Michael Schur helps explain the moral journey of writing TV’s most ambitious sitcom.
The only time I can remember feeling like a piece of culture was designed for me, specifically, was when I watched the premiere of The Good Place.
The NBC show, whose fourth and final season begins Thursday night, was self-recommending: it was by Michael Schur, one of the original writers on The Office who went on to create and run Parks and Recreation and co-create Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The rest of the writing staff was a who’s who of the funniest writers for Parks and a few other extremely funny people, and if that weren’t enough, it starred Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.
So far, so good. Then about halfway through the first episode, it started mentioning my college adviser.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell), upon arriving in heaven (technically known as “the Good Place”), is paired with a “soulmate”: moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). This is convenient, as Shellstrop immediately realizes that there’s been a mixup — she’s been mistaken for a different, ethically superior if aesthetically misguided Eleanor Shellstrop. (“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a death row lawyer who collected clown paintings and rescued orphans,” she tells Chidi.)
So she asks Chidi to teach her to be a better person, and he immediately spirals, questioning whether it’s even ethical for him to go against the rules of the Good Place in protecting a misassigned person like Eleanor.
That’s the scene where this screenshot comes from:
Near the bottom, right under John Locke, is “Scanlon,” for Tim Scanlon: eminent ethicist, inventor of the moral theory “contractualism,” and the guy who put up with my weird ramblings on moral philosophy for a solid year as my undergraduate adviser.
But that’s not all! The same chalkboard highlighted Peter Singer, the utilitarian ethicist who helped birth the modern animal liberation and effective altruism movements, and Derek Parfit, the Oxford moral philosopher whose books Reasons and Persons and On What Matters totally dominated the college years of philosophy students of my generation.
As soon as I finished watching, I shot an email to Scanlon, asking him if he knew he was being referenced in an NBC sitcom, of all things. Not only was he aware, he replied, but the season’s sixth episode would be named after, and feature, Scanlon’s magnum opus, the book What We Owe To Each Other. Three seasons in, the show has covered everything from Jonathan Dancy’s theory of moral particularism, to Aristotelian virtue ethics, to Kantian deontology, to moral nihilism.
In a recent conversation, Michael Schur told me to expect a reference to the late political theorist Judith Shklar and her essay “Putting Cruelty First” in a forthcoming episode this season. “I read that during season three and was like, ‘This is part of our end game here.’” Schur says. “That essay really shook me, in the best way.”
This is … not typically how showrunners think about ending their shows. But nothing about the ideas behind The Good Place is typical. The Good Place has laid out a moral vision that’s surprisingly sophisticated and deeply informed by academic philosophy — a vision that puts learning, and trying, to do good front and center. In the process, Schur and his team have undergone their own process of moral learning, not unlike the one the characters they’ve created have gone through.
What We Owe to Each Other, explained
If the show has anything like an ur-text, it would be Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other.
According to Schur, the book forms the “spine” of the entire show, “the book we kept coming back to.” At times, it’s a literal prop. Eleanor rips out a page and writes a note to herself in it (“Eleanor, find Chidi”) in the season one finale. Both Michael (Ted Danson), the “architect” of the Good Place, and Chidi mention the book (Michael while comforting a memory-wiped Eleanor at a bar in homage to Danson’s role as Sam Malone on Cheers, and Chidi in a lecture Eleanor views on YouTube) in the season two finale.
At an event at WBUR’s CitySpace in Boston hosted by Colby College philosophy professor Lydia Moland, Schur said that he had heard that “people are sneaking into libraries and pulling [Scanlon’s] book off the shelves and writing, ‘Eleanor, find Chidi.’”
The title of the book, Schur said, was in itself a key inspiration. “The title, What We Owe to Each Other, stuck in my head and was a quietly, to me, radical idea, because it starts with this presupposition, which is: We owe things to each other. It’s not, ‘Do we owe things to each other?” It’s ‘This is what we owe to each other.’”
What We Owe to Each Other is an extended and at times technical defense of a theory Scanlon calls contractualism: in short, the idea is that to act morally is to abide by principles that no one could reasonably reject.
The meat of the theory appeals to Schur. “What he says in the book is a controversial position, but which I found to be very uncontroversial, which is that you ought to design rules that couldn’t be rejected by the people that you’re having to share the world with,” he explains.
