The Other Secret Twist: On the Political Philosophy of The Good Place
By Robin JamesOctober 11, 2018
The NBC sitcom The Good Place tells us it’s a show about ethics. One of the main characters is a professor of moral philosophy, the show constantly cites Ethics 101 names like Kant and Hume, and there’s even an entire episode devoted to “the trolley problem.” Although The Good Place’s metanarrative stops at intro-level ethics, the show itself does not. Instead, The Good Place shows us a fairly well-developed political philosophy. And it’s one that is largely more progressive than both its metanarrative about ethics and the politics of mainstream academic philosophy (and philosophers), which tend towards “both sides” Centrist Dad liberalism. Just as Michael tells Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason that they’re in heaven because they were good people while subjecting them to some Bad Place torture, The Good Place tells us it’s a show about being a good person while presenting a pretty radical critique of contemporary society, showing us that everything from our obsession with individual performance metrics and the way we simultaneously empower and oppress women makes this The Bad Place.
The metanarrative that this show is about ethics (and not politics) reflects the way ethics is usually practiced in mainstream academic philosophy in the US. According to Charles Mills, philosophers in all subfields of mainstream academic philosophy generally practice ideal theory. Ideal theory “claims that starting from the ideal is at least the best way of realizing it”—for example, the best way to be a good person is to theorize on the assumption that the society we live in is just. The catch is, this doesn’t work. As Mills argues, “ideal theory can only serve the interests of the privileged, who, in addition—precisely because of that privilege (as bourgeois white males)—have an experience that comes closest to that ideal.” Philosophy’s ideals are modeled on the experiences of the most privileged people in the world (who also constitute an overwhelming majority of professional philosophers), and thus cannot account for or substantively address oppression and injustice. For example, the ideal of “autonomy...most famously developed in Kant’s writings...obfuscates the reality of care giving that makes any achievement of autonomy possible in the first place.” When philosophers start from the ideal of autonomy, they actually re-create gendered and racialized inequities regarding care and reproductive labor. Kant’s maxim of treating everyone as an end in themselves reproduces the patriarchal denial of personhood to women, who in their forced shouldering of reproductive labor are constantly treated as means. Think about it: somebody did Kant’s laundry.
The trolley problem is another example of the show’s simultaneous immersion in and discomfort with ideal theory. As Chidi explains, it is a thought experiment that goes roughly like this: “you are driving a trolley when the brakes fail and on the track ahead of you are five workmen that you will run over. You can steer to another track but on that track there is only one person you would kill instead of the five. What do you do?” Later, Chidi defends the problem against his students’ complaints: because “there is no right answer,” it’s a fun puzzle to work on in your head or with colleagues. But if you take a step back and ask why this experimental world is set up so that someone has to die, the right answer becomes more clear. The trolley problem’s experimental world assumes individuals actually decide who gets the short end of the stick because everything is otherwise equal—it assumes an ideal world. But this experimental world does not accurately reflect the one in which individuals live and make ethical decisions. Our world is designed to execute the physical, civil, and social death of large groups of people. Racism, sexism, abelism, and the like mean that some people are consistently thrown under the bus, or, erm, trolley, to preserve a social order premised upon institutionalized domination or what Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines as “group differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Framing the question of who gets thrown under the trolley as an ethical puzzle for individuals to solve, the trolley problem obscures the political reality of white supremacy, cisheterosexism, and capitalism. When Michael puts Chidi at the helm of an actual trolley, we see that the trolley problem is a fun puzzle to solve precisely because it abstracts away from the physical, emotional, and affective experience of violence and death. Such abstraction is easier for people whose real lives aren’t shaped by that disproportionate susceptibility to violence. If we begin from that non-ideal reality, we can easily see that this decision has already been made for us: in the U.S., our social institutions and values are set up in ways that make women of color, especially black trans women, most likely to die.
In the first half of season 2, the show’s narrative premise—that someone (usually Eleanor) eventually realizes that they’re actually in The Bad Place—performs this shift from ideal to non-ideal theory. In season 1, the four main characters were led to believe they were bad people mistakenly put in The Good Place. In The Good Place, everything works perfectly. Any flaws are the result of individual error—shrimp fall from the sky not because Michael designed the place to torture people, but because Eleanor behaved badly at the welcome party. Season 1’s Good Place is the quintessential ideal world in Mills’s sense. But then at the end of that season (episode 13), Eleanor works out that all the bad things that have been happening aren’t bugs they caused but features Michael engineered into the neighborhood. Her epiphany happens as they are forced to decide which two people to send to The Bad Place—that is, which two people to throw under the trolley. Finding that demand torturous, Eleanor recognizes that only in The Bad Place would people be forced to treat others as disposable...so they must be in The Bad Place. And when she makes decisions on the assumption that she isn’t in an ideal world, this throws a wrench in Michael’s plan. He has to reboot that world because Eleanor’s behavior has become incompatible with it. Eventually (in “Team Cockroach” S2E4) Michael joins them, realizing that he needs their help if he himself is to escape the ultimately punitive and carceral regime of which he is a part. That’s what the show spends the rest of season 2 doing: season 2 is about mostly white women and people of color (and one white male accomplice who literally is a mostly(?) reformed demon...plus Janet, who I’ll get to later) collectively practicing philosophy on the assumption that the world they live in is not in fact equal but designed to harm and oppress them.
