"The Good Place," an NBC comedy just beginning its second season, starts with a quirky premise.
Due to some celestial error, selfish and unpleasant Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has made it into heaven: the good place. She immediately recognizes the mistake, but she intends to earn her spot (or in any case, to "pass") before any higher-ups are the wiser. Conveniently enough, her heavenly soul mate (played by William Jackson Harper) was a philosophy professor in his earthly life. He specialized in ethics — and he agrees to teach her how to be good.
It's not everyday that philosophy makes it to a major television network. The show flirts with Kant and utilitarianism; Sartre makes an unannounced appearance. Where other shows consult lawyers or doctors or experts in forensics, "The Good Place" has a philosophical advisor.
So I was eager to watch the show for its engagement with philosophy in a popular medium. But, instead, I found myself gripped by the psychology — what initially struck me as very bad psychology.
You see, the idea behind Eleanor Shellstrop's private tutoring in ethics is that learning about ethical theories is enough to become a good person, or at least to learn to behave like one. But human behavior isn't so simple: There's a big gap between knowing what's right in the abstract and doing the right thing when it requires a very concrete sacrifice in the moment. (Knowing about nutrition, for example, is no guarantee that you'll choose the kale salad over the pizza.)