Please join us for the final installment of the Strange Thing this Wednesday March 9th at 4:30 in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall.
In Season 4 Episode 12 “Patty” the gang finally arrives in the Good Place. However, there is a problem. Everyone’s eternal happiness makes them complacent, bored, happiness zombies. Eleanor has a suggestion though, give people an exit from the Good Place, and let them decide to leave. I picked this episode because I wanted to think more about what the good place would be like if carefully designed. Do you think that eternal happiness is a problem for humans? What do you think of Eleanor’s fix? With the new set-up, deceased humans can test into the Good Place—why is it important to be morally good before you get into the Good Place? What’s the value of eternal reward if not to motivate good behavior?
We can also discuss the two-episode finale—if you decide to watch it. Please spread the word to and invite fans of either The Good Place or philosophy!
Join us Wednesday, February 16th at 4:30pm in the Strange Lounge in Main hall for the next installment of the Strange Thing!
In this episode, Michael and Janet visit Doug Forcett, played by Michael McKean. Doug is described in the series as the first and only human being to discover the point system for getting into the Good Place. They are visiting him to determine how our main protagonists should act in order to get into the Good Place. I’d like to explore a couple of general directions of inquiry, though I would be interested to hear about any other issues that stuck out to you as well.
One question I had is: Does Doug know that the system to get into the Good Place is what it is? He is described as having been the only human begin to have ‘discovered’ it. But he formed the belief while high in the 70s, seemingly out of thin air. And they don’t mention that he ever got corroboration. But without such corroboration, it is not clear to me where his motivation comes from to abide by the system as exactly as he does. Indeed, knowing that one has ingested a mind-altering drug is a classic sort of circumstance often used to provide us with reason to doubt the beliefs we form during that time, however true they may seem to us at that time. So not only might Doug not know about the system, he may actually have reason to doubt that the system is the way he thinks it is.
Putting issues concerning Doug’s epistemic position aside, Doug is described as a happiness (or utility) pump, since, in an effort to maximize his chances of getting into the Good Place, he does everything he can to make others happy to accrue as many points as possible. This involves him living in such a way that he leaves as small a carbon footprint as possible, and participates in the morally repugnant supply chains of modern society as little as possible. It also involves him doing whatever the local teen sociopath (or anyone) tells him to do. The idea of a happiness pump has been raised as a criticism of utilitarianism, the view that what is right is what maximizes overall happiness. I thought it would be worth discussing why a happiness pump poses a problem for utilitarianism, and whether it is an effective criticism of the view. Of course I’d also like to discuss “story-internal” questions like, “Is Doug’s way of life enough to get him into the Good Place, especially given that his motivations might be corrupted due to his potential knowledge of the system for getting in?”.
Join us Wednesday, February 9 at 4:30 p.m. in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the return of the Strange Thing. This week, we have a pair of episodes about relationships to loved ones–especially, parental relationships–and an extended philosophical discussion between Eleanor and Michael about determinism and freedom of the will. I think we should start with E7 and the discussion of freedom of the will. But, I’ll say a word about E5-6 after that, as they imply interesting issue about humanity’s natural goodness.
Episode Seven spins off of Episode Six, in which Eleanor reconnects with her mother. The emotional reunion shakes Eleanor. She ends Episode Six blaming her mom for the fact that she was never really able to experience human love. But, then, Michael says that, “In one of the reboots, you and Chidi fell in love…deeply, and you told him that you loved him, and he told you that he loved you back.” Episode Seven opens with Michael and Eleanor having wandered into a public library, because they need somewhere quiet for the Earthly Eleanor to experience memories of her afterlife (and, as Michael says, “there’s no place more deserted than a public library in Arizona.”) Eleanor views her afterlife memories. There are some side-effects.
Eleanor’s reaction to these afterlife memories is to believe all of her actions are deteremined. This leads to a long debate between Eleanor and Michael, which focuses on determinism and freedom of the will, but also touches on divine foreknowledge. Eleanor helpfully finds a philosophy book on the shelves and reads the definition of determinism, as “the theory that we have no control over our own actions. Everything we do happens because of some external force beyond our control.” We might–perhaps equivalently (perhaps not)–define determinism instead as the thesis that the entirety of the facts that are true of the universe at T1 fully determine the entirety of facts that are true of the universe at T2. Given T1, T2 could not have been otherwise. Eleanor has become enamored of this view and Michael–a divine, eternal being–attempts to argue her out of it. A few philosophical thesis other than determinism come up during their debate.
