Ethics and the Good Place
Chidi was right. It was all about the almond milk.
SPOILERS FOR SEASON 3 EPISODE 11 OF THE GOOD PLACE.
After whole episodes of speculation, we finally learned what’s wrong with the Good Place’s moral points system and why no one is getting in. It isn’t, as Michael initially suspected, that the demons from the Bad Place are tampering with people’s points. It’s that morality in modern life is so damn complicated that people end up causing harm, even when they do otherwise wonderful things.
It’s as Chidi said. It wasn’t really that his constant indecision hurt other people. It was that he bought almond milk, even though almond milk harms farmers and the environment, and made a million other similar decisions like it throughout his life.
Choosing regular milk wouldn’t have saved him, of course. Cows suffer and die in the milk industry. And the soy industry contributes to environmental problems too. So really, he should abstain from drinking any milk at all… although then, the dairy industry might collapse, and that would be pretty harmful to many people too.
In this system, there is no way to win. Every action is assigned an exact moral point value, and the modern world is so big and disconnected that absolutely everything has unseen consequences and inescapable harm. No matter how much a person agonises over the morality of every action, like Chidi, it is impossible to abstain.
And that’s really the philosophy of The Good Place in a nutshell: black and white moral thinking does not work. We cannot split people into two easy categories, good and bad, and declare ourselves morally superior for certain choices we make that others can’t.
The Trolley Problem
Let’s go back to one of The Good Place’s earliest philosophical themes: the Trolley Problem. In this famous thought experience, you’re in control of a trolley that you can’t stop, and it is going to hit and kill five people. Your only option is to switch the track, so that the trolley goes a different way and instead hits and kills just one person. Should you switch the track? Or is it more moral not to intervene?
The is no objective correct moral choice, but what feels more moral to us tells us something about ourselves and about our own morality. Saving five people may be better than saving one, but if we kill that one person, we have to intervene directly to do it, dooming them to death, instead of letting cruel fate take its course. Both choices, in the Good Place system, would be seen as bad and probably make you lose a lot of points, but there’s no opting out. There’s no good option to be had.
Throughout the series, we see, very clearly, how a black and white view of morality fails all of the characters. Tahani does a lot of charity work, but it gains her negative points because it’s selfishly motivated as part of her rivalry with her sister. It’s not her actions, the points system claims, but her intentions that count. But Tahani was set up to fail. Her parents were emotionally abusive and manipulative, leading her down this path. She’s not innately bad. She’s just facing a bad situation.
Or there’s Chidi, who cares so much about being moral that he agonises over every decision. This is actually what the Judge tells them humans should be doing — and it would fix the intention problem that Tahani had — but it inconveniences and upsets people around him, so to the Bad Place he goes. He’s clearly likeable despite his flaws, but his attempts are not good enough.
Jason, meanwhile, is stupid and ridiculous, but he isn’t evil. He doesn’t have a single mean bone in his body.
Even Eleanor, who does many hilariously awful things, is capable of good, as she proves in the new universe. She cares about people. But she’s afraid of being abandoned and doesn’t trust anybody, and so she sabotages herself.
And we see the instant unfairness of the black and white system, even before the characters visit the accountants, when we learn that knowing about the points system is enough to doom someone to the Bad Place. Once you know about the points, nothing you do can be truly altruistic, and so you can’t gain any more. It’s not their fault, but there’s nothing they can do in this fixed system where one arbitrary line is “good enough,” and anything below that results in eternal torment.
Arguing on the Internet
To me, it feels like an allegory for modern day ethics, especially as seen on places like Twitter. It’s an all-or-nothing system, where people are perfect or evil, and where things that happened ten years ago are as relevant as if they happened today. Either a person is on a pedestal, or they’re in the dirt. Of course, sometimes we need these black and white views — being a Nazi is bad, no matter what. But saying something stupid on Twitter isn’t an automatic condemnation to the Bad Place. People should be held accountable, but it should be possible for people to grow and make amends. Intentions matter and consequences matter, but things are complicated, people are complicated, and we cannot see all things. We cannot entirely opt out of a society that has selfishness, bias and exploitation built into its very core, no matter how hard we try.
And when even a literal demon can change and grow under the right circumstances, I think the show’s message is clear: we should always stand up for ourselves and for others, but we should not be so quick to label or condemn.