My daughter and I have been watching a US TV series over the summer called ‘The Good Place’. We enjoy it and find it one of the funniest and cleverest comedies we have seen for some time. What makes it interesting for me as a philosopher, is that it is a show about ethics and a moral philosopher, Chidi, is one of the main characters. As someone who teaches ethics, however, I have a problem with how the show seeks to educate us in ethics and ethics theory.

‘The Good Place’ is now in its third season and seems to have become quite popular. The story centres on four characters who have tragically died and seemingly gone to heaven (the good place). They come to realize, however, (spoiler alert) that the good place is really the bad place (hell), masquerading as heaven and that they have been subject to an innovative new form of torture. The series then follows their efforts, with the help of the architect of the good place and his assistant, to try to find a way into the real good place. This will entail becoming good people by earning enough points to get into the good place because in this world depressingly, accountants calculate your eligibility.

The series was created by writer and producer, Michael Schur and was based on his interest in philosophy, particularly ethics. The series uses the main characters to explore ethical questions about what constitutes a good life, one that will gain points for rewards in the afterlife.  A moral philosopher is consulting on the show so it is important for my argument to understand that the show’s producers take seriously their role as educators as well as entertainers. The four central characters are all deeply flawed ethically and so confront many challenges in order to become good. A major theme is whether human nature can be changed at all.

So what is my problem? After all, it is only a TV show and maybe I should just chill and enjoy it for what it is. As Chidi shows us, however, philosophers sometimes have trouble doing this. There are bigger issues at stake in relation to the teaching of ethics and the problem here lies in the show reinforcing today’s trend for teaching ethics in abstraction from its historical context, focusing instead only on practical and applied ethics.

Moral philosophers such as Alasdair McIntyre and Tom Angiers, have been arguing for decades that ethics has lost its way due its neglect of history, particularly in science and technology focused institutions, and this has had a destructive effect on the field. There is now more commonly what I call a ‘supermarket’ approach to teaching and understanding ethics. You have an ethical problem and so you choose from a number of equally valid ethics theories sitting on the supermarket shelf and apply whichever you think will work in the circumstances. This is itself a consequentialist ethics approach as it suggests that the means are less important than the outcome. In other words, it does not matter whether the theory itself is bad, as long as it works.

In a recent Comic-Con event, Schur stated that his aim with the show was to introduce viewers to the vast range of ethics theories and allow them to make up their own minds. The problem for Schur is that his position already values a consequentialist, ahistorical and analytical (supermarket) approach to ethics over others. As both MacIntyre and Angiers argue, however, ethics cannot be understood abstracted from the history of the lives and times of its main theorists. MacIntyre in particular stresses the fundamental need to study historical narratives in order to evaluate ethics theories. If one studies the history of ethics the problems with the ‘supermarket’ approach, soon emerge.

The character of Chidi, the moral philosopher, reveals the nature of the problem. Chidi is presented as a Professor who has a vast knowledge of ethics theory but finds it almost impossible to make an ethical choice; no doubt a comment on the confused state of today’s philosophy. He specializes in practical and applied ethics and continually applies an analytical and logical approach in weighing up the pros and cons of various theories and only ends up further confused. Chidi is typical of many philosophers today who despite having extensive training in the history of philosophy, choose to ignore it when it comes to ethics. There are hints that Chidi favours a Kantian, Deontological approach in trying to work out whether he has the right intent behind his actions. This is no surprise, but to understand why it is no surprise, we need to go much deeper into history.

The attraction of Kant to Chidi is probably because it was Kant who provided philosophy with a method by which you could logically derive an absolute ethical foundation purely from human reason. For deeply insecure philosophers who privilege logic, such as Chidi, this is the gold standard. It was Kant who, for a time, saved Western philosophy from becoming irrelevant by appearing to solve two major problems. One was the challenge posed by David Hume’s questioning of causation and his privileging of emotion over reason in making ethical choices. This left philosophers with no way of reasoning out how we should behave; we should just get in touch with our emotions. The other was the problem of how humans can have freedom of choice and therefore, responsibility for their choices, in a deterministic Newtonian universe.

