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The Gray Space of The Good Place

By Bekah Wright

Published Jul 1, 2019 8:00 AM

A UCLA philosophy professor has worked as a consultant in the writer's room for NBC's The Good Place.


Courtesy of NBC Universal.

“To do philosophy, you have to be twisted,” says Pamela Hieronymi. The UCLA philosophy professor has worked as a consultant on NBC’s The Good Place, a sitcom in which the morally questionable cast of characters is twisted in a delightful way. So is philosophy behind the series’ popularity?

Hieronymi says that when she was a child, her father gave her a copy of Descartes’ Meditation on First Philosophy. The crux of the book, she says, is that “Nothing in the world is real, but we don’t know that because our only access to the external world is through our sense experiences, which are controlled by an evil demon.” Hieronymi was hooked. “My nerdy friends and I argued over whether we were all part of a computer simulation or an evil demon.”

Hieronymi has spurred such conversations ever since — now within UCLA lecture halls.

A similar exchange occurred over coffee with The Good Place’s creator Michael Schur. Hieronymi and Schur discussed intellectual puzzles and the meaning of life. “There’s rarely a right answer, but there are lots of wrong answers,” she says.

The intriguing gray areas garnered Hieronymi an invitation to The Good Place’s writers’ room to advise on how to teach philosophy to demons. As Hieronymi tells new students, “We’re going to be talking about the difference between right and wrong, what makes people responsible and what kind of control we have over our lives. It’s important to think things through for yourself and come to conclusions you have conviction about. Not so much confidence, though, that you won’t listen to arguments, because we all could be wrong.”

Hieronymi introduced the writers to The Trolley Problem, a thought experiment in ethics: You are asked to make a choice between saving five people who are trapped on a main track from a runaway trolley, or saving one person who is trapped on a side track. Which is more ethical? This is the conundrum The Good Place grappled with during a second season episode, which likely still has viewers debating their own choices. “The desire to wrestle with philosophical questions in their abstract form is a kind of weird, niche desire,” she says.

And, as it turns out, sitcom gold.