Saturday, January 05, 2019

Todd May and "The Good Place": Can Aristotle Give Us Human Meaning in a Silent Universe?

NBC's philosophical comedy series The Good Place has a podcast for each episode hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (who plays Shawn in the show).  In the podcast for Chapter 19 ("The Trolley Problem"), Jackson interviews William Jackson Harper (who plays Chidi, the professor of moral philosophy) and Todd May (one of the moral philosophers who has been a consultant for the show).

May says that Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place, first contacted him by email, because Schur had read his book Death, The Art of Living.  They talked a lot through Skype sessions, and May then flew to Hollywood to talk with the writers.  Schur liked to quote May's remark from his book on death that "Mortality offers meaning to the events in our lives.  Morality helps to navigate that meaning."  Human life would not be better without death, May argues, because the inescapable fact of death gives moral weight to our decisions about how to live the mortal life that we have.

That theme of mortality might seem to contradict the setting of the show in the afterlife, where people live immortally either in the Good Place or the Bad Place.  But May notes Schur's remarks about how in thinking about the show he decided that it was not really about any religious conception of an afterlife, because it was actually about "the ethical conception of the afterlife," in which imagining an afterlife with rewards for the good people and punishments for the bad people is an artful--and entertainingly funny way--to think through moral philosophy.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that Schur sought out May, a devoted atheist who thinks moral philosophers today must find "human meaning in a silent universe"--the subtitle of his book A Significant Life (University of Chicago Press, 2015).  This might appear to contradict the role of those in The Good Place who are immortal beings in the afterlife who judge the goodness and badness of human actions.  But in much of the show--as in the episode on The Trolley Problem--the struggle with moral dilemmas is carried out within human experience without any appeal to any transcendent or divine standards of right and wrong.  Certainly, the interesting discussion of this episode in the podcast is all about how human beings make choices and try to justify those choices based on their human reason and emotions.

This has led me to wonder whether May's Significant Life could be read by viewers like me who are looking for a philosophic exploration of the questions raised by The Good Place.  Does he really show us how to find "human meaning in a silent universe"?

Or, perhaps, we should first ask how he knows that the universe is silent--that the natural order of the cosmos tells us nothing about how we should live, because the cosmos is indifferent to human beings, who have arisen as only accidental products of an evolutionary process that does not care for or about human beings.  Apparently, the answer is that May thinks he knows that to be true because that's what the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus said--that we need to confront the absurdity of the human condition in that we have been thrown into a universe that gives no meaning to our lives.  Camus is the first philosopher May cites--on the second page of his book--and he just assumes that Camus is right about our need to live within the indifference of the universe.  But isn't it very unphilosophical to accept such a claim without offering reasons or evidence supporting the claim?

Although he does not elaborate the point, May does suggest that if we accept the truth of Darwinian evolution, we must accept that we are "cosmic accidents" or "evolutionary contingencies" in an indifferent universe (15, 175).  But he offers no argument to prove that this is a necessary conclusion from Darwinian science, and he is silent about those scientists who defend theistic evolution, which is the subject of some posts (herehere, and here).

Schur seems to agree with May in taking the existentialist teaching about the absurdity of human life as obviously true.  In fact, Schur has said that when he was 11 years old, he stayed up all night reading Woody Allen's Without Feathers, a collection of some comic essays, and he knew then that he wanted to become a comedy writer like Allen, whose comedy is full of existentialist angst about the absurdity of the human condition in a world where God is dead.  Schur became a writer for NBC's Saturday Night Live.  He then went on to become the creator and writer for the comedy series The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  Having been so successful with these series, Schur was given a free hand by NBC to devise The Good Place in any way he wanted, which allowed him to try something daring.

In the first Good Place podcast, Schur explained the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism on his plan for The Good Place.  His first idea for the show was to have Eleanor die and be sent to The Good Place by mistake, so that she has to hide the fact that she should really be in The Bad Place. When she reveals the truth to Michael in the middle of the season, he then must help her to avoid being sent to the Bad Place. But Schur foresaw that that storyline would lose its interest by the end of the first season.  So he devised a shocking twist that he took from Sartre's play No Exit--where three people are condemned to the Hell of living forever together in a room where they torture one another through their personal conflicts: "Hell is other people."  And so in the final episode of the first season of The Good Place, we discover that Michael has deceived them (and the viewers), because Eleanor and the others have not been living in The Good Place but in The Bad Place, so that in their conflicts with one another, they have been torturing themselves.

