A Better Place

NBC's "The Good Place" accomplished what many other shows dare not even attempt: It taught lessons about morality and what it means to be human.

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The Ringer

"The Good Place" finished its four-season run at the end of January, but its lessons continue to resonate.

By Julia Poppa, North Allegheny Senior High School

I’ve had my fair share of existential crises: nights spent in bed staring at the ceiling wondering about the significance of my life and contemplating some of life’s most notorious unanswered questions. But what I have realized is that our biggest questions do not lie within the size of the universe or the afterlife, but rather within the mechanics of ethics and moral philosophy. However, like most teenagers, it is difficult for me to find the time to educate myself on the process of becoming and being a good person. Because who has the time to comprehend morality, anyway?

Fortunately, Michael Schur attempted to comprehend this morality for me and the masses, and thus was born The Good Place– a critically acclaimed, moral comedy set in the afterlife focused on exactly what it means to be “good.”

For four glorious years, The Good Place tackled the hardest questions about moral philosophy and how to be kind to your fellow human beings. And in those four years, I got to fall in love with a show more times than I can count. Still, I never thought that it would be so difficult to watch it all come to an end. So, on January 30th, when the final episode aired, I cried way more than I expected to.

If you plan on watching The Good Place, or you haven’t finished watching it, you may want to save this article for another day, because I am about to spoil quite a bit.

Colleen Hayes/NBC
THE GOOD PLACE — “A Girl From Arizona” Episode 401/402 — Pictured: (l-r) Ted Danson as Michael, D’Arcy Carden as Janet, Manny Jacinto as Jason, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, Kristen Bell as Eleanor — (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Of course, there are many ways to summarize a show that is as thoughtful and complex as The Good Place, but I think that the most impactful part of the show comes in its little gems of philosophical wisdom.

The show follows four humans, a demon, and an AI assistant as they work out the kinks and moral shortcomings of the way the afterlife works.

In the first season, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a self-proclaimed “Arizona trash bag,” wakes up and is told that she is in heaven, or “the Good Place”– but is actually an experimental torture device hidden in “the Bad Place.” She learns that to get into heaven, you have to be one of the most morally driven people on the planet, based off of points you earn during your time on earth. Only the people with the highest possible point totals are admitted into the Good Place, so it quickly becomes quite clear that she shouldn’t be there.

With the help of her “soulmate” Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who is a Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a rich and famous socialite, and Jason (Manny Jacinto), a small-time DJing criminal from Florida, none of whom belong in the Good Place, Eleanor decides to figure out what exactly is going wrong in heaven.

At the end of the first season, Eleanor realizes that they have been assigned to torture each other, because they were, in fact, living in The Bad Place. But Michael (Ted Danson), a demon in disguise, quickly decides his experiment isn’t over and reboots the four humans with the help of his all knowing, hypercompetent assistant, Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

After several hundred reboots, Michael starts to realize that his experiment has consistently made the humans better, and that, when given the opportunity to, people will help each other become better. Unable to perfect his experiment, he relents and joins the humans in their quest to become better people.

The first two seasons mainly revolve around this plot, giving way to smaller, more day to day philosophical dilemmas. The humans, later accompanied by Michael, take ethics lessons from Chidi, with the help of Janet, to posthumously earn their right to be in the real Good Place.

One of the very first dilemmas in the show comes in the first episode when Eleanor tells Chidi that she was incorrectly placed in the afterlife. His question, as a strict believer in the teachings of Immanuel Kant, is should he turn in Eleanor for the good of the neighborhood, or should he help her become the person she could be.

The question of good intentions despite negative actions is something we deal with very often. I ask myself all the time if good intentions excuse bad actions or if the only true “good” is to be morally driven the entire way, but in the show, Chidi comes to this conclusion: “If all that matters is the sum of the total goodness, then you can justify any number of bad actions.”

I couldn’t agree more. I could easily justify eating Chick-Fil-A because it tastes good, despite knowing that until recently the company donated money to anti-LGBT programs, or I could simply buy my chicken sandwich elsewhere, because I know there are unavoidable consequences to all of the decisions in our lives.

But what I also know is that sometimes there just simply isn’t a way out of making bad decisions or doing something that is ethically unjust.

Thus enters the infamous trolley problem.

While trying to teach ethics to Michael, Chidi introduces the trolley problem, posing the scenario that there are two tracks. Choosing either will kill people, but one will kill five, and the other kills just one. The logical answer seems to be that you should kill one person, but Michael quickly spirals realizing that there are way more variables to account for. What if you know one of the people? Or what if one of them has the cure to cancer? What if these things are both true but you still don’t know who you’re going to run over?

While this question quickly becomes derailed, due to Michael’s lingering habits from his time as a practicing demon, it forces the viewers to face the question for themselves as Eleanor, Chidi, and Michael go through a lifelike rendition of the problem.

It’s human nature to ignore certain outcomes to justify why we do what we do, or to keep ourselves sane by choosing to ignore the consequences of our actions because they simply don’t affect us. However, it is a lot easier to comprehend moral rationalization when you see it in action, and it is much easier to realize how complicated our lives really are.

The third and fourth seasons of The Good Place are a showcase of the complexity of human life, and why a point system is a lazy way of categorizing the goodness of one’s life on earth.

In the third season, Michael and Janet make a plea to the judge of the afterlife, Gen (Maya Rudolph), that if the humans were able to improve with each other’s help, maybe they would be able to get into the Good Place for real. So, Michael heads to earth to prevent the deaths of the four humans, hoping their near-death experiences would be enough to set them on a path to becoming better people.

