The Good Place, an American comedy-fantasy series created by Michael Schur and airing on NBC, is perhaps the most explicitly philosophical American television show in recent memory. I think it aims to do for moral philosophy what Breaking Bad did for chemistry. (This post speaks of the second season, but does not have spoilers – at least in the sense that it does not reveal any of the show’s twists.)
The Good Place is a show about the afterlife; its protagonists are all dead. It is in some ways a post-Christian show. There are no references to God or Jesus, but that afterlife is divided into a heaven (“the Good Place”) and hell (“the Bad Place”), and where one ends up is supposed to be determined by one’s moral status. (There are also allusions to Christian mythology, with an angel-like character named “Michael”.) The central storyline of the show is the uncertainty of whether its main protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrup (Kristen Bell), will ultimately end up in the Good Place or the Bad Place.
In order to bolster her case for being in the Good Place, Eleanor – who begins the show as a narcissistic, miserly, dishonest scoundrel – tries hard to become a better person. What is unusual about the show is the key form of assistance that Eleanor receives in becoming better: her fellow protagonist, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), is a professor of moral philosophy. And a significant portion of the show revolves around him teaching her what he knows.
The show is funny, with a creative setting, a surprising plot, and solid acting. It is worth watching for its own sake. But a blog like this is a place to talk about the philosophy.
The Good Place reminds me of Examined Life, as one of the relatively few places philosophy has received a sympathetic examination in 21st-century American pop culture. (Contrast the November 2015 Republican debate, where in one night three different politicians each independently took their own pot-shot at philosophy, and nobody imagined any need to defend it.) As with Examined Life, one of the first questions to ask about any such presentation is: what philosophy are we talking about here?
Not surprisingly, the philosophy at issue in both cases is mostly Western. While Chidi himself is Nigerian-Senegalese, there is nothing explicitly African informing his thought. As I understand it, that is not unusual for the way a real contemporary philosophy professor from Africa might think of philosophy. Uzodinma Nwala, a major contemporary scholar of African philosophy, recalls that in the mid-20th century “All we were taught as students were Western philosophy. Nothing like African philosophy existed anywhere. In fact, many years after the introduction of the courses, there still remained arguments among experts, whether there was really African Philosophy.” Even now, when there are an increasing number of people engaged in the praiseworthy project of studying African philosophy, a great deal of that project still remains focused on debates about what African philosophy even is. So Chidi, like so many real non-Westerners, focuses his philosophical attention on the West. Confucius gets a mention in the first season, but it is relatively cursory; Indian or Muslim thinkers do not appear. In all this the show is quite reflective of the discipline of philosophy as it currently exists, and I think that’s a fair approach to take. I and my colleagues are working on bringing more non-Western philosophy into the field, but that process is still just beginning, and there are dangers in pretending we’ve already succeeded.
The Good Place is significantly different from Examined Life in that it gives at least as much time to analytic as to Continental philosophy. T.M. Scanlon, Jonathan Dancy and the trolley problem are discussed at least as much as Kierkegaard. Perhaps the philosopher most commonly mentioned is Kant, who is a starting point for both analytic and Continental reflection on ethics (just as Jews, Christians and Muslims all take Jerusalem as a sacred city).
Yet even when it is discussing the deeply analytical works of Scanlon or Judith Jarvis Thomson, the approach that The Good Place takes to philosophy is not analytic at all. The heart and soul of analytic philosophy is precise and rigorous arguments, and such arguments just don’t appear on the show. We hear about the conclusions that Scanlon and Dancy and Thomson came to, but not about their reasons for getting there. One imagines that would have been a bridge too far: long arguments rarely make for good fiction. Russian novels manage to do it, but their form is quite alien to that of an American television serial, or even an American movie.
But not everything in philosophy is about such arguments. Christian Hendriks pointed out, in a way I hadn’t noticed before, how the show’s approach to the trolley problem fits nicely with the position I articulated a few weeks ago on disposition and decision. In an earlier episode, Chidi articulates the basic dilemma in the trolley problem, the one that philosophers like him have spent much time and ink hashing out. But later in the series, he is actually forced into the situation of the trolley driver and he freezes up, paralyzed by indecision. And this is an entirely realistic portrayal of what many of us, not only phiosophers, actually would do in such a situation.
Analytic philosophy has its strengths, but a key weakness is its disconnection from actual life and the situations where the philosophy could be applied. Such philosophy – to its detriment – is not a way of life, in part because such philosophy comes to be separated from “religion”, and therefore from practice. Asian traditions have made no such separation; as Pierre Hadot reminded us, the ancient Greeks didn’t either. They recognized that philosophy, wisdom about the good life, needs to be put into practice; otherwise it is a question that tends not to edification. Let our quest for wisdom be a part of cultivating our habits so that we might act well when we are faced with difficult situations. That will serve us better than hypothetical investigation of the correct course of action in fanciful situations that we are unlikely to face – and which that hypothetical investigation would still leave us unprepared for in practice. So Chidi’s example shows us.