Image Credit: TV Guide
The Good Place is a show that lays out a moral vision for the world that’s surprisingly sophisticated and deeply informed by academic philosophy — a vision that puts learning, and trying to do good front and center. We follow the journey of four characters who thought they were in The Good Place, but later learned they were in The Bad Place because they didn’t earn enough points on Earth by doing good things. In four seasons they show how the point system that determines your fate in the afterlife is faulty.
How did NBC’s The Good Place teach us how to be good? Does The Good Place make moral philosophy digestible? Is The Good Place about striving for moral change?
00:03 Natalie Dowzicky: Michael Schur, the creator of The Office and Parks and Recreation made another masterpiece, NBC’s The Good Place. The show lays out a moral vision that’s surprisingly sophisticated, and deeply informed by academic philosophy, a vision that puts learning and trying to do good front and center. Throughout four seasons, we follow the relationships of self-proclaimed dirt-bag Eleanor Shellstrop, anxiety-prone Chidi Anagonye, wonderful hostess Tahani Al-Jamil, and fake drug dealer and subpar DJ Jason Mendoza. Joining us today to discuss The Good Place is libertarianism.org’s intellectual history editor and host of our new show, Portraits of Liberty, Jacob T. Levy.
00:40 Paul Meany: Hi.
00:41 Natalie Dowzicky: And Jacob T. Levy, the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University.
00:46 Jacob T. Levy: Hi.
00:47 Natalie Dowzicky: To start us off here, we’re gonna throw a softball question at you guys. What is moral philosophy, and how does The Good Place make it digestible? Anyone?
00:57 Paul Meany: Well, I’m not the philosophy professor. [chuckle] I can tell you for certain how I first watched it. The very reason I watched the show in the first place, is ‘cause I saw a meme about it. There was a part where Chidi is talking to Eleanor and he’s showing her all the different philosophers in the ancient world like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. And then she’s like, “Why? Who cares about what Aristotle says? Who left him in charge?” And he’s like, “Plato.” And so I showed that to people and then they started, like, they actually laughed at it, which is rare, ‘cause philosophy jokes aren’t funny normally. I started showing it to people, to try and get them into moral philosophy because it’s not always the easiest to read at all. People actually make decisions, it’s not hypothetical scenarios, like they actually have to act on them, that’s a big part of it. And also, the characters are a lot of fun and you get to see how they go through things.
01:48 Natalie Dowzicky: When I was reading about how the show creator came up, not only with the idea of the show, but the way he wanted to take it, he was saying that What We Owe Each Other, a book written by Scanlon was the basis of his idea for the show, and he actually used Scanlon, Michael Schur, the creator, used Scanlon as a consultant on the show almost. Have either of you read that material, or can you see that that material, What We Owe Each Other, really coming through in the plot of the show?
02:23 Jacob T. Levy: Just Scanlon wasn’t a consultant. He read What We Owe to Each Other and there were other moral philosophers he knew with whom he consulted, but Scanlon spent the first year of the show not knowing what was going on when people started to mention to him, “Hey, I saw you on television.” And it was only the… Hey, I think I read that it was only the summer after the first season that Scanlon himself watched the show and became a fan.
02:53 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, interesting, okay. Do you see that work coming through at all throughout the show? Because I know there are quite a few nods to it, whether his name was written on the chalk board that Chidi Anagonye was using to teach Eleanor.
03:06 Paul Meany: It’s the book that she uses to preserve a message when they get their memories wiped. She puts it, the message in the book.
03:12 Jacob T. Levy: It’s the decisively important book that she knows will survive from one timeline to the next.
03:19 Natalie Dowzicky: So the idea of his book, which is used as a prop and kind of a backbone to the show, is the idea to act morally, is to abide by principles that no one could reasonably reject. And do you think that that comes… That obviously comes to play a lot in the show because they’re talking about being good, earning their spot in The Good Place, because as many… Much of our audience for the show is gonna know is that they end up… They think they’re in the Good Place, but then they realize… They uncover that they’re actually in the bad place being tortured. So the show really relies on this idea of being a good person or becoming a good person so that they can earn their keep, so to speak, into the Good Place. Do you think this type of moral theory or the other moral theories mentioned in the show are too demanding?
04:12 Paul Meany: The moral theory in the show that the… So in the first few episodes, when they explain the system of how you get into the Good Place, I took a screenshot and I have it up here. And Michael’s explaining how they got in. He’s like, “There’s a plus or a minus for every action you do, if it had a positive or a negative impact.” And here are some of the examples of the plus actions: Step carefully over a flower bed for 2 points, or you can end slavery for 800,000 points. Scratch your elbow for nearly 2 points. But if you’re going to be bad, they mention a lot of things. They keep mentioning how The Bachelor minuses your points, which I take a lot of personal offense to. They also use Facebook as a verb for -5, use the term bro-code for -8, and stiff a waitress for -6. So it’s… Everything is calculated in this world, seemingly, and that’s why Scanlon’s different.
