September 29, 2019


How The Good Place taught moral philosophy to its characters -- and its creators (Dylan Matthews, Sep. 26th, 2019, Vox)

The title of the book, Schur said, was in itself a key inspiration. "The title, What We Owe to Each Other, stuck in my head and was a quietly, to me, radical idea, because it starts with this presupposition, which is: We owe things to each other. It's not, 'Do we owe things to each other?" It's 'This is what we owe to each other.'"

What We Owe to Each Other is an extended and at times technical defense of a theory Scanlon calls contractualism: in short, the idea is that to act morally is to abide by principles that no one could reasonably reject.

The meat of the theory appeals to Schur. "What he says in the book is a controversial position, but which I found to be very uncontroversial, which is that you ought to design rules that couldn't be rejected by the people that you're having to share the world with," he explains.

That seems quite immediately applicable in a show like The Good Place. The show at its root is about four people -- Eleanor, Chidi, Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), and Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) -- who have to form a society together in an afterlife they know isn't quite fair. It's not fair because both Eleanor and Jason (a small-time drug dealer from Jacksonville, Florida, who has been mistaken for a Buddhist monk named Jianyu Li) have both been misplaced, suggesting something's terribly amiss. And it's not fair because all four of them are turned into bundles of anxiety and doubt by the first season's end.

So the four of them -- and their non-human comrades Michael and Janet (D'Arcy Carden), a supernatural personal assistant ("Not a robot!") who knows all the information there is to know in the universe -- have to build their own kind of moral system to live by, one that doesn't necessarily abide by the rules being enforced by the authorities governing the afterlife, but which is born out of a sense of duty to each other as fellow human (and superhuman) beings.

Pamela Hieronymi, a UCLA professor, one-time Scanlon student, and avowed contractualist whom Schur has consulted periodically after cold-emailing her for advice, was brought in to talk to the writers before seasons two and four. She argues the contractualist roots of The Good Place come through most vividly in flashbacks to Eleanor's life on Earth. Her behavior is at its most loathsome when she's free riding: promising to serve as a designated driver to her colleagues, then drinking anyway, for instance.

"She's failing to live by contractualist reasoning there," Hieronymi concludes. . [...]

Setiya and Thompson both work in a philosophical tradition that argues that morality comes not from duties to other people but living up to what it is to be a good human being, cultivating and reflecting deeply human virtues. You can (very, very broadly) term this tradition neo-Aristotelianism, or virtue ethics.

Lately, Schur tells me he's been feeling more affinity with this brand of philosophy, and it's been reflected on The Good Place. "Scanlon's book has been a sort of spine of the entire show, but I would say that what you might call traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics have supplanted it in terms of what the show's overarching statement about the world is," Schur says.

"The idea that Mike keeps coming back to is that you try -- you won't always succeed but you try," says Todd May, a Clemson professor who started advising The Good Place in later seasons after Schur encountered his book Death (which argues life's finitude gives it meaning). "He says we're going to try but we're going to fail and the key is trying knowing you're going to fail."

The retreat to Puritanism.

Posted by at September 29, 2019 9:14 AM