And yet despite the agreement of Schur and May with the existentialist's dark view of the absurdity of human life in a silent universe, they both look for some philosophic way to find human meaning and morality in a universe where there is no cosmic or divine support for human purposefulness.  In his podcast interview (near the end), Schur indicates agreement with Peter Singer's utilitarianism, although he admits that he cannot agree with some of Singer's extreme views.  Schur embraces Singer's utilitarian claim that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of sentient creatures is the good, and therefore we are obligated to be charitable in helping to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human creatures.  This utilitarian morality is displayed in The Good Place, but it is also cast into doubt by the Trolley Problem.  Chidi admits that while he accepts the rational principle that killing one person is justified to save five people, he is emotionally resistant to killing one person for the sake of harvesting his organs to save the lives of five people who need organs.  Here his moral emotions teach him the principle of double effect, which I have taken up (here  here, and here).  I have also criticized Singer and utilitarianism (here, and here,).

The Trolley Problem

Unlike Schur, May does not turn to utilitarianism as a way to render human life meaningful.  Rather, May begins A Significant Life by summarizing Aristotle's account in the Nicomachean Ethics of how the moral and intellectual virtues can bring happiness (eudaimonia) as the fulfillment of human longing.  When I first saw this, I wondered whether May would agree with my defense of a Darwinian science of Aristotelian liberalism, which I have laid out in various posts (herehere, and here).  Alas, I soon saw that May had missed the mark.

May argues that Aristotle's ethics cannot make human life meaningful for us for three reasons, which arise from three mistaken interpretations of Aristotle.  First, May says that we cannot accept Aristotle's assumption that meaningfulness comes from a cosmic teleology--that meaning "is always there, inscribed in the nature of things, part of the furniture of the universe," part of "a rational cosmic structure."  Aristotle begins the Ethics by saying that everything acts for its end--its telos--which is its good, and so to live according to our human telos is to fulfill our human good (11-12, 21-22, 26).  May asserts that none of us today can believe this.  "The problem for us is that we are not Aristotle, or one of his contemporaries.  We do not share the framework of his time.  The universe is not ordered in such a way that everything has its telos.  The cosmos is not for us as rational a place as he thought" (12).

There are two dubious claims here.  The first is the assumption of historicist relativism: that every philosopher's thinking is determined by the cultural beliefs of his time, and so there is no trans-historical truth.  "We do not share the framework of his time."  We must share the framework of our time, which is different from Aristotle's time.  The most obvious problem with this is that it is self-refuting:  if there is no trans-historical truth, then historicist relativism cannot be true.  We are Cretans declaring that all Cretans are liars.

May's second dubious claim here is that Aristotle's natural teleology is a cosmic teleology--that if living beings have natural ends, this must have been determined by a cosmic order of purposefulness.  May is completely silent about Aristotle's explicit rejection, early in the Ethics, of Plato's Idea of the Good--the Platonic belief that whatever is good for any being must conform to the transcendent Good of the Cosmos.  Oddly, then, May's claim that Aristotle's ethics depends on the cosmic morality of "a rational cosmic structure" assumes that Aristotle is not an Aristotelian but a Platonist!

Aristotle was a biologist, and his biological science shaped his empirical science of ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics as rooted in an immanent teleology rather than a cosmic teleology.  In contrast to Plato's attempt to ground ethics in a moral cosmology, Aristotle grounded ethics in a moral biology.  (Actually, as I have indicated in some posts, it is not always clear that Plato's Socrates accepted the moral cosmology of Plato's Timaeus or Plato's Athenian Stranger.)