05:03 Jacob T. Levy: I think now that the show is over, we should talk about the place of Scanlon and the place of all of the philosophy that Chidi taught, especially through the first season, differently from how Michael Schur talked about it season after season in the interviews, because in the first season when the set up plot is Eleanor has to learn how to be good. She has to learn how to deserve to be in the Good Place. The show presents Chidi as being really the voice of morality, the one who makes that possible to be true. And so he… What it is he teaches and particularly his reliance on Kant and on the kind of Kantianism that comes through Scanlon gets kind of taken for granted, but it gets a lot more complicated over the course of the show.
05:55 Jacob T. Levy: It gets more complicated when we learn that Chidi isn’t in the Good Place. It’s not the case that knowing all that moral philosophy made him a good person. Chidi is in the bad place, too, for reasons that arose out of his preoccupation with doing the right thing. And the question of whether Scanlon’s map of morality maps well onto the moral universe at the beginning of the show, I think is strange and complicated. The points system, they never say if the points system lines up well with morality according to Scanlon. And the points system, over the course of the show, we come to think of as being not a very good map of morality at all.
06:41 Jacob T. Levy: The universe’s map of morality changes over the course of the show. And Chidi’s account of morality changes over the course of the show, over the course of his lifetimes. So season by season, Schur would give these interviews and talk about his influence as he came to the show that encouraged us to think the show’s morality and Scanlon’s morality and Schur’s morality were all the same. But I don’t think it looks like that after four seasons. I think that it got interestingly a lot more complicated than that.
07:11 Natalie Dowzicky: I definitely agree with that. And I think part of it, if you go back to… You had mentioned in the first season, there’s a lot of… We get a lot of scenes of Chidi literally at a chalkboard, trying to teach Eleanor and specifically, like Chidi is going back and forth with whether or not he has an imperative to help Eleanor, or if that… And when I say imperative, I know something I was thinking about was Kant’s categorical imperative, like lying, no cheating, no stealing. After he had already known that Eleanor didn’t belong in the Good Place, he didn’t know if he was even able to help her pretend to be there. And I think the differences between season one and season four, I think if anything, the show got a lot more complicated in the beginning. It was just Chidi teaching moral philosophy on a chalkboard, and towards the end, it was much more how we developed our thoughts about not only the points system, but how complicated that type of system would even be.
08:16 Jacob T. Levy: That’s right. By the end of the show, we’re not in any doubt that Chidi did the right thing in trying to help Eleanor; indeed, Chidi trying to help Eleanor was the moral core that meant that everything survived over the course of 800 timelines and eventually saved all of humanity, that he had that level of kindness and humanity in him. So to the degree that the moral philosophy carried around in his head made that a hard choice, so much the worse for the moral philosophy he was carrying around in his head. If Kant told him that he couldn’t lie to protect someone from punishment because lying is wrong and punishment when it’s deserved ought to be carried out, the show’s ultimate moral message is not to that degree Kantian. And Chidi, by the end of the show, is to that degree not Kantian.
09:08 Paul Meany: Yeah, there’s actually a really good part. I forget which season it’s in. It’s when Michael is having a mid-life crisis and Eleanor runs up, and she has all these different French existentialist books. She’s like, “Which book will help him get out of it?” He says, “I don’t think books are going to help in this case.” And it’s such a difference from the beginning what Chidi was like before. He would always go to a book whenever he had a problem.
09:27 Jacob T. Levy: Season two, Michael’s existential despair. It is one of my favorite episodes.
09:33 Paul Meany: That’s the one.
09:33 Jacob T. Levy: Yes. It’s in the run of episodes that’s really the pivot in the show. When the four humans have successfully outsmarted Michael 800 times, they’ve broken out of the illusion that they were in the Good Place. And Michael’s now facing an uprising from the demons around him, and his immortal soul is on the line, if it gets found out that he’s rebooted 100 times. So he switches sides, and he says to the four humans, “You need to help me, and then I will help you find a way into the Good Place.” Eleanor says, “We will help you, but only if you take moral philosophy classes with us and you learn how to be good.” In this run of episodes, we get the brilliant subversion of the trolley problem when Michael is pretending to try to learn morality, but he’s really bad at trying to learn morality because he’s a demon. But we also get his moment of existential despair when he says, “I don’t understand what the point of all these is. You’re all going to die anyway.”
10:35 Jacob T. Levy: And Eleanor says, “The fact that humans walk around knowing that we’re all going to die some day is part of what gives it a point.” That ends up being a really important message all the way at the end of the show. But Michael, when he finally understands it, when he finally contemplates himself being destroyed, he falls into an absolute pit of despair and an existential crisis that is then followed by a mid-life crisis, that is one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen Ted Danson do. And it’s when he really fully commits to being on the human side for something other than strategic self-interested reasons, and starts the show on his long redemption and his much more interesting development as a character just trying to make things better rather than just trying to save himself.
