NBC’s hit series The Good Place is the Divina Commedia of the 21st century, where Western European ethical theory plays out on a cosmic scale. But as the show enters its fourth and final season on September 26, its central philosophical dilemma is strikingly Buddhist.
For anyone who missed the past three seasons, a Summa Buddhologica of the plot follows: Michael (Ted Danson) is a Mara-like demon architect who constructs an illusory utopian afterlife that is designed to make humans mentally torture each other for all eternity, much like Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist scenario where “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”). After deceased party girl Eleanor (Kristen Bell) meets the moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and tries to become a better person, she figures out Michael’s fake-heaven trick. So Michael hits the reset button. But with each new incarnation, Eleanor attempts to better herself and eventually sees through the deception. Thousands of reincarnations later, Michael begins to respect Eleanor, Chidi, and the other humans, and ultimately decides to help them get into the real Good Place, arguing that the method of placing people into the Bad Place is flawed.
Those Good/Bad Place decisions are based on the “point system,” a parody of our popular conceptions about how karma works. Cosmic accountants accurately “examine the action—the use of resources, the intentions behind it, its effects on others” and award or subtract points for good or bad deeds. But there’s a problem. No one has gotten into the Good Place in more than five hundred years. When Michael learns that not even the ridiculously altruistic poster-child Doug Forcett (Mike McKeon) will be able to accumulate enough points to get in, he investigates further and realizes that the culprit is the law of unintended consequences, which in an increasingly complex and interconnected world has essentially doomed anyone from earning a spot in the real Good Place ever again.
As Michael tells The Judge (brilliantly played by SNL alum Maya Rudolf): “These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to global warming. Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making (Season 3, Episode 11).” Life has become “so complicated that it has essentially rendered the point system meaningless,” and we simply don’t have the time to “do the research and buy another tomato” even if we wanted to.
The karma-esque system raises important Buddhological questions. In a radically interdependent world, how can anyone gain liberation if we all don’t? It’s all or nothing, which seems like a rather unfair, unrealistic, and unsatisfactory soteriological system, all things considered.
But even more markedly, this point system forces us to consider what really counts as an ethical action, and raises the classic philosophical conundrum of consequentialism vs. intentionality. From a doctrinal standpoint, Buddhism maintains that the intention behind the action is what matters most, and this would get around The Good Place’s strict tit-for-tat point system problem. In fact, this psychological dimension is what distinguishes Buddhist notions of karma from the more mechanistic Hindu and Jain karmic systems, which is significant. In Hindu brahmanical thought, karmic causality was designed by brahmins for brahmins to maintain social control, as castes were locked into self-perpetuating action-reaction cycles. Jainism pushed this consequential model to its logical extreme by avoiding even accidental harm (himsa) to anything with sentience (jiva). This is why many Jain pilgrims even today will sweep before they step, and wear facemasks to avoid inadvertently inhaling any microbes. (Doug Forcett would definitely approve.)
In contrast to this, the Buddhist psychological twist on human activity placed the karmic weight on unseen motivations. As a result, Buddhists were able to avoid even accidental consequentialism and claim that they had the higher wisdom (prajna) to justify their expedient means (upaya) for liberating others. For these bodhisattvas, the inescapable effects of negative actions were minimized or neutralized if they were motivated by a good cause (e.g. the Lotus Sutra’s case of lying to save children from a burning house), and good actions for a good cause, such as lay donations to the sangha, automatically generated merit according to the Mahayana mechanics of karmic exchange. In short, as long as the purpose is worthy, the karmic points tend to add up in your favor.
But this intention-oriented line of thinking poses its own problems, especially if one considers the self-styled “crazy wisdom” of scandal-plagued Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. He popularized the phrase that was later used to try to exonerate abuse in the name of awakening. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” as the saying goes, and expedient means is no excuse for bad behavior. The actual fallout from inflicted harm, whether emotional, sexual, financial, or environmental, must be considered alongside any motivating rationale.
Zen at War author Brian Victoria has been particularly critical of Japanese monks who rationalized their complicity in World War II with the “violence-enabling mechanism” of karma (blaming the victims and retroactively reasoning that they must have deserved to be tortured, murdered, sold into sexual slavery, and so forth). Likewise, Shin Buddhist sermons proactively reassured Japanese soldiers in Manchuria that their atrocities there were honorable insofar as they hastened their victims’ rebirth in the Pure Land. This kind of warped logic echoes premodern sources that suggest that hunting was karmically sanctioned since it offered the animal a faster chance at a fortunate human rebirth. Provided that one killed with the pure intention to ultimately benefit the victim, no bad merit was generated. These invocations of the intentionality defense clearly distort Buddhist teachings on compassion, non-harm (ahimsa), and the first pratimoksa vow to refrain from killing, but they nevertheless also exist within the Buddhist literary record.
So which is it? Do actions speak louder than anything, or is it the thought that counts? Is there a Middle Way between these two philosophical extremes?
Unfortunately, no, not unless we can leap through The Good Place’s time-space portals to figure it all out in the IHOP (Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes) in the Neutral Zone between the Good and Bad Place. While we’re here on Earth, however, there just doesn’t seem to be any one simple answer. You need to consider both action and intention together, but it’s complicated and we can’t always tell in advance how things will turn out. Good intentions can end badly (as demonstrated above), just as bad intentions can have surprisingly good outcomes. Chidi has the best of intentions to do the right thing, but his indecisiveness actually causes harm to others. In Season 2 episode 5, for example, he repeatedly fails the famous ethical thought experiment of The Trolley Problem in gruesome yet hilarious detail. Conversely, the insufferable (i.e., self-promoting, name-dropping, image-conscious, approval-seeking, falsely humble) charity event organizer Tahani (Jameela Jamil) is actually motivated by deep-seated insecurity, anger, and jealousy of her pop-sensation sister. Despite her deluded motivations, her fundraising efforts do generate millions of dollars for worthy causes that benefit countless others. So it can go both ways.
Furthermore, not even eternal beings like Ted Danson’s Michael or his omniscient virtual assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden) can anticipate everything; they not are exempt from getting caught up in the unintended consequences of trying to act compassionately in a complicated world. Even as they intervene on Earth in Season 3, Episode 3, to clear a metaphorical path for Eleanor “like a snowplow,” that snow eventually has to land somewhere, which causes an avalanche of other problems for everyone else.
The sad fact of life is that “stuff happens.” And in the Hindu-Buddhist cosmology, “stuff” is ultimately going to happen again and again, to everyone, everywhere. But perhaps in this fourth season of The Good Place, and perhaps here on Earth as well, we humans can all get a little better at dealing with our stuff.
At the end of Season 3, Chidi takes the equivalent of the bodhisattva vow to voluntarily reincarnate so as to save all of his friends from eternal suffering. Neither he nor anyone else knows what will happen, but he follows his moral compass and makes the choice, confident in the potential for goodness in himself and those around him. As the consummate navel-gazer of the group, his courage in the face of this unknown turns him into the season finale’s heroic figure. He sees the limits of his knowledge but tries to do what’s right anyway.
Related: What Is a Bodhisattva?
Chidi’s character arc from indecisive paralysis to an altruistic leap of faith is inspiring, and exemplifies the potential for awakening the mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta) in everyone, for everyone. Perhaps we, too, might be able to take a little time to examine and exorcise those mental delusions that compel us to act and react repeatedly in the same old patterned ways. If we can attend to not only our “points” but also to how we think before we act, then perhaps we all just might get into the Good Place together. Or at least get closer to buying a better tomato.
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