It is vital to understand that when Kant was writing his major work on ethics, his metaphysics, particularly his cosmology, was rooted in Isaac Newton’s deterministic, clockwork universe. In order to justify free will he conveniently proposed two realities, where the mechanism of Newton was in the world of appearances and free will was in the deeper reality of the noumenal world. Like Aristotle, Kant was a systematic philosopher, meaning that his ethical theories were developed to be consistent with his metaphysics and epistemology. His views also cannot be separated from the nature of his personal life and the historical context of his time from which emerged the philosophical questions he was concerned with.

Why Kant’s life and metaphysics are important is because they help us understand why he was wrong in assuming that his reasoning could create an absolute foundation and why he was wrong in thinking he could reduce ethics purely to principle, or good will. Today’s physics and biology have revealed the mechanical view of reality, popular in Kant’s time, to be flawed as is the idea of there being only two realities and so Kant’s ethics begins with outdated conceptions of reality.

Chidi’s problem is that he is presented not as a systematic philosopher but as is more common today, a specialist moral philosopher. While we know a bit about his personal life, we don’t know explicitly from the show what his theory of nature and human nature is. We don’t get a historical or metaphysical critique from Chidi which is a problem for him, for if he did, he could overcome some of his superficial confusion.

History shows us that Kant was not the only one to base his ethics on misconceptions of reality. He was responding to the limits of mechanistic and atomistic thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume by trying to bracket out the mechanical view rather than challenge it. In ethics, atomism manifests as the view that human activity can be reduced to actions of individuals. A major figure in the development of the consequentialist theory Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, was an atomist seeing society as the mere sum of the individual parts and regarded humans to be fundamentally self-interested pleasure seekers. So while Utilitarianism promotes the good of the majority, the majority is reducible to atomistic, egoistic individuals. For Bentham, ethics could be further reduced to an algorithm enabling the calculation of the consequent amount of pleasure and pain associated with an action. This grossly inadequate framing of reality is why Utilitarianism is perhaps the worst ethics theory ever created, but one that many identify with ethics thanks to the popularization of the trolley problem.

Utilitarianism, which ‘The Good Place’ seems to be based on, is a great example of why theories which try to reduce ethics to one thing are pointless. Whenever utilitarians try to answer the seemingly endless objections that arise, they end up transforming it, like John Stuart Mill, into something that sounds like all the other theories. Its success has been largely due to its gross oversimplifications of reality and its focus on quantification. It should be no surprise that Utilitarianism is popular in AI research such as autonomous vehicles, because it simplistically allows machines to merely calculate ethical choices, allowing science to further avoid the real complexity of value in nature. It has also been destructively popular in economics for similar flawed reasons.

Utilitarianism, Kantianism and Social Contract Theory are all rooted in the scientific reductionism and atomism made popular by the scientific revolution and so are all deeply flawed. They each only offer us part of the story and so take us backwards in relation to some more holistic ancient theories. As philosopher, Arran Gare argues, they are theories which tried to correct the horrific, nihilistic ethical implications of their creator’s radical individualist, egoistic beliefs, but they all failed miserably. They are theories which also, like religion based Command theory, sought to retard our intellectual development by precluding the need for thought and argument, providing fixed rules instead. These lessons from history, however, are not what we get from Chidi.

Why is this important? As I said earlier, the producers take their role as educators seriously and if they are teaching the consequentialist, supermarket approach, then the field of ethics is better off without their help. I teach students the history of ethics because it reveals the origins of ethics in the socially rooted concepts of character development and virtues and that ethics cannot be meaningfully separated from other fields such as politics. It reveals the motivations of enlightenment thinkers and their progeny to undermine such approaches and reduce ethics to a specialized, quantifiable and meaningless, science. History also reveals that these reductionist theories were actively opposed by other socially oriented anti-reductionist thinkers such as Georg Hegel and today’s proponents of virtue ethics, such as MacIntyre. It teaches that not all ethics theories are valid and that some should just be taken off the shelf.

More importantly, I teach historically because through understanding the contingent nature of the generation of ethics theories, it reveals the possibilities to students for creating new ethics theories to tackle the problems of the 21st. Century, such as an ecological ethics rooted in process metaphysics and combining virtue ethics with radical ecology and feminist theory. ‘The Good Place’ is still in production so I don’t know how it will conclude, but I hope the producers use their imagination to look beyond a focus on individuals and reveal what’s possible in ethics rather than what is, as they have done up until now. Ethics is not a museum filled with fixed and inadequate theories as monuments to their creators, but a dynamic process of human development in the face of contingent challenges.     


About The Author

Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.