11:28 Natalie Dowzicky: Right, which is I also thought this part of the show was pretty interesting. I’m a fan of all the seasons, but I did like this stretch of this show moreso. Partially, because it just had this idea of like, you’re bringing Michael over from the dark side. Michael is obviously a main character, but I think we don’t, when they see how much people have changed or you look at characters arcs throughout the show, Michael might not be the first person you think of in terms of changing because obviously, we follow the four characters and we feel deeply for for the circumstances that they are in.
12:00 Natalie Dowzicky: But I think, Michael has a more interesting character arc and character development throughout the show. But I also, while you’re talking, was thinking about another part during this segment of the show that Eleanor is wrestling with this idea that’s essentially moral dessert. If she does something good, she should be rewarded for it. And she was like, I think, she’s sitting at a bar and she just wanted an award for doing good things. And I think the shows says a lot about doing good. This idea that you do good and you get these points like a reward and that’s not really how it works. People are good to be good, right? And I was wondering what you guys thought of the idea of moral dessert throughout the show, and what the show message is on that front?
12:44 Paul Meany: Well, when I thought about the show first, there was a part where they say, “We have to wipe their memories ‘cause if they know they’re gonna go to heaven or the Good Place, they’re not going to do it the same way, they’re going to do it for the wrong reasons.” And so, I think, the show focuses a lot on the right and wrong reasons for doing things. I think of all the characters, their innate goodness, like I think Jason is one of the better people. It sounds weird at first, but hold the phone. I think he’s just a little… He’s a little silly, he’s not a bad person.
13:14 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, yeah, yeah, of course.
13:15 Paul Meany: He’s just easy to [13:15] ____ and there’s points… He’s actually one of the easiest people to convince to go to Australia for this experiment that Chidi and Simone are working on. He’s actually one of the easier people ‘cause he was already trying to figure out his life. People like Jason are quite innately good even if they’re a little stupid. People like Tahani are very intelligent, but even though they actually bring a lot of good to the world, they still aren’t admitted to the Good Place. So Tahani spends her entire life doing amazing things for people, donating constantly to charity, but she does it all for the wrong reasons. She does it for recognition. So, I think the show focuses a lot on the idea that doing the right thing, it doesn’t really… It doesn’t always do much for you and life isn’t particularly fair, but there’s good reasons to do it anyway. And you don’t need to always have a big thumbs up or a pat on the back for what you do. And that’s hard, though, that’s hard to deal with because then morality, what’s the point?
14:05 Jacob T. Levy: Yeah. I think that goes consistently through even when, over the course of the first couple of seasons, the moral map of the universe is a little bit of a mess.
14:15 Natalie Dowzicky: Right. [chuckle]
14:16 Jacob T. Levy: The point systems, as we see it laid out in those first three episodes, there’s nothing in there about don’t do it for vain reasons. And when eventually Tahani complains, “What on earth am I doing in the Bad Place? I raised $600 million for charity.” And they make her realize she did it for vain reasons and corrupt motives. None of that was on the chart about the Good Place. And the points system also doesn’t really makes sense of the… You have one fatal flaw theory that ends up creeping in, that the reason Eleanor is in the Bad Place is because she’s selfish, and the reason Chidi is in the Bad Place is because he’s indecisive. And the reason Tahani is, is because she’s vain, and they need to overcome those character flaws.
15:02 Paul Meany: See how you didn’t mention one for Jason?
15:07 Jacob T. Levy: This is consistently the point at which a character like Michael just laughs and looks at him and says, “Really? You have to ask?” So I think the affirmative vision about what counts as doing good gets a little muddled in the original points system universe. But the denial of moral dessert really does go straight through. You can’t do it if your aim is vanity, you can’t do it if your aim is eternal reward, and you can’t do it if your aim is the universe will pay you back immediately. And that’s Eleanor’s view after those six months is, “My life is hard. It turns out that doing the right thing just isn’t fun, and I’m still broke and people still give me a hard time. And shouldn’t things be getting easier because I’m doing the right thing.” And Michael then re-appearing kind of sotto voce as Sam Malone as an angel, as a bartender, talks her out of that, and talks her down from that point of view. And of all the different things the show endorses, it really never endorses moral dessert, except maybe in the character of Doug Forcett.
16:33 Paul Meany: The other part I was gonna say is that when Michael goes as the bartender, he points through towards Chidi’s lecture on What We Owe to Each Other, the Scanlon book.
16:41 Jacob T. Levy: Yes, that’s right.
