Taller Things Entry 6

Entry #6: "The Good Place" and Revisiting the Concept of Heaven – Part 1

If you haven’t watched The Good Place, close this tab and watch it now on Netflix! No actually, bookmark this article to read later cause I don’t want to miss a reader who has watched it.

This is obviously a *SPOILER ALERT* for those of you who intend to watch it. For those of you who have, you will see the obvious connection the show has with our own morality and ethics (nod to Chidi Anagonye).

Among the many nods to philosophy and ethics that the show has, one very interesting thing that the show brought up is on the concept of heaven. It shows that the classic approach of allowing the good in and keeping the sinners out’ is not as simple as it seems. This post is about discussing the most ‘just’ way to admit people to heaven, and in the next I’ll be talking about the ‘ideal heaven’.

The hallmark of The Good Place – the ‘lobby’ for all the dead and confused souls

How ‘The Good Place’ Works

Heaven or The Good Place (the real one) as shown in the show admits people (or souls?) according to a point-based system. Each individual’s action on earth is tracked based on the impact it has on others, for example: helping an old person cross the road gives you more points than walking to the grocery store. There are negative and positive points, and ultimately, the total points you accumulate over the course of your life determine whether or not you can enter The Good Place.

In the show, one person managed to crack the point-based system when he was high on weed, and lived his entire life adhering to the utilitarian philosophy – he always tries to maximise positive impact on as many people as possible. He sacrifices his own interest and has close to 0 ego. The end result? He’s penniless, miserable, burned out, and out of touch with reality.

One of my favourite characters in the series: enlightened, selfless, disillusioned Doug, played by Michael McKean

The worst part: he’s 70+ years old, has been doing good deeds for decades, and doesn’t even qualify to enter The Good Place. In fact, no one has ever made it for the past 500 years.

Why the Traditional Heaven System Won’t Work

While the concept is simple and harmless in nature – after all, what sane person will disagree that having positive impact on others is wrong? – it has dubious side effects. The one rightly pointed out in the show is the inherent nature of unintended consequences. Say you’re shopping to buy tomatoes at your usual grocery store. You obviously will choose the ripest, healthiest looking tomatoes for your family. It is simply a mundane

But, you don’t realise that those tomatoes come from a farm that underpays their workers and use pesticides from a company that causes toxic wastage in Indonesia. So, without realising, you’re getting negative points for every tomato that you buy. Now multiply that by the amount of items in your basket, trips to the grocery shop, and every single thing you’ve been doing in your life. In other words, you’re screwed.

It is simply impossible to get every single thing right in our lives. Even a highly righteous person would not be able to foresee the so many hidden consequences for every decision that they make in their lives. Not to mention that this person needs to be equipped with all the knowledge of moral ethics. So, what chance do ordinary people like us have on entering ‘The Good Place’, a.k.a Heaven?

While this system may work in the old times where everything and everyone was not interconnected, it is less relevant for us now. Back then, people grow their own food, join the army for the sake of their nations, and don’t rely on factories to fulfill basic every day needs. The number of unintended consequences could be minimised because people didn’t have to rely so much on others.

It is also incorrect to say that unintended consequences should not factor in to the points system. Because if that is the case, then all we need to do is be as uneducated as possible about morality. The less empathy we have, the better our points will be. This will lead to a heaven full of ignorant butts who have never thought about other people in their earth lives.

Then it brings us to the interesting question, how should heaven admission work?

Let’s Design a Heaven Admission System!

The series has given us a great starting point to consider: let everyone have a shot at getting into The Good Place.

Upon seeing the failure of The Good Place, the protagonists of the series decided to change things up and create their own system. They place people into education programs where they’re taught about the wrongdoings in their lives and show them the high roads. This way, every single person has a chance of correcting past mistakes that they – knowingly or unknowingly – made in their lives. And if they continue to live on track with good moral ethics in the education program, then they will be admitted to The Good Place.

Now, how about we come up with some theories to improve heaven’s admission system without having an afterlife penitence? You know, in case an archangel comes to us and ask for our opinion? Better be prepared than sorry, I’d say. So here are some of mine:

1. Personalised point systems for everyone

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

A person born into privilege has much more avenue and choice to do good throughout life, while an underprivileged person not only has to work ten times as hard, but they’re also handicapped in resources. It’s not possible to donate money to charity or spend time volunteering when you’re the one receiving help. Sharing a piece of bread shouldn’t even count as a good deed for a rich person, but it’s an act of sacrifice and bravery for a starving refugee deserted in foreign countries.

So, not only should the system account for differing circumstances, it should judge based on intent and not action (similar to Kant’s ethics). This may also adjust over time as people go into different stages in their lives.

2. Account for repentance and change

woman holding two round gold-colored coins
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

If a person commits a bad action knowingly, then they will obviously get negative points for it. But you can’t blame someone for doing something bad that they don’t know about. Otherwise, all children who die will go to hell, won’t they? However, there should be a point in their lives when they’re informed of good and bad. If they decide to ignore the heed and choose the bad action anyway, then they will get negative points. But if there’s no way to know that a certain action is bad, they shouldn’t get negative points for unintended consequences.

Like the tomato example above, if a shopper learns from a credible source that the tomatoes they’re buying come from an irresponsible company and they continue to buy those anyway, then they should get negative points.

This should also hold true for people who change after knowing the error of their ways. If a person has truly changed in both intent and actions, then they should earn positive points for this act of change in itself, course correcting the negative points they got earlier. But what about, say, child molesters and murderers who are is prison for life? Does that automatically entitle them to positive points, since there’s no way for them to commit another crime anyway?

The answer is no. If a locked up criminal doesn’t go through a period of deep regret and repentance over their action, then they’re not a changed person. They are simply a person who’s physically incapable of doing something. In such cases then, what matters more is their intent and how they chose to repent themselves by doing good deeds in the remainder of their lives.

3. Last but not least, change the human mind

grayscale photography of girl holding plant
Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji on Unsplash

Any living person knows it’s hard to distinguish good and bad a lot of times. The religious will turn to their bibles and prophets, and the ones who weren’t introduced to religion trust their government and countrymen. Our realities are designed to have multiple perceptions, illusions, and best of all, opinions. If there indeed is a heaven or “The Good Place”, then there needs to be some way for a person to know what they need to be doing to get there. Have you ever joined a contest with a really attractive grand prize without any T&C? Guess not.

That’s a wrap for this post! In the next post, I’ll be discussing the concept of heaven itself, still in reference to The Good Place. And once again, if you haven’t watched it, you really really should.

Leave your thoughts below, and cheers!

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