Thursday, August 5

What The “Fork” Is “The Good Place” About?

Every so often, a TV series proves to be a “sleeper,” not only in terms of its unexpected popularity, but also in terms of its ability to conceal profound philosophical, even theological, principles, under an unprepossessing but deceptive superficiality. Such a series is, and has been for the last four years, The Good Place. My wife and I started watching The Good Place in season one, and I initially was put off by its apparent – but, as it turned out, its only apparent – cotton-candy-lighthearted take on the afterlife and the various accompanying ethical and metaphysical problems. The Good Place is now in its final season, the writers and producers having taken to heart Aristotle’s common-sense rule that any narrative must have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. Between the first season and now, I have become a convert. In fact, The Good Place could serve as a model – which I am sure no religious group will follow, at least, no monotheistic religious group – of the way religious / theological beliefs should be taught and of how lightly, feather-on-the-back-of-one’s-hand tentatively they should be held.  For it turns out that The Good Place has mastered the art of playing with the Unknowable, of positively cavorting and even having fun with Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”. Churches, temples, and mosques should take note and follow suit – though probably none will.

In case you have never seen it, The Good Place follows the peregrinations of four people who have just died:  Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Tahani al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto).  Riding herd on this obstreperous and usually clueless group are:  Senior Architect Michael (Ted Danson) and a kind of personified Siri / Alexa Janet (D'Arcy Carden). The group initially wakes up, each after their respective death experiences, in what they believe is The Good Place. They are astonished at their good fortune in the afterlife, because each, during their earthly existence, were distinguished by having lived according to a consistent pattern of moral obtuseness:  no violent crime, but usually just petty mean-ness and obliviousness to the feelings and needs of others. Eleanor was a classic high-school “mean” girl. Tahani was the scion of an upper-class British-Pakistani family, Oxford educated, and more concerned with her wardrobe and her nail-polish color than with the plight of the naked millions populating the planet. Chidi was a professor of ethics at a university, and a classic instance of Nietzsche’s “Alexandrian man,” whose very encyclopedic knowledge of theoretical ethics paralyzed him into indecisiveness in situations where practical ethical behavior was imperative. (In fact, Chidi died when, while walking down the sidewalk, he hesitated to take immediate and decisive action to move from underneath a window-unit air conditioner when it fell on his head from the upper floor of an apartment building!) Jason was basically a good kid, whose most serious offense was selling fake drugs to other kids, and who died of suffocation when he accidentally trapped himself inside a vault he and his friends were trying to rob. Such are the backgrounds each brings to the Afterlife.

Kristen Bell

Eventually, however – granted, I am glossing over a lot here, much of which I still do not understand myself – the group realizes that they are not in The Good Place, after all, that they are, in fact, in The Bad Place, despite the repeated assurances by Architect Michael (Ted Danson) to the contrary. (As it turns out, Michael himself had been deceived by his Bad Place counterpart, the Evil Architect Shawn. Please do us both a favor and do not ask for details.) This whole issue is adjudicated in the celestial Court of a great cosmic Judge, who would make Justice Brett Kavanaugh look like John Marshall or Learned Hand by comparison. As the third, penultimate season of The Good Place ends, a decision is taken to re-boot the whole shebang, erase all memories of the Clueless Ones’ prior experiences in The-Good-Place-That-Really-Was-The-Bad-Place, send them to the real Good Place, and allow them to undertake wholesale moral reformation that will – so we hope -- render them worthy of residence in the latter. By now, if you are not confused, it is because you have not been paying attention.  Trust me: you just have to surf on the confusion.

Ted Danson

This is where the fun really begins, and where it connects up with the fun – often not recognized as such – in prior seasons of The Good Place. (I say “not recognized” mostly because I was so anaesthetized by the apparent superficiality of prior seasons that I was lulled into not paying serious attention myself. I am now engaged in a retrospective review of those previous seasons, and the results are surprising ... see below.) At the beginning of the final season, it dawned on me that the following are a few of the issues that are being raised by The Good Place. Be it noted:  none of these issues is addressed by conventional religious institutions or codes of belief in this life. Apparently, if you are dying to find out how these issues are resolved, you have to do just that:  die. At least, so The Good Place seems to argue.

