Goodness as Privilege: What The Good Place Reveals about Morality

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Good Place is one of the smartest shows on television. 

First of all, the writing is phenomenal. The characters are hilarious, the actors are unforgettable, and the sets are larger than life. But what really sets this show apart is its premise, as well as its ability to carry this premise far beyond what one would imagine. 

🚨SPOILERS AHEAD🚨

In the first episode, we meet Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a woman who has died and ended up in “The Good Place”, or a non-denominational Heaven, due to her good deeds in life. Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of that particular “Good Place”, introduces Eleanor to her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Only as soon as Michael’s gone, Eleanor reveals to Chidi that she’s horrible person and has clearly ended up in “The Good Place” by mistake. He promises to protect her and teach her ethics.

But at the end of the first season, we discover that Eleanor, along with Chidi and friends Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil), are not in “The Good Place” at all. They’re in “The Bad Place”, AKA Hell. This has all been an elaborate emotional torture scheme to punish them for their sins in life by putting them all under immense stress. 

Fast forward a few seasons, and the four sinners (along with demon Michael, who has now turned to their side, and “Good Place” helper Janet [D’Arcy Carden]) are trying to create a brand new, more fair afterlife. They’ve successfully proved that even bad humans can change if given the opportunity. Here is what they eventually decide: that people’s actions in life, or their point value, will only be a baseline for their “goodness”.  It’ll be the class, whereas the afterlife will be the test. You’ll go through some sort of trial to make you confront your moral shortcomings, and then at the end you get a recap where you discuss what you did right and wrong, and then you’re rebooted and do it all again – with only a vague memory of the lessons you learned last time. You will go through this again and again until eventually, you hopefully are good enough to gain entry to “The Good Place”. 

The system itself can be argued, and we’ll see how it’s implemented in the show. But there’s one part in particular I want to focus on, which appropriately comes from Chidi, the moral philosophy professor, as they begin to present their plan: 

“The problem with the afterlife is not only that it’s cruel but that it’s final. You get one shot on Earth, and regardless of the context of your life, you’re placed somewhere – usually, the Bad Place – forever, with no chance for redemption.”

Here’s where I want to focus: “regardless of the context of your life”. This is not the first time this has been mentioned: the whole show is about how the situations and reboots the 4 sinners have been through have made them better people. But here, Chidi explicitly brings forward this idea: that goodness, or the opportunity to do good, is a privilege. Just like being born with a certain gender or skin color or into a certain family can give you privilege. 

Let’s take two examples: Boy A is born into a loving family that raise him well and teach him how to be a good man. They bring him to volunteer at a young age, and regularly give to charity. When he’s older, he decides to start a charity that provides clean water for those in third world countries. He adopts a family of children and lives sustainably, because that’s all he’s ever known. He’s never really even given the opportunity to do bad: he’s never tempted, because he’s always had everything he needed, including love and a purpose. 

Then take Boy B, born into a dangerous community with parents that have very little money, or abusive parents. Maybe he’s in the foster system. Maybe his mother is sick, and to help her he has to sell drugs, but the more involved he gets with a gang, the worse he becomes. Maybe something horrible happens to him, and he loses faith in the world and in people. Maybe he hurts someone, and ends up in jail. Maybe he never does anything at all good; maybe his motivations are anything but pure. But it all comes from having too many opportunities where it is better or even the only option to do bad, and not enough opportunities to do good. Or perhaps the cost of doing good is too great, whereas for the first boy, the cost of doing good is nothing at all. 

It’s very clear that the first example is a good person and the second is a bad person. Yes, we still have free will: no matter the cost, it is almost always possible to make the right choice, or do the right thing. But how often that opportunity comes up, or how easy it is to take, differs vastly between different people. Simply put, it’s not fair. We don’t know if Boy A might’ve done something bad if given more opportunity to, or less opportunity to do good. We don’t know if Boy B might’ve done more good in the world if it had been easier. We don’t know which one was inherently better, because they didn’t get the same opportunities. Just like we don’t know if an ivy league graduate or a high school dropout would’ve been smarter if they’d both been given the same amount of money and the same opportunities to succeed. 

