Note: As always in this journal, this essay is written with the assumption that the reader is unconcerned with "spoilers."
There’s an episode toward the end of the first season of The Good Place in which Eleanor gets a chance to show she can improve morally, to avoid getting sent to the bad place to be tortured for eternity. She is given a device that looks like a large pocket watch, which shows her total moral worth in the form of a numerical score, calculated by assigning positive or negative point values to every action in her life. As she goes about the “good place” trying to perform virtuous actions and raise her score at least into the positive range, her point value remains the same, and at one point even drops slightly.
It turns out that she cannot raise her point value if she is doing good for a reason, hoping to gain something by it. An action is only good if it is performed without any thought of personal gain. And even better if it is contrary to our personal interest—earlier in the season Chidi has told Eleanor that it is especially morally good of her to spend her time picking up trash if this will also cause her to miss out on something she really wants to do: flying.
I want to begin by considering the assumption about morality that is offered here without much argument. We are simply expected to take this as a given. My contention is that considering this assumption can help us access the ideological function of this show. That is to say, we must not mistake the watered-down pop-philosophical “content” of the show for its ideology; but considering what this content is, and how easily we accept its truth, can give us the critical distance to see what kinds of actions in the world we are taking, and what kinds of subjects we are becoming, when we watch The Good Place.
There are already a number of books and dozens of essays proclaiming that The Good Place has brought philosophy to a broad audience and praising the show for teaching us all how to become better people. My contention is that we should avoid too much concern with the philosophical content of the show, which amounts mostly to some in-jokes you might get if you’ve taken some college philosophy classes or spent too much time on the internet reading about the show. To determine the ideology of the show, we need to first recognize that philosophy is no more than a decoy, a lure, functioning to draw our attention away from the assumptions about the world that are being reproduced. When we share those assumptions, the show is funny, it entertains us, but it is also a practice we are engaged in. And therefore, it makes us into a kind of subject suited for a peculiarly American version of global capitalism.
Nevertheless, to get to the ideology of the show I am going to briefly consider this one philosophical point. Oddly, it is one that even philosophers never feel the need to argue for; they can just assert it and assume their readers (mostly other professional philosophers) will generally agree. Here’s a statement of the point by Bernard Williams, a British moral philosopher:
In third-personal form [cultivation of virtues] is very familiar: it forms a good part of socialization or moral education…As a first-personal exercise, however, the cultivation of the virtues has something suspect about it, of priggishness or self-deception. (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 10).
The point here is that it is obvious, and needs no arguing, that when we set out to become morally better people we are in fact being narcissistic, and are deceived about our own motives. We cannot plan to be better people, it seems. We must be morally good from some internal impulse over which we have no conscious control.
Most of us, I’m sure, will take that as a given. We say things like this all the time: he’s not really a good person, he’s just doing that because he thinks it is what he is supposed to do. Or, as in the case of Tahani: she’s not really benevolent, she’s just raising billions of dollars for charity so that she will seem to be benevolent to others. We have trouble with the idea that we might plan to become a better person, and then set out to do things that will make us that person. To most of us, this just seems intuitively impossible.
Now for one brief caveat to any philosophical nerds who might be reading this (the rest of you can skip this paragraph). T.M. Scanlon, whose book What We Owe to Each Other functions as a kind of Lacanian objet a throughout the series, does in fact argue against this position, with specific reference to Williams, in this book. Nevertheless, it should be clear enough that the series as a whole functions on this assumption. This is why it is crucial that nobody on Earth find out about the afterlife. If we know that we will get to heaven by doing good things, then we would do them for a self-interested reason (to avoid eternal suffering), and they would no longer be good in the pure sense demanded by the show’s, and I would say our general, ideology. Good, in our dominant ideology today, demands self-sacrifice, not self-improvement (which is narcissistic).
Okay, so how does this lead us into the ideology of the show as a whole?
Primarily, it lets us off the hook. We are sitting and watching a sitcom based on an absurd fantasy premise instead of thinking about real world problems or trying to figure out how to be better people ourselves. But we needn’t worry. Because after all, if we were doing those latter things, we would be like Tahani or Chidi, acting for selfish reasons, instead of acting from out true nature. We are free, because of this assumption we all share, to enjoy.
The next question, then, is exactly what form that enjoyment takes. The primary source of humor in the show is certainly ironic, snarky comments about pop culture. Many people seem not to even notice this. It was evident to me, because much of the time I could tell that a joke was being made but wasn’t sure what exactly the joke was. For instance, I had to look up who Stone Cold Steve Austin is (never heard of him) and ask my daughter about the reference to Kanye West, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift (I’ve heard these names, but didn’t know anything else about the three of them except that they are somehow famous). To fully “get” the show, one is supposed to take pleasure in the biting satirical comments about pop culture.
The other source of enjoyment, of course, is the love story: who will wind up with their soulmate? Which characters belong together? Love, accepted as a natural and irresistible impulse, turns out to be the only thing that can successfully guide moral actions and improve someone’s ethical score. What we do for love, it seems, doesn’t count as self-interest.
As the seasons progress, the characters find out they are in a new and special kind of hell, then find that in fact everyone goes to hell. Nobody, in our world, can be good enough to deserve heaven. Apparently because what counts most is consequences, and the complexity of our modern world is so great that all our actions have unintended negative consequences. Chidi, for instance, is sure he is in hell because of his preference for almond milk. The judge, after a trip to earth, remarks on the impossibility of buying a tomato without doing some harm to someone. We are expected to assume that not only can we not choose to become good, we cannot possibly do good at all. The social and economic world, what the show would never call global capitalism, is to be seen as a force beyond our control, not something created by us but something which just ineluctably arose and traps us in impossible ethical situations.
