What Does it Take to Get Into The Good Place?

What do we actually know about what it takes to get into the Good Place? A deep dive into the sitcom afterlife.

What comes after death? The NBC sitcom The Good Place tackles this thorny question head on, showing us the eternity in store for Kristin Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop. In the pilot episode, Eleanor awakens to discover that yes, she is dead, but don’t worry, because “Everything is Fine.”

Eleanor is told by “Michael,” the architect of the Good Place, that she is one of only a select few humans that are allowed in – everyone else goes to the appropriately named “Bad Place.”

But what does it take to get into the Good Place? And what does this mean for our understanding of morality?

The Good Place/Bad Place dichotomy certainly seems to gesture towards a Christian-style afterlife, where the people who do good things go to heaven and the people who do bad things go to hell. But that represents an extraordinarily simplistic view of Christian morality, which usually emphasizes not only good or evil acts, but also a particular set of beliefs: the divinity of Jesus Christ, the supremacy of God, and the need for salvation. Indeed, many Christians believe that no amount of good actions can ever grant entrance into heaven – the only cure for sin is belief and devotion to Christ.

And the Good Place’s admission criteria, as initially presented by Michael, doesn’t seem to have a connection to any particular Earth-bound religion. Indeed, Michael tells us that no religion has ever got anything about the afterlife more than 5% or so correct.

Instead, we are told that the Good Place functions on an elaborate points-based system, where each and every action, good and bad, is tabulated throughout a person’s life and added up at the end. The people with the most points at the end got the Good Place, and everyone else goes to the Bad Place.

These points, however, only raise more questions. How exactly are these rules arrived at? Some stuff is easy: genocide = bad, donating money to charity = good. OK, got it.

But why is “failing to disclose a camel illness when selling a camel” worth -22 points, when the seeming (to me, at least) more serious “steal copper wire from decommissioned military base” only -16 points? And why are both of those acts, which are both concrete harms denying others of their property, less serious than the obnoxious but ultimately harmless “Overstate personal connection to tragedy” (-40 points)?

Ultimately looking at these discrete examples of point-earning behavior give us little hope of deciphering the system at work. Instead, we might want to look at the people that are allowed into the Good Place, and see what we can derive from the common ties that bind them together.

Here, I have to pause to remind you of the show’s premise: Eleanor doesn’t belong in the Good Place. Due to some cosmic accounting error, Eleanor, who was a not-so-great person that belongs in the Bad Place, has taken the place of a different Eleanor, who actually belongs in the Good Place.

And she’s not alone: Jason Mendoza, a.k.a. Jianyu, is not the Tibetan monk he pretends to be, but rather a miscreant D.J. from Jacksonville (one of the top 10 swamp cities in northern Florida).

Aside from those two, however, the denizens of the Good Place are uniformly and comically well accomplished: they are scientists who cured diseases, philatrophists who raised billions, human rights icons, etc. Tahani, for example, raised billions for a variety of global causes, in addition to attending prestigious schools and rubbing elbows with the her friends Taylor Swift and Bono. Each and every character we meet in the Good Place has some over-the-top-impressive resume of do-goodery.

Which is kind of interesting – there are no humble men or women who just lived a simple and kind life. No salt of the earth farmer who raised a family and helped her neighbors; no orphaned children who fought a valiant and inspirational struggle against a fatal disease.

Instead, each person seems to have a resume as long as your arm, with a lengthy list of accomplishment – diseases cured, causes championed. Mere ethical behavior doesn’t do the trick: one needs to have been impressive in some way.

This emphasis on accomplishment is underlined every time we’re told something about the “Real” Eleanor Shellstrop’s past: she’s not just a former refugee who donated her time to charity – she’s also an Ivy-league educated human rights lawyer that goes into the field to defuse landmines.  It’s not just that she was kind – she was effective.

In short, if you want to get into the Good Place, it’s not enough to be good: you have to be great.

This is again somewhat at odds with many systems of morality and religion, which emphasize intention over results. Compare this points-based system of ethics with the teaching found in the New Testament, Mark 12:41-44:

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

By the standards of the Good Place, the widow probably got a few points for her donation – but that pales in comparison to the points that can be earned by those who were lucky enough to be born smart, or rich, or talented in some spectacular world-changing way.

OK, so basically we’re working with some sort of utilitarian morality: the more utility you create in the world, the more points you get. I can get on board with that.

But what about Chidi? Eleanor’s “soul mate” Chidi lived a relatively quiet life as a professor – he earned his way into the Good Place on the basis of his extensive study of ethical behavior, not through his good works. So is just figuring out the right way to act enough to get in? What exactly did Chidi do to earn all those points?

Well, see, that’s the thing. In The Good Place, there are some problems with the Good Place. You see….

******************SPOILERS FOR THE SEASON FINALE***************

What we’re seeing is not really the Good Place after all! In fact, the entirety of Season 1 has been an elaborate ruse by Michael, an architect for the Bad Place, to try and get the four main characters torture each other: Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jianyu (real name: Jason Mendoza) are the only “real” humans; everyone else is a staff member of the Bad Place playing a role to mess with the heads of the 4 humans.

Which leaves us asking the question again: what does it take to get into the Good Place? In one sense, we don’t know very much: the points system created by Michael is probably all nonsense, created as part of the ruse to mess with our heroes’ heads.

