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The Good Place

The good place is a great entertainer - especially the first season. The climax of the first season was the highest point for me. Things did start going downhill (in my personal opinion) but the show managed to keep me hooked till the end. I certainly wanted to know how the show ends. However, I have some beef with the basic premise of the show - it is either flawed or they took the easy route. To discuss these issues, I will, unfortunately, have to divulge the intricate details of the show. So, needless to say, this post is full of spoilers. So, if you plan to watch the show, it would be better if you read this article after you finish watching the show. Else, the article might give a neat summary of the interesting ideas in the show.

The basic premise of the show is that the criteria for deciding who goes to the good place are flawed. The main justification for the claim comes from two observations:
  1. For the last 500 years, no one has been to the good place (think heaven).
  2. Doug Forcett (an individual who happened to correctly guess the afterlife after a mushroom trip and lead an “ideal” life afterwards) was not sent to the good place.
However, from the episodes, it is clear that the same people believe in the following principles:
  1. One of the main characters Chidi Anagonye is a person with extremely good intentions. But, his extremely timid nature unintentionally causes others inconvenience. And this is cited as a valid reason to be sent to the bad place (think hell). Thus, people who unintentionally inconvenience people will be sent to the bad place. 
  2. On the other hand, another main character Tahani Al-Jamil does a lot of good but with the sole intention of getting her parent’s attention. As her intentions were not good, she also apparently deserves to be in the bad place. Thus, people who do a lot of good, but for selfish reasons are sent to the bad place.
  3. Almost all great philosophers are told to deserve the bad place as they believed in slavery or were racist or sexist or something similar. Thus, people who are racist, sexist, support slavery etc should go to the bad place.

Now, given these three principles, I am not at all surprised that no one in the last 500 years went to the good place. The third point alone excludes the vast majority of all people in the last 500 years. Almost everyone would be “guilty” of racism, sexism, casteism, classism, support of slavery or something of that ilk - at least by the modern definitions of these. In addition, they should do good with good intentions. My gut feeling is that no one would satisfy this stringent condition. The second evidence is even weaker. Doug’s intention was a good afterlife. Thus, his intentions were not pure at all and hence he does not deserve to be in the good place according to these principles.

So, if the fact that no one has been to the good place in the last 500 years bothers you, it would be natural to question the 3 principles stated above. Yet, the show does not take this path at all - and that to me is the biggest problem. It instead attacks the “eternal” nature of the punishment - and asks for multiple chances to improve. But, once you are in the good place, you either stay there forever or end your existence.

I believe, if we want to ensure that at least a small percentage of the dead go to the good place, then we need to either abandon objective morality or keep the objective moral code extremely minimal.

I have been an advocate of moral relativism for quite some time. That is, I believe that good or bad is temporal and social. If we use the morality of the society they lived in and ignore intentions (as it is quite difficult to understand intentions) it is almost axiomatic that many (including many of the philosophers who were sent to the bad place) would go to the good place.

To give some credit, there is an instance in the show that can be interpreted as a similar critique. In the show, there is a primal being who also acts as a judge in case of disputes. So, the issue of whether the current system of the afterlife is fair or not is also judged by her. During this discussion, the main characters accuse that she is unable to empathise with human struggles - thus making her incapable of making correct judgements. This incident can be interpreted as a criticism of the objective morality conceived by a person beyond the realm of time.

But, the show does not take this idea forward. It looked like they are fond of objective morality. Moreover, as has been the practice from the beginning of civilisation, the current Western (possibly liberal) morality is offered as THE objective morality. And clearly, it does not make me happy.

Coming back to the earlier point, things get a lot more complicated if we take intentions into account. The condition that your intentions and impact should both be good sounds quite stringent to me - so much so that I would not be surprised if it disqualifies almost everyone even if we use relative morality. I believe that probably only those who cause intentional harm should go to the bad place. Everyone else, should go to the good place. Of course, determining both intention and impact is a very difficult task and that is where an omniscient figure would come in handy.

Even an omniscient figure would have a hard time determining if the impact is positive or negative. A given act might affect some people positively and others negatively. How should we judge the overall act in such situations? Taking the average probably would be the utilitarian approach (assuming I understand the principle) - but it might not appeal to others. Ideally, I would prefer to go only by the negative impact - completely ignoring all positive impacts. And, I am not entirely sure why I prefer that. Moreover, I certainly see two problems with this approach:
  1. Once again, almost everyone might end up in the bad place.
  2. People with this approach will end up doing very little - the fear that they may cause damage will prevent them from taking action. Chidi fits the bill to some extent. 
All said and done, it is clear that the show has provided me food for thought and entertainment. So, the criticism should be thought of only as a wish that it could have been better. 

By NBC - Amazon.com, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55488826



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