Good Place Creator Michael Schur Wonders: What Makes Someone Good or Bad?
On T.M. Scanlon's “Quick-Start Guide” to Ethical Living
When I began working on The Good Place, literally at square one of trying to figure out what made someone “good” or “bad,” I figured that learning the answers would be way easier if I had some actual experts to help me. (Aristotle was right, it turns out—everybody needs a teacher.) I emailed a UCLA professor named Pamela Hieronymi and asked her to meet me for coffee one afternoon, where I was hoping she could explain all of moral philosophy in a tight ninety minutes so I could beat the traffic.
When I explained the show’s premise and asked her for some guidance, her first recommendation was that I read a book called What We Owe to Each Other by T. M. Scanlon. So I did. Well, more accurately, I read the first ninety pages, got lost, put it down, picked it back up a month later, got lost again, tried one more time, gave up, and haven’t looked at it since. But I feel like I got the gist. And Pamela explained it very thoroughly. Whatever. Don’t judge me.
Scanlon calls his theory “contractualism.” It’s nowhere near as central to the history of philosophy as our Big Three, but its core tenet really appeals to me. It provides a reassuring ethical baseline—a kind of standardized, universal rulebook that we can all thumb through for guidance as we wander around in the world bumping into people on the street and getting caught in awkward interactions at Jamba Juice.
Scanlon’s work comes out of Kantian “rules-based” ethics, but it isn’t as demanding. You know how when you buy something electronic, like a dishwasher or Bluetooth speaker or something, there’s a three-hundred-page manual printed in fifty different languages… and then there’s a two-page “Quick-Start Guide” that tells you the basics of how to turn it on and plug it in and stuff? In rules-based ethics, Kant wrote the three-hundred-page manual. Contractualism is the Quick-Start Guide.
Now, while it’s true that we can get a decent handle on Kant through his relatively pithy imperatives, he still requires us to use our pure reason to abstractly formulate those thorny universal maxims, which as we’ve seen can be tricky and time-consuming. For me, Scanlon’s process for determining ethical rules is much easier to grasp and deploy.
Hieronymi, who’d been a student of Scanlon’s at Harvard, described contractualism to me this way: Imagine our crew has been at war with another crew for years, just slugging it out in a dense forest, firing on each other from trenches a hundred feet apart. It’s an absolute stalemate. Neither side has any advantage over the other, and no hope of ever gaining one. Exhausted and weary, we call a temporary truce and decide we somehow need to design and describe a mutually livable society; we need a set of rules that can be accepted by both sides, no matter how wildly different our views are (and we obviously hold very different views, hence the endless trench warfare). Scanlon’s suggestion: We give everyone on both sides the power to veto every rule, and then we start pitching rules.
Assuming everyone is motivated to actually find some rules in the first place—that everyone is reasonable—the rules that pass are the ones no one can reject. This means we’ll all design our rules in such a way that they can be justified to other people, because if we don’t, they won’t become rules. It’s a simple, elegant way of finding the basic bucket of societal goo that holds us together.
Now, it makes a big assumption—that everyone is going to be “reasonable.” This is definitely one of those moments in philosophy where we have to back up and define something in order to feel like we know what the hell we’re talking about. Scanlon doesn’t give a quick, pithy definition of “reasonable,” in part because . . . there isn’t one. But in essence he says this: I’m reasonable if, when you and I disagree, I’m willing to constrain or modify my pursuit of my own interests to the same degree that you’re willing to constrain or modify your pursuit of your interests.
When we come together to suggest our rules, then, we aren’t just “looking out for number one.” Rather, we both want to design a world where we accommodate each other’s needs, so that when we don’t see eye to eye on something, finding a way to coexist in some kind of harmony becomes our top priority. Scanlon is after “a shared willingness to modify our private demands in order to find a basis of justification that others also have reason to accept.” It’s a contract he wants all of us to sign, giving us all the same exact motivations.Scanlon wants us to figure this stuff out with each other—to sit across from one another and simply ask: “Do you agree that this is okay?”
Importantly, this doesn’t mean we always have to defer to other people in every conflict—because in Scanlon’s world, they’re approaching the conflict with the same intention to modify their interests in order to justify them to us. It creates a kind of dynamic tension, where we all regard everyone else’s interests as equal to our own—not more important, but equally important. We can now better understand why Hieronymi explained this to me by setting the scene of endless, miserable, stalemated war—both sides’ weariness and desire for a path forward help us believe that everyone will be reasonable, because we’re all motivated to find a way out of this quagmire, and we all recognize that everyone else is motivated in the same way.
