Moral Philosophy and The Good Place
Eliane Mitchell

08 March 2018

In The Good Place, a hit TV show on NBC, moral philosophy is rife.

The show begins with a woman named Eleanor who wakes up in the afterlife. Eleanor learns that she has landed in "The Good Place," even though she knows that she should have landed in the other place. Chidi, a professor of moral philosophy whom Eleanor confides in, decides to teach her to be good. Chidi introduces her to the philosophies of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard.

But the creator of The Good Place, Michael Schur (who also created The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), did not develop an expertise in moral philosophy by himself. When putting the show together, he gave Pamela Hieronymi, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles, a call.

Read here about how this correspondence—between a professor of moral philosophy and a famous TV show creator—came to be. 

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Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, March 8, 2018 -- 12:45 PM

Over time, I have become that

Over time, I have become that 'special kind of weird' person who appreciates philosophy. And science. And physics. None of which I fully understand, but in some of each I find comprehensible nuggets which enrich my life and, hopefully (to some degree) the lives of some of the people with whom I share thoughts, notions and ideas about how a life might be lived to best effect. Having said all of that, I probably will not engage The Good Place. Because I do not engage with situation comedy specifically, nor television, generally. Still, if others do and if they gain perspective from so doing, I cannot see any harm in that. And, if through some synchronistic quirk of fate some of them attain curiosity about philosophy, I can't see any harm in that either. Even a blind hog can find a truffle, now and then...

David Sims's picture

David Sims

Friday, March 9, 2018 -- 8:07 AM

I don't think that learning

I don't think that learning to be "good" (in whatever sense that any particular culture might define good) is the point of moral philosophy. Like most else that has guided human evolution, or much else that humans do, moral philosophy is a memetic tool for survival. Being "good" is secondary... and possibly tertiary.

In any proper moral system, the survival of the practitioners' group always has the highest value. Next comes truth, which has a value that overrides everything other than survival. After that come values such as justice, freedom, etc.

Justice has a value inferior to truth. That's because the pursuit of justice depends on knowing truth, or more exactly on the ability accurately to distinguish truth from falsehood.

And likewise for freedom. Without a means by which the truth can be identified after all its imposters have been found and discarded, you can't even tell whether you really are free, let alone pursue freedom with any confidence.

Notice also that the only value higher than truth is survival. Nothing matters to the dead — not even truth. Only to something alive may anything else be good (or have value). A rock doesn't care whether you hit it with a hammer. But a mouse does.

Why the group, and not the individual? Because individuals are ephemeral. We can by no means endure as the ages pass. But the group of practitioners, having a moral system in common, which they heed and advance in the world, can indeed endure. And the most natural group is a race, which is strongest when its members hold a moral system in common; i.e. isn't factionalized, and therefore cannot be induced to attack itself.

When the group of practitioners is also a race, it gains the ability to replace its dying members with new members who are born compatible with the culture of their fellows. Because inherited are most of the human qualities that determine which memetic qualities the individual can easily acquire, or can acquire at all. Native members have the requisite temperament and innate attributes for engaging in the group's culture; they're organic, not grafted in. They belong without having to adapt, as an outsider would have to adapt though continuous exertion. (And the immigrant will in most cases be unwilling to put forth the required effort.)

What doesn't exist is worthless. What can't exist for long because of self-sabotage isn't worth much. Proper moral codes, which put the survival of the practitioners' group first in value, are therefore always better than improper moral codes, which give the highest value to anything else. A group that puts the highest moral value on anything other than survival will, sooner or later, encounter circumstances in which their survival is in conflict with whatever that other thing is. When that happens, the group will either abandon their improper moral system in favor of a proper one, or they will die off, and their improper code will vanish along with them.

I won't declare the foregoing summary of moral philosophy to be the final word in moral philosophy. I'm not that pretentious. But it appears to be self-consistent and consistent with how the world really works. If anyone discovers a flaw, I'd like to hear about it.

eralgernon's picture


Wednesday, March 31, 2021 -- 4:55 PM

I read what you wrote with

I read what you wrote with interest and found myself agreeing with the first dozen sentences or so... up to the bit about the hammer and the rock vs. the mouse. And there were some compelling thoughts about your concern for the survival of of a group vs. survival of an individual, though I started to have some nagging doubts (re: the Utilitarian flavor of your comments)...but then found myself unable to agree when it came to speaking of race, isolationism and other points...

