The Good Place is one of the funniest shows on television. It also makes me want to be a better person.
Explaining The Good Place is difficult because it strives to change its own status quo every episode. The shortest possible explanation is that it’s the story of Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, who is a pretty bad person trying to learn how to be good. In the first episode of the series she learns that she’s died and has gone to “The Good Place,” which is basically heaven. Eleanor immediately realizes they’ve mistaken her for another person, and that she’s actually meant to go to The Bad Place. She asks Chidi Anagonye, a professor of ethics played by William Jackson Harper, to teach her how to be a good person so that she might earn her stay and avoid permanent torture in hell. This is difficult because Eleanor is not just a normal bad person, she is a really, really bad person. For example, she once ripped a friend’s dress when she borrowed it without asking, lied about it, and then made and sold t-shirts with her friend’s face on them after she got pilloried on social media for blaming it on the dry cleaner.
By the end of the show’s second season, the characters pretending to be good have actually started to be good people. They’re making a last ditch effort to prove that they’ve changed and earn a stay in The Good Place. Eleanor and her friends are now standing in front of The Judge, who will determine whether or not they have improved enough to go to the real Good Place. Michael, the demon played by Ted Danson who is aiding them, advocates that the humans should be given a chance to prove that they’ll be good people without knowing whether they will be rewarded in the afterlife. And so Eleanor Shellstrop is taken back to the moment right before her death, and this time she survives. This near death experience makes her want try to be a better person.
That framing device—whether or not human beings will do good things if they don’t know they’re going to be rewarded—doesn’t just drive The Good Place. Answering that question is a large part of philosophy and ethics, as the show strives to explain. In particular, T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe To Each Other comes up a lot, and there’s even an episode named for it. In that episode, Chidi summarizes contractualism, the ethical model that’s the subject of Scanlon’s book, as a kind of social contract you make with other people. Scanlon’s contractualism says that determining an action as “right” is dependent upon a reasonable group of people not being able to object to such an action. Chidi describes it as a society where everyone can make a rule, but also everyone gets to veto a rule they think is unfair. Thinking about society as a thing we create with other people is useful, especially for Eleanor, who tends to only think about herself.
While Eleanor does a lot of really awful things—in this episode she mentions that she cyber-bullied Ryan Lochte off Instagram—she also does casually shitty things that I can recognize myself also doing. It’s not that I’m consciously choosing to be inconsiderate. It’s just that sometimes I know what the right thing to do is but it seems too hard to actually accomplish. Doing the right thing is difficult. If it were easy, we would all be doing it all the time. Sometimes it’s easier to litter, or to not leave a note when you ding someone’s car, or to take the last cocktail shrimp even though you’ve had plenty. These are all very little things, but they still have an impact on the world. The Good Place, and the philosophical texts that it references, asks what makes a person choose to do the harder thing.
In the season 2 finale, the now-alive Eleanor Shellstrop spends six months being a good person, only to get sick of how hard it is, and goes back to her old ways. When she does, Michael decides to intervene. He finds her at a bar, where he poses as a bartender. She asks him, drunkenly, why she should do good things? In response, he reminds her of her conscience, the little voice that reminds you that you’re wrong thing. “The real question, Eleanor,” he says, “is ‘what do we owe to each other?’”
This isn’t quite what Scanlon is talking about in his book, but it is true that we live in a world with other people. Why should we do good things? Because every single person you pass on the street is a person, just like you are a person. It is a little harder, sometimes, to sacrifice a little bit so that someone else can live a little better, but you do it because you know the alternative would make an uninhabitable world. It’s a contract we’ve entered with each other, not because we wanted to, but because we don’t have any other choice. I like that The Good Place believes that even a person like Eleanor Shellstrop can be good, even without knowing if she’ll be rewarded. It means we can all be good, if we try.