Not good, Not a place
Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Good Place, especially the final episode.
“This is the Bad Place.” Eleanor Shellstrop’s announcement of this surprising twist in the final episode of The Good Place’s inaugural season took what was an already beloved series and made it a genuinely interesting philosophical phenomenon.
Since that moment, the show has wrestled with significant metaphysical questions as to the nature of good and evil, virtue and vice, bliss and perdition. All this within tightly packaged episodes that, for the most part, managed to maintain their humour and charm over the lifespan of the series.
At times, the show has produced poignant — even profound — reflections on philosophical and theological questions. For example, the moment in season four when the protagonists manage to convince the Judge that the system for adjudicating people’s deeds on earth is flawed on account of the social nature of virtue (Aristotle would be proud) ought to make any adherent to the doctrine of eternal conscious torment consider certain individualist elements of their belief.
“Look, the point is people improve when they get external love and support. How can we hold it against them when they don’t? … This is it, Your Honour. This is the whole story. No one is beyond rehabilitation.” – Michael
What results is the development of a form of universalism which, despite the format of the show, raises genuinely interesting moral questions.
Utilitarian dilemmas, deontological principles, and virtue ethical considerations
Much has been said about the works-based nature of judgement in the series, and its contradiction of the Reformation understanding of salvation by grace, and I won’t revisit these discussions which are, if I’m frank, superficial. Ultimately, the series never sets out to represent Christian theology. It portrays a universe that, as far as we are informed, lacks any ultimate divine figure.
What The Good Place sets out to do, however, is explore notions of good and evil (the creators hired a philosophical advisor to help). In many ways, the series should be lauded for bringing philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus to wider public discussion, even if a minority of people will only ever go on to read their works.
The Trolley Problem has done the rounds on social media for years now, mostly as a jokey meme, but The Good Place might be the first television series to have caused widespread conversation about various utilitarian dilemmas, deontological principles, and virtue ethical considerations.
So, does the series succeed in landing on a robust notion of the good? Mileage may vary, but for me this is the greatest failure of The Good Place. This may well be its only failure (apart from the first half of season three), but I’d hoped a series with its title would offer a more satisfying account of what is truly good.
The series finale seals the deal on my judgement here. Like many, the final episode left me with an intense feeling of grief, a feeling that was expressed in various ways by the main characters and, apparently, the internet. This feeling abided with me for several days afterwards.
Having finally made it to the Good Place, the majority of the main characters end up tiring of life in paradise and volunteer, one-by-one, for the cessation of their existence. This variously causes anxiety, desperation, and deep sadness in the remaining characters.
Sadness may not be incongruous with goodness
Sadness may not be incongruous with goodness in our daily lives here in a broken and chaotic world, but it does seem somewhat contrastive with the notion of a place that is meant to be good in an ultimate sense.
In the end, the highest notion of the good that The Good Place can offer is nonexistence. There is no truly good place, only a pleasant place, superior to earthly life in degree but not kind, of which one will eventually grow wearied.
(From a theological perspective, this is fascinating, given that in one account of final judgement, namely annihilationism, nonexistence constitutes divine punishment rather than eternal peace.)
In some ways, The Good Place’s unsatisfying and mournful depiction of eternal paradise is the inevitable result of the concept of the good that it developed from episode one.
While the series certainly offers an objective measure of the good, it is rather arbitrary. For example, singing to a child scores you +0.69 afterlife points, while stealing copper wire from a decommissioned military base incurs –16.00 points; never discussing veganism unprompted nabs +9885.55 points, while using “Facebook” as a verb scores –5.55 points.
The good becomes less objective, however, when it comes to life in the Good Place. The version of paradise that the series conjures is the mere opportunity to have all of one’s desires immediately met. In the first season, such good is all a mediocre mirage in the Bad Place, a shadow of people’s actual desires (for example, the omnipresence of frozen yoghurt rather than ice cream). But even when the characters realise this is the case, the series never really diverts from the same basic premise: that the good is simply what we feel like we want at any given time. The predictable result is that everyone becomes bored and desensitised.
There is nothing ultimate about the good in The Good Place, it is merely the fulfilment of the fleeting whims of paradise’s denizens. As such, the good is a prison, a form of slavery, never liberating a person for some transcendent good, but shackling them to their contingent desires, desires that had been shaped by innumerable forces — not all of them virtuous — on earth.
The Good Place isn’t really about the afterlife
The Good Place’s heaven is rather libertarian and is infected by the lingering effects of desires that have no ultimate ends, and thus need not be reformed in any way. No wonder, then, that a second death is desirable.
Of course, the message of The Good Place isn’t really about the afterlife, but about living a good life here and now. I’d suggest, however, that it considerably undercuts this aim by never really offering a meaningful account of the good life. Ultimately, life has no ends beyond our individual sense of what is good.
Indeed, at times objective accounts of goodness are distrusted, such as when Chidi’s deontological commitment to refusing to lie is used as a comedic foil and treated as a hindrance to the characters’ aims. Kantian ethics are certainly worthy of critique, but the series swings from quoting Kantian maxims to rejecting them when it’s convenient, all without rhyme or reason.
When, in season three, the main characters do decide to live well for its own merit, the result is remarkably individualistic. For example, Tahani and Jason give away wads of cash to individuals on the street, and Jason and Eleanor solely seek the well-being of friends and family members. Not that these things are bad; but they hardly embody a meaningful account of the good, particularly in a world of all manner of economic and identity-based oppression.
The possibility of our finitude
In the final episodes, the philosophical focus of the series shifts suddenly away from the good life. Here, with the annihilation of half the main cast, the show’s creators presumably wish us to consider whether finitude is necessary for life to have meaning. This itself is an interesting question to consider. But the answer seems obvious if the assumed conception of eternal bliss is as unimaginative as getting what you want all the time.
The classical conception of ultimate bliss is vastly more interesting and satisfying, both conceptually and, presumably, in reality. Classical views about God as infinite, and as the Source of goodness toward which all good things move, imply that eternal bliss is not conditioned by or dependent on our limited desires, but that these desires point toward the infinite Source of good, and find their eternal fulfilment there. This good is analogous to the good we experienced in our lives, but of a different, ever-expanding magnitude.
In other words, there is no end to this experience of bliss, no boredom or exhaustion, and certainly no lingering sadness as we are forced to witness loved ones voluntarily end their existence out of surrender to inevitable heaven-weariness. Such bliss is literally to participate in the infinite divine, a reality that is impossible to imagine because it is so far above and beyond our current existence.
To repeat what I said earlier: The Good Place never set out to represent Christian theology, and so I don’t wish to impose such expectations on the show. I only wish that this series that I loved, and which has been one of the more imaginative of recent times, had been more imaginative where it really counted.
Whereas the legacy left by The Good Place has been to cause us to consider the possible necessity of our finitude, perhaps a more important legacy could have been to cause us to contemplate the true nature of the good and the lives it demands that we live. Many of us feel like our world needs that right now.
The Good Place is streaming now on Netflix.