o The whole issue of God

God is conspicuously absent in The Good Place, both the Place itself and the TV series. I seem to recall passing reference being made – only once – to a kind of Great Cosmic Committee of Ueber- or / Super-Architects Who set up the entire machinery of the Cosmos and got the whole show running in the first place. (If that is true, the whole Universe is the result of a committee decision, a thesis that seems increasingly defensible today.) But that may be a false memory, and, in any case, even if my memory is not accurate, there has been no reference to any Deity thereafter.  Rather, the narrative arc seems to center on competitions between the various Architects of The Good Place – basically, Architect Michael’s peers in The Good Place – and perennial conflicts between the Senior Architects of The Good Place and their evil counterparts, e.g., Shawn, Michael’s nemesis, in The Bad Place. This sets up a kind of neo-Zoroastrian conflict between Good and Evil that, like its classical, this-world Zoroastrian counterpart, is eternally irresolvable:  neither side ever wins, or even can win.

Zoroastrian symbol for Ahura-Mazda

o The issue of authority, i.e., the epistemology of moral and metaphysical – and, by implication, religious – discourse

The authority issue was originally raised by the Protestant Reformation and its explicit rejection of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.  The resulting vacuum of authority was filled by a proliferation of religious doctrines and denominations, like kudzu taking over a neglected suburban garden, that shows no signs of abating – yet with no way of distinguishing truth from falsehood. I have written about this vacuum extensively here, here, and here. What we are left with – I refer to this in the third link above – is Jacques Derrida’s la jouissance de la signification libre:  “the joy of the free play of signification”. Protestants, especially conservative Protestants, and most especially of all, conservative Protestants in the Reformed tradition, may fulminate all they like about “moral relativism” and perverse interpretations of the biblical text, especially vis a vis cultural issues like LGBTQIA+ equality and same-sex marriage. But they have only themselves to blame – assuming these developments are bad – because, when the Reformation rejected any and all standards of distinguishing truth from falsehood – the purpose of the Magisterium, slander it however you will – they left the gates of the City open to just the “relativism” they profess to execrate, and the spirit of post-modernist nihilism that followed in its wake. 

Jacques Derrida

All the above sounds quite ponderously academic. That is my fault. My professional training in textual hermeneutics – especially biblical hermeneutics – predisposes me to approach the subject in that spirit. I have to work my ass off at playing. And even then, it usually comes across as work. The genius – that really is the right word – of The Good Place is that The Good Place refuses to fall into the trap that the typical “Alexandrian man” – e.g., like me – is almost guaranteed to fall into:  working at playing. To the contrary, The Good Place takes Derrida at his word and, emphasizing the word "joy" in the Derridean "joy of the free play of signification," leverages the absence of moral and epistemological criteria, to exuberantly celebrate “the free play of signification”.  What takes work for me – light-heartedly playing with moral and religious issues – comes to Michael’s clueless (but are they really all that clueless?) charges as a second-nature habit of mind. 

Manny Jacinto

I cannot but wonder how much time, toil, sweat, and blood would have been saved in the Europe of the 1500s and 1600s if -- per impossibile -- the "Reformers" had seen the self-inflicted absence of epistemological and hermeneutic criteria as an opportunity to enjoy their own freedom instead of as an excuse to indulge in Continent-wide internecine blood-letting. The latter, sanguinary possibility seems never to have occurred to Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason. Least of all to Michael and Janet. Or, indeed, to anyone in The Good Place. In that latter sense, they are anything but clueless. One cannot imagine religious wars in The Good Place.

o The valorization of Pelagian – or maybe neo- or quasi- or para-Pelagian – morality

Copper engraving of Pelagius' likeness ... face removed by artist, since Pelagius was a heretic

But just because everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden. Otherwise, morality is like playing tennis without a net or calling every hit in baseball a home run or every tossed basketball a 3-pointer. Remember that the ultimate goal, the summum bonum, aimed at by the “reboot” and the starting of The Good Place game from scratch is to enable Michael’s four bumbling but charming charges to engage in moral reformation sufficient to render them worthy of permanent residence in The Good Place. At the moment, they are only “squatters” whose permanent residence in The Good Place is conditional upon the achievement of such reformation.  Right now, they are only renting. Will they be allowed to buy? If not, they will be relegated to Section 8 housing, i.e., The Bad Place.