16:43 Paul Meany: And so, it’s always piled on that moral dessert. One of the problems I had actually, with the original points system was when you went to heaven… I know they were all fake people. They weren’t really good people, they were just demons pretending. But they were all human rights lawyers, and they were charity workers and these amazing people who are doing such brilliant things. And I was like, “Well, I’ll never get in at this rate.” It’s impossible for people who are just… Maybe if you’re just not that smart or just not that hard-working, it’s like a sin, ignorance is a sin almost. That seems a little unfair, too.
17:14 Natalie Dowzicky: Right. And going off that point, I thought it was interesting. As much as this show is about morals and the individual, the decisions that individuals make, for the most part, it’s everything they overcome, everything the main characters overcome throughout the show is all done together. Moreso, relationships are the center of the story rather than personal… We don’t see as many personal decisions once they actually find out they’re in the Bad Place, which I always thought was interesting because it’s always the group was trying to help for the betterment of the group. And it was always very much the sense that “we have to help each other out,” and they go on all these different excursions, through different weird dimensions and whatnot. And it was never the fact… And it was never the case where one of them was like, “Oh, no, I can just do good on my own.”
18:05 Natalie Dowzicky: I thought that was interesting. It could be more from an entertainment standpoint ‘cause they wanted to develop these characters’ relationships. But the concept that you’re going up with all of your points to this system to try and get in, to try win your places in the Good Place, but they were all helping each other and, in an essence, affecting each other’s point totals if you’re going off that. ‘Cause in theory, if you’re going off of this point system, I’m sure we’re gonna talk in length about Doug Forcett later, would isolate yourself and just to try and get the most points. But the show is very centered around the relationships of these five to six people, if you’re counting Janet as a person. [chuckle]
18:42 Jacob T. Levy: I think we should.
18:44 Paul Meany: Yes, we do.
18:47 Natalie Dowzicky: She’s not a person. She’s not an AI. I saw an interesting article that was trying to argue that she was an AI. But anyway, so I just thought it was interesting that it’s moreso that we get so drawn to this group and how the group is doing versus individuals, if that makes sense. Even though I know, Paul, you have an affinity for Jason, which I just don’t, I don’t feel.
19:03 Paul Meany: I know.
19:03 Jacob T. Levy: That’s right. And it’s reinforced through the whole show. Officially, the way they defeat Michael the first time, and then the next 800 times, is in the moment of exposing, this is the Bad Place. But Michael explains later, the way they got there was always that those characters connected. Michael’s intention in creating the neighborhood was the humans will torture each other. It was Sartre, “Hell is other people. I’m gonna find four people, put them together and they will torture each other forever.” And he fails, because these four people, drawn to each other over, and over, and over again, 800 times help each other and make each other better. That’s absolutely the moral core of what goes wrong with Michael’s experiment.
19:58 Paul Meany: And also on top of that is there’s a… Whenever people have their moral low point, it’s always because they push people away and sulk alone. It’s only through other people that they ever come back from these lows. No one ever solves a problem alone per se, it’s always in groups.
20:15 Natalie Dowzicky: How about we head up and talk about Doug Forcett? I think we get the most of him, is it season three, towards the end of season three, I think. And obviously there’s a lot at play here, because he’s essentially making every decision to make others happy. And he’s trying to do… Trying to make the best decision to earn him the most points. And I think essentially, he’s the epitome of a lot of what Peter Singer’s ideology is, and utilitarianism in general. But the kind of idea of like, he’s… Doug is trying to do the most good, and he has it so figured out that he does things like, doesn’t give a snail a name in case it already has one. [chuckle] Or he like lets this adolescent take advantage of him, he like does his laundry, and whatever the young boy asks.
21:13 Natalie Dowzicky: And Michael and Janet go to visit him to learn more about how bad the points system is. Because even him, who’s living in isolation without running water, and trying to make all these decisions to earn him the most points still can’t even get him enough points to make it into the Good Place. And I thought it was interesting, because the core of that episode or those two episodes was about how interconnected we’ve become. So the decisions we make, we may think they’re good, but they could have bad unintended consequences, especially as our world has become more and more connected. So I think the example they use is like buying a tomato, and that bad unintended consequences that tomato could have even though like it’s healthy for you, or so on and so forth. So I was wondering what you guys all thought of this kind of… Not… I would say it was kind of like an attack, or their way to kind of combat this… The utilitarian Peter Singer-type ideology.
22:14 Jacob T. Levy: So one of the really neat things about how we get Doug Forcett is they don’t yet know that he’s not getting into the Good Place. That comes two episodes later. At the time, Doug Forcett is famously the one who figured out almost the whole complete points system when he was on an acid trip in the 1970s.
