“And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. “— Luke 18:18–19
As most people, I am a fan of NBC’s The Good Place. At first I didn’t think it would be something I would like, but it grew on me over time, and in the end I was very impressed by this clever science fiction show — and by that definition, I mean a show that deals with philosophical themes. What I loved about The Good Place (besides the endearing characters) was the fact that it was basically one long argument, and to me some of the best science fiction is a discourse — a discourse disguised as a story. Isaac Asimov was supreme at writing this kind of science fiction, and Christopher Nolan is another one who does this genre well. The dilemmas that each of the character’s face are significant for their own stories, of course, but there are those broader themes about good and evil, ethical dilemmas, moral responsibility, and what truly makes a person “good” that the show was working towards. I think there are many layers we could unpack within its narrative, but there is one aspect I want us to zero in on and ponder.
I would say that The Good Place is the “Millennial Manifesto”, if we are going to use generational labels — but by that I mean, the prevailing thoughts and philosophy of our current generation and their culture as it stands in America today is perfectly encapsulated within this show. If you want to understand the great issues of our time, just watch The Good Place; namely, this idea of “Woke Culture”. Being “Woke” may take on different connotations throughout the complex discourse of the internet, but how I am meaning it right now is the understanding that knowledge + action = rightness. We say that someone is “woke” when we discover that a certain company is exploiting people or the land, and then we stop buying the products from that company. Or we say we are “woke” when we discover systemic racism or sexism, and condemn it and try to remove it from the system. It is this idea that our eyes are opened to the knowledge of some evil and we do whatever we can in our power to right those wrongs and injustices.
So, to begin, (and be warned, I am assuming you’ve watched the show!), we know that through a series of crazy events that Michael, the Bad Place architect now turned ally to our protagonists, is searching for a way to prove that there is something wrong with the Point System of judgement — which either places someone in The Good Place or The Bad Place. He believes that since his four humans improved after dying even though they were condemned to the Bad Place, then that must mean there is a fundamental flaw in the whole system entire. As he says to the Judge:
“If I am right, the system by which we judge humans, the very method we use to deem them good or bad, is so fundamentally flawed and unreasonable, that hundreds of millions of people have been wrongly condemned to an eternity of torture.”
So Michael sets on a quest to discover what this flaw is, and he first thinks he can find a foundational model for a “good person” in the person of Doug Forcett, the Afterlife “celebrity” who, once on a drug trip in his youth, got a complete and accurate revelation of the Afterlife and its inner workings. Yet upon meeting him, Michael discovers that Doug is living a miserable life of complete self-sacrifice, to the point of doing serious and terrible harm to himself. He does this so that he can earn enough points to get into The Good Place. Janet, the Good Place AI of all knowledge, observes that Doug is a “happiness pump”, which
“- is a criticism of utilitarianism. A happiness pump is someone who is obsessed with maximizing the overall good at his or her own expense.”
Yet later, Michael discovers that for all Doug’s maniacal obsession with “good deeds”, he is no closer to getting to the Good Place, and in fact, not a single person on earth has gotten into The Good Place in over 500 years. Thinking the Bad Place has been tampering with the system, Michael is determined to get to the bottom of this weighty problem.
Yet, pointedly, (pun not intended) Michael gets a moment of insight as he continues to run up dead ends on his quest. Tahani, who was trying to fix the relationship struggles of Janet and Jason and unintentionally making it worse as she did so, makes the observation:
“There are many unintended consequences to well-intended actions. It seems like a game you can’t win.”
Whereupon Michael realizes that there is not problem with the Point System, but that life itself has gotten more complicated. He observes that in 1534, a Douglas Wyregarr of Hawkhurst England gave his grandmother roses on her birthday. He picked them himself, walked to them over to her and earned 145 points. However, in 2009 Doug Erving of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother roses, but he ordered them on a cellphone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers themselves were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered thousand of miles away which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO who would send his female employees pictures of his genitals.
So, the Point System isn’t at fault, but it is the complex, unpredictable, and chaotic nature of our modern age that makes it almost impossible for humans to do good and to be good, as the unintended consequences have a ripple effect and spread out throughout the world.
This is where I want to stop and ask, but is this valid? Is Michael’s reasoning sound? Essentially, the idea, from Michael’s conclusions, is that the inherent goodness of a person is not judged by the individual intentions of his or her own heart or mind, but each person is morally responsible for every single unintended consequence that flows out of that initial action. Just let that sink in. As Michael says, you simply just can’t buy a bouquet of roses or a tomato in the marketplace because perhaps those roses or that tomato were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited workers, and is contributing to global warming. Buying a tomato becomes an act that condemns your very soul.
It is my contention that this is not a workable, reasonable, or logical conclusion. To eliminate the individual’s intentions from the equation, which this line of reasoning does, i.e in this case the person here is just neutrally buying a tomato and is hurting no one, wishing evil on no one, and is just living their life — makes us slaves to the social, cultural, and even physical systems all around us and puts upon us a burden that is as large as the universe, for the ripple effects spread out and reach far and wide. It is astronomical.