St. Augustine

Believe it or not, this issue in The Good Place takes us right back to the controversy between two Doctors of the Church:  St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Augustine believed that, apart from Divine Grace freely and gratuitously vouchsafed to us by God, there is no good in human beings, and that consequently, no amount of effort at reformation on our part can, by our own main strength and awkwardness, suffice to elevate us spiritually and morally to a degree to make us worthy of Heaven. (Among fundamentalist Christians, this is known as the doctrine of “total depravity”. Says Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, human beings are “dung covered with snow.”) This elevating je ne sais quoi is … Grace. (A moment’s thought will confirm that “classical” Augustinianism logically implies predestination a la John Calvin:  if it is only God’s Hands on the Steering Wheel, and if we are simply along for the ride and contribute nothing to the Trip, then we will go wherever God directs, our individual choices notwithstanding. Calvin merely followed the implications of Augustinian theology to their logical conclusion.) Aquinas believed in Grace, also, of course, but he also believed that we can cultivate certain patterns of conduct – habitus in Latin, hence the English word “habit” – that, while not sufficient for salvation in and of themselves, nevertheless make us, as it were, “vulnerable” or receptive or "malleable" to the influence of Grace.

St. Thomas Aquinas

But Augustine’s most intense animosity was directed against his contemporary Pelagius. I certainly have neither time nor space to even synopsize Pelagius’ teachings. Suffice to say that Pelagius went a step or two even farther than Aquinas and asserted that, while sin is real, it is, basically, just a really, really, really bad  habit – to historical theologians, this will be an oversimplification so severe as to make their toenails ache – a habit that could be, with great effort and discipline, overcome. The intent of Divine Grace is to assist this process, much as power steering assists one in guiding a car, so that, with the help of such Grace, we humans can, indeed, elevate ourselves to a spiritual and moral state where we can merit Heaven. God helps us, but does not do the Job for us. This task is brutally hard to accomplish, as you might imagine. But it is possible.  Pelagius would have felt quite at home in The Good Place. In fact, I can imagine him kicking back with a large cup of frozen yogurt, preening himself on his foresight, and bragging, in the language of The Good Place, “I ‘forking’ told y’all that’s the way it is!”

Jameela Jamil

In fact, when theological push comes to philosophical shove, what we see in this aspect of The Good Place is a contemporary reenactment of the perennial question that plagued both Martin Luther and St. Augustine: how do I know -- not think, not believe, but "forking" know -- that I am good enough for Heaven? Again, there are no (longer) any epistemological criteria to which to appeal in answering this question. Long story short, both Luther and Augustine cited St. Paul's texts about Grace in, e.g., the Book of Romans. But that, of course, presupposes an authoritative interpretation of those texts about Grace, which -- one more time -- the Reformation rejected. In that case, absent interpretive criteria, we are back to the Derridean paradigm of "the free play of signification". That, in turn, begs the question: given those interpretive disagreements, do you respond by slaughtering one another at sword-point ... or do you share the joy? The Good Place recommends the latter.

Finally, anyone who is acquainted with the thought of the great Sophist Protagoras of Abdera will hear echoes in the ethics that germinated in The Good Place. For it turns out that the basis of the ethic that eventually emerges in The Good Place is a variation on the theme of Protagoras:  Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not – usually just paraphrased as “Man is the measure of all things”. The most basic tenet of Good Place morality is “First, do no harm, and, whenever you can, do good … Here endeth the lesson”. The flourishing of the human community – these are my words, not those of The Good Place – is the highest priority. This line of argument is quite familiar to me. I have even written about it here and here in my advocacy of what I call “anthropic ethics”, where I argue that merely engaging in ethical discourse / debate involves the tacit acceptance of certain substantive ethical principles, for if those principles are denied, no discourse / debate is possible.

See what I mean about The Good Place’s ostensible superficiality and bubble-gum philosophy being deceptively juvenile? When you begin to dig down into the layers beneath the apparent cotton candy, you discover depths you would otherwise not have suspected.

I think that is pretty “forking” wonderful!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"The Good Place" cast group picture … Photographer: Flora Carr … "Radio Times"
St. Thomas Aquinas … Petworth House … Public domain
St. Augustine … attiributed to Gerard Seghers, National Trust Collection … Public domain
Pelagius -- Copper engraving … artist unknown … Creative Commons Attribution – Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 3.0
Jacques Derrida … Arturo Espinosa … CC by 2.0
Kristen Bell … Tom Bell, own work … Public domain
Ted Danson … Rob Dicaterino … Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Zoroastrian symbol (Ahura Mazda) … PublicDomainVectors … Public domain

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