The moment Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens in NBC's hit show The Good Place, the audience is presented with a question. The supposedly benevolent Michael (Ted Danson) informs Eleanor she was a good enough person in life to merit in death a spot in the Good Place, a sort of non-denominational paradise. While we later learn that Eleanor was definitely not a good person and that Michael's Good Place neighborhood is a farce, it seems fair to say that he was still using the real Good Place's weights and measures as a means to judge his residents. It's simple, really. To get into the Good Place, you have to be an undeniably good person.
But what makes one a "good person"? And how do you become a good person? Can a bad person truly become a good person? William Jackson Harper's character Chidi might argue that these are subjective questions with too many intricacies to fully explore. The philosophers and psychologists SYFY WIRE spoke to on the subject agree — to an extent. Good, they say, is still good, and there are plenty of ways to measure, understand, and harness it.
Michael's explanation for how to be deemed good enough for the Good Place seems genuine, if conveniently vague.
"During your time on Earth, every one of your actions had a positive or negative value depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe," Michael, clad in a velvet, teal-colored suit, explains in Season 1, Episode 1. "When your time on Earth is ended, we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system. Only the people with the very highest scores — the true cream of the crop — get to come here to the Good Place."
OUR UNDERSTANDING OF GOOD
Most people can probably agree on what makes a person "good." Good people are honest, reliable, kind, generous without expectation of repayment; they put the humans of Team Cockroach — Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) — to shame. But the requirements for a truly "good" person are more complicated than all that.
During Michael's presentation, a video shows graphics of all the "good" things a random woman did throughout her life. Each good deed was worth a certain amount of points and, if a person earns enough points, they supposedly earn a spot in the Good Place in death. Because The Good Place is ultimately a comedy, the woman's actions range from "Helped a hermit crab find a new shell" for 16.57 points to "Helped Mom with her printer 339 times," which adds up to a total 60.09 points. (A special mention must be made for "Began to compose social media post about David Bowie dying and then thought 'the world doesn't need to hear my thoughts on David Bowie'" for 219.48 points.)
To understand what it really is to be a good person, we have to look at both the philosophical and the psychological. Christian B. Miller, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, told SYFY WIRE that our question — How do you know if you're a good person? — is multi-faceted.
A good person, Miller says, is someone whose behavioral and psychological profiles perfectly match up. Not only must the person show virtuous tendencies — our world's hallmarks for "good," such as "honesty, compassion, kindness, generosity, temperance, fortitude, justice, and the like" — but the person must act upon these virtues consistently and for the right reasons. You are, for example, honest not just in a courtroom under oath but at home, at work, and while telling your friend what you really think of his gaudy red cowboy boots.
And "if the person is telling the truth a lot but only so as to advance his or her career or to not get punished or to make a good impression on others, that's just self-serving, it's egoistic," Miller says.
WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE HUMAN
Human "goodness" and morality has been studied time and time again. We know, ultimately, what humans are like and how they will typically behave under certain circumstances. There are always outliers on both sides of the spectrum, but humans are, generally, pretty predictable. Humans are also, generally, not very good at being "good."
As an example, Miller points to Columbia University's famed 1968 "lady in distress" study. Male undergraduate students were told to wait in a room either alone, with a friend, or with a stranger; then, they heard a woman cry out in pain from another room. According to the study, only 7 percent of people sitting with a stranger did anything to help.
Miller writes that "Studies have found that we are quite willing to cheat for monetary gain when we can get away with it. We also tend to lie to about 30 percent of the people we see in a given day. And most disturbing of all, with encouragement from an authority figure, a majority of people are willing to give increasingly severe electric shocks to a test-taker — even up to a lethal jolt."
Dr. John Doris, a professor of philosophy and the overlap of philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, told SYFY WIRE that "we very, very often suffer moral disappointment" due to outsized expectations for others. Due to this, humans have developed, through evolution, a "negativity bias." This results in people regularly behaving "badly" because they expect bad things of other people.
