"The good place" vs. the ethics of society

⇠ back | date: 2020-09-20 | tags: culture, philosophy, politics | duration: 10:48 minutes

A few months ago I was bored and I decided to watch "The good place". It's a show that had been introduced to me before, and I even watched about half of the first season, before I kinda forgot about it. It had left me feeling mostly irritated, and uninterested, and so I moved on with my life. Up to the point where I felt really bored, and I started watching it again.

I don't really wanna talk about the show from an art criticism perspective. It's quite fun to watch at times, the premise is quirky and all the characters have something to set them apart that makes them recognisable for someone who's bad at differentiating people. But it's a comedy at it's core, and most of the "humour" left me feeling kinda cold. It didn't so much have jokes as much as just vague references at jokes.

Really, the show wasn't special, funny, or even bad enough for me to really care about it too much. There was however something in the moral text, and subtext of the show that bothered me, that I've kept thinking about. And that's what this post is going to be about.

Good vs Evil

The main premise of the show is centred around the idea of "good people" vs "bad people" (the good place vs the bad place). It mirrors heaven and hell, without putting a precise theological term on it, because this concept has existed in various faiths throughout the ages.

The story follows a woman who gets sent to the good place even though she's a horrible person. Most of the first season is dedicated to this mystery. At first she thinks this is a mistake, until it becomes apparent, that bad people being put into a fake "good place" is part of a weird psychological punishment system in the bad place. They are in fact in the bad place. When they find out about this, their memories get wiped, and it starts from the beginning, with slight alterations. But the group figures out that they aren't in their personal paradise again and again, and so their memories get wiped again, and again.

The show wants to demonstrate that people can get better, seeing as a group of "bad people" were sent to a fake "good place", and improved as people. The permanence of "good people" and "bad people" is called into question. Some stuff happens, and the group of four people, and one daemon who started taking a liking to them end up on the run.

Throughout the plot it becomes apparent that the system is broken in more subtle ways too: nobody gets to go to the good place anymore. Nobody is good enough; too high are the standards of what counts as a "good person". Furthermore, when they manage to get into the good place, it becomes clear that eternal bliss with no ups and downs, and no end in sight is just a different type of hell.

The show concludes by restructuring the system, making the "bad place" not into a torturous nightmare, but a place where your actions and emotions are being tested, and called into question. The idea being that there is no such thing as a "bad person", and that everybody could go to the "good place", if they accepted that they have flaws, and worked on them.

They also mildly restructure the "good place" to have "an end", which is death. Isn't that nice, everybody gets to live their perfect life in heaven, then they die.

Good people & bad people?

So that was the plot. As I said, I'm not gonna criticise the show for it's scene-to-scene writing, or even the overarching plot. It mostly tries (and manages) to be wholesome. Although it has issues throughout, that are rooted in a very flawed understanding of philosophy and morality.

The moral compass of the show is a character called Chidi, a professor of moral philosophy who died and was sent to the "bad place". He was deemed a bad person because of his indecisiveness. It is shown that he tried to be a good person, but got too caught up in the details of what that meant, which caused great pain to the people around him (and which got him killed).

Throughout the show he quotes Kant a lot, with some other racist white men from history sprinkled in there. His understanding of philosophy isn't very deep, or nuanced. Either he was supposed to be bad at his job, at which point the show didn't really take the time to develop this enough to be poignant, or it just demonstrates that the show was written by people with basically no knowledge in this field.

I argue that the way that "the good place" portrays philosophy and moral choices in philosophical frameworks is very representative of how our society works, and how people think about "good vs bad".

But let's back up a bit. For most of the show (if you watched it/ will) the thoughts it is trying the hardest to communicate are "there's no bad people", "hell is a bad concept", etc. This becomes pretty obvious. However, the larger system of afterlife remains pretty much entirely un-examined. Why is there an afterlife, and why do we need one, these are questions the show never asks, or attempts to answer. Any critism against the system is phrased in a coy way, that will lead to reform of it, not abolishment, i.e. changing what the "good place" and "bad place" means, not their existence.

Moral individualism

I said the show is representative of how people think about morality, and this doesn't just start and end at "what is a good person". It also applies to how the show deals with individualism.

What is individualism you may ask? I'm glad you did (not really, now this post has to be longer...). Individualism is one of the axiomatic philosophies that the western world is built on. It's the idea that each individual is responsible for their own destiny, and identity.

