By Corey Patterson
One of the funniest, most thought-provoking shows on the air right now is The Good Place on NBC. It is also one of the most original. Instead of copying the same-old sitcom tropes and story lines from the many comedies circulating us, The Good Place offers viewers a (layman’s) philosophical look into the realities of good and evil in our world.
The series centers around four humans: Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason. Each recently passed away and was subsequently sent to the “Good Place,” an afterlife neighborhood that serves as the show’s version of Heaven. Upon arriving each character meets Michael, the architect of the neighborhood, who explains they’ve each been sent there for being good people on earth.
Eleanor, a self-serving saleswoman, comes to the realization that she must have been sent to the Good Place by mistake. She enlists the help of Chidi, a moral philosophy professor, who attempts to teach her how to become a good person in the hopes that she won’t be found out by Michael.
After weeks of lessons, Eleanor begins to see that her entire time in the Good Place has been nothing but hell (pun intended). She reveals her true self to Michael, thereby owning up to her own personal guilt (perhaps for the first time in her life).
It is in this moment that Eleanor realizes how miserable she’s been in the supposed Good Place, forcing her to conclude she’s actually in the “Bad Place.” Such a conundrum makes one wonder if we are actually living in our own “hells” right now, unaware.
In a surprising twist, Michael tells Eleanor how impressed he is she figured out his plan. Eleanor really was in the Bad Place all along.
This series’ first season serves as an ever-unfolding critique of our culture’s understanding of good and bad, wrong and right. We witness Eleanor and the others come to grip with their own moral failings, though not in the ways you would expect.
Chidi and Eleanor’s plan leads the viewer to wonder what it truly means to become a good person. Does one have to perform more good actions than bad actions? Can you make up for your earthly bad actions in the afterlife, whether it be Heaven or Hell?
These questions have been tackled by philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries, and there are many whose opinions would offer great discussion points in conjunction with the show. But I’m particularly drawn to psychologist/theologian Richard Beck’s understanding of what it means to be a good person in the traditional sense.
Beck points out how much of Western ethical understanding has hinged on the notion of rationality. This implies that a truly virtuous person would necessarily have near-perfect rational faculties. Such an understanding essentially removes the heart and emotions from any discussion of ethics.
However, psychological research shows our innermost beliefs regarding virtue stem from the emotions. Essentially, the people we regard as good people most often possess the emotional faculties of empathy, gratitude, remorse, and moral indignation.
If we apply this moral emotion understanding of ethics to The Good Place, Eleanor’s transformation starts to make sense. It wasn’t the endless moral lectures Chidi gave (helpful though they were) that brought about her change - it was her cultivation of the moral emotions through connection with the other humans. Opening up her inner world of emotions to a group of friends brought about a change in Eleanor no number of ethics classes could accomplish on their own.
I’m reminded of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees who claim to be “good people” as I think about the rational view of ethics:
You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:4)
We can provide hundreds of rational reasons for being good people, whether it’s our numerous temple prayers or donations to charity. But it’s our ability to connect with the emotions of ourselves and others that ultimately determines the qualities of our hearts.
Let’s be clear: Ethics must necessarily make rational sense, or else they would be intelligible concepts. The moral emotions argument simply states the first and foremost foundation of our ethical understandings is emotion.
Maybe if we started cultivating our moral emotions and giving them weight in our ethical decision-making, we would be better equipped to solve the world’s problems.
Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here.