Incompatibalism: Incompatibalism is the position that determinism and human freedom are incompatible. It holds that if determinism is true, we are not free. Eleanor, at least, seems to be assuming incompatibilism. But are determinism and free will really incompatible?
Divine Foreknowledge: An important component of Michael’s argument that Eleanor has free will rests on the idea that she surprised him, a divine being, who (I think we are to presume) has special foreknowledge. For example, Eleanor surprised Michael by admitting she belonged in the bad place, back in Season 1. But is divine foreknowledge incompatible with freedom of the will? Our could God create us, know everything we are going to do in our entire life before creating us, and yet us still be free? Does divine foreknowledge entail determinism or are the two independent?
Freedom of the Will: Most generally, Michael and Eleanor’s discussion might prompt us to ask what is it to act freely? If we are incompatibilists, then we hold that we are not free if we are determined. Some incompatibilists–called hard determinists–hold that determinism is true, and so we lack free will. Other incompatibilists–called libertarians–hold that determinism is false; we have free will. But some philosophers, such as David Hume, are soft-determinists who hold the compatibilist position that determinism is true and yet we are free. Which of these positions seems most plausible to you? What arguments might you deploy to defend it?
In addition to this discussion of determinism, I was struck by the three vignettes involving family that comprise the bulk of episodes 5 and 6. Parents weigh heavily in these episodes: Jason reconnects with Donkey Doug, who has been in prison many times, once for selling “counterfeit truck nuts”. Tahani and Kamilah bond over their shared psychological trauma, wrought by their parents. And Eleanor confronts Donna Shellstrop, the mother she believed dead, but who had simply faked her own death and started a new life in Nevada. Both Tahani and Eleanor express, at some point, the sentiment that at least some of their own moral short-comings in life are due to their parents. This resonates with the foregoing considerations about determinism and free will. But, it also raises questions about the natural goodness of human beings. To what extent is our morality natural to us and to what extent is it the result of up-bringing? *Could* children, who were never instructed about morality nor were the subjects of moral reprimand by parents (or society in general) grow into moral adults? Or, is moral training in childhood required to get moral adults? What sorts of arguments might lead us to one conclusion or the other? Here’s a possibility: If morality is dependent on cultural influence, then we might expect to see different moral codes in different cultures. Do we? Here’s another: If our morality is, at least in part, natural to us, then we might expect to see strong repulsive reactions to immoral acts. Do we?
Finally, there are some really great digs on Arizona in E7. Every establishment is used to shoot pornography after closing. The sex education section of the public library contains only the Bible. The poetry section is all Jeff Foxworthy.
Please join us this Wednesday, January 19th from 4:30-5:30pm, for our discussion of The Good Place (available to watch on Netflix). We are meeting virtually, please email email@example.com for the Zoom link and to be added to our email list.
Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason learn that they are headed to the Bad Place after their time on Earth. As they come to grips with this information, Chidi embraces nihilism, lecturing to his ethics students that nothing matters, not even how horrible it is to put marshmallow Peeps in your chili while doing just that. Here’s a summary:
As you watch this episode, consider:
Would it change your approach to earthly life if you learned you were headed to the Bad Place and there’s nothing you could do about it? If so, how? What if you learned that there is no afterlife at all?
Have you ever wanted to know more about nihilism? Chidi says nihilism is the view that there is no point to anything. To learn more about Nietzsche on nihilism, listen to the first 12 minutes of this podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p00546yh
Friedrich Nietzche thought that nihilism is a natural response to grappling with questions about objective moral truths and their relation to the afterlife. However, he also claimed that nihilism is a sickness that must be overcome.
Is Chidi’s nihilism a sickness? Does he overcome it?