And we’ve never seen the real good place, or what it takes to get in. We can be pretty sure it exists – Janet, we’re told, was stolen from there. But we don’t have any direct evidence of what it takes to get in. Insteadall we know is that these four people didn’t make the cut.

It’s pretty clear why Eleanor and Jason didn’t make it: they were not particularly nice in their human life, made little effort to improve, and in fact did some fairly horrible things along the way. It’s not hard to come up with a system of afterlife point-tallying in which they don’t make the grade.

But Chidi and Tahani represent two opposite ends of a spectrum: Tahani created massive amounts of utility in her life, improving the world through extensive charitable works. But her intentions, we are told, were bad: she was just trying to one-up her sister.

Chidi, on the other hand, had nothing but the best of intentions, working his entire life to determine what the most ethical decision would be. But he was totally unable to act on those decisions, dirving the other people in his life crazy.

With those descriptions in hand, we can come up with a map of at the very least of what WON’T get you into the Good Place:



Eleanor was low-key awful throughout her entire life, but never really did anything THAT bad, so she’s in the lower left, a little further left than she is down on the graph. Jason did some pretty bad things (like lighting a speedboat on fire and trying to rob a store), but he’s such a goofball moron that it’s hard to credit his intentions as being all bad, so he’s to down and to the right, but they’re both well inside the lower-left quadrant.

Chidi tried to do good at all times, but at the expense of, you know, actually doing any good – so he’s all the way over on the right. Tahani did lots of great stuff, but only for the worst of reasons – so she’s up and to the left.

With that, we can conclude that the Good Place takes at least some combination of intentions and results – in order to make it in the afterlife, you have to have accomplished at least SOME good results. But that alone isn’t enough – you have to have achieved those results for the right reasons. You need to be up in the upper right – there’s no credit for running over a future Hitler in your car because you were texting while driving.

Ultimately, though, we don’t know what it really takes to get into the Good Place. All of our protagonists are flawed in at least some way, so we’re just left with the white space on the chart. Somewhere North and to the East of the Tahani/Chidi frontier you get the people that make in into the *real* good place.

So do good out there folks. But make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons!

25 Comments on “What Does it Take to Get Into The Good Place?”

  1. jmasoncooper #

    Your idea of an axis by which to judge a person for getting into The Good Place is super interesting. I haven’t seen the show, so I have very little to say about it specifically. The question though of intentions and results is an interesting one.
    I was recently thinking about the related idea of continuums of human behavior, and I had a tiny break through. While I think the D&D Alignment system is good, and can be profitable in many ways, I think there is another set of spectra that might work better than Law v. Chaos and Good v. Evil, and they are Self-interest and Social-interest.
    So here is my breakdown, and you can judge whether this aligns with anything your article is trying to say. So the Y-axis is measured from Self-Interested at the top to Self-Disinterested/Hating at the bottom. The X-Axis is measured on the left from Pro-Social to Anti-Social on the right.
    So you have:
    top-left Pro-Social Self-Interested people (Religious Leaders – like fame and power but not at others expense)
    top-middle Socially-Indifferent Self-Interested people (Business People – want to make money, not really trying to save anyone)
    top-right Anti-Social Self-Interested people (Thieves – including ENRON Executives and Wall Street bankers)
    middle-left Self-Indifferent Pro-Social people (College Professors – in it to change lives, not the money)
    middle-middle Self-Indifferent Socially-Indifferent people (Good Parents – not too concerned with the outside world or having fame and fortune because they are focused on helping their kids, also what I would call myself and most of the overthinkers)
    middle-right Self-Indifferent Anti-Social people (Revolutionaries – trying to overturn a corrupt society without regard to living or dying)
    bottom-left Anti-Self Pro-Social people (Social Justice Warriors – people who see themselves as part of the problem and have some level of self-loathing they try to wash away by improving society)
    bottom-middle Anti-Self Socially-Indifferent people (Suicidal people – Those who hate themselves so much they wish to die and have no concern for their impact on others)
    bottom-right Anti-Self Anti-Social people (Jerks, Trolls, Haters, Racists, etc – people that just want to ruin other peoples lives for the lulz)
    I have personally characterized who I think fits into each of these categories, and that is strongly debatable, but I think it is interesting to see who on this list our society generally rewards/thinks well of and who is does not. All people at the bottom are pitied or reviled. People along the right side are often also considered terrible. But also no one category has exclusive right to be praised.
    I think this has something to do with human nature. It is a lot easier to conceive of a world in which everyone is miserable, than it is to think of a place that offers enjoyment to all people in a roughly equal way. Well you might say, Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, and the marketers would high five each other, but that does not mean you are right. I personally do not love going to Disneyland anymore that I love eating a delicious hot dog and I don’t have to brave crowds and enormous lines to get one of those (except at Costco).
    Anyways, all of this is to say: I really like your idea of trying to figure out what typed of people will end up in “The Good Place,” and there are lots of different ways to try and figure that out. And you should continue. And if you wanna critique my free-will social morality framework then I would appreciate it.
    Thanks to all ye that read this giant post!


