The Good Place, the Bad Place, and the Ugly Consequences

written by Gabriel De Marco

I recently started to watch The Good Place again, a sitcom by NBC which takes place in the realm of the supernatural. The show has taken us to the good place (somewhat like heaven, where good people go after they have shuffled off their mortal coil), the bad place (the opposite of the good place), and a few others. Although the show is mainly a comedy, it manages to be funny while discussing many interesting ethical questions, and explicitly introducing a variety of ethical views and principles.

In this world there is a system, call it The System, that determines who goes to the good place and who goes to the bad place. The details of The System have never been fully clear, which turns out to be an important part of the show. Yet, there are some things we do know about how The System works. First, it assigns positive or negative points to actions. The points assigned to a given action seem to be a function of a variety of factors, including its use of resources, the intentions behind it, its effects on others. (It has also been suggested in a recent episode that if the only reason one performs an action is to make one’s points go up, one will not receive points). Whether a person ends up going to the good place is a matter of what their overall score is, and this overall score seems to be the sum of the points assigned to one’s actions.

In the last season, we found out that no-one has made it to the good place in 521 years.  Why? This is one of the big questions that our heroes have been trying to answer, since the existence of this dry spell suggests that there may be a flaw in The System.

One hypothesis is that the people from the bad place have somehow found a way to rig The System. Given how much they like to torture humans, they certainly have the motivation to do so, and given how much they have cheated in the past, it looks like they have the willingness to do so as well.

Yet one of the turning points at the end of the last season was that there is an alternative explanation. On this alternative explanation, what explains this 521-year-long dry season is the fact that life has gotten more complicated, and there are “so many unintended consequences to well-intentioned actions.” For example:

“In 1534, Douglass Wynegar of Hawkhurst, England, gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her, she was happy. Boom, 145 points.”

In 2009, Doug Ewing, of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points.

Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint, and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals.”

These cases go to show that “every day the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder.”

At first glance, this explanation has something going for it. Life is complicated, and there’s a ton of interesting different things to take into account. This blog itself has discussed many, including whether we should use a search engine that helps to plant trees, whether there is a moral problem with the gig economy, whether we should refrain from purchasing avocados and almonds, whether we should avoid playing some popular seasonal songs, whether music-streaming apps are doing something wrong when they censor artists, how we should distribute ourselves when we go to the beach, who we should root for when the World Cup comes around, whether the term “dad joke” is sexist, and whether we should believe in Santa Claus.

Not only is life complicated, it seems to be getting more complicated, at least in some respects. By buying the roses he did, Modern Doug either helped to sustain, or contributed to, practices that have negative consequences. And many of the products that we use today have similar histories; buying them may contribute to similar consequences (I’m assuming that we can make sense of the points about Modern Doug in terms of consequences by focusing on the fact that his purchase helps to sustain these practices, since events in the histories of some event do not seem to be consequences of that event).

Yet, this explanation faces an initial worry. The consequences of the Dougs’ actions mentioned above are not all of the consequences of their actions. Consequences of one event tend to have their own consequences as well, and these latter consequences still seem to be consequences of the initial event.

Suppose that Ye Olde Doug’s action of giving his mother some flowers has the consequence that she is now happy. Her happiness may lead to something else; for instance, she may now commit to helping her neighbor on Saturday. Her commitment to this leads her to actually help, which leads to her neighbor’s having time to play with her kids on Saturday. This, combined with other events, may lead to the kids spending more time with their own kids when they grow up. And this story could go on and on.

For simplicity’s sake, we can make two assumptions: 1) effects are consequences: if c is a cause of e, then e is a consequence of c, and 2) causation is transitive: for any events e1, e2, and e3, if e3 is an effect of e2, and e2 is an effect of e1, then e3 is an effect of e1. (One need not make either assumption to get this worry off the ground, but this is the simplest way of doing so).

If we accept this picture, then we can see why one might worry about the explanation on offer. The reason why modern agents can’t make it to the good place is because of unintended consequences. But, these very same consequences will also likely be consequences of actions performed by ye olde agents. Our actions are the effects of some causes, and those causes themselves are the effects of other causes, and so on. If we go back far enough, these chains of causes and effects will likely include actions by agents who lived 521 years ago. On this picture, the sorts of unintended consequences that keep modern agents from going to the good place are also unintended consequences of actions performed by these ancient agents. On this picture, then, appealing to these unintended consequences will not be an adequate explanation of the 521-year dry spell.

