Why The Good Place is… good

The Good Place is a phenomenal show it’s light-hearted, feel-good, witty, and a forking riot. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson head the cast, which is rounded out by four delightful newcomers: D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, and William Jackson Harper. It’s a huge success, with many lauding it as the greatest sitcom on television currently. Of course, that’ comes as no surprise considering that it is the brainchild of Mike Schur, the hilarious creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99. The Good Place is a show built around one premise: everybody goes to the Good Place or the Bad Place when they die. This idyllic system is shattered when Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the Good Place, where she oh-so-obviously does not belong. Desperate to avoid the two-mouthed bears, chowders of pain, and butt spiders of the Bad Place, Eleanor begs Chidi (William Harper), a professor of moral philosophy and ethics, to teach her how to be a better person, and Chidi begrudgingly agrees. When Chidi educates Eleanor though, he educates more than only her – he educates the audience too, teaching them introductory philosophy. This exchange is what makes The Good Place so important; it democratizes, demystifies, and makes accessible philosophy for a broad and diverse audience.

Philosophy carries an air of elitism with it. It twists itself into an inaccessible knot of thought puzzles, big words, and essays upon essays of nearly unreadable work. So few schools offer anything remotely related to philosophy in their curricula – I feel forever thankful that my school offered one meagre trimester in the subject. Although every subject has difficult material that is inaccessible to the layman, this feels extraordinarily so for philosophy. Beyond the introductory level overviews of Locke, Kant, and Mill, philosophy gets exponentially more difficult. However, even the most introductory level material is not something everybody has access to because it is written and encoded in such complex terms. As Chidi notes, Immanuel Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals could be described as “a treatise on the aesthetic preconditions of the mind’s receptivity to duty,” or much more simply, “a book on how to act good.”

The Good Place presents philosophy in an understandable way. At various points throughout the show, Chidi teaches philosophy to Eleanor, a selfish lone wolf; Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a competitive narcissist; Jason (Manny Jacinto), a moral-less buffoon; and even Michael (Ted Danson), an immortal demon. All of them have such broadly different upbringings and perspectives and take to philosophy in different ways. Chidi explains the concepts in simple ways, usually with one quick definition. The idea is then further explored throughout the episode in various applicable situations, helping viewers understand the implications of each philosophical theory. In the second episode, Chidi brings up Kant’s moral imperatives and obligations. In the beginning, Eleanor quickly dismisses the Kantian deontology. However, over the course of the episode, Eleanor and Chidi discuss the obligations we have to others and our duty to act in certain ethical ways. In the end, we get a moment of satisfaction when Eleanor goes out by herself to clean up the neighbourhood, without seeking any sort of recognition or award, but merely because she believes she has an obligation to. This is how The Good Place teaches philosophy – it dismantles the jargon and the technicalities and instead teaches the simple core principles.

Furthermore, there’s a benefit to people being able to learn philosophical principles, especially ethical principles: they can apply it to their own lives. So many times people find themselves in problematic situations where they don’t quite know what to do. How should one act? Should one focus on what is morally right, not just what is expedient? Does one have an obligation to other people besides themselves? These questions are difficult to answer but appear ever so frequently. People make the wrong choices all the time too. As humans, we are at times short-sighted. We look only to the immediate future, seek to reap the benefits for us and those close to us. Adding just a little bit of philosophy into our lives can help us look at these predicaments in different ways. We can ask ourselves what we owe to other people if expedience is justified in the long-term, whether it is ever okay to lie. When we think of philosophy in applicable ways, rather than in abstract terms, we find that it helps us in innumerable ways. The more people take the lessons of philosophy and apply it to their own lives, the better the world we can create. This is Mike Schur’s philosophy, and this is why The Good Place is so good.

Image: aitchisons via Flickr 

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