"If I do one crappy thing, you think of me as a crappy person," Doris says. "But it takes more than one good thing to get you to think of me as a good person… It's supposed to make evolutionary sense because the idea is that false positives are more dangerous than false negatives."
Basically, no one trusts anyone else to make the right decision or be good, so we automatically assume the worst to save our own skins. But, what we often lack in natural goodness or expectations for others, we make up for in empathy. Humans like helping one another. We can't help it. We are, more often than not, "mixed bags," Miller says.
Miller points to the "lady in distress" study again. About 70 percent of participants did something to help the woman if they were alone in the room without anyone's interference — proving that, while our attunement to other people can be hindering, it can also help.
And when left to our own devices, we usually don't choose to actively hurt someone. "In a different version of the shock experiments, when the authority figure was completely hands-off and the participant chose the shock level to administer for each wrong answer, the maximum was much lower — only an average of 5.5 out of 30 levels," Miller writes.
Additionally, Doris points to research done by Yale University professor Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. "There looks to be evidence coming out of [Bloom's] lab and elsewhere that kids under a year old actually seem to prefer the moral person to the immoral person, the helper versus the hinderer. So very early we care about that," Doris says. We naturally want to be better.
HOW TO BE BETTER: MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO
Chidi wrings his hands over the issue of being good for self-serving purposes several times in The Good Place. Hyperventilating his way through quotes from famous philosophers, he tries to explain to his fellow humans that by trying to prove they are good people in order to get into the actual Good Place, they're actually proving the opposite.
So, to prove that his human friends are capable of being truly good people, Michael comes up with a plan at the end of Season 2. He erases Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason's memories (again) and gives them a second chance at life. If our heroes can live virtuously in Season 3 without knowledge of their end goal, then they can prove they are good enough for the Good Place. Now the question is: How do you become better?
Much like the show, we have to reboot and start from the beginning. But instead of having everyone drunkenly stuff shrimp down their bras, SYFY WIRE spoke with Dr. Darcia F. Narvaez, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who studies developmental cognition and behavior, to get to the bottom of how we develop "goodness" from day one and how we grow from there.
"Children are provided with everything they need as babies, [and] there's so much to develop after birth," Narvaez says. "When you provide the child with their needs — we call it the 'evolved nest,' so that's lots of affection, keeping them calm, being responsive to needs, having multiple adult caregivers who are doing the caregiving or letting them play freely on their own, breastfeeding — all those things are... neurobiologically shown to matter for how you act later."
Nature and nurture, she says, are so extensively tied together that you can't separate them. Children who have the "evolved nest" are proven to have more empathy, to be more cooperative, to have better self-control, and to be ultimately happier.
"Adults who report having had more or less of that nest have better or worse outcomes, in terms of mental health, in terms of how they get along with others," Narvaez says. If you didn't have that nest, though, you're not hopeless. You're not automatically going to be a criminal or worthy of the Bad Place.
Narvaez says the longest chapter of her 2014 book Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality is about what to do if you want to be a better, happier, healthier person. Unsurprisingly, it takes some work.
"You're born with your survival systems, which includes the stress response, for example, and if that gets conditioned to be very hyperactive, you've got to learn to calm yourself down through belly breathing or meditative practices of various kinds. Learn to calm down that system and try to revamp that so you're not always jumping at threats, social threats particularly," Narvaez says. "And then you have to grow the stuff that was supposed to be growing when you were all stressed out as a baby and that is social attunement with others… You have to expand your imagination to be much more inclusive and not be so self-focused."
At the end of the day, Narvaez says, "Our species' heritage is to be empathic and cooperative… That's why you need good friends to help you realize and really take the action you plan to, that kindly help you shape yourself so that you are coordinated at all levels."
In that case, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason just might make it to the Good Place after all. The rest of us might make it, too.
The Good Place Season 3 premieres Thursday, September 27 on NBC.