It’s not always so extreme. And of course there are examples of people who are given opportunities to do good with little risk, and still don’t. There are examples of people who do good at great cost to themselves.  Perhaps you believe in an inherent good and an inherent bad: that people are predisposed to one. And maybe that is true: maybe that is the “nature” part of the argument, and the opportunities they are given to do good or bad is the “nurture” part. But the point is, we will never know who the better person, A or B, might’ve been had they been given the same opportunities, the same “nurture”. And as in the fictional afterlife in “The Good Place”, their outcomes can be rather final based on what nurture they receive when they are young. Take jail, for instance – America has the highest incarceration rates in the world. It’s incredibly difficult for ex-convicts to get work. And measures such as solitary confinement make it clear that jails are not about rehabilitation, but rather punishment. 

“The Good Place” takes issue with how people are judged and punished in the fictional afterlife. But, as with most fiction, it corresponds with something in our real life society, where we are quick to write off people as good or bad. Like any privilege, people who benefit from their privilege tend to feel they deserve it. If someone is considered a good person, and benefits from it, they think it’s because they are a good person – not because they have had more opportunities to do good than most. We tend to see bad things people do and shake our heads, telling ourselves that we would never do that, without considering how we might act if we’d grown up in their shoes. And society tells people who have done bad things – like people in jail – that they are bad and deserve punishment, rather than assessing how many opportunities they have had to be good. Think of a trial – sure, motive is considered, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a murderer get a lighter sentence because the opportunity to do bad was more prevalent than the opportunity to do good. In fact, the lightest sentences seem to go to the rich (due to their lawyers), who arguably have the greatest opportunity to do good because of the resources they have to give, and have still done bad. Crimes are assessed and punishments allotted not just due to privilege from race or wealth, but goodness, too. Doing bad in the face of more opportunities to do good vs. doing bad in the face of more opportunities to do bad is not a defense I’ve heard of in trials. And like with most privilege, leveling the playing field has to do with systematic change – more money and change in education, in foster programs, into communities where violence runs rampant.

It’s hard to correct problems of privilege once they’ve already taken effect: imagine trying to rehabilitate a Charles Manson type. In “The Good Place”, they have the time and resources to try to do so – hopefully enough that nurture has less effect, and it’s down to your inherent good or badness. But we don’t have that luxury of time and resources on Earth. We can certainly implement better rehabilitation in jails (which would be much more effective in creating “good people” than punishment) – but the problem, as Chidi said, is that you get “one shot” on Earth, in whatever context you are randomly born into. For some people, there may not be enough time or resources to rehabilitate enough.

Without an afterlife, we don’t have the luxury of making life a lesson, and the afterlife the test: we have to make childhood the lesson, and adulthood the test. We need to equalize childhood, or the context of people’s lives, much more: and we need to stop seeing those who have done bad and so much below those of us who have not. We need to consider not just why people have done one bad thing in particular, but every instance of moral privilege or lack thereof in their lives that has brought them to this point. We are no better than those who have done badly, and we have no right to act morally superior, if we are simply a product of our superior environment. 

And I’m not just talking about those who have done small crimes or bad actions, such as our heroes in “The Good Place” – their system is for all people. And this is where the show won’t quite go into (openly) revolutionary territory: as a part of the humor of the show, many of the “sins” that land people in the Bad Place are things like unsolicited dick-picks, or flossing in an open office, or indecisiveness. For an audience, it’s not hard for us to agree that those people should be given a second shot at being a good person. But if you really look at what it’s saying, you’ll see that “The Good Place” is just reminding us that we are all terrible people in our own ways. It reminds us not to judge those who have not had the same amount of privilege as us. And if you look really closely, especially at people like Michael’s arcs, you’ll see that “The Good Place” is arguing that even evil demons are deserving of the opportunity to change, not just servers who say “you hated that!” at your licked-clean plate at a restaurant. If we take the show’s message to its logical endpoint, we’ll see it’s trying to show us that everyone is deserving of the opportunity to do good, no matter what they’ve done or have the capability to do. And that idea is in itself revolutionary.

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