There are lots of other great moments in and leading up to this episode, including Australia’s most American restaurant, illustrations of many of the moral values we’ve encountered so far: virtues and vices, harms and benefits, and acts of duty, and finally, the shape of time in the Bad Place: “Jeremy Bearimy.”
Join us as we discuss how the pursuit of moral truths and good-standing in the afterlife could lead to nihilism, and whether any of that matters.
Please join us this Wednesday, January 12th, for the first Strange Thing meeting of the winter term. We’ll meet from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss episode 1 of The Good Place, Season 3. The Good Place series is available to watch on Netflix. (The Zoom link for the meeting is on the email, which any of the Philosophy faculty would be happy to forward.)
S3 E1, “Everything is Bonzer!,” is a double-length episode: 43 minutes. What stands out to you in this episode? What do you wonder about while you’re watching it? Are there parts that resonate with you or bother you? Our open discussion can go in a lot of directions. Here are a couple thoughts to get us started:
In this episode, Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason find each other on Earth because they’ve all had near death experiences that motivate them to become better people. So, they form a philosophical study group arranged around the question of what we owe to each other. Does the episode thereby assume that becoming a better person is equivalent to becoming a more moral person? Even if a near death experience motivates people to make sustained positive change, does living a better life amount to improved ethical decision-making? (Backing up a bit, we could ask if attributing to Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason a desire to become more moral is a fair assessment of what’s motivating each to join the group.)
We can also use this episode as a chance to think about the nature of indecision, the condition that Chidi struggles with. At times in the episode, like Henry’s decisive getting-in-shape moment, indecision seems to be characterized as a lack of follow through or will power. At other times, like when Chidi can’t pick a chair or ask out Simone, it looks like a fear of commitment and potential consequences. But a particularly insidious form of indecision is not knowing what you want—not know what you want to strive for or seek or commit yourself to. Is that a type of indecision that the show depicts? Are there other ways it manifests in the show?
Please spread the word to and invite fans of either The Good Place or philosophy!
Please join us this Monday, Nov. 15, from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss episodes 10 “Rhonda, Diane, Jake, and Trent” and 12 “Somewhere Else” of the Good Place, Season 2. We’ll meet in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall.
Episode 10 “Rhonda, Diane, Jake, and Trent” With Michael and Janet’s help, the crew has snuck into the bad place in the hopes of gaining access to the neutral zone to plead their case to the judge. Unfortunately, they get caught in the middle of a cocktail party celebrating the perceived success of Michael’s fake neighborhood, and must lie to avoid being discovered. Unsurprisingly, Chidi is having trouble with this. Eleanor responds to Chidi by invoking moral particularism.
Chidi: “Hey! Hi! So, those road(?) demons over there think I’m some kind of great torturer and they want my advice on how to torture someone. Jason is stalling by ranking MMA ring girls with them but I have to do something. And Eleanor, you’re wearing glasses now. Help me!”
Eleanor: “You know the answer, dude. Lie your ass off!
Eleanor: “What if lying is ethical in this situation. What if certain actions aren’t universally good or bad, like Jonathan Dancy says.”
Chidi: “Jonathan Dancy? Are you talking about moral particularism? We never even covered that. You read on your own?!”
Eleanor: “You think that just because I’m a straight hottie I can’t read philosophy for fun? Look, moral particularism says there are no fixed rules that work in every situation. Like, let’s say you promised your friend you’d go to the movies. But then, your mom suddenly gets rushed to the ER. Your boy Kant would say, ‘Never break a promise. Go see Chronicles of Riddick. It doesn’t matter if your mom gets lonely and steals a bucket of Vicodin from the nurses’ closet.’”
Chidi: “Real example?”
Eleanor: “Yep. But a moral particularist…like me. I’m one now. I just decided. …would say, ‘There’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation.’ And right now we are in a pretty bonkers situation.”
