From shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to movies like The Matrix trilogy, Americans have long had an appetite for philosophically minded entertainment. Yet surely, no work in this genre has been as funny as NBC’s The Good Place starring Ted Danson (of Cheers fame) and Kristen Bell (Frozen, Veronica Mars). The show was an instant hit and boasts a 97-percent average tomatometer score from the critics at RottenTomatoes.com. The Good Place recently completed its fourth and final season as the rare show that knew what it wanted to accomplish and refused to string viewers along for unnecessary seasons.
On the face of it, The Good Place is about life after death. Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) dies and awakens in a peaceful place. Michael (Danson) informs her that there’s “a good place” and “a bad place,” but luckily, she is in the good place. Nevertheless, we soon see her distress, because there must have been a mistake. As her flashbacks inform viewers, Eleanor was a horrifically selfish human being. She quickly enlists Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a former ethics professor, to help cover up her inadequacies and teach her to be moral.
Ensuing shows see them reading Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, and reflecting on the good life. In this way, the show is much more about the present than the afterlife. In fact, if one looks past the occasionally crass humor, the show is fundamentally about the role of friendship in the moral life. As Aristotle notes, we simply cannot be good on our own: both good upbringing and virtuous friendship are key to the moral life. Eleanor and Chidi are quickly surrounded by a cast of deeply flawed but lovable characters who seek to grow together in virtue. Their friendship is a palpable display of the deep connection between friendship, virtue, and happiness. The characters live more fulfilling lives as they learn to love each other and let go of selfishness, bitterness, and jealousy.
As we come to find out in the first season’s great plot twist, the friends were not in the good place after all. Rather, bored with traditional torture, the bad place’s demons designed a faux good place where deeply flawed individuals would unintentionally torture each other. Yet the plan backfired. The friendships formed were strong, and the main characters grew in unforeseen ways.
Implicit Philosophical Anthropology
As one might have suspected, the final episodes reveal the writers’ understanding of human nature and our final end or telos. By the penultimate episode, Eleanor and the group of friends make it to (the show’s view of) the actual good place. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a land of hedonic pleasure, replete with instantly appearing milkshakes, orgasms ex nihilo, and opportunities to race go-carts with monkeys. Yet the friends discover that the good place’s inhabitants have atrophied, zombie-like minds. As the show presents things through one of the inhabitants (played by Lisa Kudrow of Friends), the problem is that,
when perfection goes on forever, you become this glassy-eyed mush person. . . . You get here and you realize that anything’s possible, and you do everything, and then you’re done. But you still have infinity left. This place kills fun and passion and excitement and love, ’til all you have left are milkshakes.
The Augustinian in me desired a full-throated demonstration of how the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good fails, in the end, even to bring pleasure. (It is not the wino who enjoys the pleasures of fine wine.) Alas, The Good Place presents a mixed message. The problem with the good place, the show indicates, is not necessarily the hedonistic view of pleasure as our true goal, but rather that even such pleasure—the best thing in life—gets old. To restore meaning to their existence, Eleanor and friends modify the good place to allow inhabitants to leave when they feel complete. Like good existentialists, they create a door allowing for self-extinction—as though the possibility of suicide could give life meaning.
That the writers failed to reject hedonism, at least explicitly, was not just a lack of imagination, but rather a manifestation of our current cultural despair. Because we are blindly evolved, brute animals—according to the dominant narrative—the only goods we can conceive of can be reduced to hedonic pleasure. If we lower our conception of the human person, we will inevitably lower our view of the highest human good and our idea of heaven as well. It is little wonder that so-called “deaths of despair” from drugs, alcohol, and suicide, are on the rise despite our material prosperity.
Still, though the show is written within the dominant naturalistic paradigm, and so lacks the resources to explicitly reject hedonism, it does—perhaps despite itself—discredit it. Even beyond the endless pursuit of pleasure turning your brain to mush, the main characters do not, by and large, pursue pleasure in the eternity they are granted. Rather, they pursue all manner of intrinsically valuable activities: gaining knowledge and skill, restoring broken relationships, and spending quality time with loved ones.
