In Chapter 25, our four humans convinced the Judge to hear their case. In order to decide if they should could to The Good Place or The Bad Place, the Judge gives each of them a test. Eleanor decided on a group pass/fail. If a single person failed, then they would all go to The Bad Place. All of them would have to pass to go to The Good Place. Eleanor was the only one who the Judge ruled had passed the test. However, contrary to the Judge’s ruling, Eleanor actually failed the test.
Chidi’s test was over his ability to make decisions. He failed because he took too long selecting a hat. Tahani had to walk down a hallway without opening a door with people talking about her. It was supposed to be a test over her not caring what other people think. She failed because she confronted her parents. Jason’s test was about impulse control. While he improved, he still failed.
Eleanor’s test was about her selfishness. She was given the option of leaving with Chidi and abandoning her friends or staying. She and Chidi were deliberating about leaving or not. When Chidi said, “let’s forget about ethics for a moment” Eleanor knew it was not Chidi. Therefore, there was not the option the leave. The test did not actually test Eleanor’s selfishness. By not going, and passing the test, she did the selfish thing.
The best thing for Eleanor, i.e. the selfish thing, is to go to The Good Place. The only way she can go to The Good Place, is by passing a test. Therefore, passing the test is the selfish thing to do. The only way to pass the test, is by not acting selfishly. Thus, the means for obtaining what is in your self-interest is to act contrary to your self-interest. Should such an action still be considered selfish?
We categorize selfish and unselfish acts by the motivations, not the outcomes. Just because there is a benefit for the person, does not mean it is selfish. In the same way, just because the action appears not to be selfish, does not mean it isn’t. For example, if you help at a charity to help other people, that is a non-selfish action. If you feel good about it, then it is still not selfish. Now, if you did the action just to feel good and not to help others, then it is selfish.
If we return to Eleanor’s test, her refusal to go to The Good Place without Jason and Tahani is not selfish. She did not stay because she was not acting selfishly. She stayed to pass the test. Further, she stayed because she realized that going was not really an option. Her motivation was her self-interest. Her motivation was not to set her self-interest aside. Therefore, she didn’t really pass the test.
Passing the test requires Eleanor to behave morally. As long as she knows that acting morally or not selfishly is the means to beat the test, her actions are always tainted.
For it to have been an actual test of her selfishness, then it would have had to require her to act contrary to her self-interest. For example, The Judge would have given her a fake test that she passes. This is followed by the real test where the Judge could have given her a choice of sacrificing herself to save the others.