When we apply Scanlon’s theory to the world we live in—the world comprising thousands of small moments and decisions and interactions—contractualism makes a pretty good divining rod for bad or unjust behavior. For example: If someone proposed a rule that said, “No driver should use the breakdown lanes on any highway unless there is an emergency,” no one could reasonably reject that rule. This rule, properly applied, would treat everyone the same and serve public safety.
But if Wayne the Lamborghini Driver said, “Hey, I got a rule: no one can use the breakdown lanes except for Lamborghini drivers, who can drive wherever they want, because Lambos rule,” someone could (and likely would) reasonably reject that rule. Scanlon’s theory allows us to quickly identify behaviors that feel unjust or selfish, like when you’re stuck in heavy traffic and a rich dope in the obvious throes of a midlife crisis pulls his yellow Lamborghini into the breakdown lane and whizzes past you.
And when we apply contractualism to any of those little “free” decisions from earlier in this chapter, we’ll get the answers we’d expect: Would anyone veto a rule that says, “We should park our car, whenever we can, in a way that allows other people enough room to park”? No. Why would any reasonable person veto that? How about: “We can park wherever we want, and everyone else can go to hell”? Well, now, that’s definitely getting vetoed. Scanlon isn’t trying to turn us into flourishing, virtuous superpeople. He just wants us all—no matter our personalities or religious beliefs or political bents or pizza-topping preferences—to be able to look each other in the eye and justify our basic rules for how to live.
That’s partly why contractualism appeals to me more than Kantian deontology. Kant wants us to encounter a problem, press pause, enter some kind of solitary meditation zone, use our pure reason to discern and describe a universal law that applies to the problem, and then act out of a duty to follow that law. Scanlon wants us to figure this stuff out with each other—to sit across from one another and simply ask: “Do you agree that this is okay?” He puts his faith not in abstract reasoning, but in our necessary relationships with other people.
Now, this can seem dicey too—I’m guessing that for many of us, leaving our fate in other people’s hands doesn’t seem like the safest possible bet. It’s hard enough to figure out rules for how we ought to live, and now this guy tells us our choices could be vetoed by Cindy, our next-door neighbor who talks to squirrels like they’re people, or by our cousin Derrek, who jumped off a diving board into a swimming pool that was frozen solid and broke his tailbone?
Perhaps more relevantly, here in 2022, we’d be depending on the “reasonableness” of people with whom we vehemently disagree, like conspiracy-theory-spouting Facebook trolls or racist great-uncles. You’re telling me those people can reject our rules for permissible behavior? Well . . . yes, as long as their objections are reasonable, and they constrain their own desires to the same degree we constrain ours. (And remember, many of their more extreme views would be rejected by us as unreasonable.) As odd and annoying and unpredictable as the people around us can be, given that they’re the people we have to live with, I think it’s often a better idea to design the moral boundaries of our world with their cooperation than it is to do it abstractly, in their absence. And I further think it’s a better idea for them to do so with our cooperation.
1 When I arrived, she . . . wasn’t there. An hour went by. I emailed her and asked if I’d gotten the date wrong, but it turned out she was just so deeply lost in her own research and writing that she’d forgotten about the meeting entirely. Which delighted me. I mean, that’s exactly what you want out of your philosophical advisers.*
*Hilariously passive-aggressive subnote from Todd: Sorry about my prompt responses to your emails, Mike.
2 In the series finale of The Good Place I had Eleanor finish reading the book after (quite literally) an eternity of trying.
3 Obviously, we might wonder what happens if some people aren’t reasonable. Simply: they don’t get to weigh in. Pamela described the cases of “the doormat” and “the asshole.” When we pitch rules to the doormat, he agrees to everything, because he undervalues his own interests. When we pitch rules to the asshole, she agrees to none of them, because she overvalues her interests. So, neither of these unreasonable people gets the chance to sit at the metaphorical table where we’re coming up with our rules. More important: if we’re not at a metaphorical and imaginary table but rather out in the real world interacting with real people, it can sometimes be up to us (when we encounter a person like this) to project reasonableness onto them. We can’t take advantage of the doormat, for example, by realizing he will just agree to whatever we propose and then proposing a bunch of rules that serve to benefit ourselves at the doormat’s expense; instead, we need to keep ourselves in check by recognizing that there is a disconnect between the way these doormats/assholes are acting and the way a reasonable person would be acting, and only propose rules they’d follow if they were, indeed, reasonable.
4 This is assuming the governing body treated all people the same—traditionally not the case, in most countries, but we’re creating an imaginary and fair society here, so just go with it. If we were actually designing rules for our society, we’d probably want to start with some rules for the governing body itself, like “No racism” and “All people have equal rights regardless of gender,” and a bunch of other basic stuff that was left out of the founding documents of almost every nation on earth.
Excerpted from How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. Used with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2022 by Michael Schur.