Now The Good Place goes on further with their argument, as Jason Mandoza does address this point somewhat in the story he tells about Big Noodle, the guy he used to yell at for being late to their dance rehearsals. It wasn’t until he went and actually lived with Big Noodle that he saw that he had to juggle 3 jobs and support 4 grandparents, and this made Jason more compassionate and understanding towards him. Jason’s point being that someone like Big Noodle doesn’t have the time or the energy to be able to understand or be concerned about the full ramifications of buying a tomato. As he says,
“The point is you can’t judge humans, because you don’t know what we go through.”
So, even The Good Place is acknowledging the huge burden it is to be obsessing over every life choice (as the Judge in this scenario also ends up discovering once she visits earth and experiences the hardships humans go through), and even in the character of Chidi — who, although he agonized over every decision he made and the ramifications of his actions, ended up in the Bad Place anyway. Yet, despite acknowledging this heavy burden, the show does not question the validity of this burden, and this, I believe, is a failure within the reasoning. Instead, the show’s response is for Michael to recreate the experiment he used on our four protagonists, but using four different people, to see if they will achieve the same results. As Eleanor and Chidi point out, Michael’s neighborhood removed all the complex variables of our day, no racism, no sexism, no rent to pay, etc — and this enabled them to focus on becoming better people. Yet this is no answer at all. I could go down a rabbit hole here and ask the question, if we removed all the variables of our messy world, would we actually become better people? However, I want to stay focused here on my main point, and I contend that Michael’s neighborhood (in both cases) is only a philosophical thought experiment, and does not truly reflect reality. As Michael ends up pointing out to Chidi, much to Chidi’s chagrin, in season 2 about The Trolley Problem, “I made the Trolley Problem real so we can see how the ethics play out.” My point being, Michael did not actually solve the problem that he first set out to answer because he did not answer it within the context of the realities of the world, but only side-stepped it because, well, they are fictional omnipotent supernatural beings, so yeah, they can do whatever they want. In reality, though, it is impossible to make a supremely perfect, variable free environment like the one in the show, so therefore, we are stuck with Michael’s dilemma even still.
The idea that underlies Michael’s dilemma, which is where I believe the flaw of logic lies, is what I mentioned previously about “woke” culture. Namely that knowledge + action = rightness, and conversely, lack of knowledge + inaction = wrongness or more accurately, knowledge + not acting on that knowledge = wrongness. It is this belief that it is knowledge and then us acting upon this knowledge which enables us to become better people and make a better world. To be sure, knowledge is a useful tool. If I commit an action, not knowing I was hurting someone, but then someone informs me of the harm, I can then change my behavior to make sure I don’t continue to do harm. This is practical, yet the world isn’t that simple because of the fallibility of humans. What if someone perceives harm when there actually is none? Or what if one perceives that they aren’t causing harm, but they actually are? What then? Or what about global warming or that corrupt CEO? How am I morally responsible for the entire world’s ecosystems? How am I morally responsible for a complete stranger’s corruption? This reasoning has neither basis in reality nor philosophical integrity. For by who or what authority are these matters being judged? It is just being assumed here that because we all exist within a system with interconnected variables, that in of itself has absolute authority to make a statement of my morality, but clearly this is arbitrary. These systems are massive, complex, often subjective, and often times out of our own personal control — how does our knowledge of them do anything in making us good people? It seems to me that we need a much more solid, objective, and foundational basis for judging our morality. Would you not agree?
To show you how this plays out — in the show Eleanor amusingly mentions to the Judge about “the sandwich that if you eat it means you hate gay people”. Let’s break this statement down. The assumption is that because the person you purchase a sandwich from hates gay people, therefore you are sanctioning his homophobia and are, yourself, hating gay people too. Conversely, then, it follows that if I refrain from purchasing this sandwich, I am condemning the sandwich seller’s homophobia and that’s another one for the social justice team. Yet how do these variables relate on an ontological level? How does the sandwich seller’s homophobia and our knowledge of it relate to our soul. For in reality what you are really doing is just purchasing a sandwich, nothing more.
The action makes no moral statement at all.
If the sandwich seller’s homophobia makes you uncomfortable, then don’t buy the sandwich. However, if you aren’t concerned about the seller’s beliefs, something you have absolutely no control over anyway, then buy the sandwich. Are you homophobic? No? Okay, then eat or don’t eat your sandwich with a happy conscience because you aren’t responsible for another person’s (or society’s) moral failings!
Yet because of this idea about knowledge and action based on this knowledge makes right, our culture today concludes, that given these unintended outcomes, it is now our moral obligation to reform all our systems that make it impossible for us to just simply eat a sandwich or buy a tomato. Yet I lay before Michael, the Judge, the creators of the series, our culture, and before you — the reader — that this definition of a person’s culpability and moral responsibility is in of itself fundamentally flawed, so that any further actions or conclusions that flow out of this idea are flawed and does nothing to work towards a better society and does nothing whatsoever in making you a morally good person.
