Chapter 1 – All Kantians Go to The Bad Place

In the first episode of The Good Place, we learn that Eleanor Shellstrop died from a car accident.  Waking up in the afterlife, she is told she is in the good place.  It turns out a mistake is made and she should not be there.  As fans of the show know, it turns out none of the protagonists deserve to be in the good place.  In later episodes, we learn that Chidi Anagonye, Eleanor’s soulmate/ethics professor, deserves to be in the bad place because of his nearly complete inability to make a decision.  While that is the official reason given, it turns out that the real reason why Chidi is in the bad place is because Chidi is a Kantian and the afterlife is determined by utilitarian principles.

Michael, the facilitator and architect of the neighborhood the souls live in, explains why they are sure that all of them deserve to be in the good place.  According to Michael, “every one of your actions on Earth has a positive or negative value depending on how much good or bad that action puts into the universe.”  It turns out that every single thing a person did had an effect that rippled out through time and ultimately created some amount of good or bad.  We are then shown examples in the background how simple things like eating a sandwich counts as a positive and other mundane actions can be negative.

What Michael is describing is a moral theory known as utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory.  Consequentialism says that morality is solely determined by the consequences.  Consequences that are positive are good and consequences that are negative are bad.  According to utilitarianism, when we want to know what to do, we simply total up everyone that is affected by the action.  We assign a value to the positive and negative consequences for everyone.  The action that has the highest net value is the one to be done.

One may be wondering why this means Chidi had to go to the bad place.  Well, in later episodes, we learn the Chidi is a Kantian.  Kantianism is a rule-based ethical theory.  More importantly, it is a type of rule-based ethics that argues one cannot judge the morality of an action based on the consequences.  Lying is an example in many episodes.  According to Kant, one should never lie regardless of the consequences.  On the other hand, a utilitarian would argue that if lying were morally correct or not will depend on if lying or not lying ultimately produces the most positive consequences.  If lying has the most positive consequences for all affected, then one should lie.

If one lives by Kantian principles, then one is not going to pay attention to the net positive or negative of actions.  Thus, it is likely the Kantian is not going to produce the highest amount of positive consequences in the world.    Given that an infallible utilitarian algorithm governs the afterlife, then it makes sense that Chidi, and all the other Kantians, will end up in the bad place even if they are not indecisive.