‘The Good Place’ is a surprisingly good place to learn the basics of philosophy

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NBC’s hit comedy “The Good Place” will return for its fourth and final season Sept. 26. Also this fall, William Jewell College students return to classes such Responsible Self, Business Law and Ethics, and History of Western Philosophy.

These two facts seem to have nothing in common, but surprisingly, they share one important link – philosophy. Jewell’s course catalog for this school year includes the word ethics 41 times and philosophy 90 times. “The Good Place” also frequently references philosophy and ethics as it follows four humans in a supposed heavenly afterlife contemplating what it means to be a good person. 

One of the four main characters is Chidi Anagonye, portrayed by William Jackson Harper. Chidi was a professor of moral philosophy during his time on Earth, and upon arriving in The Good Place he learns that his soulmate is Eleanor Shellstrop, portrayed by Kristin Bell. While Chidi spent his life attempting to act morally to the point of painful indecision, Eleanor was self-centered and corrupt. The pilot – which debuted in 2016 – centers around Eleanor’s realization that she has been sent to The Good Place by mistake. 

Chidi vows to teach Eleanor ethics in an effort to make her someone deserving of The Good Place, a land of unlimited frozen yogurt and Janet, an anthropomorphized vessel of knowledge about the universe with the ability to grant any wish on command. Chidi teaches Eleanor about Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant and Kierkegaard – simultaneously teaching the show’s massive audience philosophy as well. 

Does a half-hour television comedy really have the ability to teach its American audience existentialism, deontology, utilitarianism and other ideas that most people have spent their lives considering too complex to understand? Binge-watching the show might not turn you into a published philosopher but rest assured that the show had the help of a vetted philosophy scholar.

The show’s creators worked alongside Pamela Hieronymi, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at UCLA. Her plethora of knowledge on ethics helped inform the show’s creators of how to order Chidi’s philosophy lessons and ways to implement famous philosophers’ ideas into the characters’ dilemmas. 

While the show makes complex philosophies easier to swallow for the surface-level Netflixer, it’s impossible to dumb down the difficult questions characters on “The Good Place” ask each episode. As the show continues, the lines of who belongs in The Good Place and who belongs in The Bad Place start to fade away. What makes a good person? Are there any people who are truly deserving of The Good Place? Who deserves The Bad Place? 

First-years at William Jewell College are asked similar questions when they take Responsible Self. Every first-year has had to ponder three questions: What is real? How can we know? How should we act? 

These questions are also frequently asked by characters in “The Good Place.” The characters’ realities shift as the afterlife is redefined again and again. The audience is never sure what is real as the setting travels through dimensions and into voids. 

While the Chidi of the first season would say we know what is real through reading the works of great philosophers, each philosopher’s contradicting opinion leaves Chidi more distraught over how to act. The characters examine the many ways humans act. At the conclusion of the third season, the characters are more confused than ever over how good people should act.

What makes a good life? This is a question not frequently asked explicitly by a television comedy, but “The Good Place” proves that maybe it should be. The show pulls a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes , so perhaps audiences not only need to think more about what it means to act morally, but are entertained by such pondering. 

As mentally exhausting and frustrating as ethics can be, it’s important for society to have discussions about what it means to act ethically. For William Jewell students, these discussions are a big part of the curriculum. A basic knowledge of philosophy is a great foundation for success in most Jewell classes. 

Next time you feel yourself drowning in a course that made up one of the 90 references to philosophy in the Jewell course catalogue, you should probably study your notes or ask your professor for help. However, if you’d rather curl into your dorm bed cocoon with some Netflix, resist the temptation to watch “The Office” for the fifth time and instead turn on “The Good Place.” It might not be as helpful as doing your homework, but it’s a far more entertaining – and yet surprisingly helpful – back-up option to academic success. 

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