Pamela Hieronymi, PhD ’00, explores issues of ethics, morality, and free will as a professor of philosophy at UCLA—but a surprise email from Hollywood television producer Mike Schur (executive producer of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) led her to become a consulting philosopher on the NBC sitcom The Good Place, starring Ted Danson and Kristen Bell.
The show centers on four humans who wrestle with the idea of what it means to live a good life, while living in a twisted, funny afterlife. Hieronymi shared her thoughts on the hit TV show, the role of philosophers in the public sphere, and the work of her dissertation advisor, T.M. Scanlon, the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Emeritus.
Did you find yourself working with a Hollywood producer entirely by chance?
I do believe that it’s important for academics to contribute to the broader culture. But, in this case, it happened by chance: Mike Schur, the creator of The Good Place, emailed me. Every few years, I am contacted by someone involved in something entertainment related, but it’s often a graduate student or someone doing a smaller project. Before we met, I looked him up online and realized, “Oh wow! This is a big-deal personality!”
How did Mike Schur come across your work?
I think he came across a draft of a paper on my website, which discusses what it takes to become a good person and, in particular, a puzzle that comes from the fact that being a good person requires you to have certain kinds of motives. You might think you can just fake it ’til you make it, so to speak. But, if practice makes perfect, why wouldn’t you become really proficient at pretending to be good? What would actually change your motives? Those questions were close enough to what Mike wanted to explore in the show, so he contacted me. We had a long discussion over coffee before the show had been accepted by NBC. For season two, I spent a morning with all of the writers, which was really terrific. But I’m not reading scripts. He expects to have me back for season four, if there is a season four.
Is there a big difference between teaching a room full of comedy writers vs. a room full of college students?
They were really interested in being in the role of student, so that was fun! They’re super bright—a disproportionate number of them were undergraduates at Harvard. It’s nice to talk to people who are used to thinking about narrative and want to convey ideas in the form of a story or characters, which is not how I think about things. When it works, I find it really fruitful. It gives me new insight into my own material.
But in some ways, isn’t being a professor about storytelling?
You’re absolutely right that pedagogy involves more than presenting information. The way I approach my classes is to set people up with problems and encourage them to think through them on their own. They need to make mistakes and go back and try again. But that’s about logic and reasoning and critical thinking, not about characters, plot, and motives.
The show also forces the characters work through philosophical puzzles over the course of an episode. In one episode, Chidi, the indecisive philosopher, has to decide whether he should drive a trolley into one person to save four innocent bystanders. Normally, the trolley problem is just a thought experiment, but on the show, it comes to life.
One of the things I really like about the show is that they’re not forcing themselves to keep the classroom moments and character development together. In the trolley problem episode, Chidi’s indecision was fun and funny, but the underlying theme in the storyline was that Michael felt threatened and needed to lash out at the others. I think it’s important to the success of the show that they’re not making those march in lockstep because it would be too artificial.
Chidi Anagonye (played by William Jackson Harper) may be the only moral philosophy professor that most people ever come across in pop culture. On the show, he’s constantly skewered by other characters. Someone is always saying, “everyone hates moral philosophy professors.” Do you take umbrage at that?
Absolutely not! I’m probably partly responsible for it! I think Chidi is a terrific character. I think the indecisiveness is for real with philosophers. It is a professional hazard. You know, there’s something weird about wanting to spend your time thinking about what everybody else should do.
We’re living through an era where there is a lot of skepticism around the academy and around the humanities. How do you respond to a culture that isn’t always open to a philosopher’s approach to the human condition?
I suspect that this aspect of our culture is changing. I think that the period of time we’re in is becoming more tumultuous—I wish it weren’t—but that may bring back interest in the larger questions about how we should live our lives and how we should get along.
How can philosophers enter the public conversation—if they’re not lucky enough to get an email from Mike Schur?
Not easily. I think we need, or are greatly helped by, intermediaries. We need to pair up with people whose job and focus is on communicating with other audiences. I’ve been trained to communicate with a narrower audience.
What motivated you to introduce Mike Schur to the work of your Harvard advisor, T.M. Scanlon?
When I met Mike Schur, he started telling me about the point system on the show [humans get points for doing good things, like donating to charity, and negative points for doing bad things, like clipping their toenails in public]. In philosophical ethics, a big divide exists between people who think about ethics and morality as doing good, and those who think there’s something else to it. Mike was focused, at least initially, on the idea that being a good person means doing good things. And I wanted to point out that another way in which we think about being a good person has to do with respecting other people. And that’s what Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other is all about. It’s about this idea that moral principles are the rules we would all agree to if we were symmetrically situated—if we were all equally powerful. Morality is what happens when we follow those rules, even though some of us are more powerful than others. It shows up especially in the early episodes of The Good Place. I really love the way that the story is developing, where people are becoming better through their relationships with others. I also think it’s great that What We Owe to Each Other is getting some product placement.