What do you think of moral particularism? There are at least two ways we can understand the claim that general moral principles do important ethical work—the idea which the moral particularist rejects. First, moral principles can be understood to help explain why particular actions are right or wrong. So, for example, Chidi’s lie that he is a great torturer would be wrong because it is incompatible with some general moral principle like Kant’s categorical imperative. Second, moral principles can be understood as guides that help us figure out what we should and shouldn’t do. On this conception, Chidi can figure out that he shouldn’t say that he’s a great torturer by noting that it is incompatible with the categorical imperative. There is a third way to understand the claim that moral principles do important ethical work: that they do both of these things. What does the moral particularist lose on each of these conceptions of moral principles? Does the moral particularist have anything to put in the place of moral principles? Can the moral particularist explain why a particular right action is right without appealing to moral principles? Do they even need to do so? Why should we think that there is an explanation for such a thing? And how are we to go about figuring out what is right or wrong if there are no general moral principles that say, about all, or at least wide classes, of actions, that they are right or wrong (as the case may be)?
Episode 12 “Somewhere Else” The crew successfully reaches the judge, and the judge agrees to give them tests, which will determine whether they belong in the good place or the bad place. Everyone except Eleanor fails, and so they must all get sent to the bad place. Eleanor doesn’t think that’s fair, and in response, the judge says,
“I still believe that the only reason you improved in Michael’s fake neighborhood is because you thought there was a reward at the end of the rainbow. You’re supposed to do good things because you’re good, not because you’re seeking moral desert.”
What do you think of the judge’s claims? Concerning the first, do you think that the four protagonists improved only because they thought they were going to get rewarded if they did? In Eleanor’s case, it seems her (at least initial) motivation was to improve to the degree that, if she had been that good on earth, she would have deserved to have been sent to the good place. This doesn’t really seem like merely seeking moral desert to me since it’s all after the fact.
What about the second sentence? First of all, is there a difference between the two ways ‘because’ is being used in the last sentence? The first sounds like an external explanation, i.e., an explanation someone else might give when explaining the person’s behavior without appealing to their internal mental states. The latter, on the other hand, sounds like an internal explanation, i.e., one that that person might represent to herself in order to motivate herself to do a good thing. But perhaps we can fix up the judge’s claim, e.g.
“You’re supposed to do good things because they’re good, not because you’re seeking moral desert.”
“You’re supposed to do good things because they’re the right thing to do, not because you’re seeking moral desert.”
What do you make of these claims? Can someone be moral doing the right thing only because they’re seeking a reward of some kind? Can they even successfully do a good thing when they do something only because they’re seeking a reward of some kind? The first question concerns the nature of the person’s character, while the second concerns the nature of their act.
Please join us this Monday, Nov. 1, from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss episodes 6 “Janet and Michael” and 8 “Leap to Faith” of the Good Place, Season 2. We’ll meet in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall.
Episode 6 “Janet and Michael” Episode 6 gives us Janet’s origin story and a big chunk of background on her and Michael’s relationship. Most of the episode is devoted to Janet and Michael trying to figure out why Janet has been glitching (producing errant earthquakes and six-foot hoagies, etc.) Ultimately, she and Michael figure out that her malfunctions are stemming from her past relationship with Jason Mendoza, who she loved and who she now has to try to help in his new relationship with Tahani. Her expressions of happiness for Jason and Tahani’s relationship are fundamentally incompatible with her actual feelings, and this underlying dishonesty seems to be resulting in the glitches. Fortunately, Janet has a solution! All Michael needs to do is kill her! Well, actually he needs to initiate her self-destruct sequence, which will reduce her to a lifeless marble that can then be launched into space. He can then get a new Janet—indistinguishable from this one—and go on with his project. However, Michael is reticent. As he ultimately explains, it’s because he considers Janet his friend.
Michael : The reason is friends! You’re my friend, Janet. That’s why I can’t kill you. We have been through so much together. I mean, yeah, sure, for you, each time I rebooted you, you met me all over again, but for me, our — our relationship has become important. You’re my oldest, my truest, my most loyal friend. I can’t just get rid of you and replace you with some other Janet I don’t even know.