  2. An Inside Joke #

    The challenge of trying to debate Good Place/Bad Place morality after the finale is that we have no way of knowing how much of what we’ve been told about the Good Place is true and how much Michael was lying throughout the season. It’s possible the criteria for who gets into the Good Place has nothing to do with actions or intentions at all – and it seems very much in keeping with the screwball style of the show to see a reveal like “Only people who died while wearing purple underwear get into the Good Place” or something like that.

    But it’s hard to Overthink something as broad as that, so let’s assume that what Michael discloses about how to get into the Good Place is all true – I believe in the pilot he says something along the line of “only the top 1% of all people get in” (I tried to find the exact quote and couldn’t, so I could be off on the percentage.) So we might also allow for the possibility that intention without action gets you in, and that action without good intention gets you in, and Chidi and Tahanai both scored just too low to make the cut.


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      This is definitely the tricky issue here – it’s hard to tell how much of what Michael says is real and how much is false. Most of what Michael said in the Pilot and over episodes about the points system, etc. is suspect and likely false.

      For the purposes of this article, the only part where I assumed Michael was telling the truth was the bit where Eleanor has discovered the truth: that is, when he says that they really are in the Bad Place, and they are all there for the reasons specified. I’m making this assumption because he’s about to wipe their memories, and doesn’t really have a reason to lie.

      I think we can also count on Janet being actually from the Good Place – Michael says she is, and she delivers the note as requested, which she presumably wouldn’t do (unless the whole Good-Place-is-actually-the-Bad-Place thing is really a double-secret ruse, and really Eleanor and the gang are in some sort of Medium Place designed to test them, and everything, including the revelation and partial memory wipe, are part of a grand plan.)


  3. Akilah #

    Ah, but you didn’t mention the woman we met who got into the Medium Place. She would have been in the Bad Place b/c she falls on the axis with Jason and Eleanor, but she had that one moment of good intention that created good results, so they couldn’t figure out where to put her. The question is whether she, too, was part of the ruse (which I don’t think she was at this point, but I could be wrong).


    • Amanda OTI Staff #

      Omg, you’re right! I had totally forgotten about her. I’m guessing she’s real?


    • DeanMoriarty Well Actually #

      I’m pretty sure the Medium Place and its inhabitant, Mindy St. Clair, are real. Because it’s Janet who 1) brings up its existence and 2) takes them there. And it seems like Janet is clearly not in on Michael’s scheme. [Speaking of Janet, the Medium Place doesn’t seem to have one of its own. which is interesting]


      • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

        Yeah, you got me on this one — I wanted to incorporate Mindy, but couldn’t figure out quite how she fits. She seems like she was every bit as bad in both intention and results as Eleanor was for most of her life, but had one shining moment of a) really good intention and b) really really good (albeait post-humous) results.

        If we take that as true, then it makes it seem like Michael’s points system has some connection to the real Good Place, because it suggests that the magnitude of results really does matter – that is, the humble widow really does get fewer points than the rich philanthropist, because the rich guy had a great impact.


        • DeanMoriarty Well Actually #

          Your difficulty in incorporating Mindy reflects what her purpose in the story is supposed to be. She is created as an outlier and a variable you can’t account for. That’s why a whole “Medium Place” had to be created for her, and why she’s there alone. She confounds the whole system.
          I suspect, and hope, that it’ll be important in season 2. Because as an outlier, she’s in some ways our best hope of gleaning some truth about “The Good Place,” a place that is inherently deceptive.
          For example, it’s the Medium place that gives us a hint that the intro video seems to be a fairly standard neighborhood ritual. It also hints at there being some kind of point system that determines where you go. The fact that Mindy knows how she ended up in this outlier place, and that it more or less jibes with what Michael explained, is, for me the best indication that the point system of “The Good Place” isn’t created whole cloth.
          My theory/read is that Michael took most of the basics, and perhaps some of the details, of the real point system and changed them to make the four main characters’ psychological torture more effective. And possibly to amuse himself as well.
          I also think that we can’t discount the fact that Michael is changing the rules as he goes along. He admits that Eleanor’s confession screwed up his plan and he’s been pretty much improvising since. It’s possible that he’s just messing with the point system, and with the importance of motivations, in a frantic effort to keep his innovative, first project from failing.
          I also really think that the whole good Janet/bad Janet, but no Medium Janet thing will end up becoming important. (My theory is that Janet is actually, “The Big Guy” somehow).


        • Howard Well Actually #

          Late breaking update: Word of God is that Mindy St. Clair and the Medium Place are legit (http://uproxx.com/sepinwall/the-good-place-twist-explained-mike-schur/2/).

          One refinement I’d make to the moral universe taxonomy is that the axes should be used to judge actions, not individuals. Only actions that fall in the top right quadrant earn you positive points (like the logical AND gate), while actions that fall elsewhere are neutral (top left, bottom right) or negative (bottom left). Tallying up the score on your life gets you passage to the Good/Bad Places.

          So circling back to Mindy, I think the problem she poses is that it’s unclear how much credit she gets for post-death results. It’s clear if her life were solely judged from birth to death, her score lands her in the Bad Place. However, her genuinely Good intentions and plans lead to excellent results…but are outside the scope of her life. Hence the Medium Place.


