Note: This article contains spoilers for all seasons of “The Good Place.”
“The Good Place” explored a lot of questions over its four-year run: Did Aristotle actually know what he was talking about? Is drinking almond milk a sin? Is it noble to fix a broken tricycle for a child who is indifferent to tricycles? And just what are the ethical consequences of buying a tomato?
But the biggest — and most controversial — question came during the show’s finale last month: Is finitude necessary for life to have meaning?
The answer to that question is a solid no for Pamela Hieronymi, who was a philosophy adviser for the NBC sitcom.
“There’s an ongoing philosophical debate about immortality and whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing,” the UCLA professor told the Deseret News. “The view that was taken by the show, namely that an infinite trouble-free life would be meaningless … I disagree with that.”
But Hieronymi made her mark on the show in other ways. Her influence began early on, as showrunner Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) was developing the idea for “The Good Place” — a story NBC gave him absolute freedom to create.
As he was reading Aristotle and toying with different conceptions of the afterlife, Schur cold-emailed the UCLA professor and asked if she’d be interested in talking about the philosophy behind his show.
Hieronymi isn’t much of a TV watcher, but she rarely turns down an opportunity to chat about ethics. So she said yes. A few days before her meeting with Schur, she Googled his name.
“Oh wow, this is a big deal TV guy,” she said.
A controversial ending
The NBC sitcom about four people navigating the afterlife put an entertaining twist on philosophy. It also came with a lot of plot twists.
Twist No. 1: At the end of season 1 we learn that Michael, the charming architect played by a bow tie-wearing Ted Danson, is actually a demon. The self-absorbed Eleanor (Kristen Bell), indecisive ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), celebrity name-dropping Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and clueless Jason (Manny Jacinto) were in the Bad Place all along, selected by Michael to torture each other for eternity.
Twist No. 2: The four humans designed to torture each other had actually helped each other become better people. The rest of “The Good Place” follows the unlikely friends as they try to make it to the real Good Place.
Twist No. 3: The Good Place isn’t that good.
In the show’s penultimate episode, the group reaches its destination and quickly discovers that everyone in the Good Place is bored. Turns out having every desire instantly fulfilled is only exciting for so long. After some thought, Eleanor proposes an afterlife solution that the longtime Good Place residents approve with ecstatic cheers: the chance to leave.
Good Place residents can stay as long as they like, waiting for friends and family on Earth to join them. But when they’re ready, they can walk through a doorway that will presumably end their existence. Just having that option seems to immediately lift the residents’ spirits.
“I don’t understand why you would think that removing the limit of life would suddenly deprive it of meaning.” — Pamela Hieronymi
Hieronymi said that storyline reflects the view of the show’s other philosophy consultant, Clemson professor Todd May, who writes in his book “Death” that “the fact that we die is what makes what we do and who we do it with matter.”
Both Hieronymi and May have cameos in the show’s finale. May’s brief moment in the spotlight shows him discussing a line from “Death” with Chidi.
Hieronymi, who stands firmly on the other side of the debate, said she considers May to be an “immortality curmudgeon.”
“I don’t understand why you would think that removing the limit of life would suddenly deprive it of meaning,” she said.
The final episode of “The Good Place,” which aired Jan. 30, shows Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason living through thousands of Jeremy Bearimys. They each live out their personal versions of paradise and resolve the issues they had on Earth. And eventually, they each peacefully come to the decision that their time in the Good Place is up.
But it’s Tahani’s choice that Hieronymi said she respects the most. Instead of walking through the door, the socialite who spent her mortal life bragging about her faux philanthropy actually chooses to become a philanthropist, designing afterlife tests that will help more people make it to the Good Place.
“In my opinion, Tahani got the right answer,” Hieronymi said. “I think that’s the way I would’ve ended the show, is let it be this ongoing process of becoming better yourself and then facing the challenges of also helping other people as they come in.”
Hieronymi has one line in “The Good Place” finale: “Bring ponchos. It gets messy.”
It’s the warning she gives when Chidi — who even in the Good Place continues to teach people ethics — tells his class they’ll be studying the trolley problem the following week.