What would The System have to be like in order for this explanation to work, then? Perhaps The System employs a metaphysics of consequences that avoids the claim that current events are the consequences of actions by agents 521 years ago. Perhaps, instead, The System does not count all of the consequences of an action, but only some. That is, even if some current events are consequences of actions performed by agents 521 years ago, these consequences might not make a difference to the points assigned to these old actions. On this route, The System would need to distinguish between those consequences that do contribute to an action’s score and those that do not. How might this be done?

One option would be to claim that the consequences that count are the ones that occur while the agent is still alive. On this view, the consequences relevant to Ye Olde Doug’s actions are only the ones that occur while he is alive, and since he died a long time ago, current events do not contribute to the score of his actions. I cannot recall a case from the show that would serve as a counterexample to this solution, so it is a live option for how The System works. Yet this solution seems implausible. Suicide bombers, for instance, would not get negative points for the consequences of their actions after they die. Martyrs who inspire social movements by their martyrdom would not get credit for these consequences either.

On another way of drawing the line, we might suggest that only direct consequences of an action are the ones that count, where a direct consequence is one that is not mediated by some other consequence. So, suppose that Ye Olde Doug’s action of giving his mother some flowers has the consequence that she is now happy; and because she is happy, she commits to helping her neighbor on Saturday. Since her commitment to helping her neighbor is a consequence of a consequence of Ye Olde Doug’s action, it does not count. This would cut off consequences that count fairly quickly. But it would also run into issues with the explanation offered above. After all, pretty much all of the consequences that are suggested to be relevant to Modern Doug’s actions are indirect in this way (again, assuming that the relevant consequences come from the contribution or sustaining of the various practices). There are intermediate events between Modern Doug’s purchase and the future use of toxic pesticides, future pollution, etc.

Perhaps instead one might think that, once another agent gets involved, this cuts off the chain. So, although Ye Olde Doug’s mother’s committing to helping her neighbor on Saturday is a consequence of Doug’s action, it is itself an action performed by another agent, and so no longer relevant to the score assigned to Doug’s action. This, I think, would be a fairly problematic view, but it also doesn’t help us to preserve the explanation. Consider again the case of Modern Doug. That the money he pays for the flowers contributes, or helps to sustain, practices involving the use of toxic pesticides, exploitation of migrant workers, and the CEO’s sending of lewd texts, would all be irrelevant on this view. These either are, or are the results of, other agents’ actions.

Instead, we could take our cue from the morally responsibility literature. Although an agent can be responsible for the consequences of her actions, it is typically thought that, in order for the agent to be responsible for some consequences, it must have been, at least, reasonable to expect for her to foresee that the action would, or might, have these kinds of consequences (others will have a stricter standard, requiring that the agent actually foresee the consequence). We could use this idea to suggest that the consequences that matter, then, for the points assigned to an action, are the ones that were reasonably foreseeable in this sense (This isn’t all there is to it. One complication here is that a consequence may not be reasonably foreseeable for some agent, but this is because they are ignorant of some relevant facts, and they are blameworthy for that ignorance. This agent might still be blameworthy for the consequence).

On this view, Modern Doug is on the hook for the further use of toxic pesticides, exploitation of migrant workers, and the CEO’s sending of lewd texts; these consequences contribute to the points of his action, since it is reasonable to expect him to foresee that his action would, or might, have these types of consequences. It would be unreasonable, on the other hand, to expect Ye Olde Doug to foresee these consequences. (A move akin to this has sometimes been used to defend act-consequentialism).

Perhaps, then, the explanation in terms of unintended consequences works, if The System only counts consequences that were reasonably foreseeable. Hopefully, we will get the answer to this soon enough, since there are only two episodes left to the show (and the final episode is titled “The Answer”).

(There are, of course, many other complications to consider here. For instance, an alternative metaphysics of consequences might avoid the problem presented above. Or, one might also wonder whether it really is reasonable to expect modern agents to foresee all of these consequences).

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