Ethics And The New TV Season, Part 1: “The Good Place”

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. 


37 thoughts on “Ethics And The New TV Season, Part 1: “The Good Place”

  1. Does it feel like this can last? It seems that when you take survival and death away from characters, they become basically objects you can’t relate with your own life. If we aren’t worried about them dying, where is our focus?

    These stories get sold on a gimmick, but they often lack a point.

        • Think so? I didn’t think that film had any ethical content at all. The Brooks character was found to be unfit to advance because he was “fearful,” as if courage is itself an ethical value (it’s an enabling value, but lots of bad people are courageous, and lot’s of good ones are timid).

          They both took place in an afterlife; but I’d say Brooks would have a hard time making a lawsuit stick.

          • I think its different enough that he couldn’t sue but then the people who created Bewitched ripped off I Married A Witch and got away with it.

            And you know that it had to be mentioned in the pitch some where along the line:

            “Okay , okay its Defending Your Life meets Waiting For Mr. Jordan and since we cant get Morgan Freedman to play God we will get Ted Danson”

              • It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that bewitched got away with ripping someone off. The ownership of both properties had such overlap that bewitched suing I married a witch would be like me suing myself. Not sure why I know this but I do. Now, I can’t help but to wonder if I get positive or negative points for this comment. Negative ten for being on obnoxious know it all? That sounds about right.

                  • Columbia Pictures owned the right to “I Married a Witch”. I believe they also owned another movie that Bewitched used as source material, but don’t quote me on that. Columbia Pictures owned Screen Gems, the company that produced Bewitched. So, had they wanted to bring a suit, they would have been suing there own subsidiary (Screen Gems), thereby damaging themselves. Further, Columbia Pictures benefited by the success of Bewitched. That’s the reason why the producers of Bewitched felt confident that they didn’t need to worry about the copyright of “I Married A Witch.” They didn’t have to pay to adapt “I Married a Witch” to television for this specific reason.

                    Just a useless piece of trivia really. Not sure I’m adding anything of substance here.

                  • I didn’t say anything about proximity, I don’t think.

                    In the 60s, when Bewitched was made, Columbia Pictures owned the right to “I Married a Witch”. They also owned Screen Gems, the producers of Bewitched, thus eliminating any reason for Columbia Pictures to sue for a breach of copyright.

      • I agree it sounds fairly original (I.e. Not a legal or medical drama). That makes it hard to keep fresh. But, I would not be too hard on the consequentialism of it; much of science fiction, for example, relies on imagining a world based upon some slight modification of the real world. Suspend your disbelief. The interesting thing here is that they are imagining the Butterfly Effect of utilitarianism. Assume that is true and run with it.


        • Right. But unsophisticated consequentialism argues that it’s unethical for Marty McFly to keep his father-to-be from being hit by the car, because it louses up the future, or that it’s “wrong” for Bones to save Joan Collins. Drives me crazy.

          • Yeah, but, if you were a physicist of any worth, you would skip Back to the Future based on the title alone (and that would be wrong for 1 out of the 3 movies). You would miss 12 Monkeys (possibly the BEST time travel movie) , Time Bandits, some Mark Twain stories, several Star Trek timelines, the entire Terminator franchise (except maybe the fourth movie), an H.G. Wells novel, and Quantum Leap (okay, that might be enough to take back everything that preceded it, but please let me keep Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys).

            Having said that, at the risk of being banned, lighten up Jack. Even assuming the idea is poorly executed ( like all time travel themes), it shows that people have taken an interest in the topic (just like Kant said that he did not like the French Revolution, except that it got lots of people thinking about free societies (I believe, it has been a while since I read those works)).

            Be happy if the show makes people consider serious ethical ideas; forget the rest.


            • To follow up, even though I disagree with consequentialism and utilitarianism and consider myself a Kantian/stoic, getting people to think about the ideas is the first big step. If this show does this, it does good (oops! Is that consequentialist thinking?)!

  2. “I was driving around in traffic and seeing people do things that are terrible and offensive to the social contract,” That line speaks volumes. What special characteristic does he posses to what if anything is offensive to the social contract? Does he have a god complex?

  3. Jack,
    “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.”

    You now appear to have confirmation bias BEFORE the fact. I wonder what this says about your own impressions of the three listed above …

    • I think that the fact that she was mistaken for a capital punishment fighting lawyer, rather than a salesman for an evil drug company, and that the bad place contains Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and Phyllis schlafy pretty conclusively demonstrates their bias (assuming that those three individuals were named in the show). If they weren’t, it’s still a logical assumption that they would, based on the initial premise.

      • oooh, the Bad Place speculation was all mine, not in the show. I wondered if anyone would misread that. My fault. The relevant passage was

        (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 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.

        That characterization followed from my previously stated assumption.

  4. I died last March. I literally dropped dead from an accidental overdose of one of my meds. Not breathing, and in asystole (“flat-lined”, no pulse), the paramedics had to do CPR for over 10 minutes. It was an interesting experience.

    • Please don’t do that again.

      I’ve had to do CPR on a patient like that exactly once. I lucked out, one of the 25% where it’s successful, despite my lack of expertise. I lost points for cutting my fingers removing his dentures to clear the airway, but got a pass for cracking some ribs, as that is common if you’re doing it hard enough to work.

      Again, please don’t do it again. I’m really, really glad they got you back, but if it’s an amateur doing it, knowing that if they screw up someone will die, and knowing that they’re really in over their head and don’t know what they’re doing… it affects them for years afterwards.

      • The firemen did the CPR, and the paramedic came later with the antidote. My wife happened to come home early, and found me. That was fortunate for us, but traumatic for her. The timings were extraordinary.

        I’ve had so many very close calls (spectacular car, motorcycle, tractor/trailer, and boating accidents, a poisoning, shooting, being knived, and others), including two more this year, the last one happening just a few days ago. That as renal failure, which caused CSF to squeeze my brain and render me delirious.

  5. To be fair, the show did make it clear that the character Ms. Bell was mistaken for, was acting to get INNOCENT people off death row.

    You know, because lawyers can find jobs where ALL of their clients are factually innocent and still be able to eat.

    • I didn’t want to get off track on that. If someone is demonstrably innocent (rather than just “non guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”) it’s usually not hard getting them off death row. The show didn’t have the courage to designate as ethical a defense attorney who zealously represents a guilty client to keep him from the needle, so it took a cheap way out.

      Also not a good sign…

  6. Now a true bleeding heart liberal would immediately go to the Bad Place. They’re needed there, from the sound of it. Someone has to make things better.

    Remember, if there are screw ups like this, not everyone who’s there even “deserves” to be by the unethical rules the system operates under. And if they did, so what? Someone’s hurtin’, you help.

  7. Is this really going to be a show about ethics or is it just going to be standard fare “Rude person introduced to polite society” comedy combined with a little “Let’s poke fun at seemingly outdated values” and a smattering of “Well of course our progressive values are right, was there any question”?

      • The trailer makes me wonder: How many times per episode do they plan to include “fork,” “bullshirt,” and…was it “bench?” in the script? I guess my curiosity will eventually get the best of me, and I’ll watch a replay of the first episode, to see what they do about “damn,” “hell,” “ass,” and “bastard.”

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