Used in a (mostly) harmless way it's used to sell things to people that can be "customised" to fit your "own personal style" (without really giving you any autonomy), whereas on a higher and more sinister level it is used to justify the horrors of society. As an out of context Margaret Thatcher would say "there's no such thing as society, only people". After all, society is just men, women and those damn enbies, that all make their own free choices, and if society is bad, then that's just a representation of how people are bad.

This is an over-simplification of course, but it digs at the core of what individualism means to us. It's a way to absolve society of guilt, up to refusing the existence of it all together. Individualism touches many, if not all aspects of society, and it would take too long to really examine them all here. Instead, I want to focus on what this means for "the good place".

There is no society in "the good place"

I don't know if the word "society" is ever used in the script, but it is certainly not a subject of conversation in any of the episodes. None of the characters will acknowledge that there is a human society or what it looks like. The focus is on individuals. After all, the fact that the world is bad is the result of just a few bad people, that need to become better.

This is where the view that "there is no bad people" the show tries to hammer into you falls flat. Because it's a lie.

Human society is structured in a way that a few select people at the top have a lot of wealth and power, while the rest of us live in varying degrees of poverty by comparison. I grew up in Germany so I'm gonna say I don't live in luxury and peace by comparison to others, but we all suffer under the ruling class. This is a reality the show refuses to acknowledge and it makes it's arguments about moral philosophy feel almost dystopian.

Maybe this is controversial, but there are bad people. If it is your job to harass homeless people, you are a bad person. If it is your job to enforce the "war on drugs" that overwhelmingly affects black people, you are a bad person. If you are a billionaire, you are a bad person. You are in a position where you could change society for the better. You could give all your wealth away, and actually help people. But you don't. And no, I don't mean the fake philanthropy that rich people indulge in because those are usually just schemes to pay less taxes and massage on their public image. No billionaire ever gives away so much money that they stop being a billionaire.

The ending of the good place is framed as a beautiful thing where everybody gets to live a life in heaven in the end, if they manage to work on themselves to become better people. And sure, there are "bad people" like sexists and racists, and they'll just get stuck in these tests forever that they won't escape until they become better people. It doesn't matter how much suffering you've caused others, you get to go to the good place if you manage to accept that you were bad.

Why an afterlife?

So I mentioned that in the show, the existence of an afterlife is never explained, rationalised or called into question. It exists in a vacuum, the same way that people in it live in a vacuum.

The ending of "the good place" is framed in a way that is meant to make you feel happy and hopeful, but all it makes me feel is wonder why we needed to wait until the afterlife for people to deserve happiness.

The world is an awful place because of people, sure, but it's the system that makes people into monsters. Not only will it corrupt people going in with good intentions, it will turn people with bad intentions into powerful rulers.

"The good place" fails to or refuses to understand that society exists, and portrays a moral system in which all actions are unconnected from the bigger picture. If you were a nice person to people in person, and generally tried to be g o o d then it doesn't matter if your employees need to pee into bottles, or if your company is burning the rainforest to ash.

Hell, the ruthless business lady in the "medium place" was sent there because she saved someone in her last moment. But the "bad things" she did??? SHE WAS RUDE TO PEOPLE. Don't worry the exploitation through the capitalist machine, that's all fine.

The shape of art & paradise

To wrap up this article I want to at least mention why I'm writing about this. Because I said earlier that I didn't find the show special, funny, or intentionally bad enough to really engage with it. And now here I am, writing upwards of 2000 words about it :)

The media we consume as people shapes us, and influences us in quite profound ways. The way we tell stories is symptomatic of how society perceives itself, and how people see themselves in society. Media that doesn't acknowledge the existence of society then and the suffering it brings will inevitably white-wash reality, and push this influence on anyone consuming it.

At this point I would have liked to mention a better show or movie, or even book, but none really come to mind. I guess it's hard to point to any text and demand it delivers a coherent world philosophy, while also being a story with characters and plot.

As a society we need to grow the fuck up. The stories we tell each other of heroes and villains, the balance between good and evil hanging in the balance, all while these actors exist outside of anything that could be called a power hierarchy, needs to end. Only when we grow up from this world view can we realise that paradise is within us, and that collectively we can create it here on earth.

Not gonna lie though, trains that go through space are pretty cool.