Chapter 2 – Selfishness as Moral Motivation

One of the central questions of the second episode of The Good Place is if morality can be taught.  Towards the end of the episode, Chidi says that Eleanor is the most self-obsessed person.  He goes to claim that she is too selfish to be a good person.  It is a common view about morality that selfishness is often opposed to being moral.  Or, at the very least, that it hinders the ability of a person to be moral.

Thomas Nagel once wrote something to the effect of that altruism is the recognition of the reality of other persons.  Without delving into Nagel’s work, at least part of his point is that other people exist.  If your interests have moral importance, then the interests of others have moral importance.  People have a type of moral equality in virtue of being persons.  At least part of Chidi’s complaint against Eleanor’s behavior is that she fails to realize that other people have thoughts, interests, feelings, etc.  If she were to stop being so self-absorbed, then she would see things from an impartial viewpoint.  In doing so, she would be able to see that other people’s interests also matter.

In my opinion, episode two demonstrates that while self-absorption may hinder a person’s ability to be moral; selfishness can actually help a person be moral.  This is certainly a different perspective that Chidi has.  The reason why I think self-interest plays a role in moral development is that people need motivation to be moral.  We are naturally inclined to be to self-interested.  As such, this is a good starting point.

Eleanor was not concerned with being a good person.  Her motivation to be moral is to avoid going to the bad place.  Thus, it is selfishness that is motivating her to even try to be moral.  Next, at the end of the episode, Eleanor is picking up trash.  For those who do not remember, Eleanor picked up trash earlier in the episode.  Her bag broke just as there was only 5 minutes left of flying.  Instead of finishing picking up the trash, she hid the trash in various places and then rushed to try to fly.  We are led to believe that her wrongful actions led to a glitch in The Good Place.  This glitch stopped her from flying and rained trash down on the neighborhood.

The significance of Eleanor picking up the trash at the end of the episode is that she did so without trying to convince Chidi she is a good person.  When confronted by Chidi, she says she is covering her tracks.  Further, that she cleaned up everything.  The reason why Eleanor did this is that she felt bad.  Cleaning up the trash was a way to make her feel better.  Thus, her moral motivation is ultimately selfish.  However, she only felt bad because she started to be less self-absorbed, i.e. she recognized the reality of other persons.

Thus, Chidi is wrong in that Eleanor is too selfish to be a good person.  She needs to be selfish to be motivated to act morally.  If a person’s actions can change, as Eleanor’s has, then it does seem that morality can be taught.