  4. ScholarSarah Well Actually #

    I take Chidi as a critique of Kant and Utilitarianism. Chidi suffered from decision paralysis, wherein his rational search for the best answer prevents him from acting on an answer that is good enough. Under Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the proper course of action should be discernible through pure reason, but when Chidi attempts to reason out what the proper course of action is, he ends up with too many possibilities and no logical way to chose between them. Now, as Chidi is the smartest of the human characters, and given that he had made a study of ethics all his life, there is no reason to believe that the failure of his attempts to logically deduce the correct course of action is due to his own insufficiency (and note, Chidi’s problem is not that he arrives at a singular conclusion but is unable to enact it because of anxiety, it is because he is smart enough to think of other possibilities, and the analytical tools he has are inadequate to dismiss them). The result then, is to undermine Kant’s premise that the correct course of action is discernible through pure reason.

    I take Tahini (and later Eleanor) as a critique of any Intentionalist system accompanied by an incentive scheme. The incentive scheme seeks to modify behavior by associating desirable acts with rewards of various kinds, and undesirable acts with punishments of various kinds, with the intent that, in the short run, the incentive itself motivates the behavior, and, in the long run, through essentially classical conditioning, the actors come to see desirable behavior as rewarding in itself, and undesirable behavior as punishing in itself.
    However, when you add an Intentionalist component to your definition of desirable acts, the incentive scheme becomes self-defeating. Stating that one will reward good acts has the intent of encouraging people to perform more good acts, but because they are done with the intent of receiving your stated reward, they become bad acts. Tahini performed acts that benefited other people greatly, but because she did them seeking her parents approval, they are not considered good. So, assuming that she does have the need for her parents approval, what can she do that would be good? Certainly, doing things to spite her parents might be as bad as acting selfishly. Then she has to act independently of what her parents think of her, whether they would be proud or disappointed, and in fact she would have to act independently of what anyone else thinks of her. Of course, empirically speaking, you tend not to get very good behavior from people who don’t care what anyone else thinks of them, for example, Eleanor on Earth.

    In fact, Eleanor’s experience post-confession in Michael’s version of “The Good Place” is another good example of how the incentive scheme is self-defeating. Eleanor finds out once and for all what the cosmological incentive scheme is. Eleanor wants to belong in the Good Place, so she does good things, but, because she wants the reward the Good Place represents, her actions do not count. Only when she gives up hope of her reward withing the cosmological incentive scheme does the incentive scheme reward her. So the presence and cognizance of incentive scheme makes acting virtuously within it impossible – a Catch-22. (Heller’s original Catch-22 was not a failure of the system’s design, but a purposeful feature put in place to ensure no one was discharged for being insane. Similarly, given the complexity of the points system, and fact that no divine agency appears to care whether the people on Earth are aware of the criteria by which they will be judged, I presume that absurdity is similarly purposeful.)


    • jmasoncooper #

      @ScholarSarah, I love your logic. According to it though, is there any value to any moral system? If we cannot use reason or logic to evaluate moral choices, and there is no reliable “giver” of moral laws, and knowledge of any rewards connected with ‘good’ behavior makes it not good, what is anyone supposed to do?
      Is the only choice to just go with the flow, do what feels right, follow the laws of men, and believe what everyone else believes?
      That seems like the only alternative, but I want to know if you have any alternatives?


      • ScholarSarah Well Actually #

        My contention is that logic cannot be used to derive precise answers about morality. Logic and analysis can help you find better options, but I don’t believe that there are singular correct answers.

        Also, reward systems for virtue only defeat themselves if your system allows compromised motives to destroy the moral value of the act. If you are not particularly concerned with why someone did the thing you wanted them to do, then the incentive scheme works just fine.

        I am a fan of Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics. He defines Virtue in terms of contributing to the actor being able to have a good life, cheats the self-interest vs altruism dichotomy by recognizing that people are social animals, and well being depends on ability to participate in, and the health of, civil society, and his guidelines for behavior do not purport to give precise answers, saying that for best results, an actor needs the judgment that only comes from experience.


        • jmasoncooper #

          Thanks again @ScholarSarah!
          Great stuff.
          Your arguments about logic are fabulous. They sound just like this: https://en.m.wikibooks.org/wiki/Introduction_to_Philosophical_Logic/Consistency_and_Inconsistency . Also they seem like the argument that Captain Janeway uses against Tuvok in Voyager S1E9 Prime Factors. She says that basically anything can be justified with logic as logic is not an ethical system, only a tool for emotionless measurement of consistency. In other words, logic has its own version of the is-ought problem. We cannot derive moral choices from logic or reason alone.
          As a teacher, I think it is also interesting the way your talk about reward systems. I don’t know if you would draw this parallel directly, but you characterize these reward systems the same way Skinner outlines Behaviorism. If what I remember from my classes is correct, then he felt the same way as you describe about intentions. Behaviorism posits that intentions and minds are unknowable, therefore they can be safely ignored. Instead we are to focus on the behaviors that are engaged in and use rewards (called reinforcement) and punishment to foster behaviors we want and eliminate behaviors we do not want. Two problems are evident from my description, because most people would agree that morality does have an intention/mind-based element, and most behavior is layered into complex social systems and therefore not easy to isolate in order to reinforce of punish.
          Virtue ethics sounds like the most pragmatic ethical framework. All decisions are based on context therefore generalization rules are not necessary. Decisions can be thought of as connected to but not ultimately dictated by the good of others, contrasted with utilitarianism. Also what it means to be a “good” person is derived from the values of one’s culture and society so the historical evolution of moral values is not an immediate indictment against the theory.
          I am sure there are other elements I am missing, and other objections that need to be addressed. If you want to talk more about it, I would love to have that conversation.


