Archives for posts with tag: morality

Huge spoilers for The Good Place. Just a heads up. Really you shouldn’t read this if you haven’t seen the show.

As is made explicitly clear within the show, the Good Place/Bad Place distinction is inherently an immoral system. Frequent reference is made to the need for a Medium Place for those whose behaviour does not lie at either extreme. The show also raises the question about the potential for change within every human, and how their ethical existence might evolve if they evade death and are given enough time and opportunity to do so. Eternal punishment for sins committed in a finite world is thus grossly disproportionate.

There are further problems that the show does not illustrate. For example, Chidi has no intention to harm, but his actions nonetheless cause harm to those around him. He is qualified for eternal punishment. Tahani raises considerable amounts of money for charity, but does not do so out of pure altruism. She too “deserves” eternal punishment. This means that both the intent and the consequences must equally be measured, and there seems to be no margin for error.  Preventing every harmful accident is an extreme that few if any would be able to accomplish. This system also heavily disadvantages those not born into privilege, as the obstacles to walking the tightrope of sufficient morality would become nigh insurmountable. Stealing to eat has both negative intentions and consequences, reserving the hottest spot in the Bad Place for those unlucky enough to be born into poverty. Immanuel Kant, Chidi’s go-to moral philosopher, famously stated that ought implies can, which means that in order for an action to even be measured morally, one must possess the capability to perform it in the first place. If ability is neglected in moral measurement, that measurement ought to be rejected.

The Good Place - Season Pilot

Kant went to the Bad Place for telling the truth to a killer at the door.

Chidi ought to be smart enough to reject the Manichean dichotomy of the Good Place, but he does not. His aim, once he learns he is not in the Good Place, is to get in. He wishes to participate in this unjust system; not only participate, he believes he is entitled to benefit from it. Chidi wishes to benefit from a system that privileges an arbitrary elite at the expense of the vulgar majority. The question is why. The show, amazingly, answers this question as well.

Chidi was born in Nigeria, and was raised in Senegal. Chidi’s parents likely would have been alive and young enough to intimately experience the civil war that tore Nigeria apart shortly after it won its independence out from under British colonialism. They emigrated to Senegal and spoke French, which likely means that his parents would have been supporters of the Biafra and would have fled shortly after the war ended due to their position on the losing side. They chose Senegal, a former French colony used to bolster their slave trade. Chidi must have been raised by parents who spoke of an enlightened France that sought to protect the Biafra minority, all the while ignorant of France’s motives to maintain a competitive edge in their African imperialism against the waning British Empire.

Chidi is an intellectual, and a moral philosopher, raised in a former French colony, and it is almost certain that he would have read Frantz Fanon, an intellectual raised in the French colony in Algeria. Similarly he would have read Albert Memmi, from Tunisia under again, French colonialism. Fanon describes the reaction to the unjust system of colonialism as necessarily revolutionary, often violent, while Memmi offers one alternative: assimilation. Given his exposure and his race, Chidi would have had a reaction toward these calls to rebel given by his peers.

Chidi taught at universities in France and Australia: his colonizers, and another colony that effectively eliminated its colonized. Every single philosopher he mentions throughout the show is European. This shows that he rejects revolution against unjust systems, and indeed prefers to assimilate. What he must have missed, or purposefully ignored, in Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized is that those who choose to assimilate neglect the fact that the racism of the colonial system will never allow complete assimilation. The colonized, the Other, will never be welcome in the colony because the system was designed around the notion of their inherent inferiority. His constant global migration could be a reaction to the racism he continued to face, even in the academic elite, as he battled the cognitive dissonance of European exceptionalism against his lived reality.

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Chidi, on the road to the Good Place, believes he is entitled to finally benefit from an unjust system. He had been trying to assimilate for so long that when he finally reaches what he believes is the Good Place, he never once questions it. In the 800+ reboots that the “Good Place” endures, Chidi is never the one who ever raises the question of the Good Place’s legitimacy. Even Jason figures it out, but Chidi is so blind by his desire for assimilation that he embraces his position within it every time. Chidi has internalized colonial racism to the extent that he can no longer question obviously and explicitly illegitimate systems.

The ethical response to an unethical system is revolution. Fanon quotes the famed Good Place entrepreneur Jesus Christ, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Rather than attempting to obtain a position of privilege over the oppressed majority, Chidi should voluntarily walk among those in the Bad Place, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and organize them against the Architects of their fate. Chidi would be quite happy in a library reading books for eternity, but to quote Fanon (referencing Marx) in Black Skin, White Masks, “What matters is not to know the world but to change it.”

I mean, that would never happen because the Good Place is written by liberals who think that charity is the epitome of moral excellence, but hey. Season 3, prove me wrong. Vive la révolution!

It seems almost unconscionable to ascribe a moral quality to ill health. It’s absurd to think that someone who has caught the common cold is some kind of sinister deviant, but as far back as the lepers being shunned and shuttered out of society, humanity has pointed at the unwell and called them devils.

Europe blamed the Black Death on the wrath of God, who was furious over the alleged impiety of His people. The mentally ill used to be incarcerated alongside criminals, their characters indistinguishable. Even lately, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s seemed only to punish those considered perverse. Consider how we inquire after cancer: did they smoke? Did they eat processed foods? Did they stay too long in the sun? What was their lifestyle like that earned them a terminal illness?

