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Skepticism

‘The Good Place’ proves positive skepticism is possible

It can even make the universe a better place.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

To kick things off, philosopher and ethics professor Aaron Rabinowitz returns to praise one of the most surprising, emotional, and skeptical shows on television, as it shuffles off this mortal coil.

The Good Place’s series finale has come and gone, and I just want to curl up into a Janet-sized marble. I still remember the day when three separate people told me I must watch this strange show immediately. Upon viewing, I could only describe the NBC sitcom-with-twist as a weirdly specific boon from the universe. How had a show about cosmic unfairness, starring a neurotic ethics professor and his gang of lovable miscreants, ever gotten made? And how was it so popular?!

I was baffled at first, but it quickly became clear that the show had something more than a banging cast of hilarious hotties. The Good Place had a philosophical core of cheerful skepticism, which is exactly what the world needs right now.

So much need, please don’t go…

For folks not familiar with The Good Place, please don’t keep reading this spoiler-filled article. Please go and start with episode one and let the mystery unfold. For everyone else, let’s talk about the moral heart of this show. For once in my life as an ethicist, I don’t have to feel bad about making a discussion all about ethics, because that’s The Good Place’s whole shtick.

Everything in the show is about ethics, or morality (I use those words interchangeably as is common in moral philosophy these days). The show raises big questions about what it means to lead a good life, what it would take for the universe to be just, what causes people to act immorally, and if they should be punished or rehabilitated. All of these are fundamental moral questions that matter for each of us.

This is my happy place.

What sets The Good Place apart from more traditional morality tales is the show’s commitment to cheerful skepticism. That might sound like a weird combination, so let me explain.

It’s the gang’s skepticism that helps them to realize, over and over and over again, that the world is not as it seems, and the authority figures are not to be trusted. Upon uncovering the horrors of their situation, our gang of scrappy humans and their supernatural supporters challenge the fairness of the current afterlife system.

Through many hilarious trials and tribulations, they earn their liberation, and by extension, the liberation of humanity, all because of their persistent refusal to accept an unjust status quo. Through skepticism, they come to discover that the system is fundamentally broken, and that nobody in charge has any idea how to fix it.

Only then, when everyone on the show and everyone in the audience has come to well and truly hate ethics professors, does The Good Place provide us with the cheerful hope of substantial reform. Of course, it would be absurd to expect even the most brilliant half-hour sitcom to solve the fundamental problems of ethics, but the show does manage to move the ball down the field. The gang is able to convince the authorities there’s a problem with the system, through ethical arguments and experiments, and in the end they’re given the power to bring about substantial change.

What’s glorious is that the most fundamental change they bring is to do away with endless, pointless, retributive punishment, in favor of a system that reforms people and gives everyone infinite chances for redemption. The idea that everyone will eventually make it to “the good place” is a revolutionary theological idea that can be found in reform churches like Christian Universalism.

The essential insight here is that proportionality is a key feature of just punishment, and no amount of finite immorality could ever be proportional to infinite punishment. While the doctrine of universal salvation doesn’t completely resolve the unjust nature of the universe, it’s a significant improvement.

That feeling when you finally understand ethics

So as we say goodbye to our beloved friends, let us go forth and be like the gang, filled with cheerful skepticism. Let us be willing to speak truth to power when things are broken, while banding together to mend it. Kristin Bell and her husband Dax Shepard are already out there, pushing back on anti-vaxxers. Jameela Jamil is waging a one-woman war against celebrity-endorsed detox products.

They need our help, because many things are broken in our world right now. Screw your cheerful skepticism to the sticking place and let’s do the thing.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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