22:35 Jacob T. Levy: And so as far as they know, he’s a moral hero when they go to visit him. And the fact that the episode then portrays him as not leading a good life independent of the points system, that Michael and Janet are able to conclude on their own before they know he’s going to the Bad Place, this isn’t what a human life is supposed to be. You’re not actually living, you’re not actually living a life that has any flourishing to it, you’re not doing anything that makes yourself happy, is an indictment in narrative terms, and from the character’s perspective before we find out that it doesn’t even work in terms of the universe’s moral system. That’s Bernard Williams’ critique of utilitarianism. People actually have to have their lives of their own to live. You aren’t just an instrument to serve everyone else’s total pile of utility. Each person has to have a life that’s worth living, and therefore utilitarianism falls into a kind of contradictory collapse, because if everyone just runs around trying to be an endless instrument for everyone else’s end, no one actually has any ends.
23:46 Jacob T. Levy: And Doug doesn’t have any ends, all he has is this conviction from his acid trip decades ago that this was the way to get into the Good Place.
23:55 Jacob T. Levy: And even then he’s actually relying on moral dessert as well, which is another problem.
24:00 Jacob T. Levy: Yeah, it’s true. They never mention that, they never mention that having reached this conclusion, none of his points should count at all according to what we’ve been told.
24:08 Paul Meany: Yeah, and it’s also… I had a friend who… He became, a very classical utilitarian and we were chatting one day. And I was saying… You know, he was studying English literature in college. And I was saying, “Why don’t you just become an investment banker, and then just donate most of your cash?” And he’s like, “Yeah, but that wouldn’t be too much fun.” [chuckle] So that’s… Yeah, you have to lead your own life, even the most stringent utilitarians. You can’t really spend your entire life for other people like poor old Doug does.
24:34 Jacob T. Levy: Well, then I was gonna try to get you back to where you were nudging us toward, toward the tomato problem, and the problem of unintended consequences and indirect effects, which Doug doesn’t present front and center. He’s aware of them and that’s why he’s living on the radishes that he grows in his backyard…
25:00 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, yeah, I’ve read about that.
25:01 Jacob T. Levy: But that comes more front and center toward the end of season three, when first Michael discovers that no one’s gotten into the Good Place at all for 500 years, roughly speaking since the rise of global commerce. And then when the judge goes to Earth to understand why this is, and comes back and says, “It’s so hard, you don’t have time to figure out what the ethical tomato is to buy. You wanna buy a chicken sandwich, and it turns out fine. But the chicken sandwich means you hate gay people.” It’s complicated. You can’t possibly map out all of the indirect moral consequences, therefore the system is broken.
25:48 Paul Meany: I felt that part of the show was, I felt it was very odd. You’re punished for all the unintended consequences you cause, but you’re not rewarded for all the unintended good you do through global commerce. I felt that was a very unfair angle to take.
26:00 Jacob T. Levy: And that was the moment when I had to most extend my faith for the show and say, “Everything changes about every three episodes on the show. So I’m going to trust that this is not actually the show’s ultimate conclusion.” And it wasn’t. That was a way of saying that the points system was a bad approximation of morality. It really did look like for those couple of episodes, they were saying, “Well, the fact of global trade and the fact of social interconnectedness makes us all terrible.” But that wasn’t where the show ended up.
26:33 Natalie Dowzicky: That would have been an incredibly disappointing ending.
26:36 Paul Meany: I had a very similar fear because at the get-go, the show was very… Even the fake Good Place they make, it’s always these small communities of 400 and something people. It’s always small, everything’s small. It’s never big and interconnected and global. It’s always going down to that bare bones kind of grass-roots. That’s great, but it’s also nice to have the world at your fingertips too. So I was worried as well at that point. That was when I was kind of hemming and hawing about the show. But yes, they brought it back, thank God.
27:03 Jacob T. Levy: They brought it back. And I did talk myself at that point into the view and said, “I have faith, given how good the show has been and how clever it’s been and how much it’s changed, I have faith that this is not the last word.”
27:15 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah. I would agree with that. I think in the… Maybe in the first season or so, I was a little bit worried that they were… Especially, with such dense topics, they were going to almost, like we talked about in the very beginning of our interview here, about making it almost too digestible, so watering it down so that it didn’t have the depth that I would appreciate, so to speak. But I think the show as a whole did a particularly good job of not only hitting a wide variety of philosophy, so to speak, from the trolley problem to utilitarianism, but also bringing it back to an easier idea to understand about doing good and helping others.
27:53 Natalie Dowzicky: But I think there are a few points in the show where free will is talked about, but kind of left to this side a little bit, and I kinda wanted to dig into that a little bit. So for our last episode we had a guest to talk about Westworld and obviously free will is a much bigger topic in that show than it is in this one, but there are a few points throughout the show that Michael brought up this idea of free will, and I think it blends in nicely to the discussion of unintended good decisions make unintended bad consequences. I was kind of wondering what you guys think, though, the larger show says about free will.