          • ScholarSarah Well Actually #

            My point above is that the world is too complicated to make perfect predictions about an action’s effects on aggregate utility, or for an enumerated list of commandments to provide exclusive and exhaustive guidance.

            I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that logic itself has an is-ought problem, as the is-ought problem is originally used as a critique of logical arguments. I agree that ethical reasoning generally runs into an is-ought problem, (i.e. if I don’t want to always act from pure reason, or if I don’t want to base my every action on the greatest good for the greatest number, Kant and Locke do not tell me what I ought to do), which is why I am a fan of Virtue Ethics, which only requires me to want to live a good life, which is a much easier premise to assume. Logic is ultimately a tool for moving from premises to conclusions, and less for telling you what your premises should be.

            I might not go so far as to disregard intentions and minds, as understanding the etiology of a behavior can be helpful in designing interventions and avoiding unintended consequences. My point is mostly that it is cruel to create an incentive system but then punish people for engaging with the system you created.

            I don’t doubt that moral intuitions will often tell people that morality has an intentional element, however, I do not believe that adding in an intention element helps an incentive scheme: in fact, over time, behavior will affects attitude. This phenomenon is discussed on the episode of the Cracked Podcast: What The Golden Rule Gets Wrong About Human Psychology, the premise of which being that if you act a certain way, eventually your attitude will adjust to match your behavior.

            I don’t think that Virtue Ethics implies moral relativism: Virtue is defined by its contribution to a good life, which doesn’t mean living up to what your society expects from you, but speaks to more universal needs.
            I would treat the effects of historical evolution of moral values on Virtue Ethics like the progress in hard sciences: the underlying facts do not change, only our understanding of them. We have no trouble understanding that the best scientific understanding in a previous era could still be wrong at the time, similarly I propose that we can still judge the best moral judgment of a previous era as still being wrong.

            Virtue Ethics never claimed to give specific answers, only gives a general framework of pursuing the good life by acting virtuously and so is flexible enough to accommodate moral progress.

          • jmasoncooper #

            For some reason there is not a reply button under your comment @ScholarSarah, but here is my response.
            #1. Yes, yes, I will shout to the heavens Yes! The world is way more complicated than I, and I personally believe, most other people think it is. I agree that it seems like virtue ethics offers a better moral framework for achieving “the good life” than either deontology (rules) or consequentialism (utility).
            #2. “Logic is ultimately a tool for moving from premises to conclusions, and less for telling you what your premises should be.” Your words do a better job of saying what I was trying to get at than I did. So thanks!
            #3. I was not trying to make a case for disregarding intentions. I only wanted to point out how your explanation seemed to mirror other things I had heard. Sorry if that was not clear. I think you would agree that phronesis (or practical wisdom gained from experience) is tied to not only actions but intentions as well. Through experience we ought to learn that we should not rely on luck to make us moral, but should strive to do the right things for the right reasons in order to make the greatest gains in striving toward “the good life.”
            #4. “My point is mostly that it is cruel to create an incentive system but then punish people for engaging with the system you created.” This is great. It would seem to be immoral to create a moral catch-22’s and then condemn those trapped by it to guilt and shame for not being able to escape.
            #5. Regarding moral relativism, I think you take an interesting position. Allow me to try and articulate what I think is your position, and please correct me if I am wrong.
            You are arguing from a moral realist position that there are moral laws that transcend subjectivity, and the process of time and history has allowed humankind to evolve in our moral sense to better align our own understanding of “the good life” with those moral laws.
            I want to try and draw on three historical examples to try and best elucidate what you are saying. Number one is the Spartan’s treatment of children. So the Spartans were a warrior culture that fought with their own subjects every year in order to maintain their dominance and to extract resources. In order to have a sufficiently viable military they would kill babies that did not meet their standards, and then take children away from their mothers and force them to fight and steal. If I am right about your position then you would say that this was horrific child abuse and morally objectionable. But if moral relativism holds then the Spartan “good life” could have been one of courageous fighting, death in battle, and the raising of warrior children.
            Number two would be slavery. If your position holds then slavery was always morally objectionable and wrong for every culture that practiced it, even if they were not sufficiently morally evolved to understand the immorality of slavery. But if moral relativism holds then whole cultures of people are not considered immoral because they embraced slavery, and slaves could find the “good life” while in slavery and slave holders could be more or less moral in the treatment of their slaves. (I am not arguing that slavery was good, or that we should go back to it. I am only pointing out that there is a possibility that slaves were not only ever unhappy or that slave holders could not be otherwise good people e.g. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.)
            Lastly, number three, the transition in the last decade of recognizing gay rights. If I am correctly explaining your position then you would say that we now have evolved in our moral understanding of the virtues of compassion and empathy and so we have come closer to living the “good life”. From the moral relativist position it was right to not support gay marriage as long as the culture agreed, and now the culture has changed and so it is right to support it. Or alternatively, it is right for people who believe in the Bible to reject an equivalence between gay relationships and heterosexual ones, and it is not right for people who do not believe in the Bible to do the same.
            Now you may feel uncomfortable with any or all of these arguments. If so please feel free to not respond, or to call me out. I am not trying to support or defend morally objectionable behavior. I just want to draw the lines between what we are saying and what we are not saying.

