Television

The Two Philosophers Who Cameoed in the Good Place Finale on What They Made of Its Ending

Plus: whether Ted Danson is really as nice as everyone says.

Todd May makes a point and Pamela Hieronymi listens while Eleanor (Kristen Bell) rolls her eyes
Philosophy professors Pamela Hieronymi (left) and Todd May (center) with Kristen Bell (right) in the finale. Screengrab from NBC

In the series finale of The Good Place, the show’s four formerly damned souls finally found lasting peace, making their way to the ultimate paradise, but “Whenever You’re Ready” also featured another long-overdue arrival: the first appearance of Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi, the show’s philosophical advisors. While The Good Place hewed to the demands of a network sitcom—there was hugging and learning and quite a few jokes about farts—it also centered an ongoing debate about moral philosophy, from Aristotle up to the present day, and May and Hieronymi made sure the show stayed true to its grander ideals.

Hieronymi, a professor at UCLA, introduced creator Mike Schur to T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, which would become an onscreen bible for the show’s in-house philosopher, Chidi Anagonye. May, who teaches at Clemson, starred in a series of short videos explaining concepts like existentialism, utilitarianism, and deontology to the show’s viewers. Both visited the show’s writers’ room and had been rewarded with onscreen shoutouts, but it wasn’t until the final episode that they were actually on set and in front of the cameras, as part of an ad hoc philosophy seminar in Chidi’s afterlife home (proving that, at least once the system is properly adjusted, even moral philosophy professors can go to heaven). After the finale, we called up May and Hieronymi to ask them about their history with the show, their cameos, and whether Ted Danson is really as nice as everyone says. Below, we’ve spliced together the two conversations, which have also been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: So, what did you think of the finale?

Todd May: I thought what they did was very touching. The moment with Chidi and Eleanor where you have “Spiegel im Spiegel” in the background was very moving. The idea that you have to be mortal in order for life to be meaningful is something I wrote about in the Death book, although it’s not original to me. There are debates between philosophers who think immortality would be good and philosophers like me who think you need mortality. One of them has called people like me the “immortality curmudgeons.”

Pamela Hieronymi: They’re definitely taking a side in an ongoing philosophical discussion about immortality, saying that an infinite and trouble-less life would be meaningless. I’m not sure I agree with that. I think probably Tahani got it right in trying to see what she could do to help the rest of humanity. It’s not that the other characters were being selfish. It’s that the portrayal of existence as relying on a termination to give it meaning—I’m skeptical of that idea, especially when you have new people coming into existence who are in the midst of learning through life. One of the things that Michael says early in the show is that they have a shortage of architects. So Tahani is meeting a real need. And then you also have the [Tim] Scanlon quote at the end: “Working out the terms of moral justification is an unending task.” If the problem is boredom, trying to help those people seems pretty interesting.

It seems as much an argument about television as it is about morality: Better a good ending on your own terms than dragging things out until they’re dulled by repetition.

Hieronymi: I kind of like it better in that setting. Television will get boring.

The other direct quote from the finale is from Todd May’s book on death: “Mortality offers meaning to the events of our lives, and morality helps us navigate that meaning.” Why is that such a key idea?

May: In the book, I argue that it may be the most important fact about us that we’re only going to be here a certain amount of time, and we don’t know how long that is. It shadows us in our entire lives, even when we’re not looking. If I were immortal, then whatever projects I would have, I could just continue on, but being mortal, that means I’ve only got a certain amount of time, so I need to think about where I’m going to put that time: What’s important and what’s not important. All those things come up because I’m going to die.

Although the characters are in the actual Good Place, your scene took place in a replica of Eleanor’s house from the first season, which is probably the show’s most iconic set. What was it like to finally set foot in it?

May: First off, it was huge! It’s this little tiny set, but it takes place in this giant aircraft hangar. There’s dozens of people walking around. There seemed to be people whose job was to be on their iPhones. Mike had told me there’s lots of people involved, but to see them all was kind of stunning.

I had two lines, one of which I wrote. And I was petrified. You put me in front of an audience of 50, 200, 1,000 and just tell me to start speaking, I’m fine. You give me two lines to memorize, one of which I wrote? I have no idea whether I can do this or not. The idea of speaking as though it were spontaneous something that you’ve memorized is something I’ve just never done before.

Everybody was ridiculously friendly, and yet for me there was this nervousness of not blowing the lines. Will Harper, the Chidi figure, he went up to me and said, “You know, Todd, they’re going to do like 7 or 8 takes, each from different angles. You’ll blow the line a couple times. I’ll blow the line a couple times. Don’t worry about it. Just keep going.”

What sort of direction did you get?

Hieronymi: My line [about the trolley problem: “Bring a poncho. It gets messy.”] was supposed to be funny! I have to tell a joke on TV for Mike Schur—let’s see if I can pull this off. The backstory is that Mike somehow got it into his head that I’m really into the trolley problem, which I really dislike, actually. It’s a terrific teaching tool, and I use it in all my intro classes, but I kind of hate it. So it was a nice line to be able to deliver. The part that I found most nerve-wracking was I have to react to Kristen Bell. She’s so great, and I just met her. But in the scene, I have to be kind of irritated with her. So that took an emotional moment of like, you have to be like scowly professor here.