And so the political philosophy that The Good Place shows us is far more progressive than the anodyne message about ethics that the show’s writers and producers use to frame it for viewers. According to series creator Michael Shur, the show’s “unifying theme” is “that people come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different philosophical backgrounds and different places on Earth and have different ideas of who they are and how the world works. But, given the chance, I think most people would say, “Yes, I want to be a better person.” Beginning from the assumption that everyone’s on more or less an equal playing field and thus entitled to equal weight in the conversation (and that people generally want to do the right thing, which Mills calls the assumption of “strict compliance”), this is the same “both sides” liberalism that Mills critiques as ideal theory. Despite what Schur tells us the show’s message is, season 2 shows us a very different message, one about the importance of beginning from the assumption that you—especially if you are a white woman, person of color, or non-human person—are in The Bad Place. And you’re there not because of anything you did, but because White Men engineered it that way for their benefit.
If we take this as the overall message of the show’s first two seasons, it’s easier to see more targeted political messages peppered throughout. In season 1 the characters are told that there is a huge cosmic computer that tracks their every thought and action and assigns a value to it. When they die, the computer tallies up their ethical score; that score then determines whether they go to the Good Place or the Bad Place. As we find out at the end of the season, Michael designed this system of individualized performance metrics to torture Eleanor and crew. This points system is an easy way to bring out their worst traits, like Eleanor’s tendency to dunk on people who, at least in her mind, think they are better than her, and Tahani’s compulsive competitiveness as a mask for deep insecurity. Michael’s big moral surveillance apparatus is a correction, or perhaps update, of Sartre: hell isn’t other people, it’s neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is the practice of transforming everything, even traditionally non-economic phenomena like friendship or learning, into deregulated, financialized markets. Financialized markets are ones built on investment rather than commodity exchange; deregulated markets nominally allow for any and all behavior, but tightly control background conditions so that only a limited range of behavior is possible. Privatizing formerly public things such as infrastructure or schools or prisons is a common method of transforming things into markets. Setting up the season 1 neighborhood so that the quartet of dead people torture each other, Michael is a technocrat who effectively privatizes hell by contracting the work of abuse out to independent, uncompensated laborers. (After all, his whole approach is to disrupt eternal damnation by superficially flipping the good/bad script...It’s Uber, but for hell.)
In its quest to marketize everything, neoliberalism updates classical liberalism’s commitments to identity-based exclusion by using individualized performance metrics to mask that exclusion behind nominal inclusion. Credit scores and the Bush-era education policy No Child Left Behind are examples: when you put everyone in a society fundamentally structured by centuries of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism on an equal playing field and then rank them based on individual performance, those rankings will reflect one’s relative racial, gender/sexual, and class privilege or marginalization, but in terms that aren’t explicitly tied to race, gender/sexuality, and class. Season 1 does something similar: it uses a very diverse ensemble cast to mask a system that ultimately judges people based on life circumstances they were born into (like Eleanor’s and Tahani’s families, which were the root of their biggest personal flaws), thus rewarding or punishing people not for their behavior, but for their situation. If what counts as hellacious torture in season 1 is a pervasive feature of our everyday reality in the early 21st century US, then...this must be The Bad Place.
Though we are only 2 episodes into season 3 at the time of this writing, this season confirms that the reality beyond the Good or Bad Places, which we are supposed to take as a representation of our beyond-the-fourth-wall reality, is, in fact, a neoliberal hell. At the end of season 2 the quartet are sent back to Earth to test their character in the real world. Though they escape death, they do not escape the afterlife’s performance metrics: the hour-long episode continually cuts back to Michael and Janet, who are seated in front of ticker-tape machines following the quartet’s performance like high-frequency trading algorithms follow stock prices. Because ticker tape machines originally communicated stock prices, this prop choice makes the quintessentially neoliberal move of reimagining people as investments that perform well or poorly on the market. Such torture isn’t limited to hell, but a normal feature of life these days; this is further proof that we are the ones in The Bad Place. In this respect, season 1 and the beginning of season 3 are a political lesson about the importance of philosophizing on the assumption that the world we’re living in is far from ideal.