28:33 Paul Meany: It seems it takes… In my opinion, I think there’s a point where Michael’s talking to Eleanor, and Eleanor is going on about how free will doesn’t exist, and it’s all very unfair and he just dumps a drink on her head.
28:44 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
28:45 Paul Meany: Yeah, that’s kind of a… I think a lot of people’s opinion, including my own, is that you kinda have to believe it exists and you have to act as if it did, and take that responsibility on yourself even if maybe you don’t have all the control in the world. To take that responsibility as a moral being I think is a big part of the show.
29:00 Jacob T. Levy: And then he emphasizes that the way the plot unfolded for the first two seasons, in terms of the show’s universe, was just the humans’ free will overriding all of His supernatural planning and powers over and over again.
29:17 Natalie Dowzicky: I was kind of hoping that we could jump in and talk about the end because the end is obvious. The end of the show, the end of season four, particularly, is very poignant in the sense that it was this… We spent, gosh, four seasons trying to fight our way into the Good Place, and we kind of got this feeling once we got there, that, oh, we completed our journey and we made it to our goal, but it wasn’t… It didn’t… It wasn’t as happy as you would have thought it would be and it wasn’t… The show didn’t tie up in a rainbow the idea that, “Oh, they made it to the Good Place and it’s like happily ever after.” So what do you guys think about the ending of the show?
29:58 Paul Meany: I thought the ending was absolutely brilliant. It was such a great ending. I never… I expected from the original season that they’d eventually get to the Good Place and it would just be like a cut to black and they don’t show anything. But the fact that they actually showed the Good Place and then grappled with the problems of a utopian heaven, I thought that was brilliant and it was something that for me, I never expected them to do whatsoever.
30:23 Jacob T. Levy: Once you saw it, you could see why, yes, this show would go that way. Look, they’ve gone through every divine and supernatural realm and they’ve fixed all of the problems and there’s one more problem for them to fix. But I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t see it coming at all, and I thought it worked tremendously well.
30:41 Natalie Dowzicky: I’m in the same boat as you guys. I didn’t necessarily predict it, I had a feeling we would get to at least see the Good Place, whether it be for the second half of the last episode or whatever, but I think it really brought in this idea that Jacob had mentioned earlier too, is this idea that without endings nothing necessarily matters, and Eleanor kind of hints at this earlier on in season four, and especially towards the end that once she lets Chidi go it’s this idea that endings are really sad, but without them there’s nothing really… Nothing really matters, so there’s nothing you’re really working towards.
31:15 Natalie Dowzicky: And I think that was a very good, especially from a show that’s a sitcom, right? I think it was a very good way to wrap up the show that was one… In a way that was unpredictable, but it was also in a way that left me satisfied. I’ve found recently that a lot of my favorite shows I’ve seen the endings of I’m not necessarily satisfied, or I’m disappointed ‘cause I feel like I could have written the ending of the show a lot better, but this is one of those that I really thought they took care and consideration with not only the relationships we’ve built with these characters, but kind of being realistic of the idea that endings like this need to happen. I thought it was one of the most unexpected, definitely… Actually probably, yeah, definitely the most unexpected scenes from the show.
31:46 Jacob T. Levy: But it provided narrative pay-off in one of the ways that the show continually impressed with, because we’ve met this committee of Good Place goofball administrators a couple of times before and it would turn out strange if the Good Place were properly speaking heaven and it were running perfectly, run by this committee of goof-balls. The fact that the Good Place doesn’t work, makes it make more sense that the Good Place angels we’ve met are kind of a bunch of incompetents, unable to solve the problem, and the fact that they run off and leave Michael in charge of it, because they know they can’t handle it. That provides narrative payoff to these characters we’d met a couple of times already over the course of more than a season.
32:57 Paul Meany: No, you need to be human to make a human heaven, per se. I think a big part of the show for me, like, what I took from the ending was that a lot of the high points of life are about improving, and progress, and making yourself a better person. I think the show is very firmly placed in the idea of the good parts of life are obviously interacting with other people, but also striving to make yourself a better person. Not always succeeding, but at least striving for it. I think at the beginning of the show, I thought it would be much more about Chidi just teaching everyone, but that’s only really for the first season.
33:25 Paul Meany: I thought a lot about the philosophy of Michel de Montaigne, because he openly admitted himself… It was in the 16th century in France. Very smart guy, but he admitted that he found Plato boring, and lots of books he’d just give up on, or wouldn’t really finish. But yeah, I like that a lot. I thought that message came through in the show, that it’s not about educating yourself through book learning, sort of practicing and living. But once you can’t really improve anymore, there’s not a huge amount to do with the world.
33:49 Paul Meany: But, like, there was another quote I had from John Stuart Mill, that I kept thinking about when I was rewatching the show recently. He was saying… He talks a lot about man as a progressive being. And he says… Well, not man, humanity as a progressive being, “The source of everything respectable either as an intellectual or a moral being is that we are capable of rectifying mistakes by discussion or experience.” So I like that a lot. I like the idea that the show is much more about striving for moral change.