Who else did you meet on the set?

May: Ted Danson was interesting. He has this reputation of being the nicest guy in Hollywood. I was standing there with Pamela Hieronymi. We’re just standing on the set, and he comes up and introduces himself. “I don’t recognize you—I’m Ted Danson.” I just thought, “Really? You went up to us?” He was just what people said he was. Mike has a no-assholes policy. So the people that work there, they’re decent. It creates a certain atmosphere and people go with that atmosphere.

There are so many “Which character from The Good Place are you?” personality tests out there. Are you a Chidi?

Hieronymi: Yeah, for sure. Todd and I independently told Mike that indecision is the philosopher’s vice. The last thing you want to do is figure out where to go to lunch at one of the American Philosophical Association conferences. The lobby is full of people, none of whom can figure out what they want.

May: Actually no. For me, it’s because I’m a philosopher. Chidi is a guy who spends his life paralyzed for most of the show’s trajectory, until he gets rebooted all those times. I tend to leap into things more. I do political organizing. I teach in a maximum-security prison. I just throw myself into things. So in that sense, I didn’t relate to Chidi. After he had done the 800 or so reboots, he came out decisive but calmer and wiser. Wiser and calmer? That I can’t relate to, either.

Where on the show do you see your influence?

May: In a few places. At one point, when they go to the Bad Place, they’re trying to get Chidi away from his Kantian imperatives, and Eleanor starts talking about ethical particularism—there aren’t universal principles, there are only reasons in specific circumstances that favor or disfavor an action. It’s based on a book by Jonathan Dancy, and Mike Schur wasn’t sure he knew how it worked. So he emailed me in what, in 35 years of teaching, is the only philosophical emergency I’ve seen. In the second season, there’s the “Existential Crisis” episode, which is largely based on a Skype conversation I had with Mike. And then in the last two episodes, the idea that you need mortality in order to have meaning becomes really important.

For the next-to-last episode, Mike had emailed me and said, “Who would Chidi meet in the Good Place?” Artistotle had slaves. Plato was an elitist. I said, “Here’s someone you should think about: Hypatia. She was a really good person. She was very tolerant. She was a polymath. She embodies the qualities of the Good Place that you’re talking about.” Then Mike emailed me a while later, and said, “OK, how do you pronounce her name?” I went to some Greek scholars and got three different pronunciations, so I sent them all. And he emailed me back and said, “We’ve decided to go with ‘Patty.’ ”

Hieronymi: In the contractualism, the What We Owe to Each Other. I think that’s my contribution. From the beginning, when Mike and I first met for coffee and he was telling me his idea for the afterlife, my reaction was “No no no, you can’t do points. You need to focus on relationships and ways in which respecting and disrespecting others will run separately from bringing about good or bad outcomes.” And that’s the kind of thing Mike was interested in all along: What are the rules we would all agree to if everyone were symmetrically situated and everyone had a veto? That really formalized for him what he was already trying to express. Then he went and got the book, which is not for the faint of heart. But I felt like I was able to convey the guts of it for him. And I was thrilled to see that it came back again in the finale.

Do you believe in the afterlife?

Hieronymi: No. I wish I could say yes. I spent much of my life as a really devout, committed religious person, but even then, the afterlife never got my attention.

May: No. I don’t believe in an afterlife. But not believing in an afterlife is compatible with believing what Chidi says about the wave and the ocean. I hadn’t put this together, but what I’ve asked when I die is to be cremated and then to have my ashes brought back to a place where they can start again. I know that won’t be me, but the idea of having a place that you go back to and then you become part of the process again is, I suppose, something I do feel comfortable with.

I wrote a book recently called A Decent Life, and I argued that a lot of the altruistic views of things like Kantianism and utilitarianism are just not things that most of us are prepared to do, so how do we think about being decent rather than exemplary? One of the things I was trying to crack is that when you do good things, people think about paying back, but doing good things is much more a matter of paying forward. This can be simple. If a person’s trying to get into traffic and you let them in, it’s amazing how often the person behind you will let the next person in. And if you don’t let that person in, they won’t. If we think of morality as paying it forward, I think that can give us a sense of the kinds of effects we can have in the world.

Now that The Good Place is over, what are you watching now?

Hieronymi: This is a terrible thing to reveal. I don’t actually watch TV. I’m sure I would be voted by my friends least likely to have anything do with pop culture. So it’s very funny that I’m living in L.A. and doing this. I’m just happy that my students and I still have Star Wars in common.

May: I didn’t watch network television for years until this came up. I watch [a few] series. You know Broadchurch? Or Trapped, the Icelandic series? The one that we’re currently watching is Hip-Hop Evolution. I’m not a person who listens to hip-hop, but to hear the whole history really brings you in. Until Mike decides to do another philosophical series, I’ll probably stick to watching Netflix.