On the surface, the Good Place (2016–2020) is a show about how to be a “good” person. The main character Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), finds herself in the titular Good Place by mistake after living a life of debauchery and cruelty. She has to learn how to become a “good person” in order to stay in the nice part of the afterlife, and not be sent to Hell a.k.a. The Bad Place.
She secretly starts to take ethics classes from moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), along with her classmates Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). In the process, she begins a journey that causes her to not only question her ethics but the afterlife’s ethics as well.
The show may begin with Eleanor learning how to be a better person, but it quickly becomes an indictment of our society’s entire conception of right and wrong. The show exists within a long philosophical tradition that refutes our contemporary system of morality, and, in a surprise twist, it implies that the source of that ethical dilemma is rooted in our struggle with death.
The show says that our inability to embrace death preserves ethical systems that actively harm us.
The Good Place initially ignores death by setting its story after it. Most of the show’s characters have shed their mortal bodies and are now in the afterlife, having already been judged. This conceit allows the show to sidestep a fundamental ethical dilemma in philosophy: how do you determine if a person is virtuous, ethical, moral, or good?
It initially assumes that good and bad are already a thing to which some omnipotent entity has discovered the answer. The show literalizes individual morality into an absurdist formula where all actions one does on Earth contribute to either negative or positive points.
Sing to a child — plus 0.69 points.
Tell a woman to “smile.” — minus 53.83 points.
If you score high enough, then you go to The Good Place. Fail, and you are tortured with butthole spiders for all of eternity in The Bad Place.
This premise may seem funny, but the search for this magical formula to determine what actions or people are good and bad has confounded philosophers for thousands of years. It’s literally all anyone has been talking about since the dawn of civilization and is the basis for everything from the morality of the Christian faith to the modern judicial system.
By assuming good and bad are a thing, the show can deconstruct the last thousand years of philosophy’s greatest hits. We go through Plato and Descartes and Kant, and we hear a lot of white men discuss how they thought other men should live their lives. Through this rehash, we discover that (spoiler alert), no one has come up with a definitive answer on how to determine if someone or some action is good or bad.
To paraphrase YouTube philosopher Oliver Thorn (a.k.a. Philosophy Tube), it’s all just a bunch of white men jerking off.
In fact, on the show, the question of how to be ethical is itself deemed increasingly irrelevant. There is a poignant scene in season three (The Book of Dougs), where the human crew and their demon friend Michael (Ted Danson) are trying to figure out why the point system is sending everyone to the Bad Place. Michael compares two different humans named Doug (one from the year 1534, the other 2009) who each bought roses for their grandmother, but received different point totals. This answer has Michael conclude that the complexity of society has made individual morality impossible:
In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points.
Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals…
Don’t you understand?
The Bad Place isn’t tampering with points; they don’t have to. Because every day the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder.
As we can see, the desire to judge people for their actions — as opposed to understanding their circumstances — created an afterlife where everyone went to The Bad Place.
This realization that the ethical system underpinning the afterlife is flawed leads the gang to go on a multiverse road trip to create the perfect system. They study all the critical points said throughout history, and in the third to last episode (Mondays, Am I Right?), they create a new system. Rather than sort out the ethical failures from the winners, everyone eventually reaches success. Deceased people are sent to a place designed to make them better, and are given an unlimited amount of tries to do so.
The show doesn’t end with the creation of this system, however, because it was never about how to create the perfect afterlife. We don’t even know if such a thing even exists. The Good Place has consistently focused on the material aspects of our world, and so it ends with death.
The final episode (Whenever You’re Ready) is about three of the show’s four main characters (i.e., Eleanor, Chidi, and Jason) choosing to embrace oblivion.
In the previous episode (Patty), the crew concluded that an infinite paradise was not much of a paradise at all, and so they reinstituted a way for people in the afterlife to die. The all-knowing being Janet (D’Arcy Carden) created a door, and at any moment, the characters can walk through it and cease to exist as individuals.
One by one, they do.
It might seem strange for a show that has for four seasons focused on building the perfect system to suddenly pivot to a treatise on death, but the show has been pretty consistent in asserting that death hangs over our lives at all times. As Eleanor says to Michael in season two (Existential Crisis):
ELEANOR: All humans are aware of death. So… we’re all a little bit sad…All the time! That’s just the deal.
MICHAEL: Sounds like a crappy deal.
ELEANOR Well, yeah, it is, but we don’t get offered any other ones. And if you try to ignore your sadness, it just ends up leaking out of you anyway.
Death is not ancillary to our ethics. Our impermanence defines us, and the search for something greater has been an integral part of our society’s ethical development. Plato argued for the immortality of the soul. Kant believed the existence of the soul, though unprovable through reason, was necessary for the development of ethics. Centuries of other philosophers and theologians have likewise argued for the proof of our spiritual immortality.
Doing good now to experience heavenly bliss for all eternity is the SparkNotes version of most modern religions. Even non-theistic traditions such as Buddhism many times assert that we will transcend our material circumstances and become one with the universe.
