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Columns, Opinions

Han ’23: What we owe to each other – lessons from ‘The Good Place’

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

**spoiler alert**

This piece will discuss events that occur up to the fourth season of “The Good Place.”

When I was a kid, I believed in answers. This wasn’t a coincidence – everything in a normal kid’s life is geared toward finding the right answers. Like many, I went to school and drilled the same concepts over and over – proper grammar, the multiplication table, musical key signatures. If I really didn’t get it, I could flip to the back of the book and the answer would always be there. Or, I could ask the teacher, or my parents, and they would always know exactly what to do. It took time and effort to learn how to find the answer, of course, but there always was one. This provided me, an already confident and optimistic child, with an outsized certainty in my problem-solving abilities. The only thing left, I thought, was to grow up, so that I could start solving real problems instead of just those I thought of as child’s play. 

Then came the rub: The price of growing up is learning that the most important problems have no answers.

Now seems like a time that answers would come in handy. A global pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown. A long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism, met with minimal structural change. A contentious election season which in all likelihood promises further chaos in November. The deaths of courageous leaders such as John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg that stabbed at my heart. The perennially blue California skies turning an ominous orange as fires consume America’s west coast, giving the country a peek into a future of a world wrecked by climate change. The same sentiment abounds on Twitter as well as in conversation: 2020 has been the absolute worst. Nobody has any answers or reasoning for the catastrophes that have shaken our world. As someone who spent quarantine obsessing over the news cycle, I know firsthand that the events of this year can turn even the most stubborn optimists into avowed cynics swimming in an ocean of depression.

“There is no answer.” That is the hard lesson that Chidi Anagonye, an indecisive moral philosophy professor played by William Jackson Harper, has to learn by the end of his character arc on the NBC sitcom, “The Good Place.” For four seasons, “The Good Place” was perhaps the greatest show on network TV, and certainly my favorite. With quippy lines and blindsiding twists, it lived up to its billing as a comedy, but the true value of the show came from its surprisingly inventive premise. From the first second of the premiere episode, “The Good Place” suggested an answer to the question at the center of human existence: “What happens to us after we die?” And for the rest of its brilliant run, the show asked its audience the question that should be at the center of human existence: “How can we become good people?” It remains the only TV show I have ever watched that confronts these questions so directly. The premiere episode begins with an introduction to Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who finds herself in a heaven-like Good Place after she dies, despite knowing that she, a selfish “Arizona trash bag,” doesn’t belong there. She is terrified that her fraudulent goodness will be found out and that she will be sent to The Bad Place, where she would be tortured for the rest of eternity. But when Eleanor is told that Chidi is her Good Place-approved soulmate, she confides in him and asks him to help her become a better person by teaching her moral philosophy – and he does, over and over, for 800 separate afterlives. 

In season four, a new afterlife system must be constructed, because the system in place had been sending all humans to the Bad Place for 500 years. Life on Earth was simply too complicated for the value of a life to be accurately calculated by a simple points system anymore. Chidi seems to be the natural candidate for this job: He spent his entire life believing that there was an answer to all of the world’s problems, even questions like how a person should live a good life. But this belief led to a lifetime of agonizing over every choice and its possible ramifications – so much so that Chidi died without ever being able to make a non-agonizing decision. After over 800 afterlives with Eleanor, Chidi finally learns the lesson that he had failed to learn on Earth in the ninth episode of the final season – aptly titled “The Answer: “It turns out that life isn’t a puzzle that can just be solved one time and it’s done. You wake up every day and you solve it again.” 

The horrors of 2020 have no answers. But when I re-watched “The Good Place,” I realized that the show contained a few clues about how we should proceed in our own reality. One of the moral philosophy teachings that Chidi shares with Eleanor is the theory of contractualism, developed by the philosopher T. M. Scanlon in his book, What We Owe to Each Other. In his writing, Scanlon asserts that a good life depends on “the positive value of a way of living with others,” that we should govern life with rules that other people cannot reasonably reject, and that “the search for how to find those rules will go on forever.” Essentially, contractualism says that we owe it to other people to treat them in accordance with their value as living human beings. In “The Good Place”’s final episode, when Chidi wants to “die” and leave the Good Place because he no longer finds any happiness in a perfect eternity, Eleanor tries to stop him. After thinking about Scanlon’s book, however, she tells him, “I proposed a rule that Chidis shouldn’t be allowed to leave because it would make Eleanors sad, and I could do this forever… and I’d still never find the justification for getting you to stay. Because it’s a selfish rule. I owe it to you to let you go.” Perhaps, like Eleanor, centering our decisions around the question of what we owe to each other is the clue to a better life, and a better future.

So, how do we solve today’s problems? The real answer is in our relationships – what we can learn from each other, what we can do for each other and what we owe each other. For example, imagine a world where we are all able to decide to wear masks and practice social distancing, sacrificing temporary comfort or selfish desire in order to protect each other. Looking around, a reality centered around that sort of thinking feels very far away. This is partly because social distancing, while absolutely necessary to combat the coronavirus pandemic, has atrophied our social capabilities in ways that we cannot yet comprehend. And it is partly because of a despicable failure of leadership, which was evident just this week, when the president of a country with over 200,000 dead from the pandemic said that the coronavirus “affects virtually nobody.” But mostly, it’s because humans are fundamentally flawed. We have a tendency to fracture and fight amongst ourselves, and can be incapable of making collective decisions when given the choice of selfish ones. Certainly, the events of the past year have not inspired great faith in the human race. But if “The Good Place” teaches us anything, it’s that our only hope, small though it may be, is each other. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 800 eternal afterlives for us to figure that out.

Bliss Han ’23 can be reached at bliss_han@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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