34:14 Natalie Dowzicky: I agree with you on that. I think it’s about progress and progression, not even through the seasons, but as we saw the characters take steps. And it was funny, there were quite a few scenes where Eleanor like cited something that Chidi taught her and she was like almost shocked that she said that in real life. And it came to her just like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m learning.” Like, which is funny, funny in itself. But I think I agree with that, it’s, the show is more about the progression than it is about being perfect, which I think definitely really hit on towards the end. Or when they were trying to figure out how the the points system could be remedied. And I think ultimately, they made this idea that, you know, we’ve progressed so much, or you’ve become a better person, it doesn’t matter that it’s by 10 points or 300 points, it’s just the idea that you’ve done good. And I think there is… The show in a sense says there’s no real way to measure the goodness that you’ve done, just as long as you’re trying to work that way. And I think that’s also what made the show so interesting.
35:18 Jacob T. Levy: Yes. So before we get to the conclusion, how we got to the conclusion. This is the moment when it just seemed like what was already my favorite show was just bending over backwards to cater to me. They wake Chidi up with 800 memories, 800 lifetimes’ worth of memories, tell him we have a handful of minutes in which for you to fix the points system and the moral structure of the universe, or the world is going to be destroyed. What did he say? He says, “Get me a copy of Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices.”
35:56 Jacob T. Levy: What goes on to the blackboard as he’s talking his way through his first attempt at a solution is Judith Shklar and Ordinary Vices and the refusal of cruelty. Which is different from that ultimate message that we get in the final couple of episodes about your soul progressing. It’s not quite this, “Keep reliving lifetimes and your soul will get better and better, and you will overcome your character flaws.” The central problem with any variation of the points system that leaves the Bad Place intact, and that sends almost all of humanity to it, is that it is centrally cruel. It means that a lifetime’s worth of relatively ordinary moral infractions leads to eternity of endless infinite torture.
36:49 Jacob T. Levy: And then before we can fix anything else, before we can worry about what makes us better and better, we have to rule out that kind of cruelty. Now, Shklar is deeply indebted to Montaigne, who Paul mentioned a moment ago. And is really not the kind of Kantian Chidi had been through his previous lifetimes. For Kant, punishment is a moral obligation. If there are two people left alive at the end of the world, and one of them is a murderer, the one who is not a murderer has an absolute unconditional duty to put the murderer to death. Because it is his absolute duty to make sure that appropriate punishments are carried out.
37:33 Jacob T. Levy: Shklar’s central concern is the avoidance of cruelty, and that includes real sharp limitations on the vengeful desire to punish. The interpersonal kindness isn’t her central message, it’s that the social structure must not be actively cruel. And for that to be the crucial stage that Chidi goes through and walks everyone else through, before they get to… And we shouldn’t just avoid punishment, we should actively allow moral progress. That was just served up to me on a platter, that was… As far as I was concerned, that overcame my objections to the Kantianism, my objections to the stuff about global commerce and trade, all of my concerns about each of the moral systems that had been tried out over the course of the first couple of seasons, because Shklar offers a meta rule, “If your moral system license is cruelty, that’s a bad moral system. Go back and start again.”
38:28 Paul Meany: I just loved the show, because it was… I showed it to my parents, because they were wondering why I read these very long and apparently boring books. And so I decided instead of asking them to read something like Aristotle, which it’s pretty rough at times. I decided I’ll just show them the TV show, they said they actually enjoyed it a lot and they got into the ideas much more because of it. That’s what I just loved about the show, that it was accessible. I also loved the show because it was… I just… I really liked the idea of the moral progress being like the kind of the crux of the show almost.
39:09 Jacob T. Levy: And I love at the ending… Maybe this is me reading too much into something that was supposed to be symbolic, but at the ending Eleanor steps through the gates. She kind of… She ends her life, I guess you could call it, and her spirit kind of goes off and there’s a guy, he’s looking through his letters, he throws one in the bin because it’s not his and then like Eleanor’s kind of spirit, let’s say, it touches off him, picks up the letter, brings it back to Michael who is now a human. Michael gives him a lot of praise, which maybe the moral dessert there was him taking it sleazy. But I like the idea that was it almost kind of like they talked about conscience and the idea of an impartial spectator. I like that a lot.
39:50 Jacob T. Levy: But I also really enjoyed about the show was that it focused mainly not on things being right or wrong on their own. It was always based on circumstance and your relationships with people, which I always thought was a much better way to tackle philosophy as opposed to just, “Is this wrong? . Yes? No?” I much prefer the way The Good Place handle it and it did it in a way that was funny.
