The Good Place is a light-hearted fantasy series that began in late 2016 and ran for four seasons on Netflix. Major spoilers ensue.
Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason have died and find themselves in a simulated heaven, assuming its because they led good lives. They soon realize they don’t belong there and must hide their flaws or risk being sent to the bad place. At the start of season two they realize that what they thought was heaven was just a clever deception used to torture them, and the hope they can escape tortures them even further. This taps into Iain M. Bank’s work Surface Detail, where allowing one person to escape from hell every eon provides enough hope to keep the rest of the population tortured, otherwise torture becomes ineffective, or as the antagonist Sean says, “The first time you drive a screwdriver through someone’s eye it’s fun; the millionth time it’s just boring.”
We are ultimately tortured thus by the expectations we have for reality.
Even while tortured, they end up finding love, befriending the people they were meant to make miserable, and saving the universe. Each episode fulfills Milton’s cardinal maxim, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
After season one concludes, they eventually teach the head demon architect, Michael (played by Ted Danson) to be ethical. Being an immortal being (a 1000-foot fire squid), morality never meant anything to him until he realized he could still die. Knowledge of his own possible death led to empathy towards others’ deaths, but the series doesn’t explain well enough how this makes morality ensue.
Many of our moral laws would be meaningless if one lived eternally. Being murdered would be irrelevant. Having items stolen would hardly matter, since one would own so much already, and would have eternity to get it back. Infidelity probably wouldn’t be an issue since it’s tied to finances and reproduction, and couples might be expected to wander after the billionth year of fighting over where to get takeout from.
Morality needs death to be actualized.
A utilitarian point system judges souls, but the group notes it’s getting harder to be moral each year from a strict consequentialist perspective, as globalization has complicated even the most basic moral acts. Buying fair trade coffee versus Starbucks, buying a shirt made by enslaved Cambodian children at Gap, or even using an iPhone made by, once more, enslaved children in Congo – even the smallest actions have huge moral consequences today. So the group reforms the utilitarian point system that judges who gets into heaven, instead having them reincarnate through a series of tests. When they finally reach the real good place, everyone is bored, their minds turned to slush from over-indulgence. The solution is to reintroduce death into heaven to give people’s lives meaning again.
Death gives life meaning.
The best moral system is one that acknowledges the four parts to a moral action:
1) The intention
2) The effort put into the action
3) The action itself
4) How one feels about it afterwards
For instance, a hungover doctor commits malpractice but then starts attending A.A. meetings. In this case, the intention was to heal, the effort was compromised by indulgence, the action was immoral, but the doctor felt bad enough to change afterwards. That action should thus carry a different moral weight than the doctor who commits malpractice and says, “Well he only had another six months to live anyway.”
Our current justice system taps into this complex model, which is Buddhist in nature. We separate out first degree murder, second degree murder, committing a crime of passion, and manslaughter, for instance; even though each results in someone being killed, the intention is different.
Finally, heaven gets boring and the team decides to become one with the Tao, their waves crashing back into the ocean of existence, though all time was already occurring simultaneously. The series, by committing them to oblivion, misses the opportunity that Jason provides at the end for a different interpretation – that that state could have been reached in heaven through spending eternity in a deep meditative samadhi at the highest levels of jhana. The series also misses another opportunity, when Eleanor decides to help someone else reach heaven before committing herself to blissful oblivion – the idea of the bodhisattva, which would have been a perfect solution to many of the issues in the last season, from the Mahayana perspective. Implementing that system would have continued to provide meaning to those in the afterlife.
Wonderful, quirky show and highly recommended!