A Darwinian evolutionary understanding of ethics supports the empiricist tradition of ethics that runs from Aristotle to David Hume and Adam Smith to E. O. Wilson.  This empiricist tradition of thought sees ethics as rooted in human experience--in human nature, human tradition, and human judgment.  By contrast, the transcendentalist tradition of ethics, from Plato to Immanuel Kant looks to a transcendent conception of the Good as somehow woven into the order of the cosmos--a cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason.  A Darwinian science of ethics can show how the moral order of human life arises as a joint product of natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments.

If I am right about this, this would show--contrary to May's historicist relativism--that modern Darwinian science can confirm the truth of Aristotle's ethics.

I have elaborated these points in posts herehereherehere, here., and here.

May's second reason for saying that Aristotle's ethics cannot render human life meaningful is that his concept of eudaimonia or happiness is too objective or impersonal to allow for individual diversity: Aristotle's eudaimonia "is a way of being that is the goal of any human life" (26).  May suggests that Aristotle does not recognize how the meaningfulness of my life might rightly differ from the lives of others.

But this ignores that fact that in his Generation of Animals, Aristotle distinguished between three levels of inherited traits among animals.  An animal species, including the human species, shows generic traits shared with some other animals, specific traits shared with members of the same species, and temperamental traits that differ among individuals of the species.  Thomas Aquinas adopted this biological idea from Aristotle as showing three levels of natural law corresponding to generic nature, specific nature, and temperamental nature.  So while we can recognize the generic goods of human life that generally characterize human nature, we can also recognize that the proper ranking and organization of those goods for each individual human being will vary, and that will require prudential judgment.  The study of such individual variability belongs to the biological science of animal personalities.  (I have written about this here and here.)

May's third reason for why he thinks Aristotle's ethics cannot render human life meaningful is that morality and meaningfulness are so different that a good life in Aristotle's terms could be a meaningless life.  Meaningfulness, May contends, comes not from moral values but from narrative values: we can understand our lives as stories with narrative structures and themes that give them meaning.  In trying to explain this separation of meaning from morality, however, May has to contradict what he says about Aristotle's ethics.

The narrative values that make our lives meaningful, May says, arise from the fact that our lives have trajectories that arc from birth to maturity to death, and so the meaning of our lives arises from the narrative themes of our life stories.  But May says that he first saw this idea of life as a trajectory with a storyline in Aristotle's ethics (3, 61, 63).  And in fact Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics has many illustrations from poetic storytellers like Homer.  So May seems to contradict himself in claiming that Aristotelian morality cannot comprehend the meaningfulness that comes from the narrative values of storytelling.

Storytelling as a way of exploring the moral meaning of human life is manifest in television comedies like The Good Place.  Aristotle wrote about the art of storytelling in his Poetics, concerned primarily with tragedy, and in a book on comedy that has been lost.  If you read Aristotle's Poetics and then listen to the podcasts for The Good Place, you will see that television writers and actors are practicing Aristotle's art of storytelling in a way that both entertains and instructs their audience as they explore possible scenarios for human beings striving for moral meaning in their lives.

But in trying to separate the meaning of our stories from the morality of our lives, May adopts Susan Wolf's understanding of meaning as different from morality, which she sums up in one sentence: "Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness."  She elaborates this idea this way: "A person's life can be meaningful only if she cares fairly deeply about some thing or things, only if she is gripped, excited, interested, engaged. . . . One must be able to be in some sort of relationship with the valuable object of one's attention--to create it, protect it, promote it, honor it, generally to actively affirm it in some way or other" (51).

If one accepts this idea of meaning, May observes, then a good life according to Aristotle's ethics is not necessarily a meaningful life.  A good person could do good deeds "without feeling absorbed by what he or she does," without "a sense of engagement" in one's good life.  One could be good in being an selfless altruist in sacrificing one's own well-being for the good of others.  And thus one would be living a good life but utterly alienated from and bored with one's life, a passive life without any active intensity, and therefore one would be living "an alienated but moral life," which would b e a meaningless life (52-53, 91, 111-12).

