I think about The Good Place‘s afterlife point system all the time, especially with smaller ethical decisions I might otherwise not give much thought to. When my city stopped accepting plastic shopping bags in our normal recycling bins, I wanted to start throwing them away instead. It would be easy, and no one would know but me. But then I thought about how many cosmic deductions I’d get for being lazy and hurting the planet, so I save them and bring them to a place that takes them. However, I don’t do it for points; I don’t actually believe a convoluted moral scoring system will determine my eternal fate. The show has made me a better person for a different reason, because I do believe in is the show’s real message – that we owe it to each other to create a better life right now.
The Good Place forces you to confront your own value system constantly, in a practical and accessible way. Being an ethical person does not mean sitting in on Chidi’s class where ideas like Kant’s Categorical Imperative competes with Utilitarianism in a vacuum of moral theory. Being ethical is a series of real choices with real consequences. Sometimes those choices are small and relatively painless, like Eleanor having to clean up garbage instead of doing something fun, and sometimes they are monumental and difficult, like Tahani forgiving her cruel sister with a loving embrace.
But while those moments are scored by a supernatural accounting firm on the show, I have no idea what kind of afterlife might wait for us. On any given day I don’t even really know what I believe about death, god, and the possibility of froyo that tastes like “Beyoncé Compliments Your Hair.” Since I don’t, I haven’t exactly turned into Doug Forcett drinking my own filtered urine because I’m convinced it will get me into Heaven. Hell, I eat veal (I know), and I definitely wouldn’t do that if I worried about my score in the Book of Michaels. I might think about The Good Place‘s scoring system all the time, but not because I’m accumulating points towards eternal salvation or damnation or because I’m concerned with “moral dessert.”
The show’s not really worried about that either. Yes, the Brainy Bunch want to go to the real Good Place, but when Eleanor had a chance at eternal happiness after passing the Judge’s test, she refused to go without her friends. Even after the group learned they were doomed in season three, when Michael accidentally ruined the Judge’s new experiment, they then committed themselves to saving their family and friends’ souls. An eternity of suffering with the people you care about trumped an eternity in the Good Place alone (how good can it be without the people you care about anyway?), and eternal damnation didn’t stop them from trying to do the right thing.
The real question The Good Place makes us all face isn’t about how to get into Heaven; it’s the one Michael posed to a struggling Eleanor in the season two finale, the one that pushed her to find Chidi back on Earth: “What do we owe to each other?”
We have no promise of a point-tracking afterlife, but all of our choices do impact everyone around us, usually in ways that are easy to forget. I bring those plastic bags to be recycled at the grocery store, and when I’m done shopping I have the same tiny, relatively unimportant choice: leave my carriage in the parking spot next to me, or return it to the cart wrangler 30 feet away. If I’m lazy (and oh how easy it is to be lazy) I make one person’s job harder and possibly annoy someone who now can’t park there. It’s in those instances, when no one is watching, I remember The Good Place‘s point system. But as I put my cart away I’m thinking about how the show worries about the very real people my decision will impact, for better or worse.
I’d rather it be for the better, because as Eleanor found out when she consciously tried to be a moral person, and as the Judge learned when she visited Earth, life is really freaking hard and complicated enough. The universe can feel like it’s working against us sometimes. And even when it’s not, it’s hard to be a good person with all of the unintended consequences of our actions. It’s hard to even know what’s right and what’s wrong a lot of the time.
Do I always pass these tests and act selflessly? Not even close, the same as Tahani, Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor. Am I even saying I’m a truly good person? No, I don’t think I am. But I do think I’m a better person because of the show than before I watched it. It makes me question who and what I value, and it makes me think about what I do and what it will mean for others, especially in the least important moments when I could do anything I want in anonymity. And if I can do the right thing in the smallest moments, I can do it for the biggest ones too.
Featured Image: NBC