It’s the perfect line for the professor, who had a lot to do with “The Trolley Problem” episode from the show’s second season — in fact, at the start of that episode, Hieronymi’s name is written on the blackboard Chidi uses for his lessons.
To prepare for the episode, Schur invited Hieronymi to the writers’ room to break down the moral dilemma the trolley problem poses. Yes, most people would agree that it’s best to pull the runaway trolley’s lever and switch tracks in order to kill only one person and save five, Hieronymi told the writers.
But what about a scenario where a transplant surgeon has five ailing patients each in need of a different organ? Do you sacrifice one healthy patient to save the other five?
“That’s the Trolley problem,” Hieronymi said. “Why is it that we’re getting one answer in one case and the opposite answer in the other case? And that’s used to sort of reveal that in the first case you’re focused on outcomes — like a consequentialist or utilitarian — and in the second case you tend to focus on rights and respect — what gets called a deontologist.”
Those contradictions literally come to life in “The Good Place.” And the professor is right — it gets really messy.
Throughout “The Trolley Problem” episode, Michael creates and recreates the experiment for Chidi and Eleanor — and it turns out the problem is a lot more complex than it is on paper.
“It’s just a simulation; I would never make you kill real people,” Michael calmly tells a traumatized Chidi, whose indecisiveness has caused him to run the trolley over five people.
“Oh well that’s reassuring because some of the parts of the fake people flew into my mouth!” Chidi responds.
“The Trolley Problem,” in all of its hilarious messiness, is one of the show’s most popular episodes. But it isn’t Hieronymi’s only mark on the show.
The ‘spine’ of ‘The Good Place’
Hieronymi almost stood Schur up for their first meeting back in the fall of 2015. A self-described “absent-minded professor,” she got lost in her musings and lost track of time. A phone call from Schur brought her out of that world, and she rushed down the street to the coffee shop to meet him — 45 minutes late.
Over coffee, the pair talked for more than three hours, covering everything from utilitarianism to contractualism. Hieronymi liked the overall idea of “The Good Place,” but there were some aspects she disagreed with — like Schur’s idea of a point system that ascribes value to good and bad deeds determining who ends up in the Good Place (Example from the show: Hugging a sad friend gets you 4.98 points while stiffing a waitress costs you -6.83 points).
“It absolutely generates this problem about the motives for doing the things that get you points,” Hieronymi said. “You can’t aim at the points and earn them at the same time.”
So Hieronymi introduced Schur to T.M. Scanlon’s “What We Owe to Each Other,” a book about contractualism that Schur has since called the “spine” of his show (the book is both a conversation piece and a literal prop throughout the series).
The professor used the example of a driver cutting off another driver to explain why it’s important to consider the implication of an action and not just the good or bad result of that action.
“That person has maybe cost us 15 seconds in our attempt to exit the freeway. So the actual cost of that, the thing they actually brought about, wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “But they think they’re special. The disrespect that they have shown is all out of proportion with the actual cost they’ve incurred to us.
“The central wrongdoing is thinking you’re special, thinking that you get to make an exception for yourself,” Hieronymi continued. “That was actually the thing that Mike (Schur) was most interested in.”
And that became the heart — or spine — of the show. As the series goes on, the flaws and limitations of the point system are revealed, leading to the shocking discovery that no one has made it to the Good Place in 521 years. Contractualism reigns supreme as new afterlife tests give people the chance to help each other and redeem themselves.
That storyline has Hieronymi’s name written all over it, but the professor still takes issue with the skeptical view of immortality put forth by the ending — although she feels a little better about it when she thinks of it in the context of a TV show coming to an end.
“If a TV show keeps going on forever it becomes meaningless; that seems correct to me,” she said. “Bringing the show to the end, and bringing the show to the end when Mike Schur was ready to, and not due to external forces — that’s a really nice angle on it.”
Ending aside, though, Hieronymi values “The Good Place” for doing something few, if any, TV shows have done before: Finding an entertaining way to bring philosophy into the mainstream.
“It’s such a feel-good show. It’s hard not to enjoy watching it,” she said. ”The storyline is exploring philosophical questions rather than explaining philosophical theories, and that to me was the more interesting part.”