A Time to Lie

All You Need is Love, part 2

Principles aren't principles . . .
Although ethics professors aren't any more ethical than any other professors, perhaps a life of learning in any field is apt to make us better people. Indeed, most of us feel that learning is, in itself, a component of a good life. The characters in "The Good Place," seeking to become better people, might just as well have taken up the study of economics or chemistry. They happen to have chosen moral philosophy, and I guess that’ll work as well anything. Just trying to learn IS becoming better.

But my question is: Who would want to watch that?

Yet, people are watching. "The Good Place" is way popular. Its rotten tomatoes rating for season 1 was 91% -- and for season 2 was 100%, based on 35 reviews. This flabbergasts me. How can philosophy be popular? “The Big Bang Theory” is also a very popular sitcom, but – spoiler alert – it's not about astro-physics. "The Good Place," by contrast, actually is about moral philosophy. One critic wrote that "moral philosophy is the beating heart of the program" and that the show "made philosophy seem cool." Another wrote that "The Good Place stands out for dramatizing actual ethics classes onscreen, without watering down the concepts being described." Real live philosophers are celebrating “the show's largely accurate popularization of their line of work.”

Has philosophy become popular? Kind of, but only if it’s funny. Look, your brain, like mine, is a mish-mash of competing, contradictory ideas, concepts, values, beliefs. Cognitive dissonance sometimes surfaces, but whenever we can keep it out of mind, we do. Becoming conscious of cognitive dissonance feels icky -- to be avoided if possible. But a philosopher is somebody who goes looking for dissonance. Philosophers concoct all manner of bizarre, unrealistic hypothetical examples just for the purpose of inducing dissonance.

Example: Suppose either 5 people had to die or 1 person had to die. Which would be better? Clearly, it would be better for 1 person to die than for 5, right? OK, so – and this scenario is mentioned in one of the episodes of "The Good Place" -- suppose you have five people who are dying of different organ failures. One of them needs a heart transplant, another needs a liver transplant, another needs two kidneys, another needs lungs, and another needs pancreas and intestines. Would it be OK to kill one healthy person, harvest his organs and distribute them among the five? No! But wait -- better one person die than five.

See? The philosopher’s job is to induce cognitive dissonance -- which is uncomfortable -- but if it’s also funny – as it is in "The Good Place" – then we can tolerate it.

At the beginning of chapter 24, Chidi, who was an ethics professor in life, and has been serving as the ethics tutor for Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason, declares himself a Kantian. He has talked about Kant, more or less sympathetically, in many of the episodes, but without committing himself unequivocally. Now, as our heroes are about have to go through a room of demons to get where they need to go, and will have to hide their true identities in order to get through, they will need to lie. Chidi says:
“I hate this. I hate lying. It’s not permissible. I can’t do this….Kant says that lying is always wrong, and I follow that maxim….Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.”
Later on, when our heroes have arrived at the cocktail party in Hell and are trying to last it out without being discovered, Chidi comes to Eleanor:
CHIDI: Those bro demons over there think I’m some kind of great torturer. They want my advice on how to torture some one. Help me.

ELEANOR: You know the answer, dude. Lie your ass off.

CHIDI: No! Lies have consequences. I will have contributed to someone’s eternal torture because I disobeyed a basic Kantian principle. I’m going to be sick, and I don’t want to go back to the bathroom because they put mirrors in the toilet, and that makes you really confront what you’re doing!

ELEANOR: OK, OK. Sit down. Take a breath. Rub your lucky bookmark. Hear me out. What if lying is ethical in this situation? What if certain actions aren’t universally good or bad? Like Jonathan Dancy says.

CHIDI: Jonathan Dancy? Are you talking about moral particularism? We never even covered that. You read on your own?

ELEANOR: You think just because I’m a straight hottie, I can’t read philosophy for fun? Look. Moral particularism says there are no fixed rules that work in every situation. Like, let’s say you promised your friend you’d go to the movies. But then your mom suddenly gets rushed to the ER. Your boy Kant would say never break a promise. Go see “Chronicles of Riddick.” Doesn’t matter if your mom gets lonely and steels a bucket of Vicodin from the nurse’s closet.

CHIDI: Real example?

ELEANOR: Yep! But, a moral particularist like me – I’m one now – I just decided – would say there’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation and right now we are in a pretty bonkers situation.

CHIDI: I don’t think I can change what I believe just like that!

ELEANOR: And I didn’t think I would ever be at a cocktail party in literal Hell, lecturing my teacher-slash-ex-lover about moral particularism, but life throws you curveballs, bro!
And life does throw us curveballs. We get that there’s something noble about the principled stand – that, as Chidi says, “principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But Immanuel Kant was just wrong. Moral principles cannot be absolute.

NEXT: Why -- or at least how -- principles cannot be absolute

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This is part 2 of 3 of "All You Need is Love"
See also
Part 1: Is Love All You Need...to Be Moral
Part 3: Moral Particularism and Love

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