An Ethical Guideline From NBC’s The Good Place

THE GOOD PLACE -- "A Girl From Arizona" Episode 401/402 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, D'Arcy Carden as Janet -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)
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NBC’s The Good Place is back! One of the most popular shows of the year is airing again and for its last time. As season four marks the final season of The Good Place, we look back and wonder how it caught our attention and what made it memorable? One reason the show was memorable was how it showcased many different ethical theories, philosophy, and its application.

These theories have a large and lasting effect on Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, and Michael and trying to keep up with all of them can be confusing. In light of that, here is a quick guideline of ethical theories that have been previously covered in NBC’s The Good Place.

Aristotelian Ethics

In the first season of NBC’s The Good Place, Chidi teaches Eleanor the ethics proposed by Aristotle. Aristotle defines ethics as a means to achieve happiness. According to his book, Nicomachean Ethics states that:

“Every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason, the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Through this, he says that the aim of happiness is the goal of all human life. By being ethical to his standards then people will be able to live happily.

Chidi teaching ethical theories from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
The Good Place | NBC

Aristotle later defines how good ethics are made through habit and choice. Saying that the best ethical decision is the average between two categorical extremes he defines as ‘Excess’ and ‘Deficiency.’

For example, he says that the average of dangerous fearlessness (Excess) and absolute cowardice (Deficiency) is courage. This is because it takes courage to take unknown chances, but it also takes courage to refuse peer pressure. Aristotle considers this theory to be practical and says moral virtue is something one could get better at through practice. In NBC’s The Good Place, Chidi introduces this theory early on and it teaches Eleanor how to generally make a moral decision. It teaches her how to pick a reasonable ethical choice instead of picking one extremely unethical choice.  

Deontology

Deontology is the ethical theory that the morality of an action should be made based on a set of moral rules. NBC’s The Good Place focuses on Immanuel Kant’s version of Deontology since it is one of the most popular theories. In his book, “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,” he argues that the correct way to act morally is to act through good intention motivation.

Saying “not to produce volition as a means to some other, but rather to produce a will good in itself.” An example of this would be Chidi’s character since he is a Kantian (someone who strongly believes in Kant’s theories) at his core and he lives his life with as much genuine intention as possible and for him, that is the most ethical way to live.

Michael explaining how people are sent to either the good place or the bad place.
The Good Place | NBC

Kant further proposes the concept of a categorical imperative. Where he states one should “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” In other words, Kant asks the question:

‘If your actions mean that everyone else gets to do it, would you do it?’

It is through this idea that it would prevent people from choosing unethical decisions.

For example, if someone is deciding on whether to lie or not, the person would then ask themselves: ‘Would I want to live in a world where people lie to me?’ Their answer would then define their values and morals. When Eleanor learns this theory, she complains about how hard it is to put it into practice as it requires genuinely good intent, something that Eleanor naturally struggles with.   

Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham proposes this idea in his book, “An Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation.” He says:

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. They alone point out what we ought to do and determine what we shall do.”

In other words, Bentham says that people’s actions are mainly motivated by the pursuit of pleasure. That our choices are naturally based on how to obtain the most amount of pleasure because it brings happiness to our lives. According to this theory, he proposes that the most ethical choice is the one where it causes the most good and pleasure and causes the least pain and suffering.

From left to right: Chidi and Eleanor talking about Utilitarianism.
The Good Place | NBC

This idea can bring up many ethical dilemmas in real life as the main purpose of this theory is to choose the most positive outcome, like ruining one person’s life to better a hundred lives. We see throughout the show that Eleanor is taking a Utilitarian approach to handling her ethically challenging situations. This is likely because Utilitarianism is one of the easier ethical theories to practice in daily life. However, to Chidi, he doesn’t believe that it is sustainable in every situation because of how it doesn’t care for genuine intention and it only cares about the results. 

Moral Particularism

The British Philosopher, Jonathon Dancy, largely defends this theory. Dancy explains how there are no moral principles and the only factors that can determine morality is in individual circumstances. In other words, there are no fixed ethical rules in every situation that people encounter. People must choose the most moral decision based on the situation, without becoming narcissistic. An example would be promising a friend to go pick them up from school, but you suddenly got a call that your grandmother suddenly got sick.

Michael explaining a point system in the good place.
The Good Place | NBC

Based on other ethical theories like Deontology. It would tell you to go pick up your friend because breaking a promise is unethical. However, Moral Particularism would say that the most ethical choice is to take care of your sick grandmother. Since it is more generally ethical to help someone medically than upholding a promise.

This theory was briefly mentioned in NBC’s The Good Place. Despite that, it serves as an important challenge to other ethical theories. Other theories state that one must have a set of principles to be moral. This is especially challenging for Chidi who is a Kantian and struggles to pick the most ethical choice, hence is why he struggles with choice. This shows the audience that there is no right ethical theory to live by and that sometimes situations can challenge personal ethics.

An Existential Crisis In The Good Place

Existentialism is a philosophy where it questions human existence in a large and irrational universe. This theory will often lead to people thinking: ‘What is their purpose in life?’ or ‘If their lives have meaning after death?’ These deep thoughts often result in an existential crisis. The only way to counter this deep thought is to embrace existence as it is.

Someone in an existential crisis might begin to ignore their mortality and start acting as though everything is insignificant. These actions can be expressed in either positive or negative actions by the individual. The Good Place tackles both of the effects of this philosophy through Michael and Eleanor.

From left to right: Chidi, Jason, Eleanor, and Tahani. They are all staring at a burrito thinking it is the judge of the good place and bad place.
The Good Place | NBC

After Michael learns of his own mortality, he spirals into an existential crisis, which ultimately took shape into a midlife crisis. He soon accepted the mortality of his existence and moved on. However, for Eleanor when she finds out she is going to a bad place no matter what. She questioned ‘Why should I care about life and being good when my life is doomed?’

Considering how her situation is extremely bleak and hopeless. Eleanor did not give up on being good and continued to act on it, because she was being who she truly is. Through these realizations, Eleanor and Michael continue to learn how to be good and embrace their lives as they realize their lives are not insignificant. Every decision they still make has meaning and importance to the people around them. 

The Ethical Effects From The Good Place

By learning ethical theories and philosophy, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, and Michael learned how to be good people. However, their journey to become ethically good challenged a lot of natural habits and beliefs. They overcame them because deep down they all believed they could change and be genuinely good. The ability to change is one of the most important factors of being an ethical person. It allows someone to change when they are wrong or mislead.

Michael examining Janet's ear and a rainbow comes out of Janet's other ear.
The Good Place | NBC

Perhaps the theories do not cause change, but the determination to change. The final season of The Good Place aired on September 26th on NBC. Do you practice any ethical theories or philosophies that were on the list? Comment below and let us know how forkin’ ethical you are!

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