The solution? A second try living completely in what used to be called “twee culture”. I think the popularity of the term was brief, and many people have probably already forgotten it completely—see Marc Spitz’s 2014 book, which seems to have killed the term by offering a formal account of it. What I mean by this is a kind a general attitude toward life that rejects “adulting”, that embraces nerdiness, believes naively in things like true love, and generally lives in the hope that opening an organic vegan bakery is the way to defeat global corporate capitalism. The new afterlife that results from the adventures of the six main characters on The Good Place is the twee culture made manifest. Nobody needs to work at anything they don’t want to—things like production of goods and raw materials are no longer necessary. Finding true love is the ultimate goal, but the other goals are things like learning to play guitar or finally resolving your troubles with your parents, or playing the perfect game of John Madden Football. This is a world of permanent adolescence, and learning to be good is learning to be nice to other people while you do only whatever it is you feel like doing.
All the supposedly abstruse discussion of philosophy is just a distraction, so we think we are doing something challenging and good while we are offered a kind of structuring fantasy. If we like the show, we think we are good people when we have true love, and can make the cleverest snarky comments about pop culture. We learn never to do things like think about exactly how the economic system got so destructive and oppressive, or whether we might be able to do anything at all about it.
If we enjoy The Good Place, we become the ideal subject of global capitalism, consuming ironically and living passively, responding only by intuition and never thinking beyond the level of the joke. The ideal audience for a show like this is the twenty-something college graduate, particularly those affluent enough to know they can live off their parents for another decade or so.
The point is that aesthetic objects like this pick up on the existing ideological currents and make them into structuring fantasies. Such fantasies make it inconceivable that we might ever do anything to change the world we find ourselves in. The practice of watching the show makes those who are in the ideal position to change the world into subjects who would never consider doing so! Interpellation so often begins with a laugh.
To conclude, then, I want to consider what might happen if we watch this show “against the grain.” In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin argues that since “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”, the goal of the historical materialist must be to “brush history against the grain”. If we see that all of our popular entertainments today are also documents of barbarism, in the sense that they all work to disable our agency and promote the interests of capitalist oppression, is there some way we can read them against their grain? What would that look like?
In the case of The Good Place, we might begin by noticing what the show doesn’t mention at all. What parts of normal human life don’t figure into the fantasy? We might consider the assumptions we make without questioning them. Can a show like this put our structuring assumptions into sufficient relief that we can begin to question them? What kind of things are we assumed to desire? What kinds of desires are ignored?
The academic philosopher Todd May served as one of the “philosophical advisors” to the show. In fact, his book Death is mentioned in one episode. In working toward an against-the-grain reading of The Good Place, I want to briefly consider an argument he makes in his book A Significant Life. May argues that there are “two scales, a moral one” and “that of meaningfulness” and our “eyes shift back and forth between these scales, not settling on one of them” (120). His point here is that it seems, due to the “complexity” of human life, that a moral life may well be devoid of meaning, and a meaningful life often requires certain lapses in morality. He uses the example of Lance Armstrong here to argue that success, and so a meaningful life, may often require us not to be moral—but that we don’t judge a person completely on their morality. We may admire a person we know is a liar and a cheater. In the case of some rock stars or professional athletes, we are even willing to forgive their being bullies, abusive, or committing sexual assault, because those are mere moral failings, and their great achievements outweigh such trifles.
I would suggest that the real goal of this argument for “complexity” is to screen the true underlying problem: the ideological contradictions of capitalism. Instead of facing the hard truth that morality is split from meaning specifically, and in particular ways, in capitalist social formations, May wants to simply write this off as an inevitable feature of human life.
We see the same strategy in The Good Place. The main characters discover that nobody can get into the Good Place anymore because life on Earth has become too complex. The only hope is to separate out a moral realm from the realm of production, of real human agency in the real world. What we cannot see is that we choose a particular mode of production in which our indispensable goods are produced and distributed in ways that require human oppression and the destruction of the environment. This isn’t just a feature of the universe, but of how we arrange our society. But we have become so blind to this, so quick to perceive capitalism as part of the natural universe, that we are left with a pathetically anodyne version of agency, limited to the kind of advice you give a kindergartner: be nice, and don’t bite anybody.
We might also notice that the actual task of being such blandly nice people is so horribly dull that it can’t really be depicted on the show. The main characters jump right to the real Good Place not for learning to be nice, but because they broke the rules and forced a change in the entire system. The kind of ideal life the show is arguing for turns out to be something we don’t even want to actually watch for a single episode. That should tell us something about why we can’t get interested in moral philosophy: when it is divorced from the way we actually organize our mode of production, from our plans to produce and distribute life’s necessities, then it becomes completely useless to us.
In A Significant Life, Todd May mentions the enormous influence of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics on his thinking. If there is anything we should learn from that text today, it is that we can never separate out our moral values from the mode of production; even if we think we are doing it, our real “morals” are to be found in what we do—in lying and cheating to get what we want—and not in what we think we ought to do.
We read this show against the grain when we notice all the assumptions it doesn’t want us to know we are making. Because The Good Place gives formal shape to so many of our fundamental assumptions about morality and the meaning of human life, it can become an ideal text for distantiating our ideological assumptions. Clearly, it is not meant to do this. But how we consume aesthetic objects can be as much a matter of the ideological practice of our reception as it is the ideological practice of their production.
A show like this may not provide any real answers, any subversive ideology or positive agency. I would argue that it doesn’t and is not meant to. But if we read it against the grain, it can at least help to clarify the problems we face in trying to produce those things.