You cannot separate philosophy from most philosopher’s desire to understand, and in many cases escape, death.
For thousands of years, we have pushed against the reality of our inevitable undoing by theorizing an eternal after — an immortal soul, a cosmic oneness, an endless cycle of reincarnation, heaven, Valhalla, a Good Place.
Our wish for a beyond, the show credibly argues, has led to a point system that focuses on meeting the ethical criteria for that afterward, rather than on understanding people’s material conditions in the here and now.
In essence, we care more about getting into heaven or being a virtuous person than we do figuring out how everyone can eat, sleep, and live.
On the show, this is emphasized in how the character’s environments correlated with their lack of virtue: Eleanor had negligent caregivers; Jason endured crushing poverty; Tahani had emotionally abusive parents, and Chidi was encouraged to focus on academic virtue at the expense of those around him. These characters failed ethically because these weren’t given the tools to be ethical. This is brought home in a scene in season three (Jeremy Beremy) where Tahani and Jason are giving away money to random passersby, and Jason directly states how much improving material conditions helps people:
JASON: Man, there’s so many times that just this amount of money would have changed my life. I could have paid my rent. I could have gone to a real doctor, instead of pretending I was a big dog so I could go to the vet.
This critique is very much rooted in reality. It’s well known that people’s prospects are impacted by more than merely their actions. We’ve, for example, seen studies that suggest something as simple as air filters inside classrooms can improve test scores; that poverty can increase the likelihood of incarceration; and that a person’s low socio-economic status can decrease their college admission chances.
Like Doug Ewing picking flowers for his grandmother, there is more to ethics than an individual’s choices, but you wouldn’t know that by how society judges people. We currently scrutinize people morally, legally, and ethically as individuals, and it comes from a hesitancy to embrace the fragility of our existence.
The series ends with Eleanor walking through the door, and returning to the universe. Her essence dissolves into thousands of little spheres of light that fall back down to Earth. These spheres influence others and become the inspiration for people’s acts of kindness on Earth.
The show seems to suggest that we live on through these acts.
From this perspective, how we conduct ourselves becomes essential not because it satisfies an objective or divine criteria of goodness, but because it will go on to affect others. While we might not literally turn into balls of light when we die, our actions do affect other people in the future.
The show wants us to think about our impact on others. The question of “What We Owe Each Other?” (which, coincidentally, is the title of a famous philosophy book by T. M. Scanlon that the Good Place crew references constantly) hangs over everything in the show. The crew is often framed as good not when they embody a particular philosophy, but when they help others. As Michael tells a Bad Janet in season four (A Chip Driver Mystery):
“What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is, if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday. You asked me where my hope comes from? That’s my answer.”
Death is important because it contextualizes how our actions will impact this world in both the here and now, and in the future.
A recent example of this viewpoint is philosopher Martin Hägglund in his book “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (2019),” where he advocates for a form of socialism by first starting from the premise that there is no after. For Hägglund, you have to embrace the fact that this is all we have before you can focus on the material. It is only when you embrace this life that you can engage with the question of what “You are going to do with your time?”
How are you going to help other people?
Philosophers have advocated for the necessity of embracing this impermanence as far back as Pliny the elder (23 AD — 79 AD), and probably considerably earlier. The Good Place, although not the first in this discourse, is part of a long tradition of literature helping us to accept death so that we can help others in the here and now.
It’s been relatively recent that we, as a society, have seriously contemplated the idea that this is all there is. The reason for that hesitancy is that it’s a bummer. Once (if) you embrace that there is no cosmic order to the universe, death is painful to consider.
We live, and no matter what we do, we end.
We all walk through the door.
Philosophically, the drama of our actions being monitored and tallied by an otherworldly being becomes replaced by nothing.
There is a reason a lot of the most popular shows from The Good Place to BoJack Horseman ultimately have ended on a contemplation of life and death. We are still not “over” the transient nature of our existence and consequently have been debating what replaces divine meaning for centuries. That new philosophical foundation is in flux, and it ties in deeply with death. In the words of “His Dark Materials’” author Philip Pullman in his seminal essay “The Republic of Heaven”:
The Christian Heaven used to be where we went when we died, if we did what we were told. If the republic of Heaven is here, on this earth, in our lives, then what happens when we die? Is that all? Is that the end of everything for us? That’s hard to accept; for some people it’s the hardest thing of all.
Well, our myth must talk about death in terms that are as true as they can be to what we know of the facts, and it must do what the Christian myth did, and provide some sort of hope or consolation. The myth must give us a way of accepting death, when it comes, of seeing what it means and accepting it; not shrinking from it with terror, or pretending that it’ll be like the school holidays. We cannot live so: we cannot die so.
The Good Place does not tell its viewer what this “new myth” should be, but instead, it joins Albert Camus, Hägglund, Pullman, and others in asking them to think of what comes next on Earth.
It tells the emerging existentialists looking into the void, that everything will be okay, if only they dare to help each other.