Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Mother Forkin' Morals: "The Good Place" as the TV Comedy of Moral Philosophy

On this blog, I have often explored the Darwinian science of moral philosophy, in which the big question is how we find meaning for our lives as evolved animals in an evolutionary cosmos that does not care about or for us.  Can we find standards for judging good and bad in human life that are rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature rather than a cosmic teleology of a divinely designed universe?

In recent months, I have been amazed to discover that these same questions are being asked in an entertaining way by the NBC television comedy "The Good Place."  Michael Schur is the creator and one of the producers of this series.  He is also one of the writers and directors.  The series is now in its third season, and NBC has just announced that it will have a fourth season beginning in the fall of 2019.

Schur's ingenious idea for the show is to have some people die and then wake up in The Good Place because some immortal accountants have judged that their good deeds on earth have earned them enough points to warrant eternal life in The Good Place rather than The Bad Place. They live in a neighborhood of The Good Place designed by an immortal architect Michael. The problem, however, is that apparently some mistake has been made, because these people have not really earned enough points to enter The Good Place.  They should have gone to The Bad Place.  So now they must somehow prove that they are good enough to avoid being sent for the eternal torture that they deserve.  One of them is a professor of moral philosophy, and so they try to learn from his lectures about the various schools of moral philosophy to decide how to become morally good people.  Unfortunately, what those philosophers teach is often contradictory or confusing.

To write the shows, Schur and the other writers have learned about moral philosophy from their reading and from consulting with moral philosophers such as Todd May, who teaches at Clemson University.  Professor May has surveyed how the show illustrates the moral philosophy of Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and others in these videos:

Here May speaks about existentialism, psychological egoism, utilitarianism, and Kantian deontology.  In his published writing, May has also recognized Aristotelian virtue ethics; and in at least one of the "Good Place" episodes, Chidi Anagonye (the professor of moral philosophy) includes virtue ethics in his lectures.

Now it might seem that this show suggests that moral philosophy depends on a cosmic religious teleology, because the goodness of human conduct is being judged by afterlife points assigned by supernatural judges.  Actually, however, the exploration of moral philosophy in the show does not really depend on any kind of religious teaching.

When the show began in the fall of 2016, Schur gave an interview to Esquire in which he explained:
"I did a lot of research early on about conceptions of the afterlife in different religions.  I did a ton of reading about it, and it was really fun and fascinating.  Then I realized after I'd done all of that, it was pointless, because this show wasn't about religion; it was really about ethics and morality.  I never studied moral philosophy in college.  I have a very cocktail party understanding of it, but I read a lot of stuff and talked to a lot of people to understand what are the basic ideas that have emerged in ethics and moral philosophy for the last 400 years, and even ancient times.  And that's where I drew inspiration from.  Because the show isn't really about the afterlife.  It's set in the afterlife, but it's really about being good or bad."
Schur's "The Good Place" is a lot like Dante's Divine Comedy.  As many of Dante's readers have noticed, Dante's assignment of people to Paradise, to the Inferno, or to Limbo often depends more on the moral philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas than on any strictly theological doctrines about Heaven and Hell.  The story is set in the afterlife, but it's really about the human effort to understand good and bad through human reason and experience as expressed in moral philosophy.

At the very least, one can say that this is an anti-Christian show, in the sense that it never considers the fundamental Christian doctrine that human beings are so depraved that they can never earn salvation, and that salvation requires redemption by the grace of God.  And more specifically, the show never considers the Calvinist doctrine of predestination--that one's reward or punishment in the afterlife is predetermined by God's arbitrary choice without regard for one's desert.

There might seem to an appeal to religious faith in Episode 9 of Season 2, which is entitled "Leap to Faith."  But even here the reference to Kierkegaard is only a cue from Michael to have a leap of faith in him.

Moreover, there is some suggestion in the show that Todd May might be right when he argues in some of his writing that the meaning of life depends upon accepting death, and that life without death in some afterlife would not be worth living.  (A few of my posts on this thought can be found herehere, here, here, and here.)

Most of the philosophical moral dilemmas explored in "The Good Place" have been the subject of various posts.  For example, I have written on the Trolley Problem (here and here), and that comes up in the Episode 6 of Season 2.

This TV show is also noteworthy in another way: it shows how popular culture in a liberal social order can promote some moral and intellectual depth in an entertaining way.

I will say more about May and about this show in some future posts.

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