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Book Review: 'The Good Place and Philosophy'

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

Introduction

“The Good Place” is a comedy set in an unusual place – the afterlife. This raises all kinds of philosophical questions, and the book “The Good Place and Philosophy” intends to answer at least a few of them.

Spoiler Alert – we will share revelations and twists from Season 1, Season 2 and Season 3 of “The Good Place”.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a review.

What Is “The Good Place”?

In the TV show “The Good Place”, the universe has a karmic score keeping system. Every action is watched and measured by a benign otherworldly bureaucracy. You gain points for good deeds, but they are worth more if they have good intentions behind them. You lose points for bad deeds, and bad intentions hurt your score, too. The effects of your actions impact your score, for better or for worse. Generally for worse, since negative ripple affects you didn’t plan on ended up preventing anyone since the 1500s from getting into heaven, also known as “The Good Place”. The bad people go to “The Bad Place”. The “Good Place” on the show is actually a trial version of “the Bad Place” intending to capitalize on psychological horror instead of physical torture.

We end up in a trial before Judge Gen as the squad argues they have improved and should thus be sent to Heaven. We learn that there is a “Medium Place”, a de facto purgatory for one woman. All of this raises more philosophical questions, a few of which are answered by contributors to the book “The Good Place and Philosophy”.

'The Good Place and Philosophy' Book Cover

'The Good Place and Philosophy' Book Cover

The Highlights of “The Good Place and Philosophy”

Chapter 1 brings us the ethics of bureaucracy and bureaucratizing morality. There are points where the man seems eager to overthrow literal systems in life. The author seems to forget the very oppressive nature of socialist systems that rely on the unethical, impersonal bureaucracy that is being decried.

Chapter 2 asks how torture can be funny and the nature of torture itself. Interestingly, you get an analysis of the torturous reenactment of the trolley problem Chidi had to go through.

Chapter 3 discusses the sympathy we should have for the devils and demons. There is also a discussion on how modern life removes us from morality. For example, the karmic point system doesn’t give you as many points when you order artificially grown flowers sent to your lover versus picking it yourself and giving it to them.

Chapter 4 is the bundle theory of self. Chapter 5 analyzes the show relative to the war between free will and determinism. Chapter 6 asks whether or not the punishments should be proportional instead of eternal and ends up arguing for purgatory. Chapter 7 asks about meaning in the afterlife and is the first essay to ask, “Where’s God?” Then Chapter 8 suggests that the karmic system means there is no God, though supernatural creatures like demons and neutral arbiters clearly exist.

Chapter 9 discusses the ethical paradox at the heart of the show: the Good Place is a recreation of heaven in the Bad Place. And, ironically, it is reforming its inhabitants and turns a demon good, in the end.

Chapter 10 explores the merger of theory and praxis via Chidi and Eleanor. Chapter 11 discusses the paralyzing effect of worrying about the morality of everything and the impact that had on Chidi. Chapter 12 uses the concept of souls and body swaps to explore identity. Chapter 13 addresses the ethical quandaries presented by Janet, the good interdimensional helper who isn’t really omniscient.

Chapter 14 is the first of several chapters railing about Kant. It also asks if it is examples like Chidi that follow Kant that explain why people hate philosophy. Chapter 15 contains a different essay on Chidi and Kant. It argues that the show supports care ethics, though the morality of that worldview is a whole other problem.

Chapter 16 is the first serious reference to Satre’s work “No Exit”, the likely inspiration for “The Good Place”. The Good Place is likely the antithesis of “No Exit” in multiple ways. Chapter 17 is also about Satre’s philosophy, but it focuses on his existentialism. It explores the tug of war between individual accountability and social responsibility. Chapter 18 tries to argue that the Good Place is religion-less Christianity and the opposite of Satre’s classic work. Furthermore, it ignores the rules outlined in every faith, much less Christianity, while setting the stage for relativistic ethics and subjective morality.

Chapter 19 is notable for analyzing the Good Place relative to Hinduism. Chapter 20 talks about why reading the philosophical works for great thinkers are unlikely to make you more moral.

Chapter 21 touches on several major religious questions. Why does God allow people to make bad choices? Why does evil exist? The answer is that you must be capable of bad to be able to choose to do good. Then it analyzes the ethical quandary Jason poses, since his lack of self-awareness and lack of a moral compass means such ethical dualism doesn’t always work.

Chapter 22 discusses how and why Chidi, the philosophy professor, never realized he was in “The Bad Place” despite having a literal gut feeling. It then discusses how cognitive science could affect morality. Chapter 23 looks at social contractualism and Tahani.

Observations about “The Good Place and Philosophy”

Despite more than one criticism of your eternal fate coming down to a single number, there is no mention of the real world equivalent of “Sesame Credit” currently used in China.

Chapter 19 is a great piece, and I wish there was a similar one comparing “The Good Place” afterlife to Buddhism. That parallel is all the more apt after the squad gets returned to Earth to try to do better. And there’s a natural lead into this discussion given that Jason spent several episodes pretending to be a Buddhist monk.

Wow, these philosophers loved seeing an ethics professor on the small screen … and gave Chidi far more time than the other characters.

Summary

“The Good Place and Philosophy” is a decent collection of philosophical essays analyzing this light comedy. It could have benefited from more religious and viewpoint diversity. However, it is an interesting exploration of the philosophical questions raised by “The Good Place”. Given the intense focus on Chidi, it must be a must-read for philosophy professors who feel ignored in modern media.

© 2019 Tamara Wilhite

Comments

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 26, 2019:

This sounds like an interesting book. I remember studying "No Exit" in university many years ago. I suspect that like the play I would remember the book that you've reviewed for a long time.