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.
Please join us this Monday, Oct. 18th from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss the final episodes (10-13) of The Good Place, Season 1. We’ll meet in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall, unless it’s nice out, in which case we’ll likely be at the picnic tables in front of the building.
Episode 10 “Chidi’s Choice” Everyone is bonding: Jason and Janet get hitched, Real Eleanor loves Chidi, Fake Eleanor loves Chidi, Chidi loves Tahani (according to Tahani), Eleanor and Tahani have a weird forked-up friendship, maybe Jason is Eleanor’s soulmate? Chidi remains undecided. We’ll discuss the conditions for love (romantic and friendship), and whether failing to decide is a type of decision.
Episode 11 “What’s my Motivation” So far on The Good Place, getting to the Good Place is all about the consequences of one’s actions when on Earth. However, this episode highlights the importance of motivations and intentions as Eleanor tries to justify her spot in the Good Place. Jason and Janet’s love blossoms:
Michael : You two are married?
Jason Mendoza : Hells yeah, homie. We love each other.
Jason Mendoza : She makes the bass drop… in my heart.
Janet : And Jason is a person who was near me, and then he asked me to marry him, and there is nothing in my protocol that specifically barred that from happening. So I agreed.
Jason Mendoza : Love you too, babe.
Janet : Jason, you are all that I care about, possibly because I did not have the capacity to care about anything before you. I love you.
**Spoilers** Episode 12 “Mindy St. Claire” There’s a medium place, and a bad place…
Eleanor: It took me a while to figure it out, but just now as we were all fighting and yelling at each other and each one of us demanding we should go to the Bad Place, I thought to myself, “Man, this is torture.”
Episode 13 “Michael’s Gambit” In Sartre’s play No Exit one of the characters claims “Hell is other people.” We’ll discuss Michael’s gambit and the extent to which hell is other people (on The Good Place). In Sartre on Theatre Sartre explains:
. . .“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because. . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . . we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. . . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.
Please join us this Monday, Oct. 11th from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss episodes 6 and 7 of The Good Place, Season 1. We’ll meet in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall, unless it’s nice out, in which case we’ll likely be at the picnic tables in front of the building. We encourage you, too, to attend the celebrations for Indigenous Peoples’ Day that begin just afterward on the Library Plaza and Main Hall Green.
Focusing on episodes 6 and 7, we might wonder about some of the claims and assumptions that are made about promise-keeping (and -breaking) and lying. Is it the case that all promises should be kept? Is lying always wrong? Is it easy to live with telling lies, as Eleanor asserts, or is a self that lies somehow unsustainable, as Chidi suggests? Moreover, do friendships bring their own sets of expectations, that undermine some of these broader ethical obligations? In other words, is it reasonable to expect special treatment from our friends (treatment that isn’t necessarily moral)? Think here about Eleanor’s friendship with Michael and Chidi’s friendship with Henry. Regarding episode 7 more specifically, we could inquire whether anyone has actually murdered Janet, in the sense of: is Janet the type of entity that can be murdered? (We could expand out and wonder if it’s possible to wrong Janet at all—in any ways.) These are just possible starting points, and there are lots of directions to go in.
The Good Place series is available on Netflix. This season is also on reserve in the Mudd Library under “Philosophy Strange Thing”, abbreviation “PHILStrange”.
Welcome to my bud hole!Today’s topics: ethical consumerism, authenticity, and the self.
This week marks our second week back with the Strange Philosophy Thing! It also marks our first week back in the Strange Lounge in Main Hall. Join us this Monday, 9/27, in the Strange Lounge from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss episodes 2 through 4 of “The Good Place” (with particular emphasis on episodes 3 and 4). These episodes are available on Netflix, along with the rest of the series. They are also on reserve in the Mudd Library under “Philosophy Strange Thing”, abbreviation “PHILStrange”. This week, we will discuss the following issues, among others.
Is it worth avoiding certain products for ethical reasons given that it is reasonable to assume that one will end up supporting unethical production practices no matter how hard one tries to avoid doing so? Eleanor seems to think not in episode 3. How might we reply?
Episode 4 is all about knowing yourself and being yourself. Are those things important for living a good life?
Also, what is the self? Are there things (persons), over and above various sets of memories, sensory experiences, etc., that serve to unify them? Or are the various memories, experiences, etc., the person? If the latter, what unifies those memories, experiences, etc.–what makes these ones form a bundle and those ones form a different bundle? Is it just accidental that these ones over here where I’m sitting are “together”, while those ones over there where you’re sitting are “together”?
Feel free to bring questions/comments that have occurred to you about these episodes as well! Looking forward to seeing you! And don’t hesitate to spread the word if you have a friend who is a fan of either “The Good Place” or philosophy!
This year, we’re going to have a series of philosophical conversations around the NBC show “The Good Place”. September 20th we will get started with a discussion of episode one, “Everything is Fine,” and an introduction to the series. This episode is available on Netflix, along with the rest of the series, or on reserve in the Mudd Library under “Philosophy Strange Thing,” abbreviation “PHILStrange.”
Discussion questions: Is infinite reward (or punishment) for finite, Earthly actions just? Are soulmates real? Will Eleanor be able to earn her place in the good place posthumously? We will consider these and more questions tomorrow!
Please note that, for now, we will be meeting in Main Hall 105, rather than the Strange Lounge.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow! Consider bringing a friend who’s interested in philosophy!