This is a good opportunity to consider the non-fungibility of friends. We may explain our friendship with someone by pointing to their individual traits and qualities. However, we don’t seem to think an individual friend is simply replaceable by some other person who has those same traits and qualities. (In the case of Janet, any replacement would be literally type-identical with her pre-rebooted self!) Why does it seem that our friends are non-fungible? Why does it seem we can’t simply replace an old friend with a new friend, who has the same traits as the old friend, with whom we like to do the same things we liked to do with the old friend? Notice: Eleanor seems to express a markedly different perspective on romantic love, since she suggests Janet find a new guy to get over Jason Mendoza. And, indeed, Janet seems to take this advice, creating her new boyfriend, Derek Hostetler, ex-nihilo.
Episode 8 “Leap to Faith” In Episode 8, Michael’s plan to psychologically torture people seems to be paying off. Shaun points out that “your humans are experiencing emotional torture the same level of physical torture caused by our squiggliest eyeball corkscrews.” In light of these results, he wants to expand Michael’s neighborhoods and put Michael in charge of the whole project. Michael then explains to Eleanor and the gang, in Shaun’s presence, that they will soon be studied and tortured by demons. Uncertain about how to respond to this news, the gang considers different possibilities. But, Eleanor suggests that they take a leap of faith and actually trust that Michael won’t cause them any harm.
Eleanor: When Michael was mocking us about trying to become better people, whose name did he use, huh? Kierkegaard. I think he was sending us a message to take a leap of faith, ’cause that was Kierkegaard’s thing, right?
Chidi: Yes, although it’s probably better translated as a leap into faith.
Eleanor: It’s so hard to be your friend.
Chidi: Yep, sorry.
Eleanor: Michael was telling us to trust him. I had a long talk with him the other night about the whole Derek incident. Dude was shook, talking about ethics and all spiraling about human stuff. I think he’s on our side.
Tahani: Or maybe he’s a supernatural demon designed to torture people, who just got offered his dream job, and has flipped on us like a ten-stone griddle chip. It’s a large pancake. Come on, people, you can get these from context.
Eleanor: Look, maybe Michael jumped back to the dark side, but I don’t think so. I think he’s gonna help us escape. I know it sounds crazy, but if it weren’t crazy, they wouldn’t call it a leap of faith. They would call it a… sit of doubting.
We make a leap to faith when we are forced to take a certain action—perhaps to trust in someone else—without having a rational justification to do so. Let’s spend some time considering this idea and thinking about instances in which we are forced to act without having complete and compelling reasons to do so.
Our Strange Philosophy Thing discussion will focus on Chidi’s ethics class, particularly Michael’s new involvement in it in episodes S2.E04, S2.E05 and S2.E06.
Some issues to think about as you watch:
Why is Chidi teaching about false ethical theories? (False, given what we know about the ethical truths in the show.)
Is there a difference between moral knowledge and moral understanding?
If so, how is this difference important?
What are good (and bad) methods for gaining moral knowledge and/or understanding? (The show contrasts, for instance, “theoretical/abstract” and “concrete” approaches.)
Does this tell us anything about the subject matter of ethics?
Does “human ethics” refer to something different than “ethics”?
Michael: I know for a fact that if you steal a loaf of bread, it’s negative 17 points. 20 if it’s a baguette because that makes you more French.
Chidi: Sure, but philosophy is about questioning things that you take for granted, and I just don’t think that you’re doing that.
Chidi: I just don’t feel like you’re engaging with the material. Like with the trolley problem.
Michael: that was just tricky that’s all. Why don’t you just tell me the right answer?
Chidi: that’s what’s so great about the trolley problem, that there is no right answer. …
Chidi: Michael, trust me. When it comes to human ethics, I just know more than you. I’ve been studying it my whole life
Michael: It’s just that it’s so theoretical, you know. I mean, maybe there’s a more concrete approach. Here, let’s try this.
Chidi: Oh god! Michael what did you do?
Michael: I made the trolley problem real, so we can see how the ethics would actually play out. There’re five workers on this track and one person over there. Here are the levers to switch the tracks. Make a choice.
Chidi: the thing is… I mean … ethically speaking…
Eleanor: THERE’S NO TIME! MAKE A DECISION!
Chidi: well, it’s tricky! If you subscribe to a purely utilitarian point of view….
[smash & gore]
Eleanor: Look, see buddy, none of this was real.
Michael: well, they’re fake people, but their pain is real. There have to be stakes, or it’s just another thought experiment.