40:13 Natalie Dowzicky: So something that I’ve been locked into recently as well, besides watching reruns of Survivor because I have too much time at home, is that I’ve been reading this book called Where The Crawdads Sing. Apparently it got really great reviews on Goodreads. So I’m about 150 pages in. It’s a fiction book placed in, I wanna say the 1950s-ish and I’m only 100 pages in, so there’s not a whole lot going on. But so far I’ve learned about this little girl who lives in a swamp country and her dad and siblings abandoned her, so it’s kind of a murder mystery-type book. Anyway, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’ve had… Since we’re working remotely, I’ve had some time to take up some fiction reading rather than keeping it purely non-fiction books. So that’s kind of been a nice change of pace. I’ll throw it to Jacob. What have you been up to recently?
41:13 Jacob T. Levy: What I’ve most recently been watching, was I finally was motivated after the end of The Good Place to go back and watch Veronica Mars, which I’ve meant to do for…
41:20 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, great show.
41:21 Jacob T. Levy: 15 years and had never really gotten around to, and I’m into season three now and enjoying it a lot. And I’m surprised that I don’t keep seeing Eleanor creeping through. There’s a similar kind of cynicism that characterizes Veronica and Eleanor in Kristen Bell’s performances, which is really kind of funny given what an earnest person Kristen Bell seems to be, just a soft, gooey-hearted loving person. There’s a little bit of a cynical edge to both of them, but they’re very different characters and I don’t end up seeing one in the other the way that I often will seeing one actor perform different roles over time.
42:10 Jacob T. Levy: The thing that I’ve read most recently that I really liked… I’m in the middle of reading the end of the Wolf Hall Trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, but I’m not through that yet to evaluate it. But I did read The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, who had a big fiction hit a couple of years ago with The Imperfectionists. And one thing The Italian Teacher has in common with stuff we were talking about with respect to The Good Place is its protagonist is the son of a great artist and he’s spending decades struggling with the question of how his life matters in the shadow of his father. He ends up orienting several decades of his life around various versions of thinking about writing a biography of his father, trying to promote the value of his father’s art to the art world, shaping himself around the greatness of his father and then struggling with the question of where’s the worth in his life.
43:16 Jacob T. Levy: And the book doesn’t offer as clear an answer as I think that the Doug Forcett episode offers in The Good Place, but it’s struggling with the similar question of how much does your life have to be yours for it really to be a life that you’re living? And ow much orientation toward other people is too much?
43:38 Natalie Dowzicky: Paul, what have you been consuming lately? [chuckle]
43:41 Paul Meany: I do not watch a whole lot of TV, that’s my problem. I should probably watch more. But I have been rewatching the one of the best shows ever made, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
43:53 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, my gosh. [chuckle]
43:53 Paul Meany: They’re making a Netflix show, so I decide I have to rewatch it all again for the 11th time, just in case I missed anything. And… But that’s an absolutely brilliant show. It’s about… There is… It’s like a completely fantasy world where some people are able to bend one of the four elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air. And the Avatar is the person who can bend all four. And then the Avatar is frozen in time for a hundred years and a whole war ravages the world for about a hundred years and he wakes up. And it’s about him trying to fix the world afterwards and it’s brilliant. Great show. But there’s not much depth to it… Well, there’s lots of depth to it. But nothing I can really talk about without going into a very long half hour praise of the show.
44:33 Paul Meany: On the other hand, I’m rereading Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, which is, after Avatar’s ending, nice and fun. It’s about aliens visiting the world and leaving kind of their scraps of technology left behind. But they’re so far advanced that they compare us to little ants who look at packets of chips and chocolate bars afterwards… After people have thrown away from a picnic. So there’s things, amazing things that we could never imagine and could never… Defy the laws of physics. That’s why the people who go into these areas where the aliens were and try to retrieve what they call the Artifacts and the Zone. There’s also a movie about it in Russian, that’s brilliant too. And as a bonus one, the game Animal Crossing came out.
44:51 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, my gosh, you and Landry love this game.
44:51 Paul Meany: Yes, which is a extremely relaxing game. If only everyone could know that video games are not violent. You can just fish and sit in a tree stump and have a good time.
44:51 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh my gosh. Okay. Well, before Landry and Paul try to convince me to get Animal Crossing. I have not bought it yet, but maybe the longer I work from home maybe I’ll go out and buy it.
44:51 Natalie Dowzicky: Thanks for listening. With everything going on around the world we know people are lonely and scared. We hope that Pop N Locke makes you laugh and makes you think. And in the words of Chidi Anagonye himself, “It turns out life isn’t a puzzle that can be solved one time and it’s done. You wake up every day and you solve it again.” If you enjoyed our show today, let us know on Twitter @PopnLockePod, that’s pop, the letter N, locke with an E, pod. Make sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. We look forward to unravelling your favorite show or movie next time. Pop N Locke is produced by Landry Ayres as a project of libertarianism.org. To learn more visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.