“The Trolley Conundrum” is a classic ethical dilemma that forces you to choose one of two options. The difference between the options is the number of people killed by a runaway trolley, which you control. If you do nothing, five people will be struck by the trolley and killed. If you pull the switch to divert the trolley, one person will be killed.
Which would you choose?
What if the one person is a stranger and the five are friends? What if the one person was your daughter? Or, a serial killer?
The variables cause our imaginations to strain under the weight of the consequences of our moral choices and what these choices say about ourselves.
[Interesting insight #1: The MIT Media Lab recognized that the Trolley Conundrum might be a real problem for self-driving cars. No time here to discuss Artificial Intelligence and ethics. Maybe later.]
Now, imagine “The Trolley Conundrum” debate as the storyline for an entire episode of a situation comedy.
Welcome to NBC’s The Good Place.
The Making of a (non)Divine Comedy
The Good Place, now in its third season, is the brain child of the creative Michael Schur, whose other comedies include Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The Good Place is one, if not the only, current show making viewers think about personal life choices, faith and the future.
The premise of The Good Place is derived from Schur’s study of religions. After perusing various theological studies and treatises on holy documents, he says, “I stopped doing research because I realized it’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation. The show isn’t taking a side, the people who are there are from every country and religion.”
With help from moral philosophers, Schur devised story lines that consistently return to finding ethical principles to help the characters live morally. He creates a believable and amusing heaven/hell afterlife and devises a mathematical karmic scheme to determine who ends where.
The math is simple. People earn their spot in the Good Place by doing more good than bad in their lives. Each action on earth is labeled with a certain number of positive or negative points. For example, singing to a child +.69 points; letting someone merge in traffic, +1.65 points per incident; hugging a sad friend: +4.98 points; donating blood, +17.5 points; never discussing veganism unprompted, +9,885.55 points; etc.
Negative points accumulate from: using “Facebook” as a verb: -5.55 points; not tipping a waitress, -6.83 points; telling a woman to smile, -53.83 points; rooting for the New York Yankees, -99.15 points; sexual harassment, -731.26 points, etc.
While many of these are played for a laugh, the underlying assumption that actions can be categorized as good/bad is important. But Schur takes a bold step that has not gone unnoticed. Getting into the Good Place is not merely the result of doing good things but being a good person. The difference is not subtle. The New York Times observed The Good Place “questions what difference, if any, there is between learning to look like a good person and actually becoming someone who is good when no one else is around.”
The series follows four people who have recently died and find themselves in the “Good Place;” a quaint town occupied by other good people.
The lead character, the mean-spirited, self-centered Eleanor (Kristen Bell), dies and finds herself in the “Good Place” by mistake. She surmises she can stay there if she fakes it while she tries to become a person who does good things. She enlists the aid of another Good Place resident, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), who had been a professor of moral philosophy before he died. Theories of ethics dominate many of the episodes as Chidi teaches Eleanor and the others about ethical theories to help them make good moral choices. Since the show is a comedy, the laughs can be philosophically clever (my favorite – Eleanor: “Who died and made Aristotle the king of ethics?” Chidi: “Plato.” Not everyone gets it, but those who do, love it).
The Good Place and Good Conversation
I won’t go into the unexpected plot movements along the way. Those of you who watch the show already know; and I won’t ruin it with spoilers for those who want to start watching. If you do, be prepared for sporadic adolescent language and sexual humor. That aside, The Good Place might be a good place to start conversations about God, morality and life after death.
Here are two broad observations from a worldview perspective you might find helpful.
- The Good Place synthesizes religious views of our culture. The afterlife Schur creates is a believable representation of what popular religion imagines. What he comes up with is not surprising, but it is helpful to envision a worldview slice from median America. Don’t expect any inferences from the Bible in the Good Place’s suburban paradise or the Bad Place’s finely furnished house of torture. While everything is played for a laugh, too much contemplation on what is really going on can be disturbing.
[Interesting insight #2: While there is no God in the Good Place (so far), Schur may have slipped in thought-provoking features such as the main characters’ names: Chidi (“God lives” in Nigerian Igbo); the demon Michael (“who is like God?”); Eleanor (“God is my light”), and Jason (“healer”).]
- The Good Place’s focus on morality and the afterlife raises the bar on ethical discussions. Most popular shows thinly explore personal responses to relationship or social issues. The Good Place provides a refreshing dive into the rationale behind the choices.
Humanity’s distinguished place in creation is reflected by our proclivity to argue about ethical beliefs and behaviors. Great thinkers, from Aristotle to Kant to C. S. Lewis, argued convincingly that our innate moral law points to the existence of God, the Moral Lawgiver. Lewis says, “You find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics), p. 29.
The real battle is not among the moral philosophies but among the worldviews at the root of each one. We may not live what we profess, but we will live what we believe.
[Interesting Insight #3: Can a broadcast comedy provide such depth of conversation?
Absolutely. One episode (season 3/episode 4) explores moral code differences by having each of the main characters adopt different moral approaches (virtue ethics, consequentialism, deontology, and nihilism) and experience the consequences of their choices. Chidi’s explanation of each approach and the real-life examples are the stuff of good philosophy teaching.
In fact, a college professor is utilizing the show as a framework for her introduction to philosophy course. “Every concept I would want to touch on in [the class] could be explored through episodes of The Good Place, and then traditional readings paired with it so easily,” she said. “It practically writes itself.”]
Just as Schur provides a good representation of what the average person believes about morality, religion, and the afterlife, his explanation of how they connect hits home, too. The moral road to heaven – a version of karma that almost all non-Christian religions embrace – seems logical and fair.
Solving the Trolley Conundrum
The Good Place is a comedic, muddled moral mess – and this is a good thing. It means the jumbled world of moral reasoning is front and center. Time and again the characters come up against barriers no matter how good their intentions and actions. The hopeful expectations of thinking and living morally dissolve into frequent confusion and despair – the typical result of moral discourse at the human level.
So, what is the resolution to the moral logjam? The answer is not any of the moral codes; the answer is a Person: Jesus Christ. He raises the question beyond mere morality to the sphere of relationship, love, and sacrifice.
The uniqueness of Christianity is that everyone falls short. No painstaking adherence to a moral philosophy qualifies one as a good person. No amount of good karma or a positive point-spread can earn a spot in the “Good Place.” But God’s love through the death of Christ offers a place for free when it is received in humility and faith.
So, what does this have to do with The Good Place? A fascinating scene (which every Christian will understand) occurs when the Bad Place Michael (Ted Danson) transforms from a demon who wanted to figure out how to kill all six people in the Trolley Problem to one who looks beyond the two options to something higher.
Michael had grown to care deeply for the four humans he was supposed to be torturing. In a moment of crisis, he must choose whether to save himself or Eleanor from the minions of the bad place. Just before he pushes her to safety, he says to her:
“See, the Trolley Problem forces you to choose between two versions of letting people die. And the actual solution is very simple: Sacrifice yourself.”
Self-sacrifice for others?!
Sacrificing yourself to save others is not a Christian sentiment; it is at the heart of Christianity.
Pretty good for The Good Place.