          • ScholarSarah Well Actually #

            I believe there is no longer a direct Reply button because we have reached the limit of how deep the website is willing to nest comments (as the display width decreases with every reply, it would eventually become unreadable).

            #1: Nitpick: deontology and consequentialism do not promise their adherents “the good life”. They might believe assume that they are good for their adherents, but (for example) there is nothing stopping adherence to Utilitarianism from reducing its practitioners to being used up like “The Giving Tree”. Virtue Ethics is curious in that its base structure is selfish, but understands enough about human nature to know that pro-social behavior is in fact in the individual’s self-interest.

            #3: I believe that the idea of intention is orthogonal to Virtue Ethics. Aristotle derives Virtue Ethics from a descriptive analysis of human action: people act in pursuit of some things which they deem good and the sum of those goods is a good life. Someone can be mistaken about whether an act will contribute to a good life (a binge drinker unaware of the damage they are doing to themselves), or be unable to conform their behavior to their judgement (an alcoholic who knows they have a problem but are unable to stop drinking), but in order to have bad intentions under Virtue Ethics an actor would have to have as their ultimate aim the destruction of the goodness of their life.

            #5: You are correct in that I side with Moral Realism over Moral Relativism, and your examples bring up some interesting points.

            It is strange to have the idea of slaveholders otherwise being good people. I am reminded of the quip: “Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” I suppose one could separate out large elements and analyze the rest, but in the final analysis, the slave-holding comes back in, and has a lot of weight.

            That brings up a broader issue I have about trying to make global moral judgments about people; that is, trying to say whether a person is a Good Person or a Bad Person. I don’t find it to be particularly valid or useful. I can say that Jefferson was good as a Declaration Writer but bad as a Slave Owner, but I’ve never quite known how to judge whether he was all together a Good or a Bad Person, and further, what I am supposed to do with that information. I resonate with Stannis Baratheon’s quote: “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward.”

            Which is why I am partial to Virtue Ethics, as it does not generally concern itself with such global judgments. Virtuous acts will tend to make your life better, and vicious acts will tend to make it worse. The only place I see where it might matter if you believe someone to be a Good Person is as one way to gain knowledge about Virtue when you are uncertain: to look to someone who is Virtuous and emulate their behavior. In such a case, it would be simple enough to set aside their slave ownership as not being worthy of emulation, and examine their other behaviors.

            Lastly, your ambivalence on the relevant standard for support for Gay Rights under moral relativism reveals what strikes me as a fatally flawed assumption of moral relativism: that the cultural standards are exhaustive and exclusive. If on a national level, support for Gay Rights is the norm, but you live in a community that rejects that norm, which norms does a relativist apply? Would we have to say that the person who takes their community’s position is good, but that the community within the nation is wicked? How, then, would we judge the patrons of the Stonewall Inn in the 60’s, who, defined by traits that the wider world deemed wicked, created their own community? Does a sufficiently robust cultural enclave create its own standard against which to be judged? And lastly, if the standards of the community are maintained through censorship, (oppressing anyone who expresses a contrary opinion), is that standard the one which ought to apply, or does the necessity of repressing the contrary opinion mean that the society’s standards are unclear, and only the accident of political and martial power determines which standard is most often stated?

            I have a lot of unanswered questions that lead me to dislike moral relativism.

          • jmasoncooper #

            Thanks @ScholarSarah for continuing to engage in the conversation and not getting offended because I want to talk about difficult subjects. Your points are excellent and are really helping me to refine my own views. I really appreciate it.
            Your #1 in reference to my #1. — You are right to say that the “good life” is only explicitly a part of virtue ethics, not consequentialism or deontology. I would say, however, that as ethical frameworks they are interested in answering the question “what should I do, and why?” So they may not explicitly address the “good life,” I would say that they imply that a good life is a life that is lived in an ethically consistent way that follows their guidelines, either based on reason and rules, or happiness calculus. I think that you are right to say that virtue ethics seems the most practical in that it is rooted in manipulating self-interest for the benefit of all in a similar way to that conceived of by the framers of the American Constitution in checks and balances.
            #3. You do a great job of illustrating your point about how judgments about intentions are a non-starter for virtue ethics. If I understand you right, and correct me if I am wrong, a fundamental characteristic of a virtue is its desirability. Virtues, by definition, are something we want, and vices are something we seek to purge (at least when we are aware of them). In this way, Gordon Gekko’s famous line, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” is an oxymoron. Greed is a vice and cannot be good. That is very interesting, if I am framing it correctly. So please help me get this right. And in response to your final point about how a Virtue ethicist might undermine their own good life, would masochism qualify? Or would the enjoyment of pain just be another element in that particular persons view of their own good life?
            #5. Your explanation above is transcendent to me. It seems to at once meet the needs of the two conflicting views I have been trying to sort through for a while (moral relativism and moral realism). The power of virtue ethics is that it short circuts the arguments of both. A true relativist cannot argue. Here is my favorite quote on relativism from Plato at Stanford: “Ordinarily, the very act of defending a philosophical position commits us to the dialectical move of attempting to convince our interlocutors of the superior value of what we are arguing for. The relativist cannot make such a commitment and therefore his attempts to persuade others to accept his position may be pragmatically self-refuting. The relativist can avoid the standard charge of self-refutation by accepting that relativism cannot be proven true in any non-relative sense—viz., that relativism itself as a philosophical position is at best true only relative to a cultural or historical context and therefore could be false in other frameworks or cultures. But such an admission will undermine the relativist’s attempt to convince others of her position, for the very act of argumentation, as it is commonly understood, is an attempt to convince those who disagree with us of the falsehood of their position. In other words, if Protagoras really believes in relativism why would he bother to argue for it?” (see: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/#NewRel)
            And the problem I have with moral realism is that without a supernatural law giver who can say what the moral laws actually are – and I am not convinced by the available evidence that there is any such law giver. (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaHXKLRKzg&t=3315s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xliyujhwhNM&t=111s)
            But your explanation gets around both of these problems. If we focus on virtues then, like you say, we can pick and choose which elements of peoples lives or stories we choose as our exemplars. We are not bound to an all or nothing commitment. And regarding moral realism, I am not sure I can fully commit to a supernatural morality, but I think that I can commit to a consensus approach to virtues based on the history of humanity. There have been enough stories written that detail virtues and vices, that I think we (and by we I mean all people that accept virtue ethics) can agree that virtues are desirable because they make our lives better at the same time they make others lives better, while vices make our lives worse or make our better at the expense of others.
            If I am misrepresenting or misunderstanding anything you are trying to say, then please correct me. And thank you again for engaging in this discussion. It has been personally very enlightening.

