I took philosophy for a year at university.
I’d really enjoyed studying it in school – so much so that my original plan was to do a joint honours in classics and philosophy. But sadly the University of Edinburgh doesn’t offer that particular combo.
Anyhow, second semester I had to buy a big, big textbook of articles about moral philosophy. I came to hate it with a passion. In retrospect? I think the turning point may have been the lecture spent discussing the trolley problem.
So there’s a runaway trolley – a trolley is like a tram but no-one really calls them trolleys anymore which makes the whole thing surreal and confusing – there’s a runaway trolley and there’s five people tied to the line, but if you pull a lever you can shift the trolley onto a different track, which only has one person on it. Do you pull the lever?
What if you’re the driver and not a bystander? How about if the five people are on the line as a result of their own incompetence but the one person was an innocent victim? What if instead you’re on a bridge and there’s a really fat guy on the bridge with you and you can stop the trolley by pushing him off? But what if the big fat guy was the real villain all along?
I came to hate studying moral philosophy – and I love The Good Place.
Eleanor Shellstrop has just died in a freak accident (involving shopping trolleys, ironically). She wakes up in the Good Place, the afterlife for good and virtuous people. But there’s been a mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop, full-time misanthrope and fake medicine saleswoman, has been mixed up with Eleanor Shellstrop, human rights lawyer and and lifelong humanitarian.
If anyone finds out Eleanor is not Eleanor, she’ll be sent straight to the Bad Place. So she turns to Chidi Anagonye, a deceased moral philosophy professor, and presents him with a desperate (and ethically fascinating) challenge: teach her how to be a good person.
The Good Place is funny, charming, clever, and deeply philosophical even as it mocks every classical philosopher to hell and back (ha). Chidi’s lessons cover the trolley problem in season 2 and let me tell you, as a former philosophy student, it was cathartic viewing to say the least.
Don’t get me wrong, though. As much as The Good Place pokes fun at moral philosophers (everyone hates moral philosophers, after all), it does so with understanding and respect. Studying from books doesn’t make Eleanor a better person, but it certainly helps.
The grab bag of ethical ideas she arrives at over the course of the show will be familiar to anyone who’s studied moral philosophy. The fact is, there isn’t and won’t ever be a single, all-encompassing theory of ethics. But thinking through theoretical debates will deepen your understanding of yourself and the space you occupy in the world.
Much as I might hate to admit it, I learned from studying the trolley problem. And I learned from watchin NBC’s The Good Place.
If you’re interested in moral philosophy, give The Good Place a watch. If you’re not interested in moral philosophy, watch it anyway. It’s very funny and it has some killer plot twists.