That seems quite immediately applicable in a show like The Good Place. The show at its root is about four people — Eleanor, Chidi, Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), and Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) — who have to form a society together in an afterlife they know isn’t quite fair. It’s not fair because both Eleanor and Jason (a small-time drug dealer from Jacksonville, Florida, who has been mistaken for a Buddhist monk named Jianyu Li) have both been misplaced, suggesting something’s terribly amiss. And it’s not fair because all four of them are turned into bundles of anxiety and doubt by the first season’s end.
So the four of them — and their non-human comrades Michael and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a supernatural personal assistant (“Not a robot!”) who knows all the information there is to know in the universe — have to build their own kind of moral system to live by, one that doesn’t necessarily abide by the rules being enforced by the authorities governing the afterlife, but which is born out of a sense of duty to each other as fellow human (and superhuman) beings.
Pamela Hieronymi, a UCLA professor, one-time Scanlon student, and avowed contractualist whom Schur has consulted periodically after cold-emailing her for advice, was brought in to talk to the writers before seasons two and four. She argues the contractualist roots of The Good Place come through most vividly in flashbacks to Eleanor’s life on Earth. Her behavior is at its most loathsome when she’s free riding: promising to serve as a designated driver to her colleagues, then drinking anyway, for instance.
“She’s failing to live by contractualist reasoning there,” Hieronymi concludes. She’s not abiding by rules no one can reasonably reject. And that’s really at the root of why what she was doing was wrong.
The point of morality, on this view, isn’t to accumulate goodness points, as in the elaborate point system the organizers of the Good Place and its corresponding Bad Place employ to determine who goes to which upon death. It’s to live up to our duties to each other.
Would you kill one person so that five may live?
The characters, then, go on their own journey to find a moral theory that works. This takes them deep into the philosophical literature — including one of the field’s most famous thought experiments.
In one of season two’s most memorable episodes, the characters find themselves conducting lifelike reenactments of trolley problems, a famous class of philosophical thought experiments launched by Philippa Foot. Trolley problems ask in what situations it’s acceptable to sacrifice fewer people to save more people: Is it, for example, okay to flip a switch so a trolley hits and kills one person instead of five?
The original trolley problem, Schur said at WBUR, is “one of the funniest scenarios imaginable. It’s comedy writing at a level that I hope to someday [attain]. … She says, ‘You’re a doctor and there’s five people who need organ transplants and there’s one fully healthy janitor just sweeping up, do you murder this person and harvest his organs?’ And it’s like, ‘What is happening in this town?’”
After the event, Scanlon told me he thought Schur actually left out the funniest part of Foot’s paper. In arguing for the morality of turning a switch to kill one rather than five, Foot notes that the one person’s death is not something the switch-turner directly needs to have happen for their goal of saving five lives to be satisfied (whereas the janitor’s death would be necessary). There are ways, Foot insists, that the one person targeted might survive, a possibility that makes the action moral: “Perhaps he might find a foothold on the side of the tunnel and cling on as the vehicle hurtled by.”
Then she adds, “The driver of the tram does not then leap off and brain him with a crowbar.” (The italics are Foot’s, trying to emphasize that readers of the Oxford Review are not to brain random bystanders with crowbars. Some of the most bizarre and vibrant short fiction in our culture can be found in the back pages of ethics journals.)
Chidi and Eleanor’s journey through trolley problems followed Schur’s own path. Schur brought in Hieronymi to walk his writing staff through trolley problems, and he did deeper reading too. In the WBUR talk he alluded to John Taurek’s “Should the Numbers Count?” a famous argument that one shouldn’t act to save more rather than fewer people, but instead flip a coin when faced with such tradeoffs.
“This man makes the argument that you have to flip a coin. He basically says the numbers don’t matter,” Schur said. “You have to individually value human life, not as a mass of human life but as each individual life.”
Making the Good Place on earth
I was taught Taurek’s paper in college as a kind of bizarre curiosity, an argument that was useful for illustrating arguments about saving lives but quite obviously mistaken. Derek Parfit’s takedown of Taurek was pointedly titled “Innumerate Ethics.” The objection is simple: Of course saving more lives is better. To value humans properly, one must value humans equally, with each life counting the same. “Each counts for one,” Parfit wrote. “That is why more count for more.”
But other philosophers, notably Kieran Setiya and Michael Thompson, take a more positive view of Taurek’s argument; Setiya even decisively states that Taurek was right, that there is something objectionable in simply tallying up lives.
Setiya and Thompson both work in a philosophical tradition that argues that morality comes not from duties to other people but living up to what it is to be a good human being, cultivating and reflecting deeply human virtues. You can (very, very broadly) term this tradition neo-Aristotelianism, or virtue ethics.