As Aristotle noted long ago, the life of pleasure is too incomplete to be our highest good. You can attain pleasure but lack many other goods necessary to human flourishing. You can shoot up in an alley and be in a state of hedonic bliss, but you are not living the good life. Deep down we desire total well-being, the good of the whole person. This will involve some bodily pleasure, but it requires a life of excellence pursuing goods like knowledge, friendship, play, and meaningful pursuits extended over a long life. These intrinsic goods are not good for anything else, but simply good. They do not derive their goodness from our limited time on earth, or from our control over them, but from their nature.
Finite and Infinite Goods
Surpassing this insight of Aristotle, however, Aquinas and the Christian tradition argue that even these natural goods do not constitute our complete fulfillment. Our true happiness is a perfect good that will totally satisfy and bring rest from striving. Even a good life ends up disappointing if we fail to understand that the world cannot bring total fulfillment. You can have a great job, a lovely spouse, meaningful work, and be utterly miserable inside. Even in rapturous experiences of music, art, and literature, perceptive people recognize that the experiences are fleeting and not what is truly desired. C. S. Lewis describes this well:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them. . . . These things . . . are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. . . . Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. . . . Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.
Finite things simply cannot satisfy our infinite desire. We are, then, ordered toward something that transcends this world. Accordingly, Aquinas argues that our ultimate happiness consists in union with God. Our heart’s desire is too big for anything else.
Because our culture despairs of such an ultimate good, it is unsurprising that the characters of The Good Place, after having enjoyed a variety of pleasures and intrinsically valuable activities for some long but unspecified time, all choose extinction. With nothing higher to love or experience than other flawed human beings, they eventually run out of things to do. Like many in the age of social media, the characters seem to think of novel experiences as life’s highest good, and the characters inevitably run out of these. Thus, one by one, they walk through the door.
In the end, the characters get what they think they want: enough time to engage in the most meaningful natural goods the cosmos offers. Yet many viewers wept in the final scenes. I am convinced that such viewers were not merely upset by the show’s departure but by the characters’ fate. Each one of us has this desire for lasting union with infinite goodness, and thus we recognize that the characters were never truly fulfilled. What other animal would choose extinction while flourishing?
If the intentional lesson of The Good Place is that moral transformation is difficult but possible—and only with good friends—then the unintentional lesson is that the great last end or goal of human life simply cannot consist in an endless string of pleasures, or even intrinsically good natural activities. We can accomplish all the tasks and have all the pleasurable experiences we ever desired, but this would not bring lasting satisfaction and joy. We are meant for something more than endless milkshakes, orgasms, and even good romantic relationships.
We require an infinite good: lasting friendship with a being whose depth of personality and goodness are never exhausted. As Augustine famously writes, “You made us for yourself, and our heart is restless, until it finds rest in you.” But we are a culture in despair. We have given up hope of our supernatural end, the infinite source of all that is good and beautiful in this world. The Good Place reveals that the highest good in our sights is just more time in this world. We would seem permanently stuck with the fact that, as Eleanor puts it, “we’re all a little bit sad all the time. That’s just the deal.”
Philosophy and the Good Life
Despite its deficiencies, the Christian might admire The Good Place for its numerous virtues. In particular, the show led many to think about their own moral state, human fulfillment, true friendship, and our ultimate destiny. The show attempted to strike a hopeful chord, insisting that, while the pursuit of moral excellence is difficult and its payoff at times uncertain, this valuable work must continue. Lead writer Michael Schur said recently, “We were arguing for trying. You really have to just hope and believe that it’s worth doing, that it’s worth putting in the work.”
Christians have a strong kinship with anyone seeking natural happiness by way of the virtues. Yet anyone who tries to be good in his own strength will likely realize that, without a greater strength than we possess, true human excellence is impossible. Thus, those striving for excellence are likely to seek divine assistance or end up despondent. As Pascal writes:
It is in vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the remedy for your ills. All your light can only reach the knowledge that not in yourselves will you find truth or good. The philosophers have promised you that, and have been unable to do it. They neither know what is your true good, nor what is your true state.
Even with the best of friends, whatever semblance of natural virtue we can muster is insufficient. Without the theological virtues—and love, most of all—we will not flourish consistently. True excellence requires divine love coursing through our veins, animating all we do. It will be difficult to be consistently courageous, for instance, without the hope of eternal life, or consistently just without supernatural love for our enemies.
Like the rest of the show, The Good Place finale was hilarious, thought-provoking, and profoundly moving. However, in failing to find our highest good and identifying the means to achieve it, the show could do little more than put a happy face on our current cultural despair.