There are an unusual number of shows this season that should be full of fascinating ethical dilemmas. There is even sitcom, “The Good Place,” with a main character who is an ethicist. He’s a dead ethics, but that’s something. Let’s start with that show as I plan on reviewing the ethics-related TV shows in future posts.
The first episode of the NBC comedy began with selfish, habitually unethical Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) waking up in the afterlife called “the Good Place, I assume to avoid religious controversy. Michael (Ted Danson) welcomes her, and explains that he designed this particular Good Place neighborhood that she will reside in for eternity. As many of us were taught, our lives on Earth are being monitored by higher beings, literally and figuratively. In this show’s cosmology, they calculate our ethical worth using a point system. Those with the highest positive point totals make it to the Good Place.
The problem is that there has been a glitch: Eleanor was erroneously awarded the point score of a capital punishment-fighting lawyer (naturally the Good Place regards all progressive and liberal positions as “good;” I assume that all conservatives and Republicans are in the Bad Place) when she really was a salesperson for an evil drug company. The situation in this sitcom is whether Eleanor can shape up and justify her points before she is found out and ends up playing strip poker in Hell with Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly.*
The Good Place has an eternal soul mate for every person. Each resident gets a home that “perfectly matches his or her true essence,” Michael explains. Luckily for our heroine/ anti-heroine, her soul mate is a dead but hip ethics professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper). After beginning her afterlife in the Good Place with multiple ethics botches, she begs Chidi to help her become a good person. “Is there a pill I can take or something I can vape?” she asks.
This is a comedy, so I will not judge the point system or the premise too harshly. It does seem to be the product of writers who don’t believe in ethics, however, and think the whole idea of trying to be good is worthy of mockery.
Creator Michael Schur’s point system is both annoying and amusing. “I was driving around in traffic and seeing people do things that are terrible and offensive to the social contract,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I remember thinking all the time, ‘If anybody is watching, you just lost seven points!’ And then I started to do that as I walked around and live my life. That was the genesis of this whole thing: What if it’s just a video game that we don’t know we are playing? And it’s not just big things. It’s not like if you save a person from a burning building, you get into heaven. That’s good — that will get you a lot of points — but if you’ve been polluting rivers with awful sludge for 50 years before that, then too bad. You don’t get in. You did that one good thing, but it doesn’t make up for all the other bad things.”
From the EW piece:
“In the original pilot script, the system was explained in even more depth. Point totals were based not just on the inherent benevolence or malevolence of the act, but how it ultimately impacted other people. And they weren’t static. “Let’s say you read a magazine and you see an ad for something and you’re in a doctor’s office and you tear out the ad and you toss the magazine back on the bench,” says Schur. “Maybe the thing you tore out the ad for is a kind of medicine that could help your allergies, right? So you get plus two points for that because you’re trying to help yourself have a healthier life, but negative one point for ripping out a page out of something that wasn’t yours. Someone who suffers from allergies comes along and they’re flipping through that magazine, and if they had seen that ad, they might have done it. Also, their whole family suffers from allergies, so they could have used that ad to buy medicine for their whole family. Suddenly what was one fixed negative point at the moment you did it now is negative 13. The idea is the point values are constantly changing and shifting, depending on the kind of ultimate ripple of whatever you did and how it ripples through the rest of society.”
Obviously “The Good Place” will be hostage to the ethical fallacies of moral luck and consequentialism.
A lot of the point system explanations are joke set-ups. Being a vegan earns you +425.94 points, but never proselytizing about veganism earns +9875.37. Shur makes it pretty clear that he is a moral relativist; he doesn’t think anyone should point out to others that their conduct is unethical.
I presume my score would be deep, deep into negative numbers.
To his credit, Shur does count rooting for the New York Yankees as a major point-loser. (He is a Red Sox fan, so he can’t be all bad.) He explains,
“The first argument would be that it’s sort of like rooting for Microsoft. I think people should be rewarded for being loyal to teams that stink, even when those teams are horribly mismanaged or terribly run and knowing that those teams don’t care at all about you. I think it’s a sign of good character when people remain loyal to teams. What you’re seeing now is like when the Golden State Warriors suddenly get the best team in history and they win a championship — that championship was way more fulfilling and valuable for the people who have been Warriors fans since the ‘70s than they were for the tech bros who decided, ‘Oh, I gotta go check out this Steph Curry guy,’ halfway through the championship season. It takes no courage or fortitude to remain loyal to the Yankees at all, so that’s half of the argument. The other half of the argument is: Objectively speaking the New York Yankees are horrible and evil and anyone who roots for them has a horrible personal defect that needs to be corrected through therapy.”
I have my doubts about the viability of such a show for the long haul, and I suspect its annoyance factors will soon overwhelm the humor, at least for me, but for now, I am ethically obligated to watch “The Good Place.”
*Note: That’s my guess of what the Bad Place would be like for Eleanor, not the show’s.