Monday, February 03, 2020

Evening Note for Monday, February 3

Thought for the Evening: The Good Place

The Good Place was a comedy TV show produced by Michael Shur, and just had its finale recently. It was a philosophy teacher's dream, since the show was heavily laced with philosophical ethics -- real philosophical ethics, which is sometimes more than you get when a show does 'philosophy'. It had a hilarious episode on trolley problems (Season 2, Episode 6), for instance, repeated references throughout to Scanlon's book, What We Owe to Each Other, and lots of Kant and Aristotle jokes. The show had philosophers as consultants, Patrician Hieronymi (of UCLA) and Todd May (of Clemson), both of whom have cameos in the finale. (When I was watching the scene with Hieronymi, I thought, "I've seen that actress somewhere; what is she in?")

The basic conceit with which we start is that Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the Good Place, in the neighborhood designed by the architect Michael (Ted Danson) and run by the artificial intelligence Janet (D'Arcy Carden) and realizes immediately that they have made a mistake; she gets help from Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) and zaniness ensues. But the situation shifts dramatically many times during the whole series; one of the notable features of the show, and one that gives it a feeling of substantiveness other shows often lack, is that it will take an idea that most series would have spent at least several episodes on and burn through it in a single episode, perhaps even less. There is a lot that happens in the relatively short episodes of this relatively short series. The comedy is good, the casting and acting are great. It's good television.

Occasionally it borders on profound. One that's always stuck with me is Michael's musing on frozen yogurt in Season 1 that human beings will take something good and make it a little bit worse so we can have more of it, which I think manages to be funny, true, and illuminating of a lot of human life. It is fairly insightful about the difference between people who recognize their failings and people who don't. It almost, almost reaches a truth that would have been worth a television show: Human beings achieve their most important things cooperatively -- build societies, fly to the moon, change the world, what have you -- so why do we keep assuming that we can live the moral life alone? It never quite pulls this together, usually opting instead for a generic 'friends are what it's all about' theme, although sometimes it comes very close, as with the title of one its episodes, "Help is Other People", or the occasional hint that what we really owe to each other is a little bit of reasonable support.

Ultimately, however, I think the show flounders a bit, considered in terms of the ethics with which it interacts. The reason is not, as one review would have it, a failure to grapple with capitalism. Rather, it's that The Good Place had no real conception of goodness. I think this is a rather common problem, actually; we want to be good people living the good life, but this requires more attention to what goodness actually is than most people ever give it. And the show never really goes beyond this. Most of what counts as good throughout the series is trivial; indeed, if it weren't for a real recognition of friendship as a major good of human life, it would all be trivial. Despite the excellent joke of the motto of the neighborhood in Season 1 being the vague and lackluster "Everything is fine", it never actually gets beyond "Everything is fine." The committee running the Good Place, we eventually find, is a bunch of very ineffective activists, and indeed, the best the series manages in showing a 'good person' is to show a generic activist. I've met a lot of activists in my life; activists are not any more likely to be good people than anyone else, and activism itself is very much not the good life, however necessary it might be as a means to an end occasionally. But this conflation of means and ends is not surprising, following as it does from the fact that the show treats being good as nothing more substantive than being likable, nonthreatening, and willing to try to be good; the good life is a hedonic life of getting along hedonically and usefully helping each other out in ways that make us progress by becoming better able to get along and help each other out. It is a world in which goodness has no sublimity, no infinity, no authority, and no unbearable radiance. It's just fine.

This is seen very clear as we approach the end, I think. We meet Hypatia of Alexandria (Lisa Kudrow) -- actually just writing that Hypatia of Alexandria was played by Lisa Kudrow tells you most of the joke. The show does not do justice to Hypatia; we don't know Hypatia's particular ethical views, but we know generically what they would have been like, because she was a well-respected Neoplatonist, and we know the kinds of things that Neoplatonists would have taught: the superiority of the mental over the physical, the superiority of the intellect over the senses, the absolute superiority of the Good over goods. But the show has no space for such a view; mental and physical pleasures are treated as on a level, sensible goods are all that are shown, and all good is finite. The show is intelligently written enough that it shows a recognition that a hedonic life of getting along and helping each other out is a life that will certainly run out of good. This is not a minor recognition. But there is no other kind of good that it recognizes. All good being finite, eventually you'll be done with it. And in a world with no infinite good, the closest you can come to recognize anything beyond this running-down kind of life is just to recognize that at some point the final good you can have is just to bring it all to an end. The show buys into the canard that mortality gives life meaning; it also fails to be very convincing about it, because it can't help but repeatedly show, by the very nature of its premise and its structure, that our mortality is only given meaning by our life. But even having supposed that life goes on after death, the only life it shows is one with good that runs out.

Various Links of Interest

* Maureen Johnson, Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village

* Kyle Williams, Happiness, Virtue, and the Bastard Science

* Daniel Burns, The Classical Alternative to Liberal Theory, at "Public Discourse"

* Alex Pruss has video versions of his 2019 Wilde Lectures in Natural Theology

* Liz Tracey looks at Avicenna's contribution to medicine

* Jon Baskin, On the Hatred of Literature, and Friends Like These

* Valerie Stivers, Cooking with Zora Neale Hurston

* Nina Papathanasopoulou, Black Classicisms in the Visual Arts

* Alice Maz, Playing to Win, is a very interesting discussion of the economies of gameworlds.

* Frank Furedi, Butchers vs. Academics, looks at one aspect of the class issues involved in Brexit debates.

* Clare Carlisle, The philosophy of George Eliot. Carlisle primarily focuses on the Spinozistic side, but there are other sides to George Eliot's philosophical engagements, too, including Feuerbach and Comte and Lewes himself.

* Timothy B. Noone, Augustine on Words, Signs, Thoughts, and Things in De Magistro

* Scott Meikle, The Switch from Agency to Causation in Marx

* Kathleen Stock, Sticks, stones, and lawsuits and Helen Joyce, Speaking up for female eunuchs, on the current disputes over transgender politics in British feminism.

* Gillian Dooley on Iris Murdoch's philosophy of fiction

Currently Reading

Amos Tutuola, The Palm Wine Drinkard
Christopher Tolkien, ed., Sauron Defeated
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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