How ‘The Good Place’ Ended The Nature versus Nurture Debate

From its start to its end The Good Place is one big philosophical lesson. Whether it’s their constant name droppings of famous philosophers and the clever jokes about them or episodes revolving around the trolley problem, philosophy is always there.

For most of history philosophy tried to come up with a meaning for humans. So, naturally, The Good Place does the same. One of the central themes of the show is how the modern life and its routine and rules makes it impossible for humans to be good. With that in mind, in season four the main characters embark on an experiment to prove that given the right circumstances humans can improve. In the end, their hypothesis is proved and the afterlife itself is adapted according to the fact that every human can be good in the right environment and with a push in the right direction.

In the universe of The Good Place a person’s character is shaped by outside factors; it has nothing to do with their inherent nature. Thus, without ever explicitly stating and explaining the discourse, the show gives an answer to the endless debate of nature versus nurture in psychology. Given the detailed incorporation of philosophy into the show it is highly possible they are aware of the point they are making.

Eleanor, Tahani and Jason engage in an awkward hug whilst Janet and Michael watch, confused.
Image courtesy of NBC

The nature versus nurture debate basically means the question of whether genetic inheritance or external factors have the determinant effect on a person’s character. Like many things, the concept of the nature versus nurture debate goes back to Ancient Greece. Its roots in the sense of recent arguments, however, goes back to a philosopher that has been name dropped in The Good Place as well : John Locke. He argued that people were born as ‘blank slates’. Across him was Sir Francis Calton who thought that the character of a person came solely from hereditary factors. The debate went on and on with several philosophers and psychologists and researchers chiming in. In the 1970’s a series of studies conducted on twins started to be made regarding this subject. Identical twins growing up in separate places were examined for years only for researchers to find that their heredity and their environment both had around 50% effect on their characters.

Although the debate is still going and both sides are still taught in psychology classes, the view of today is that nurture and nature are interlaced. Environment dictates how the genes are manifested and the extent in which they are manifested while genes affect the way certain environments are experienced. What The Good Place offers with its optimistic and hopeful message is more of a one sided answer.

In the first season, Michael’s (Ted Danson) torture plan does the opposite of its intended effect and the four humans, as he would say, band together and improve each other. In particular, the ethics and philosophy lessons Chidi (William Jackson Harper) gives to Eleanor (Kristen Bell) does not only improve her on a moral standpoint but also help Chidi better himself. Eleanor even confesses that she is not supposed to be in the good place just to ease Chidi’s worries. In her life on earth Eleanor does not reach that kind of selflessness but with the positive effect of Chidi she does. Thus, the environment and the people in that environment matters a lot.

In the second season, after figuring out that they are being tortured Michael announces that he can truly get ‘Team Cockroach’ into the Good Place. So, the four main characters and Michael start getting lessons from Chidi. This time, all four of them improve. Sure, they don’t pass The Judge’s (Maya Rudolph) test in the season finale but still they are better version of themselves than they were when they first came to the fake Good Place.

Even non-human characters show immense improvement. Michael sacrifices himself to get all the humans into The Judge’s chambers. Janet (D’arcy Carden) develops emotional intelligence with the help of Jason (Manny Jacinto). Michael was created as a demon; Janet as Janet (an omnipotent interface). Being a demon means despising humans and enjoying the torture of them. For the whole of season one and the first parts of season two, Michael fits this description. After his connections with the four humans, he changes and takes their side. By the end of the series he even wants to be a human. So, Michael goes against his inherent self because of the humans he meets, because of the environment he is in. Janet isn’t made to love but she does. Meeting Jason and him being kind to her and him showing her what ‘jalapeño poppers’ are makes it possible for her to love.

Michael sits in a chair with his hands clasped together. Shawn kneels down to his level, looking at him directly.
Image courtesy of NBC

In both Michael and Janet’s characters, their surroundings have more of an impact than their natures.

In the third season, the team realizes that nobody has gotten into the Good Place for years. That’s because of how complicated life has gotten ever since the first humans walked on earth. In the same example the show uses, buying a tomato is not a simple task by any means. Trying to consume in a cruelty-free way is near impossible. Cruelty-free here means a lot of things like in terms of no exploitation of workers, no pesticides, no environmental pollution… People mostly don’t have enough time to search all of this. Basically, their point is that with the worries of modern life people are bound to make bad choices that will get them into the Bad Place.

In the fourth season, this becomes their hypothesis in the big experiment. By putting three new humans and Chidi into a similar environment to the one they encountered in season one, they try to test whether these humans will improve too. Things get complicated in the end but the final conclusion is that all humans will improve in their own time constraints when they are presented with opportunities to improve.

The show gets way too optimistic with this conclusion, with Michael saying “No one is beyond rehabilitation.”. It fits to the hopeful message the show’s finale brings but in the real world sense, it’s hard to accept this wording.

If Earth corrupts, then the afterlife presents people with an environment that lessens the pressures of life and offers people the opportunity to take the path to change. Their natures, their genes, whatever was written on their slates when they came to this world doesn’t really matter. Like any liquid, people take the shape of the container they are in. Everybody has the potential to change in the eyes of The Good Place.

Chidi, Tahani and Jason stand side by side. Chidi is wearing a green shirt that says "Good Place Architect". Tahani is wearing a grey shirt that says "Human" whilst Jason is wearing a red shirt that says "Bad Place Architect."
Image courtesy of NBC

The show opts for this sentiment that nurture prevails over nature however, Steven Pinker, a Canadian-American psychologist, argues that the ‘blank slate’ which is the approach of this theory is linked to certain dogmas. The Good Place presents both those dogmas in its answer. The first dogma is the ‘noble savage’. It says that people are inherently good and that they are corrupted by external influence. The show fiercely believes in the good of all people. In the new afterlife, people have the chance to redo their test forever until they get the right results that will show their improvement. Also, they say over and over again that the complicated life on earth, the external influence, is what drives people to get sorted into the bad place. The second dogma is the ‘ghost in the machine’. It says that people have souls that are capable of morally good choices regardless of their biology. Humans turning into little dust sparkles in the finale of the show can maybe point to the existence of souls in this story.

Technically, from a psychological and a philosophical point of view The Good Place’s conclusion is open to criticism. Still, even for a pessimist, ignoring the flaws of this theory and just focusing on the message that every person has the potential to progress, this is something positive to hold onto in today’s bleak world. Maybe not “No one is beyond rehabilitation.” but definitely, “…we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people.”

Header image courtesy of NBC