during a previous reboot which he no longer remembers. In a slight philosophical twist, the way Chidi ultimately 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 hardwired. to be together. For viewers, this idea is a thread of hope that sustains us throughout the devastating Season 3 finale, when Chidi decides their only chance for their new Good Place neighborhood experience to be successful is if it’s restarted, losing all memory of her most recent and meaningful romantic relationship with Eleanor. If the fairytale logic behind their redeeming kiss holds, Chidi and Eleanor will likely meet again in Season 4.

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