Moral Philosophy and The Good Place
Thursday, March 8, 2018 -- 10:05 AM
Eliane Mitchell

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 (3)

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.

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.