What May says here, however, contradicts what he says about Aristotle's ethics.  As May says (correctly), for Aristotle the good or flourishing life is "an ongoing activity" (energeia in Aristotle's Greek).  The good life is "active and engaged with the world."  "It is an ongoing expression of who  one is."  "It is one's very way of being in the world" (5).  A good life is dedicated to "self-cultivation" (8).  A good life in Aristotle's understanding, therefore, cannot be "alienated" or lack "a sense of engagement."  If this is so, then May cannot say that a good life can be a meaningless life.

Moreover, May admits that the narrative values of a meaningful life largely coincide with what Aristotle identifies as the moral and intellectual virtues.  So, for example, courage is a moral virtue for Aristotle, and "a courageous life is one we might admire not only as a morally worthy life but also a meaningful life" (76).  We can say that "where a person is engaged with her life and is living morally, the meaningful and the moral will likely coincide" (112).

Still, May wants to insist that morality and meaningfulness can diverge in some cases.  One of his examples of this is Lance Armstrong.  Armstrong is famous for his success as a professional road racing cyclist, who showed the narrative values of "courage, commitment, and intensity" in surviving testicular cancer and then winning the Tour de France multiple times (106).  But Armstrong is also infamous for lying about his practice of illegal doping.  So we are ambivalent about someone like Armstrong: we admire him in some ways, while condemning him in other ways.  Armstrong's life, May contends, is both meaningful and immoral.

But wouldn't Aristotle rightly say that Armstrong is partly moral--in displaying the virtues of "courage, commitment, and intensity"--but partly immoral--in displaying the vices of dishonesty and cheating?  His life is not fully admirable because it is not fully moral.

As far as I can tell, May gives us no good reason to doubt that Aristotle's virtue ethics is the best philosophic framework for understanding the human pursuit of the good life.  He also gives us no good reason to doubt the possibility that Aristotle's ethics can be supported by modern evolutionary science.

So as The Good Place continues its run, we will have to wonder whether a Darwinian and Aristotelian science of the virtues can best explain the human struggle with the meaning and morality of life that this show depicts.

We should also consider how a liberal social order secures the freedom of thought and speech that allows us to openly think through these deep questions of life through popular culture.

Finally, we should question the common claim of the critics of liberalism that the degrading effects of bourgeois liberalism are evident in popular culture--particularly, in TV programming.  Shows like The Good Place should force us to consider the possibility that there has been a steady increase in the cognitive complexity of popular culture in modern liberal societies.  Does watching television make us smarter?  I have written about that here.


LS1 said...

"May's third reason for why he thinks Aristotle's ethics cannot render human life meaningful is that morality and meaningfulness are so different that a good life in Aristotle's terms could be a meaningless life."

I've not read May's book so this may not be applicable, but I've noticed a tendency among modern writers to attribute a sense to the term "moral" that was not Aristotle's. We use the word as a convenient short-hand for *ethikai arete*, which would be more accurately rendered as something like "virtuous character traits". This helps to conceal not only a different taxonomy of moral virtues -- wisdom was a virtue of the intellect for Aristotle and St. Thomas -- but a difference of content.

Those who have been so strongly influenced by Kant and utilitarianism tend to conceive of "moral" in a particularly narrow sense, connoting a special form of obligation or action-guidance and a certain purity of the motive for moral acts.

Based on your reading here, it seems May suffers from this same confusion. You are of course correct that Aristotle would not have gone for any strong distinction between the notion of flourishing and that of a virtue. The virtues are constitutive of a life well lived, for the Aristotelian, whereas the modern moralist tends to insist on a logical gap between virtue and flourishing (assuming they use the terms at all). One could flourish, on modern terms, without being moral; this would be nonsense for Aristotle.

This provides a handy reply to the case of Lance Armstrong. The modern take is that Armstrong simply lacked morality, this being a narrow and contingent part of his life-narrative. The Aristotelian take is exactly as you write. Armstrong's morality cannot be made into a simple binary matter. In some respects he displays virtue, in others, vice.

This recasts Wolf's pithy comment that "Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness" in a new light. The claim is true, provided that one can see Aristotle's point in it: namely, that subjective attraction itself can be excellent or defective.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, I think you're right about this. Contemporary philosophers like May and Wolf simply take for granted the narrow Kantian view of morality, and so they cannot account for Aristotle's broader conception. Your well-written comment here is helpful.