I just finished watching Season 2 of The Good Place on Netflix. I’m so frustrated that nobody I know watches it, because I really need to talk about this show.
If you haven’t seen it, or if you’ve only seen commercials for it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Good Place is just like every other network TV sitcom. (Season 3 just finished airing on NBC.) But this is no ordinary, predictable prime-time sitcom. Yes, it’s got Ted Danson. Yes, it’s got snarky insults, one-dimensional characters, and a surprising number of farts. But rather than the usual TV fare of lovable families with bumbling dads and wise-beyond-their years tweens, or a quirky-but-lovable group of workplace friends, this baby’s different. For one thing, it tells the truth about frozen yogurt. For another, rather than the usual 22 minute story arc, there’s an actual story line that progresses through the seasons. And even though the whole thing takes place in a ridiculous fantasy world with giant flying shrimp and an excruciatingly perky Alexa-come-to-life named Janet, I really enjoyed this show. It not only entertains. It actually makes you think.
It’s a nice change to have a show that is silly and makes you laugh, but also confronts you with serious questions. It makes you ponder big ideas like what it actually means to live a good life. Or why, exactly, it’s wrong to lie. What about the nature of selfishness? It asks you to consider the ramifications of hurtful behavior — even when such behavior seems justified. And to question our real motivations, even when what you’re doing benefits others.
It’s also true that in these times of unbridled greed, subjective reality, and a complete lack of consequences for blatantly antisocial behavior, a little bit of moral philosophizing and self-reflection is exactly what we all need right now.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll just say that Season 1 opens with Eleanor Shellstrop waking up to find that she’s dead and that she has landed in The Good Place. There are a few plot twists. Some friendships and a few unexpected love interests are formed. And there’s a whole lot of surprisingly accessible discussion of moral philosophy.
By the time we get to the end of Season 2, the question has crystallized: Why should we act morally? Is it solely because of the promise of reward (heaven) or the threat of punishment (hell) at the end of life, or is there another reason? Do we have an obligation towards other members of the human race? And if so, why?
Have you ever thought about where morality comes from? Who decides whether something is right or wrong, good or bad? Perhaps you believe that the ultimate source of all morality is God. His commandments lay out very clearly what behavior is acceptable and what is not: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Years of sermons and Sunday school help people to flesh out the gray areas, and of course, when in doubt pray for guidance. This is how most people live their lives, weigh decisions, and determine right from wrong. But I have always taken a certain interest in the statement “Without God, there is no morality” because I’m one of the most moral people I know. And I don’t believe in God.
So if my moral compass doesn’t come from God, where does it come from? How did I learn the difference between right and wrong, and how did I teach it to my children? I’ve never been entirely sure. But I feel certain that in our human hearts and brains we innately know what’s right and what’s wrong. The way birds know to fly south for the winter and cats know to curl up in the sun. We’re born with a moral compass (not all of us, of course — some people are born with a broken compass, and some people’s get broken along the way; but most of us). Human beings are social animals, and we come equipped with the knowledge of how to live a peaceful and harmonious life with our neighbors. A lot of stuff gets in the way of that inner knowledge and it’s often hard to see the forest for the trees, but it’s there. And if we just listen to our inner voice, most of us know what we should do and what we shouldn’t do.
Many years ago my husband’s friend, who had been raised as a “Good Christian,” asked me quite pointedly: “If you don’t believe in hell, what keeps you from cheating on your husband?” My answer was simple: “That would hurt him, and I would never do anything that would hurt him.” We discussed it for a while, but he wasn’t convinced. How could I control my impulses if there was nothing to be gained; surely I wouldn’t “do right” just because. Yet here we are, thirty years later: my husband and are are still married. Still faithful — and respectful towards one another. And the friend? Divorced, having cheated on his wife, and the pastor of his church. I guess neither the carrot nor the stick were enough for him.
Yet I’ve never needed either. I’ve never gone around robbing gas stations or murdering people that I don’t like simply because I’m not afraid of going to hell. I try to treat everyone with decency and respect. And not just people. Animals too. And bugs. I treat the Earth with respect, and I try to maintain harmony in the Universe, to the extent that I have an impact on any of it. To be honest, I think that I’m more moral than a lot of God-fearing people who call themselves Christians, who then proceed to lie, cheat, discriminate, destroy the planet, and worse — all the while quoting scripture. So, no, I don’t buy the theory that morality comes from God.
I’m no expert on morality or ethics. Frankly, I don’t even know the difference between the two. I don’t know Kant from Kierkegaard or Moral Relativism from Moral Particularism. Nor do I have the answers to the great philosophical questions of our time: I can’t tell you with any certainty that it’s never okay to tell a lie. My gut tells me that there are times where it probably is okay. I know that it’s a kindness to avoid hurting people’s feelings when you can, and sometimes a little lie will do that. Still, I try to be as honest as I possibly can. Even when no one’s looking. Even when it would benefit me to be dishonest. I just know that it’s better when I try to live as honestly as I can. I wish more people did the same.
I also don’t know the definitive philosophical answer to the question of whether it is morally wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. But I do know that it is morally wrong to create and perpetuate a society in which two people own a hundred billion loaves of bread while a lot of people go hungry. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to do about it.
I hope I never have to be in the position of having to decide whether or not to steer my trolley car into one person to save five, or whether shutting down my robot boyfriend is okay or not.
Hopefully season 3 of The Good Place will help me figure out some of the answers to these and some of life’s other big questions. And hopefully, by the time it gets to Netflix, someone I know will have watched it so that I can discuss it with them.