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Of Sitcoms and Suffering

Picture this.


You open your eyes to a green wall, birdsong, and a reassuring message staring you in the face. A voice calls you in and informs you that you’ve achieved the single greatest thing in your life - and death - You have made it to The Good Place.


Eleanor Shellstrop, the main character of the critically acclaimed sitcom ‘The Good Place’ finds herself in this exact predicament, But the twist? She knows she doesn’t belong there.

The Good Place was a breath of fresh air for me; With its witty dialogue and complex situations, it managed to create the perfect atmosphere to learn a lot of profound theories without it feeling like a classroom. Philosophy, our topic of discussion today, laid much of the groundwork for the overall narrative and character arcs of the show.



Philosophy is defined as the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence. Regardless of which religion you subscribe to (or the absence of such a subscription), everyone follows a certain philosophy. Even claiming to not have a philosophy is a philosophy in itself.





Broadly speaking, there are 4 main branches of philosophy - Logic, Epistemology, Axiology and Metaphysics. Logic deals with organising and understanding our reasoning. Epistemology helps us discover how we came to know what we know today. Axiology studies basic principles and values, and Metaphysics delves into the true reality of the physical world and the universe.


Today, I would like to discuss a certain branch of Axiology: Ethics.


Ethical philosophy, or moral philosophy, is the discipline concerned with the system of moral and values. The concept of ethical philosophy has always intrigued me, but the catalyst for my renewed interest and research into it was watching The Good Place.



The show, as we’ve previously covered, follows Eleanor Shellstrop, who dies in the beginning and ends up in the Good Place. But she knows she doesn’t belong there. To quote Eleanor herself, she's 'an Arizona trashbag who lived and died pathetically.' So she seeks the aid of her ‘soulmate’, Chidi Anagonye, a professor of moral philosophy, to help her become a better person. Eleanor and Chidi aren’t the only beings on this philosophical journey. At first, the people they meet seem to be caricatures - complete archetypes of their characters. A silent monk, a superficial socialite, an all-knowing mentor.


But slowly, everything begins to rip at the seams; The show evolves from a distinctive sitcom with a unique take, to an absolutely heart-wrenching, hilarious, and thought-provoking story that makes you sit and stare at the ceiling for an hour after watching it. The kind of show that inspires a week-long existential crisis.


The enlightenment of the show comes mostly from Chidi, as he teaches Eleanor about different schools of thought, theories and philosophers, all in the hope of making her deserving of the Good Place.


Ethical philosophy, or moral philosophy, is the discipline concerned with the system of moral and values. The concept of ethical philosophy has always intrigued me, but the catalyst for my renewed interest and research into it was watching The Good Place.


Aiding them in their journey have been several moral philosophy concepts, that I’ll attempt to expand on:


Utilitarianism: This theory says that an action is morally right if it results in the happiness or well-being of people. It doesn’t matter what your reasoning was, the morality of the action relies purely on the consequences it had.



Deontology: This ethical theory presents that there are a set of moral rules by which any action can be deemed good or bad, and that there are no exceptions to this.


For example, Kant, who is known to have aligned with deontology, believed that actions follow universal moral laws that must never be violated.




Existentialism: Existentialism deals with the nature of the human condition itself. This philosophy stresses on the fact that people are entirely free and therefore responsible for their own decisions. With this responsibility, comes profound dread. What if there is no set meaning to life? Do you control your actions, (and hence their morality)? These are the questions posed in this branch of philosophy.


The schools of reasoning I’ve listed above are interesting to think about, but I find it easier to learn hands-on. Here’s where the ‘Trolley Problem’ comes in: a wonderful example of the more philosophical elements of ‘The Good Place’. The Trolley Problem is, by now, a well-known ethical thought experiment that explores sacrifice and the greater good. In the show, it was a unique practical application of a hypothetical situation.


Imagine that you are watching a trolley, hurtling out of control on a track towards five workers that cannot escape. Right next to you is a lever that could divert the trolley to a second track. But the catch? There is one worker on the other track too. What would you do?


Most people would pull the lever, and divert the train so that only one person would be killed. Let’s look at this choice through the lens of utilitarianism. Though nobody would choose to cause the death of another person, this action (of diverting the train that leads to the death of one person) would definitely be the lesser of two evils, in terms of consequences. Hence, with this theory, the action can be considered morally good.


This seems simple enough, doesn’t it?


But let’s up the stakes a little.


Imagine, instead, that you’re a doctor that witnesses five patients who are slowly dying of organ failure. Surprisingly, you find a healthy person who is a perfect organ match to all five dying people. If you harvest this person’s organs, you can save five people. But in the process, you are essentially killing a healthy individual.



Now if we look at this from a utilitarian perspective, they would claim that harvesting the organs of the healthy person is the morally good thing to do. In their perspective, nothing has changed. The death of one individual would be relatively better than the death of five, so the consequences would reflect a morally sound action.


So why is it that most of us would choose not to eliminate the healthy person?




This is where deontology comes into the picture. As we’ve previously covered, deontology dictates that a set of rules must be followed when you make certain decisions, no matter the circumstances.


Most of us have rules denouncing lying, stealing or murder, despite what the motivation behind it could be. So, in this situation, most people would choose to not kill the person because they would have to actively take action, as opposed to simply watching it take place.



To me, there is no logic in condemning an action no matter the circumstances. There will inevitably come a time in your life when you’ll be forced to do things you don’t want to do and it’s only logical to accept that at face value. That being said, judging an action solely based on the effect it has on the people around may not be the best idea either; It could result in a very stressful life where you sacrifice your well-being for the rest of the world.



Moving back to our trolley predicament, what is the solution to this dilemma? The perfect answer that presents a win-win situation for everyone involved?


Well, I hate to break it to you, but there isn’t one.


This problem, like several other thought experiments, has no definite answer. It was created to stimulate intellectual discourse and compare different schools of ethical philosophy. Nonetheless, I consider it an extremely thought-provoking quandary.



The Good Place offers no concrete answer to this question either. The thought experiment - which began as a futile attempt at educating and enlightening a thousand-year old demon - unsurprisingly backfired.


As soon as the harmless thought experiment turned into something bigger, more lifelike, more realistic, decisions changed entirely. The heat of the moment gets us to do some dangerous things, which reminds us that you can never really live life through hypotheticals.



The fact that this thought experiment has no ‘correct’ solution brings me some amount of peace, because human beings are messy and complex and there’s almost never an easy way out, But whether we’re trolley-drivers or master surgeons, we’re all in this together.


Thank you for reading! This is Sanjana Shankar, signing off.

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