I will give one more example where this philosophy plays out, which is in this COVID19 pandemic, where wearing a mask is equivalent to saving lives, and not wearing a mask is equivalent to hurting them. We are taking this virus, a biological and microscopic form of life — something that is completely outside our ability to control, something that none of us caused or created, and we do not know where it is or who will get it — and making it a moral issue, an issue that we use to judge one another every day. Just stop and think about this for a second, we have no control where this virus spreads, who gets it, or what it does. Knowledge, in these circumstances, does not equal might or authority. Just because we have knowledge of how a virus works and spreads, doesn’t mean we now have complete mastery over this virus. Our knowledge is simply a tool that we use to do our best, but even at our best we have no dominion over it. Someone choosing to not wear a mask is not that person harming you, because they have no control over this virus. Someone who chooses to wear a mask isn’t saving you, because they have no control over this virus. We can discuss the wisdom and propriety of wearing a mask, of course, but the wearing of a mask has no fundamental ethical ramifications for a person’s moral character because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the person’s ability to choose or has any regard for the intentions of their heart. All this knowledge does is inform us of how to best proceed in coping with this kind of situation. That is all. And, furthermore, if this logic is correct (as the ripple effects are incredibly far reaching), then we are all inadvertently responsible a million times over because of the countless other viruses and diseases that get spread through human contact and have killed or harmed people, and continue to do so, every year.
Who has the shoulders to bear this kind of responsibility? And why should we?
Remember, I am not making a judgment here about the wearing of masks, or advocating either side, what I am bringing to attention here is the underlying presuppositions of the ideological playing field in which we are operating — which stems from the philosophy as exhibited by Michael’s reasoning in The Good Place. So I say,
Buying a tomato in the marketplace does not make you morally responsible for the choices of those who grew and distributed that tomato.
Wearing a mask does not make you morally responsible for the spread of COVID19.
Woke culture, by its nature, makes us perceive ourselves as righteous because of our knowledge, as if knowing about the systems of the world and then our subsequent response to them, i.e. through flags, hashtags, causes, lifestyles, etc have the power to define us as good people. Yet, it is clear these things do not make us good firstly because, as I have just concluded, there is no foundational or authoritative basis to make that statement, and then secondly it is evident in how this makes us behave towards one another. It becomes apparent by how people treat other people who do not fly that flag, stand with that one cause, tweet/post under that most recent trending hashtag, live that one lifestyle, buy that one product — namely they build a toxic culture of shame, guilt, rage, and judgement. Our culture is at war with itself, between right and left, heteronormative and LGBTQ, black and white, man and woman — just pick a side, and there is certainly someone who will @ you with their opinion. If “wokeness” makes us righteous, if standing with various causes makes us good, then how come everyone is miserable? How come we are all filled with anger and angst? Why are you rage tweeting at 3 am at that one person who posted that one racist tweet? Why are you admonishing every single person for not wearing a mask? Why are you shaming that one person for not admitting to their white privilege? Is this how righteousness looks like? Is this the kind of behavior that we want to aspire to? Where we are all furiously scrolling through our social media feeds making sure everyone is following the “rules”, saying the “right” phrases, addressing all the “right” issues, making sure all the bigotry is called out, making sure we name all the racism, all the sexism, all the fascism— as if being a social crusader is our moral responsibility day in and day out? You are exhausted. You are burnt out. You are angry, grieved in your spirit, and our society is no better for it. There are still racists out there. There are still sexists out there. There are still people exploiting other people. There are still people who are homophobic and hold opinions and beliefs that disagree with your own. How are you making the world a better place again? And how are you a better person because of this kind of behavior exactly?
Going back to The Good Place, I would say that those of us in this woke culture have inevitably become like Doug Forcett, zealous and obsessive to earn “good points”, but instead of being “a happiness pump” I would call them “a happiness vacuum”, where instead of maximizing the overall good at our own expense, everyone is maximizing the overall good at everyone else’s expense — judging and condemning all our neighbors who we perceive as not maximizing the overall good of society.
“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” Luke 7:33–35
For the sake of clarification I am not saying we shouldn’t try to clean up the mess of our world or try to reform the systems around us, doing our best to live good lives, but what I am addressing is the attitude by which we go about this task; and the attitude of how we approach one another when accomplishing this task. I am addressing the concept of how we have perceived what it means to be a good person. So, if this is what our society believes goodness looks like, then I choose not to be good. There is nothing appealing about it, nothing that is joyful, freeing, peaceful, kind, or loving. I see no grace for making mistakes and I see no chance for forgiveness or reconciliation because one would have to be making recompense ad nauseam for all the ripple effects of our actions. It is a miserable life we of this woke generation lead. For this reason I choose to say with Christ- as I am a Christian: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Praise be to God, I am not good!
And there, my dear reader, is where true righteousness really begins.