At first glance, a show about a group of people learning ethics lessons in order to become better people and get into a secular version of heaven doesn’t sound like an obvious premise for a sitcom, but that’s exactly what The Good Place is.
Created by Michael Schur — who was also behind Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the show, which stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, centers around four people who die and end up in a version of the afterlife known as the Good Place (as opposed to the Bad Place), and the challenges they face proving they truly belong there.
But it’s not just another friend-group-as-a-surrogate-family sitcom. The Good Place is also essentially a weekly lesson in ethics — and I should know: I teach a course on ethics and pop culture and use the show as a teaching tool.
The philosophical basis of the show is entirely by design. Prior to writing The Good Place, Schur put in the work, reading everything from the classic works of Mill and Rawls, to newer books by living philosophers like Todd May to help inform his writing and the direction of the episodes.
While there are plenty of literal ethics lessons peppered throughout the show, there are also plenty of great takeaways about how to be a better, more productive person. Here are a few. (Warning: spoilers galore.)
It’s never too late to make positive changes in your behavior
When we first meet Kristen Bell’s character Eleanor Shellstrop — a self-described “Arizona trash bag” — she’s not exactly the most considerate person. In fact, nearly all aspects of her life on Earth revolved around doing what was easiest and best for her.
After she dies and winds up in the Good Place, seemingly by mistake, she realizes that there’s no way she’ll be allowed to stick around unless she gets her moral act together. Fortunately for her, her assigned soulmate is an ethics professor, Chidi, who gradually teaches her how to be a good person through the classic philosophical texts by Aristotle, Kant, and Philippa Foot, among others. Eleanor eventually applies what she learns outside the classroom and begins understanding the consequences of her actions and behavior.
She starts small — allowing someone to go ahead of her in line at the frozen yogurt shop while she picks her flavor. Eventually, though, by the end of the third season, she goes as far as to sacrifice her own happiness, erasing Chidi’s memory of their relationship, in order to give the group their best chance of getting into the Good Place for real.
We should all learn to be more empathetic
Ted Danson’s character Michael is a literal demon who, when the show begins, relishes any opportunity to cause humans pain. And yet, throughout the course of the show and spending time with the humans he’s supposed to be torturing, he learns how to be empathetic.
In the later seasons of the show, the four main characters — Eleanor, along with Chidi the ethics professor, Tahani the socialite, and Jason the dance crew member — are constantly facing obstacles. They have Michael on their side at this point, and he’s helping them try to get to the Good Place, but navigating the afterlife is tricky.
Once Michael and the humans reach the portal to the judge (who will decide who gets in), he realizes that he only has four badges required to make the trip. Instead of going himself, he gives his badge to Eleanor and remains in the Bad Place to face the consequences of his insubordination. After learning about the humans and understanding how hard they’ve worked at a shot of getting into the real Good Place, he decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Reflect on your past behavior and motives
It’s easy to pick out the faults in others, but takes some awareness to be able to reflect on our own behavior. This is exactly what Eleanor does before committing to take Chidi’s ethics classes. Doing so involves considering how and why you’re acting a certain way, how it is affecting other people, and what you can to do adjust.
At the end of Season 2, when the humans are sent back to earth for a second chance, Eleanor realizes that her past behavior — including cyberbullying Ryan Lochte and peddling fake medicine to sick people — was very wrong, and immediately starts to implement changes.
Don’t let decision paralysis determine the course of your life
Chidi is a good, moral person, but his inability to make even the simplest decision is ultimately what caused his death when an air conditioner crushed him to death as he tried to decide on which bar to go into. This indecisiveness bleeds into his afterlife as well, making life difficult for not only himself, but others as well as they are subjected to his excruciating decision-making process. The lesson here is not to lose out on opportunities and experiences because you simply can’t decide what to do.
Consider how your actions affect everyone around you
If you take one thing away from watching The Good Place, it should be a better understanding that your actions and behavior have an impact far beyond yourself. The main characters on the show each learn to thoughtfully consider the consequences of each of their actions and decisions.
Will watching The Good Place make you a better person? Not necessarily, but it can’t hurt to absorb some powerful philosophy and ethics lessons while also being epically entertained.
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