Michael (Ted Danson) and Eleanor (Kristen Bell), 'The Good Place' (NBC).
Fill up your coffee pot and get ready to buy a whole new set of moral philosophy books because the third season of The Good Place is back on September 27. The NBC exploration of what it truly means to be good has already taught us how to cope with pretty much every moral dilemma in the universe, while giving us a laundry list of things to avoid doing if we want to stay out of hell (just say no to those vanity license plates and Red Hot Chili Peppers tickets, people!). So before we dive into Season 3, here's a quick refresher of the most important lessons we've learned so far. (Warning: Spoilers are coming!)
1. Good Deeds Don't Automatically Make You A Good Human
Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) winds up in the Bad Place despite raising $60 billion for charity. Why? Because she was only doing it in an attempt to outshine her famous sister and win the approval of her (terrible) parents. Similarly, Eleanor doesn't benefit from doing good deeds in the Good Place, because she's only doing them in order to stay out of the Bad Place. Self-interest sullies all. As Maya Rudolph's all-knowing judge points out at the end of Season 2: "You're supposed to do good things because they're good—not for moral dessert."
Lesson: Our overlords know when our motivations are pure. If you only do good stuff for selfish reasons, you are still going to hell. Sorry!
2. "Humans Make A Lot of Mistakes When They're Horny"
So says Michael (Ted Danson), head demon and inventor of the fake Good Place.
Lesson: What he said.
3. Design Your A.I. Technology Carefully
Once someone figures out how to make life-like robots, in all likelihood they will be smarter, more efficient and fairer than humans. Anthropomorphized "vessel of knowledge" Good Janet (as opposed to the infinitely more flatulent Bad Janet) is all of these things. Plus, thanks to being in her 25th generation and rebooted too many times, she's also now complex enough to develop emotional attachments and a sense of responsibility.
Janet offers a perky, aesthetically pleasing antidote to every form of A.I. we've ever seen on the likes of Black Mirror. Even if Janet is upset or drunk on magnets, the only weapon she ever really wields against humans is using our own stupid emotions or inferior brains against us.
Lesson: The robots are going to outsmart us in the end, so let's make sure they all get super amenable personality chips like Good Janet's. Otherwise, when we try to kill them, we'll end up with a Westworld shoreline massacre situation, and not the much nicer stroll on the beach we see in the clip above. Which would you rather?
4. Moral Philosophy Will Make Your Brain Hurt
British philosopher Philippa Foot's Trolley Problem gets turned into a literal—and gory—moral exercise, as Michael forces Chidi to live out his own lesson about utilitarianism (i.e. the idea that whichever action benefits the majority of people is the best one). Episodes later, Michael, who had initially been using the exercise as a form of torture for the chronically indecisive Chidi, decides that the answer to the trolley problem is, in fact, personal sacrifice. The demon has come a long way, baby!
Lesson: Utilitarianism: bad. Selflessness: good.
5. Kierkegaard Is A Lifesaver
Philosopher and father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard thought "that to have faith is at the same time to have doubt. So, for example, for one to truly have faith in God, one would also have to doubt one's beliefs about God; the doubt is the rational part of a person's thought involved in weighing evidence, without which the faith would have no real substance."
The only reason I know this is because of an episode of The Good Place in which Michael references Kierkegaard in order to send a secret message to the humans to have faith in him, even in the midst of their fears that he cannot be trusted. Chidi's Kierkegaard rap in Season 1 didn't hurt either. (“My name is Kierkegaard and my writing is impeccable! / Check out my teleological suspension of the ethical!”)
Lesson: When Eleonor says a leap of faith is better than a "sit of doubt," she is correct!
6. The Flaws of Deontological Ethics
Professor of Moral Philosphy, Chidi, can't get enough of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, and tries to teach Eleanor his theories of deontological ethics. Essentially, Kant believed that religion and morality were separate entities, not reliant on one another. He suggested instead that our moral compasses should be guided by reason, potential effects on others and what he called categorical imperatives. In other words: “It doesn’t matter whether you want to be moral or not—the moral law is binding on all of us” and provides us with “commands you must follow, regardless of your desires.”
Chidi is walking-talking, indecisive proof that trying to follow these principles is almost entirely impossible since, for example, he holds a stricter moral code than anyone around him, on Earth or otherwise.
Lesson: Kant's theories are great in, well, theory. In practice, life is a little more complicated.
7. Moral Particularism Is Super Useful
When Chidi and Eleanor find themselves at a cocktail party in hell, trying to blend in with demons, Chidi begins to have a crisis about lying to get through the situation since he believes that lying is always bad (even when you're doing it to be nice). Eleanor knocks some sense into him using theories by Jonathan Dancy. "There are no fixed rules that work in every situation," she says. "Like, you promised your friend you'd go to the movies, but then your mom suddenly gets rushed to the E.R. Your boy Kant would say 'Never break a promise. Go see Chronicles of Riddick! It doesn't matter if your mom gets lonely and steals a bucket of Vicodin from the nurse's closet!' But a moral particularist would say there's no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation."
Lesson: It's okay to break promises and/or lie to other people if you have a good enough reason. Hurray!
8. No, Seriously: Design Your A.I. Technology VERY Carefully
She's not supposed to be able to do it, but when she wants a rebound guy after her failed marriage to Jason, Janet invents Derek, a malfunctioning humanoid who has windchimes instead of a penis.
Lesson: If A.I. units figure out how to build other beings, the events that follow will likely be calamitous.
9. Always Start With Aristotle
When Eleanor is first tasked with trying to become a better person in order to fit into The Good Place, Chidi starts her off with a foundation of theories by ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It's an uphill struggle, but the teachings of Aristotle, in particular, lead to the first breakthrough Chidi makes in getting Eleanor to be a less deplorable human.
Lesson: If you're trying to transform someone's decision-making process from the emotional to the logical, Aristotle is a damn good place to start.
10. It's The Little Things
One of the key ways that Michael's fake Good Place is really the Bad Place is the removal of simple pleasures, like swearing, full-fat ice cream and functioning television. Not being able to curse freely is a major irritant for Eleanor from the get-go, and Michael's insistence on making most of the stores in their midst frozen yogurt-based, turn out to be subtle—but extremely effective—forms of torture.
Lesson: Watching good TV while eating real ice cream, and the ability to gleefully swear about those things are just some of the things that make being human better.
As we start Season 3, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani have been sent back to Earth to prove they've become better people since they last died. If they remember half of what we've learned so far, they'll be in the real Good Place in no time. Knowing this show's twist and turns though? Un-forking-likely.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.