The running gag of Janet’s constant misidentification as a girl or a robot is another way The Good Place shows its audience that their world beyond-the-fourth-wall is The Bad Place. Originally imagined by Schur as a kiosk, Janet is The Good/Bad Place’s interface. Even though she does all the feminized care and reproductive work that Kant and most other Ethics 101 philosophers overlook and partners in a nominally hetero romance with Jason, Janet is not a girl. And even though her role in The Places is to be “a Siri-like sentient database theoretically incapable of humanoid feelings,” she’s not a robot. Notably, robots are also tasked with the care and reproductive work generally assigned to groups denied full civil and moral personhood, like white women and non-whites; the word is derived from the Czech term for “slave labor.”
Janet looks and feels like a person: she falls in love, pleads for her life, and even appears to have a sense of humor...but she’s not a person. In fact, all the “not a girl/not a robot” jokes point out that Janet doesn’t even fit traditional Western categories for sub-persons—humans who, because of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and the like, are denied full access to moral and civil personhood. “Girl” and “robot” are terms used to denote marginal status in society—the status of those forced to shoulder care and reproductive labor, to be means rather than ends in themselves. People constantly and incorrigibly refer to Janet as a girl or a robot because these terms refer to groups from whom we expect servitude and obedience because society lets us treat them as less than full persons. Now, you might object: they call Janet a girl because of her feminine appearance and voice. This objection fails to consider that they could call her a woman, but they never do. “Girl” is a common vernacular term for a grown adult woman in a dead-end service job: there’s the old “girl Friday” idiom, the practice of whites referring to black household help as “house-girls,” and so on. Janet looks and sounds like a woman, but everyone calls her a “girl” because that’s what you call servants who look and sound feminine. This gag works on screen because our beyond-the-fourth-wall world teaches us to reflexively equate girlhood with subservience and sub-humanity.
Again, you might object: but how can Janet be subordinate if she’s omniscient and nearly omnipotent—almost God-like? This tension between women’s seeming empowerment and worsening patriarchal domination is the crux of what feminist media studies scholar Sara Banet-Weiser calls “empowerment” feminism. According to Banet-Weiser, “feminist discourses that emphasize self-confidence, body positivity, and individual achievement” are “co-constituted” by “violent misogynist phenomena such as revenge porn, toxic geek masculinity, and men's rights movements.” Women who have enough racial, class, and other sorts of privilege to successfully meet white supremacist capitalist patriarchal definitions of personhood—such as economic success—are increasingly accepted, as are violent misogynist rhetoric and behaviors. Banet-Weiser’s point is that these kinds of feminism and misogyny are causally connected: these kinds of women’s empowerment aren’t evidence that (white supremacist capitalist) patriarchy is over; rather, they contribute to patriarchal domination by reinforcing both its values (such as autonomy over care) and its commitments to intersecting forms of domination like white supremacy. In this respect, Janet is like a Taylor Swift or an Ivanka Trump: a token white woman whose empowerment does nothing to ameliorate patriarchy. That’s why her character can be both God-like and girled.
Subservience isn’t the only evidence of Janet’s girling. The show repeatedly “murders” Janet to reboot the neighborhood, and each murder scene rehearses a key dimension of white women’s sub-personhood: as partial persons, their consent must be respected, but as only partial persons their consent need not really be respected. This is how we get rapey “no means yes” norms. Alternating between desperate pleas for her life and calm, reassuring statements that she can’t be killed because she’s not alive in the first place (“I am simply an anthropomorphized [thing] built to make your life easier”), Janet’s lines leading up to her murder illustrate this “no means yes” dynamic...and make a joke out of it. Janet’s murder becomes a structuring narrative of the beginning of Season 2, where “a frantic Michael “reboot[s]” the afterlife he had constructed over and over again, each time Eleanor and co. figured out the truth about “the Good Place”—which meant that he also had to repeatedly kill a frantic Janet.” Women’s sub-personhood is so baked into our aesthetic conventions that we (even me, at first) find the repeated killing of a girled person who begs for her life funny and aesthetically pleasing instead of deeply troubling.
Just as we, the audience, live in a world that expects us to reflexively girl the help, we also live in a world that expects us to reflexively ignore the personhood of girled people...and basically everyone but white cis men. Our beyond-the-fourth-wall world is set up so that we are entitled if not obliged to treat most of humanity like Janets. In fact, the repetition of her murder functions almost pedagogically, desensitizing us to her pleading both through repetition and the insinuation that such pleas are fake. This puts the show’s ethical narrative and political metanarrative in tension: can we, viewers, be good people when the rules—in this case the rules of a televisual aesthetic and narrative language—expect us to find pleasure in throwing people we perceive to be girls and/or robots under the trolley?