But even this turns out to be much more complicated. In their second go-around on earth, Michael’s meddling leads to them finding out about the afterlife, which means they no longer qualify for the Good Place at all.

Justin Lubin/NBC
THE GOOD PLACE — “Everything Is Fine” Episode 101– Pictured: Kristen Bell as Eleanor — (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)

In the words of the show itself, it’s because of this thing they like to call moral dessert. If you do something good simply because you want it to benefit you, then your intentions are selfish, and therefore bad, despite however much “good” you put into the world. In other words, we have to want to do something good for the sake of it being good, regardless of how it helps us.

This, I think, is one of the most relevant philosophical gems the show has to offer, and here’s why: we all know someone, or have been that person ourselves, who does something good so we can show it off on social media, or to our friends, so that they will perceive us as a good person.

For example, if you go on a mission trip to build houses in a developing country just so you can take pictures with the starving children and post them on Instagram, that is very different than going because you genuinely want to provide free housing and the opportunity for a better future for underprivileged people that don’t have the same resources that you do.

Of course, it matters that those people now have somewhere more sheltered to live, or have easy access to clean water, but if you go for the “clout” of being a “good person,” then your justification for doing it minimizes the effect that it had on people.

With the gang now unable to reach everlasting peace in the true Good Place, they decide to help people while they still have a chance.

They turn to the only man they know has led a morally perfect life, Doug Forcett– a man who took magic mushrooms in the ’80s and guessed what the afterlife was like with 92% accuracy. After coming down from the intense amounts of hallucinogens, he decided to lead a life so perfect that he was undeniably set to enter the Good Place.

Assuming that he is the “blueprint” for a morally perfect life, Michael and Janet interview him, posing as fake reporters for a local newspaper. During the interview, however, they realize that Doug has sacrificed his own happiness to ensure the happiness of everyone else and lives what is, frankly, an undesirable life because of this.

Due to extenuating circumstances, the gang ends up back in the afterlife and seek out the Accountants, who are in charge of calculating the point totals of everyone on earth. They ask to see the point total for Doug and come to realize he is far below the point threshold for entering the Good Place, leading the head accountant, Neil (Stephen Merchant) to inform them that no one has qualified for the Good Place in hundreds of years.

The actions that used to be simple and pure now have unintended consequences. Picking a rose to take to your sick grandmother used to be as simple as snipping one off of a bush, but now to take roses to your sick grandmother, you have to buy them from someone, contributing to a company that probably uses pesticides and slavery driven by the selfish capitalistic endeavors of a wealthy CEO, unconcerned with the well-being of their employees. The same action with the same intention has quickly become negative based on the unforeseen repercussions.

Michael takes the four humans and Janet back to the Judge to plead their case that the intention of an action is worth more than the negative things that happen because of it, and because of this, millions of good people are being sent to the Bad Place.

After spending a few days on earth, Gen realizes how difficult it is to make up for the consequences by doing research and taking the time to avoid things with these undetectable negative outcomes.

Not only that, but there are people who want to be able to take the time and invest in ethically sustainable businesses and make morally driven choices but physically can’t. Not everyone can afford to buy sustainable products or has the time and resources to research the most ethical ways to live. Life is constantly becoming more complex and complicated, and it is happening at a rate that we, as a society, cannot necessarily keep up with.

For instance, anyone who knows me knows that I care very deeply about the environment, so I’ve been known to hit up places like my old schools and local parks to pick up trash. However, I don’t have the time or the resources to make sure that the trash I pick up doesn’t end up in a landfill or in the ocean. I do what I can to help, but I’m also not able to make up for everyone else after I have done what I can on my end.

But just like life, people are constantly changing. So, why should the rest of someone’s eternity be based on what they do in a comparatively insignificant amount of time on Earth?

After the judge realizes that she was wrong, she offers Michael and the humans an opportunity to prove that all humans are capable of change by allowing them to design an experiment to intentionally help people get better.

At the end of the year-long experiment, the point totals of the four new humans are counted up, as well as the point totals of the people the original four helped during their second try on Earth, showing that everyone is capable of positive change– even those who seem completely and utterly incapable of having goodwill.

The basis of their argument, and of the show itself, is that humans have the power to help other people. What chance do we have at becoming better if we are not surrounded by an environment that is open to that idea?

We constantly judge people, not based on their actions alone, but on their situations that force them to make those choices.

In America, we have the largest population of incarcerated people in the world, mostly based on low-level drug offenses. But many of these people are only victims of their environment, not malicious individuals with the intent to make the world a more dangerous place.

We judge people so harshly based on what we are able to gather from surface-level information without taking into consideration their ability, or lack thereof, to be or act differently.

The Good Place rather suggests that the cruelty of people’s actions should match the cruelty of the punishment they face for it. Again, why would someone convicted of a low-level drug offense be sentenced to prison for a longer amount of time than a rapist?

So, the characters design a new afterlife, where your time on Earth only serves as the basis for what you can improve upon when you die. These tests repeat over and over again, where each person is given the opportunity to grow with the feedback they receive after each test is over, and everyone is finally able to truly reflect their morality through their actions.

Not every person is good, nor do they have the desire to become better, but The Good Place is a testament to the idea that everyone is capable of change if they are willing to face their moral shortcomings and improve.

I truly believe that people deserve second chances, but this show has given me the opportunity to recognize all of the other ways we can help people beyond letting them try to fix their messes themselves. I would not be who I am today if it were not for the support of the people in my life, and I believe that everyone deserves that support for themselves.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on March 12, 2020.