Disease is an unquestionable evil, but why are we so quick to point to its host as having responsibility for it? When disease becomes a moral choice, the pure among us become immortal. The myth that bad things only happen to bad people convinces us that if only we maintain our righteousness, we will be spared. Righteousness only as a veneer, of course, as compassion for the ill could only ever be a supererogatory act. Far simpler to pillory the sick and use the blind luck of our good health as evidence of our sanctity.

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A meritocracy of health. God, I hate memes.

Where this demonization of illness is most prevalent is the disease that seems to be built on a long series of choices: addiction. It’s so immoral that it is literally a crime. Mitch Hedberg satirizes this mentality with his quip:

Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. “Goddamn it, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” “Goddamn it, Otto, you have lupus!”

One of those two doesn’t sound right.

Addiction is a reaction to trauma, neglect, and mental illness. Addiction is what happens when reality is so brutal that the body seeks any kind of escape from it. Addiction isn’t so much of an illness as it is the medication for when life is a sickness, and then through the obsession of escape it becomes a part of that sickness. Any sense of “choice” in the matter is illusory, any kind of “morality” illegitimate.

But people continue to yell at those whose lives have become diseased. Consider the top rated comment on a CBC article saying that in the first 8 months of 2017, the number of overdose deaths in BC had reached 1,013, compared to the entirety of 2016 which was 922:

I have a real hard time feeling sympathy for these people who have died. They knew fentanyl was out there. They knew that over doses were on the rise and out of control. There’s absolutely no way they didn’t know the risk that they were taking! Yet, they chose to anyways. So no. Finding sympathy is very hard for me.

1,013 human lives extinguished. That’s 1,013 families that have to deal with the grief and guilt of a loved one they will always wonder if they could have done more to save. Of course addicts know that there is Fentanyl in the streets. Some of them ask for it directly. The “risk” isn’t the point. The cure may be worse than the disease, but for many of them it’s the only option available, and some might see the risk of overdose as a potential escape from their sickness altogether. Can we truly judge those adrift at sea who drink saltwater rather than endure the agony of thirst?

But it’s fine. Sympathy is for the bleeding hearts. That could never happen to me because I am morally righteous. I am pure. I am better than them because I wasn’t raped, or abandoned, or abused, nor do I have voices in my head that only shut up when I shoot heroin into my veins. I get to tell myself that it’s my choices that make me noble. My fear of death, a bold reminder in the face of an addict, is well hidden behind the vitriol I espouse. But death cannot come for me. I am pristine. I am immortal.

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course, or at least had the misfortune to talk to someone who has, it’s likely you’ve heard of the trolley problem. It poses us this moral dilemma:

A trolley carrying five people is barreling towards a barrier erected by the dastardly Snidely Whiplash. You, our intrepid hero, can save these five people from certain doom by pushing a button that reroutes the train onto a different track, but alas! Snidely Whiplash has tied someone else to that track, and in rerouting the train, you will be killing that one person. What do you doooooooo?

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That mustache is so prominent, it really distracts from the fact that Snidely Whiplash wears a dress.

Most people’s first thoughts are going to be utilitarian. Morality can be reduced to a simple mathematical formula: five people is more people than one; you should press the button. Here’s the problem: first impressions are wrong; utilitarianism is wrong; you are wrong. Consider this second example:

You are a brilliant surgeon. Snidely Whiplash has been at it again, and has, through some dastardly plot, caused organ failure in five separate individuals who are now in your operating room. Their situation is dire: their deaths are imminent. Just at this moment, a box arrives with a note that says, “Each patient has a separate failing organ, and your assistant is compatible with every single one of them.” In the box is a gun. As a brilliant surgeon, you can save those five people by killing your assistant and using his organs to save their lives, or you can do nothing and allow them to die. What do you doooooooo?

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Come now, Utilitarians! T’is simple maths, m’yessss?

Despite the framing, both problems are identical in content. In both cases, you can either passively allow five people to die, or actively kill one person in order to save them. I expect that most people’s first impression of the second example is to not murder their assistant, even if they would push the button in the first one, but what causes that discrepancy?

Lt. David Grossman analyzes the nature of killing in his book On Killing, and part of what allows regular human beings to kill, who otherwise wouldn’t, is a distance from the target. It’s easier to kill someone at range than it is up close. It’s easier to kill someone through a scope than it is through your bare eyes. It’s easier to kill someone with the press of a button than it is with a gun. The consequences of our actions become diluted the further we get from our deeds. If we consider life in the abstract, life becomes worth measurably less.

Part of the reason that a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was that nobody wanted to send in ground troops. It’s easier to kill from far away, and the horrors of a nuclear blast became justified. We care more about being ghosted by somebody off Tinder than we do about the collective deaths of the entire Syrian civil war because what happens to us up close will always matter more, no matter how ridiculous the comparison might be. We don’t want to kill our assistant because we assume that we have a relationship with that person, but we’re fine with killing a stranger tied to some train tracks, never stopping to wonder if that person might be someone else’s medical assistant.

Ethics is obviously an ongoing conversation, but the importance of the trolley and surgeon questions are what we as human beings are capable of. Are we killers? I mean killers in the sense of killing people, regardless of how far away (literally and figuratively) from the victim we are, or how little we value their lives. We are in control of our actions; that’s what we must decide.

When considering the trolley problem, think to yourself. What would Batman do? He would obviously swoop over to the train and work some kind of bat-strategy to save everyone, but he would never push that button. Know why? Because Batman is a God damn hero.