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C.S. Morrissey – Global Theatre

The Good Place raises good questions

Voices Jan. 15, 2019

The NBC sitcom The Good Place regularly deals with sophisticated ideas from moral philosophy, such as how to know you're doing good without knowing the consequences, writes Chris Morrissey.  (Colleen Hayes/NBC)

The Good Place is one of the most innovative shows on television. Currently in Season 3, it returned from the Christmas break with an interesting episode.

You can watch the first two seasons on Netflix to get caught up if you wish, since there is no easy way to plunge into the current storyline and have it make any sense.

But the latest episode invoked a philosophical idea we can talk about apart from the show’s complex, ongoing plot.

Chidi, the ethics professor on The Good Place, paraphrases Leo Tolstoy: “There is only one time that is important: now. It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”

Eleonore, his student, recognizes the words, since she remembers seeing them as part of a meme on a fake Tyra Banks Instagram account.

What can we learn, though, when we make an effort to educate ourselves, going beyond the superficial comfort of social media memes?

One of the unique aspects of The Good Place is how it regularly brings in sophisticated ideas from moral philosophy. The characters contemplate how best to transform themselves and live a good life, mirroring the ideas.

In the latest episode, The Book of Dougs (Episode 37), a key problem in ethics was raised: How can we ever know we are doing good, especially when there are so many unintended consequences from an action?

Do unintended bad consequences somehow make an action bad?    

The Tolstoy quote was invoked as the storyline raised this problem of unintended consequences. Do unintentional bad consequences from an action somehow, retroactively, make the original action itself bad?

The episode hinted at a solution. It’s difficult to examine fully, since it is of course intricately wrapped up with the journey that the characters are on in the current season.

Yet the philosophical solution is nonetheless concisely embedded in the storyline in a clever way, using the artistic technique of placing “a story within a story.”

Talented artists use this technique, as a way to insert their own commentary on literary events unfolding in their imaginary world.

Making a cameo and speaking in their own voice would be a bit too obvious. But to have a recursive commentary, accomplished by placing a story within a story, is much more subtle.

This technique invites the spectator to contemplate the significance of the events in the larger story. The smaller story is used as a kind of a filter, to enhance perception of the significance.

In the case of Chidi quoting Tolstoy, the power of the filter becomes clear if we realize his words are taken from Tolstoy’s short story, Three Questions, first published in 1885.

Perhaps we read this story in university. But even without such an education, we still have Internet search engines, which can help us dig deeper into those tantalizing quotes from fake Instagram accounts.

The full passage, occurring in Tolstoy’s story, sums up the lesson a king learns from a wise old hermit:

Remember that there is only one important time and that is now.

“Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

The king had visited the hermit to ask him “three questions,” from which the story has its title: When is the right time for every action? Who are the right people to listen to? What is the most important thing to do?

We can overcomplicate our task of life, worrying about past and future, just as the king does. But Tolstoy’s story, with its parable-like quality (which calls to mind the parable of the Good Samaritan), shows how attention to good action in the current moment is our only task.

The king had chosen to help the silent old hermit dig a ditch. This good action had, unbeknownst to the king, caused him to avoid an attack from an assassin on the road home.

The king later has an opportunity to dress the wounds of the assassin who, unbeknownst to the king, had been recognized and wounded by the king’s bodyguards.

The final result is the king forgives and becomes reconciled to his enemy. The moral is clear: all we should do is focus on the present moment.

Apart from that, we can trust in divine providence for the greater consequences of our present good action.