          • ScholarSarah Well Actually #

            #1: When you talk of manipulating self-interest, it calls to my mind neoclassical economic theories of economics, and the horrifying model of the self-interested actor that they use. My desire in supporting Virtue Ethics is not to reinforce that model, where self-interest must be guarded against by pitting it in competition with the self-interest of others, but to spread a contrary model, where self-interest isn’t bad, only limited understandings of it are: I would call self-interest a Virtue, being the mean between too little self-concern, where you suffer for want of material goods, and too much self-concern, where you suffer for want of immaterial goods (e.g., positive social interaction). The telos of a government organization, then, would not be to pit the self-interest of its citizens against each other, but to foster citizens to have the correct amount of self-concern.

            #3: The Gordon Gekko quote is interesting. When he uses the word “Greed”, I understand that to mean over-acquisitiveness. Now, he tautologically cannot mean that too much acquisitiveness is good, as “too much” means a bad quantity. So when he says “Greed is good”, he is making a linguistically complex move, and actually saying “The reference set of behaviors that you think of when I say ‘Greed’ are not destructive, as you believe they are, but actually positive [in some way] (I haven’t seen the movie, so I cannot tease out precisely what he intends by “good).” Which is perfectly possible under Virtue Ethics: the explanation would be that the generally understood definition of Greed falls well short of the Virtuous median between too much acquisitiveness and too little acquisitiveness.
            I wouldn’t quite claim masochism as being inconsistent with the good life. Like most things, there are better and worse ways to participate in BDSM, (50 Shades of Grey generally demonstrates bad ones), and actual masochism (as opposed to self-harm) is just a matter of accepting a smaller harm for a larger benefit – think of it like exercise, you cause yourself physical discomfort for a larger emotional satisfaction. I am having difficulty thinking of an example of what bad ultimate intentions would look like under Virtue Ethics; I have to go to something like an Ayn Rand novel, where the antagonists have the same moral system as the protagonists, but just chose wrong things for inscrutable reasons (as elucidated in this article: Interesting Villains – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2014/10/atlas-shrugged-interesting-villains/)

            #5: It’s possible that moral relativism is a defensive ideology. It is not deployed to affirmative convince someone of anything, but merely to avoid engaging with certain moral problems. “If the Saudi government wants to prevent women from voting, who am I to judge?” I cannot see what benefit it might give to its adherent other than to narrow their area of concern.
            Two quibbles. First, the criteria for what is and is not a Virtue do not directly consider whether it makes other people’s live better. For an example, I would point to Sam and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. Frodo is the central heroic figure, and the more self-sacrificing, and Sam the sidekick. However, at the end, Frodo is exhausted and worn out, but Sam goes on to live 61 years into the Fourth Age, happily marry, have 13 children and be elected mayor 7 times. The character that can go home again, like Sam, is a better exemplar under Virtue Ethics, and Frodo is too self-sacrificing.
            Second, while the best understanding of Virtue might be arrived at by looking for consensus, what actually is Virtuous is independent of consensus. I liken moral facts to scientific ones. The Earth is round even if people do not believe it to be round. You may not have the resources available to know that it is round, but a consensus about the shape of the Earth is not the same as the truth of it. The difference being that establishing a consensus does not absolve the actor from the necessity of understanding the topic and coming to a conclusion by applying their own judgment.

