Chapter 5 – Moral Motivations Count More than Outcomes

The moral message being made in episode 5 seems to be that one’s motivations matter more than the outcomes for determining if one is a good person or not.  This is illustrated through three different focuses in the episode.

Episode 5 begins with Eleanor undecided about what yogurt flavor to get.  Instead of holding up the line, she lets the person behind her go.  Upon realizing that she was unselfish without even trying to be unselfish, she rushes back to inform Chidi.  Eleanor’s actions demonstrate an answer to the question raised in episode 2 – can morality be taught.  The answer seems to be yes.  Eleanor has improved herself by making a concentrated effort at self-improvement.  The reason why this instance counts as moral development is that she acted without any motivation to improve herself or without making an effort to act morally.

Eleanor’s story is in contrast to Tahani’s storyline.  In this episode, we learn that Tahani was always seeking her parents’ approval an attention.  Her motive for doing good things has always been to please others.  Raising money for charity and all of the other work Tahani did in life was to gain attention for herself – especially from her parents.  Her motivations were not to help others.

While in the afterlife, Tahani notices a ranking that shows her next to last in terms of goodness.  This motivates her to try to raise her ranking by performing more good deeds in the afterlife.  Michael later informs her that the points stop at death.  What we see is that Tahani is still obsessed with status and recognition, even if it is not from her parents.  While her actions produced good consequences, the motivation was always Tahani’s self-centeredness.

The moral philosophy that Chidi is teaching this episode is utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is the moral theory that says the moral action is the one that produces the overall net sum of goodness, or in the case of only bad results, the least bad result.     As Chidi explains, if all that matters is the consequences, then it allows us to sacrifice one person to benefit others provided that the benefit to others outweighs the sacrifice that one person endures.  For example, in this episode, we learn that Chidi believes that if Eleanor gets to stay, he will not get his soul mate.  Since going to the bad place for eternal torture is much worse than Chidi not having his soul mate, then utilitarianism says that Chidi must sacrifice some of his happiness to ensure Eleanor’s well-being.  Of course, this ignores the grander issue of if The Good Place would be better off without Eleanor there.  In that case, utilitarianism would say to turn Eleanor in.

The episode seems an indictment that consequences matter, or, at least, that only consequences matter.  Eleanor is portrayed as becoming a good person not because of the consequences, but rather her ability to act morally decent to another without it being a conscious effort.  Meanwhile, although Tahani did help others while alive, none of that counted.  She did not end up in The Good Place after all.  Her self-obsession kept her from having proper moral motivation.  Thus, none of her actions counted as truly good.