I was a little shaky on whether the group's needs always outweighs an individual -- as I've seen some really, incredibly bad decisions made on basis of group survival over individual rights and freedom, or just basic fundamental compassion, dignity and respect. Some pretty shady stuff can happen when the highest point-of-order is survival of a group and I feel strongly that when the moral center of a culture does not evolve or fails, that people (as a whole) start developing a certain ennui and a deep-seated unhappiness. Often, I feel we (as a society) are only as "good" as we are to the weakest among us. If we fail to treat those who are handicapped, elderly, sick, disabled with kindness, dignity and respect -- it's a lot more difficult to feel like that society really has meaning. Not everything comes down to bare survival. I know you don't mention libertarianism or utilitarianism per se - but much of what you had to say was reminding me of those philosophies of how society "ought" to be organized. Libertarianism, when taken to an extreme can be as bad as unbridled capitalism in this regard. It's great for fostering freedom, creativity, innovation and progress - but terrible for protecting The Commons (what we all need in order to survive, thrive and have a high-standard of living and quality of life). The same can be said for Utilitarianism really... while it may seem like Spock's philosophy, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" should always be held as supreme - there are some fairly significant flaws in that seemingly no-nonsense, pragmatic approach. First off: it allows for some fairly evil atrocities to occur and so long as the needs of the "many" are met, then the needs of the few are dismissed as trivial concerns... and we've already seen where that has lead in the past (e.g. slavery, imperialism, etc.)

Whenever I think of ethics and how society "ought" to be -- I end up referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No, it's not perfect -- but one thing it does have is: a democratic process for deciding what is good and worthwhile in terms of respecting the dignity, rights and freedom of humanity and without causing undue harm to any individual for the sake of "the greater good". I mean, such sci-fi movies like, "Soyant Green" could become a reality under the Utilitarian ideal. Nearly any atrocity could be justified so long as the algebraic sum of happiness or "good" -- or in your terms "survival" is respected. Again, if the *only* objective is survival -- then it leads to some fairly large atrocities being justified or rationalized away.

I would also counter that the pursuit of survival - just like the pursuit of happiness - becomes banal when this is done without a deeper level of fulfillment; which often comes as a result of forming strong friendships, communities, through the appreciation of art, music, a satisfying career, family, and generally being able to fully engage in the sensory wonders of the world - simple enjoyment of simple pleasures and with those we love and care about. Without such human and humane connections, I feel we - as a species - start losing our way... one of the many reasons why the pandemic and long lockdown or shelter-in-place orders was so arduous and for so many... because even aside from the emotional toll of being cut off from each other, there was the far-restricted ability to fully engage in life as we once did. That's even ignoring economic strain and civil unrest which of course leads to stress, fear, panic -- all terrible for building and maintaining civilizations that thrive and survive.

I got a little concerned when you spoke of "race" and I hope that it's just that I'm nearly a neophyte when it comes to formal philosophy and perhaps you can enlighten me on what you mean by this. I'm rather more a proponent of the idea that humanity as a species is what we hope will eventually survive and thrive. While we, as a species, are divided by nations, geographical barriers, different customs and beliefs -- that we all have a common bond of being human beings, regardless of what we look like from different geographical locations of the world and many delineations based on race are no more relevant to our survival or advancement as human beings as hair color or eye color would be, generally speaking. And I have to say that you've totally lost me when you speak of how immigrants "not putting forth the effort" or "grafted in" - it just seems a little like you're advocating for a isolationism or some mono-culture, akin to China during the Cultural Revolution. Immigrants often bring innovative new ideas that are absolutely worth considering and often make us humble human beings stronger as a species. We (all of humanity) benefit by different countries and people from different backgrounds and origins working together, sharing and collaborating and working together on solving problems from different angles. I'm a former scientist and as such, I have to say that sharing ideas across countries, oceans, ideologies, religions or whatever other man-made boundaries is absolutely critical to humanity's survival. When the next big pandemic hits or when we have to work together to avert the next horrific disaster -- I can guarantee that it will be those of us who are willing and able to work together as a team and without regard to whether someone is an "outsider" or not, who will ultimately succeed in changing the world for the better and will be the ones who advance society and civilization as a whole. If survival is held in such high regard in your book - hopefully you can see how isolationism and nationalism doesn't necessarily work towards those ends?

In my long lifetime, I have to say that protectionism (fear of immigration or the false premise that immigrants somehow detract from society), isolationism, ethnocentrism and tribalism ultimately leads humanity up the garden path: leading to false assumptions about our common goals and each other and very-often leading to profoundly poor outcomes ultimately: like war, bigotry, racism and many other evils that would definitely be the ultimate opposite of the advancement and survival of humanity and civilization as a whole.