The penultimate episode of season two hints that the game is rigged. First, at the beginning of Episode 11, “The Burrito,” Judge Gen initially decides that she won’t hear Eleanor and crew’s case because they didn’t follow proper procedure in filing it: “The rules say I gotta [raspberry sound] send you back.” Rewarding rule-following—what is called “compliance” in ethics jargon—over any commitment to ethical principles, the afterlife appeals process seems both unfair and self-defeating. Eleanor protests: “Why should we have to go live in a boring void because of a messed-up system?!” The rules would send the quartet back to The Bad Place not because they were bad people, but because they were not in a position to know or follow these rules. In this case, applying the rules equally to everyone punishes good people who find themselves in less-than-ideal circumstances. Casting Maya Rudolph as the enforcer of those rules, the show appeals to a tactic that’s quite common out here in the real world, where the presence of white women and people of color in elite positions serves as evidence that sexism and racism are over, only to hide even more unfair rules behind a feminine and/or nonwhite face. (Thanks, Obama, as they say.)
Speaking of unfairness, back down in The Bad Place, Sean, boss of The Bad Place, dismisses Michael’s point that it’s unfair to keep Eleanor and crew in The Bad Place because they had in fact become better people than they were when they were alive. “Fair,” Sean retorts, “is the stupidest word humans ever invented.” Mills would agree with Sean: his critique of ideal theory is largely about the work of ethicist and political philosopher John Rawls, whose most famous book is titled Justice As Fairness. According to Mills, although fairness would be great in an ideal world, when we live in a deeply oppressive and unequal world, treating people fairly (e.g., as formally equal before the law) actually reproduces and worsens those inequalities. Voter I.D. requirements are a good example of this: they disenfranchise people from disadvantaged groups because the circumstances of their disadvantage make it more difficult for them to get a state-issued ID in the first place. Pointing out the problems with using “fairness” as a standard to judge a manifestly unfair world, “The Burrito” comes very close to articulating Mills’s critique of conventional philosophical ethics.
The final episode of season 2 and the season 3 premier back down from this comparatively progressive political claim and reiterates its original hook about ethics...but not without some complications. Gen decides to give Eleanor and friends a chance to improve their ethical scores by giving them a second chance at life. She sends the quartet back to what was originally the moment of their death, except this time they live through it. Most of the episode follows Eleanor; after nearly dying, she decides to turn her life around and try to be a good person. She quits her scammy job and works as a canvasser for a nonprofit, she confesses to her friend that she profited from that friend’s embarrassment, and she even stops eating animals. But these decisions come at a cost: those canvassing jobs are have the highest turnover rate of any job and leave you open to constant harassment (especially if you’re a woman), and her friend sues her and kicks her out of their shared apartment. All of this would be a lot easier to navigate if Eleanor had more wealth and stronger family ties...but she doesn’t, so she slides back to her old ways. So far, the episode is showing us that it’s easier to be “good” if you are privileged. Those privileges insulate you from the economic and social costs associated with following rules designed for people who already have these advantages. But then Michael stages a demonic intervention and steers Eleanor back on the path to The Good Place, as though the only way a working-class single white woman can be good is with the help of a white dude (this is Kant’s view—women are capable of merely aesthetic feeling, not ethical judgment, so they can only be ethical insofar as they follow men’s lead). Convinced to get back on the wagon, Eleanor starts googling. She stumbles upon a videotaped lecture from Chidi, which catches her attention because it repeats an idea Michael planted in her head the night before. The episode the closes with her in Chidi’s office asking to talk about his lecture on “What We Owe Each Other.” After showing us the political importance of non-ideal theory for two whole seasons, The Good Place brings its narrative back in line with its ethical metanarrative about being a good person in an otherwise ideal world. Who can drop everything and fly halfway around the world to chat about ethics? Certainly not anybody with kids, pets, or other care obligations. (Also, as a philosophy professor myself, I don’t know how Chidi has time to tutor some rando that barges into his office.)
Intertwining Eleanor’s desire to be a good person with her romantic desire for Chidi, the season 2 finale also uses the shipping of Eleanor and Chidi to sell us on ideal theory. Because Eleanor’s road to being a good person runs through Chidi, who also happens to have kissed her just before they were sent back to life, the episode maps the narrative tension about being a good person onto the will-they-won’t-they tension of Eleanor and Chidi’s romance, such that our desire for the resolution of the latter includes a desire for the resolution of the former. (The season 3 premier continues to map these two things together and heightens the tension by bringing Eleanor some competition for Chidi’s affection.) Wanting Eleanor and Chidi to get together means wanting the show’s ideal theory meta/narrative about ethics. Ideal theory guarantees that “ethics” reproduces a fundamentally unequal and unjust world—it makes the world into a bad place. Compelling us to root for that, the show makes it really hard for us to be good people. As a work of political philosophy, The Good Place claims that ideal theory is like a classical moral vice: seductive and tempting but ultimately destructive. And just as Gen tests our quartet of heroes to struggle with their worst vices, The Good Place tests us with one of ours. Do we choose our desire to be a good person or our responsibility to make the world less of a bad place for all?
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