          • jmasoncooper #

            #1. I was trying to make that connection to classical economics, so thank you for responding. I think I understand what you mean. Self-Interest is a very loaded term (with the baggage you reference) so I like how you framed it as self-concern. If you look at my first post immediately under the article I talk about the difference between pro-self and anti-self, and pro-social and anti-social. Those considerations are very important. I agree with you that striving for the golden mean of self-concern between asceticism and hedonism is the right course.
            1a. I am going to complicate the discussion of the golden mean a little bit and I would like to know what you think. As I was considering the idea of the golden mean of virtue, I came at it from a practical angle. To my mind, in real life, the golden mean of virtue manifests itself a lot more like the myth of sisyphus than any actual attainable thing. What I mean is that we, as humans, generally start in a position at one end of a bell curve with the “vice of not enough” on one side, a perfectly round hill of virtue in the middle, and the “vice of too much” on the other side. From your example in Lord of the Rings: Frodo starts on the side of not enough self-sacrifice as he really doesn’t want to leave the Shire and tries to give Gandalf the ring. Once he accepts his quest his self-sacrificing virtue increases. Around the time he reaches Rivendale he hits the high-point of near perfect virtue of self-sacrifice, but as he approaches Mordor he falls into too much self-sacrifice and he won’t allow Sam to help him carry the burden of the ring. Now I think I am over simplifying, but I think this illustrates my point. And I imagine that over the course of a life we are constantly battleing to strive for that pinnacle of virtue and constantly finding ourselves on one side or the other. Now, in my estimation, there is a big difference between striving for virtue and the myth of sisyphus because in the myth the boulder always falls all the way down the hill, but with virtue I would say we can grow and change to ensure that the boulder does not fall all the way down. In this way our virtuous nature can grow, mature, and improve. So we ought to be struggling always toward that golden mean of every virtue.
            1b. A second quibble I have with the idea of the golden mean is the notion of false equivalence. In other words, how do we know that the golden mean is the true center between vices and not actually somewhere else because the two opposing sides are not actually on equal footing. Now this is not me trying to trip you up, or be a jerk. We see in the modern news media (especially around the climate change debate) how false equivalence can cause misrepresentations. I think it is a real problem and if you have ideas, solutions, or suggestions I would love to hear them.
            #3. Your point is well taken. I absolutely think that people can say things that on the surface seem contradictory or outlandish, but really just imply that a change in perspective is needed. I also have not seen the movie and so I cannot speak to his actual intent either.
            #5. I appreciate your comments and they make relativism make a lot more sense. That it would be a way to absolve one from actually having to address an issue is valuable, but it seems like as a philosophical position it undermines itself and so is not useful. I just think it is weird that sometimes when talking to people they will hold strong deontological views on one subject and relativist views on another. It seems a bit disingenuous or at least ignorant. Regarding consensus, I was not trying to imply that consensus should be a shortcut to eliminate one’s responsibility to understand virtue. I meant that I personally think the question of whether moral laws exist in an objective sense is not interesting. In my opinion, the existence of non-subjective moral laws is not a falsifiable claim as we are all bounded by subjectivity and have no evidence that a supernatural law-giver exists. In other words, whether moral laws exist outside of human minds and we tap into them, or moral laws are creations of humans and have been recorded in our history and myths is not an important issue for me. The consensus of people is that there are right actions and wrong actions, right thought and wrong thoughts, virtues and vices, and that is good enough for me. Now, as you say, comes the work of learning what those things are by studying the past through history, literature, mythology, etc.
            One final note. I am a teacher and I really love what you said about the role of government in a virtue ethics framework. “The telos of a government organization, then, would not be to pit the self-interest of its citizens against each other, but to foster citizens to have the correct amount of self-concern.” That to me sounds great. The primary aim of education ought to be enlarging people’s self-concern and helping them discover what is in their best interests and how to achieve it. To my mind, education has strayed too far into vocational training. Many kids just go to school now expecting to do the work and get handed a diploma and then getting handed a job. I know I did. Real life does not work like that. Just because you went to school does not mean anybody owes you a job. To my mind, school is too much about ‘doing school’ and not about preparing students for the types of choices and work that the real world will require. The age of ‘go to college and improve you life’ is over if ever it actually existed.

  5. Zac #

    I can’t possibly be the only one who noticed that under the points-based system in the first of those two images, you come out still being pretty good to if you commit genocide to end slavery.


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      I definitely missed that! I suppose that’s Just War theory taken to 11.


  6. ScholarSarah Well Actually #

    I noticed that, too! It made me think that Faceless Men from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones might qualify for the Good Place.


  7. DeanMoriarty Well Actually #

    I just thought of something else that is important to this analysis.
    The four people to be in “The Good Place” were picked because they would be perfect to torture each other, as we see in the neat little flow chart Michael points to during his presentation. So, the point system that got them there might be less important than where they fit into Michael’s prototype neighborhood. Perhaps how you live your life is something that gets taken into account if you don’t end up as a pawn in someone’s attempt to “shake up the system.”


    • jmasoncooper #

      @DeanMoriarty, you use the word ‘torture,’ but would annoy be a better way to say it. I do think the question of being annoying is an interesting moral one. Is being annoying, not malicious or hateful, an immoral act?
      Is taking pleasure in being annoying, e.g. trolling, immoral?


      • DeanMoriarty Well Actually #

        I was mostly paraphrasing what Michael was saying during his presentation (from what I remember anyway).
        I think you’re correct that it never rises to the level of torture, but the workers of the Bad Place seem to be expecting Michael’s project to be a kind of torture and judging it’s “success” on that basis. What that says about their view of torture and annoyance, I’m not sure.


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