The argument in favor of isolationism and protectionism seems to always be in basis of fear and survival. When someone speaks of survival-mode, they understand this is an unhealthy way to live long-term and I would say the same is true of entire civilizations and societies as well - when survival is our ultimate goal and fear is our driver to the point of isolationism -- we deprive ourselves of new ideas and risk falling into stagnation and decay. But isolation is a beguiling idea in times of fear and struggle, like when we were faced with the pandemic and we saw how multiculturalism definitely lead to a greater spread of disease - but while these ideas are beguiling and we (as a species) seem to have a regular and circular flirtation with the concept of isolationism with the idea that if we create little pockets of thriving civilizations -- that if something were to go horrifically wrong, that at least *some* civilization might survive from the disaster and rise from the ashes. However, I've too often seen isolationism, protectionism and ethnocentrism lead to a false sense of superiority and an aversion towards collaboration, cooperation and peace such that we end up faring worse through calamities or are too often the *cause* of such calamities. Instead of society rising from the ashes from some natural disaster - we far too often are the *cause* of civilization falling to ruins - the reason why people have to recover their lives and culture from the ashes in the first place. Ultimately, I don't feel isolationism or ethnocentrism does anyone any favors in the long run and it's a sick and twisted social experiment that humans have tried and failed many times over and often with the same depressing and devastating results.

I've only barely dipped a toe into philosophy myself, but I've been a life-long over thinker (I love that sweatshirt sold on this site!) -- but I would think that Rawls has a far more enlightened approach towards ethics than strict Utilitarianism does - as ultimately we (as human beings) wish to live in a society that we are proud to live in and in a world where civil rights violations are not taken casually or seen as a petty concern, so long as survival of a "race" is held as supreme. Ultimately, humanity is a melting pot and it's already too late to close barn doors and claim that we can go back to isolating ourselves based on arbitrary physical attributes or whether each of us is "native" to some land or not... In the far-distant future - we may find our way to the stars and other planets and by then, I would hope that people are no longer overly concerned about whether someone is from New Jersey or Nepal, Ghana or Tokyo... We are all human beings and I feel that, while survival of humanity and civilization is indeed important - that the basis of a just and advanced civilization - one that encourages everyone to take part in and one that encourages the advancement of technology and science - is one that respects the dignity of the individual, as well as having profound regard for The Commons (clean air, clean water, arable land, etc.) and that there is an understanding that to live a "good life" is more than mere existence or what we pass off to the next generation or just crass survival of the machinery of "the many" -- but to be ultimately human and humane - and to preserve what gifts previous generations have bestowed upon us: whether that's knowledge, art, music, technology, or advancements in philosophy and the basis of an advanced civilization. I look at the current climate crisis and I see that there are many nations working together to resolve issues that stand as existential threats to all of humanity and ultimately it will be that sense of cooperation and working towards a common goal that will "save us" - or at least that's my feeling. I don't feel those ends will be met if we all retreated to our countries of origin and closed the door to all "outsiders"... to me that would be like hiding in bed with the bedclothes pulled up over my head and pretending I'm not home when someone knocked on the door... very little that is productive gets done that way, though I'm sure it *feels* safer than making an effort or engaging in cooperation.

Anyway, I did find your first thoughts on ethics and the value of "being good" compelling and interesting... it was just that when it came to the stuff about "race" and whether outsiders (immigrants) would bring value to a civilization - that's where you lost me... not that my thoughts would be particularly relevant to a Utilitarian who values group survival over the individual :-) ...But it kinda reminded me of an xkcd cartoon I've seen ages ago and a comment about how a reader of Ayn Rand would be agreeing with her on so many points, but then would recoil when her conclusion would be something like, "and therefore you should be an asshole towards everyone". That's why Utilitarianism fails for me as a standard model for how civilization ought to be constructed basically...


Edit: Found the reference I was thinking of:

Title text: I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at 'therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.'

um... I guess that sums up how I felt about your treatise... I was enthusiastically agreeing right through the bit with the hammer vs. the rock or the mouse and still with you about the concept of how society and civilization should survive and how an individual is ephemeral... (though I was getting on shaky ground on that last bit, as a lot of *very wrong things* can be justified by claiming that individuals are unimportant because they are mortal or temporary... erm - you never know *which* individual may be "important" to society as a whole. How would the world be different without Albert Einstein or without Steve Jobs? - and both were immigrants by the way... ;-)

David Sims's picture

David Sims

Friday, March 9, 2018 -- 8:10 AM

I think that one of the ways

I think that one of the ways in which one culture can make war on another is by inducing its rival, by propaganda or by some other means, to get their moral priorities improperly sorted. Has this already happened; i.e., is such a war going on now? I suspect so, but I'll save the details for some other time.