Lately, Schur tells me he’s been feeling more affinity with this brand of philosophy, and it’s been reflected on The Good Place. “Scanlon’s book has been a sort of spine of the entire show, but I would say that what you might call traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics have supplanted it in terms of what the show’s overarching statement about the world is,” Schur says.
“The idea that Mike keeps coming back to is that you try — you won’t always succeed but you try,” says Todd May, a Clemson professor who started advising The Good Place in later seasons after Schur encountered his book Death (which argues life’s finitude gives it meaning). “He says we’re going to try but we’re going to fail and the key is trying knowing you’re going to fail.”
Many moral theories take a somewhat Yoda-ish approach to trying: You abide by a set of reasonable rules, or you don’t; you maximize the good in the world, or you don’t — there is no try. By focusing on cultivating virtues, on personal growth and development, an Aristotelian approach puts trying front and center.
Schur suggests that contractualism and virtue ethics need not be in conflict — they could just be different ways of accounting for the same moral truths. Virtue ethics explains our duties to each other in humanity’s existence as a social animal; contractualism prioritizes our social life as part of a community, before turning to human nature. But they might arrive at the same endpoint.
This is a familiar idea in philosophy; Derek Parfit likened different schools of moral theory to mountaineers “climbing the same mountain on different sides.” And Hieronymi and Scanlon, for their parts, are open to the possibility.
How demanding can the Good Place be?
The Good Place’s last season is not the only writing of Schur’s releasing this fall. He also authored a preface for a new edition of Princeton utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save, an argument that ordinary people in rich countries have to do far more, especially in terms of charitable donations, to help people in developing countries, to help animals, and generally to improve the world.
It’s a book that helped launch the effective altruism movement, and an argument that been a transformative influence on my own life. I doubt I would’ve donated a kidney or tithe 10 percent of my salary to GiveWell’s top charities (to which Schur also donates) had I not read Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”
There’s plenty I disagree with Singer on, and Schur has his differences as well — he willingly offers that “a lot of the things [Singer] says are pretty nutty.” There’s even a character on The Good Place who poses a gentle critique of Singerism: Doug Forcett (Michael McKean), a man who successfully predicted the afterlife during a magic mushroom trip and went on to live a life of almost impossible altruism, inspired in part by Singer’s follow-up book The Most Good You Can Do:
But instead of imbuing his life with meaning and ensuring him a spot in the Good Place, Forcett’s quest to live a perfect life has seemingly deprived him of all happiness. He walks miles and miles from his cabin in the woods of Alberta to Edmonton to “give $85 to a snail charity.” He eats only radishes and lentils and drinks his own filtered urine. He is taken for a chump by a neighborhood boy, and has a cemetery for every now-deceased animal he’s ever come across, down to a deer tick.
“That was an attempt to say, if you indulge in any of these theories too much, if you go too far in any one direction, you’re in trouble,” Schur says.
As season three goes on, the idea of cluelessness, that the consequences of our actions are so manifold and unpredictable and impossible to account for — a constant concern in contemporary ethics raised by writers like James Lenman and Hilary Greaves — also gains force as a critique of highly demanding moral theories. By the end of the season, it becomes clear that the Good Place’s criteria for entry are too high: It knocks people excessively for harms they could never have anticipated.
One example the show lays out: In 2009, Douglas Ewing of Scagsville, Maryland, gave his mother a dozen roses and lost moral points per the Good Place’s tally — because the flowers were picked by exploited migrant workers, grown using toxic pesticides, ordered using a cell phone made in a sweatshop, delivered through a process emitting excessive greenhouse gases, and profiting a delivery company with a racist sexual harasser for a CEO. Each moral action has spiraling consequences that are hard if not impossible to anticipate.
That leads The Good Place toward a sympathy for more flexible moral views; William Jackson Harper, who plays Chidi, told me that in reading Scanlon’s book he was drawn to Bernard Williams’s idea of a “subjective motivational set”: the idea that you have to understand each person’s moral behavior as the outgrowth of motivations and convictions internal to them.
But this kind of broad tent doesn’t lead the show to collapse into relativism or nihilism — though Chidi does have a brief moment of that. The Good Place, and Schur, are firm in the belief that as hard, and frustrating, and contradictory as the process of moral learning is, it really can lead you to a better life.
“You don’t have to necessarily live [like Doug Forcett] in order to have the concept of effective altruism play a role in your life,” Schur says. “You just have to think about it. You have to think all the time about what you’re doing, and whether you could be doing something a little more, a little better, a little differently.”
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Author: Dylan Matthews