Five William Shakespeares Versus One Santa Claus; Self-Sacrifice and The Trolley Problem in the Series “The Good Place”
This quote sounds like it has been taken from a textbook on moral philosophy, or maybe a scene from a university classroom somewhere around the world. It references to the Trolley Problem, the famous thought experiment provided by Philippa Foot in 1967, an experiment posing a question that is still heavily debated among scholars (Bauman et al. 2014; Scruton 2014; JafariNaimi 2018: is it morally justifiable to kill one person in order to save several others?) This specific quote about “an exciting day”, however, is actually not taken from a professional context, but from the episode “The Trolley Problem” (S02E05) of the Netflix television series The Good Place (2016–2020), created by Michael Schur.This is an exciting day. We are going to tackle The Trolley Problem. (…) You are driving a trolley when the brakes fail, and on the track ahead of you are five workmen that you will run over. Now, you can steer to another track, but on that track is one person you would kill instead of the five. What do you do?
1. The Trolley Problem in Philosophy and Popular Culture
In the subsequent development of several versions of Foot’s experiment, teasingly dubbed “trolleyology” (Edmonds 2014, pp. 10–11), the philosopher’s initial use of the experiment was broadened significantly, up until the point where the trolley and its driver are thought to be the expression of a kind of stand-off between consequentialism (or more specifically utilitarianism) and deontology (Greene 2010, p. 362). The utilitarian driver—assuming doing nothing means running into the five—is thought to decide to save the many over the one by switching tracks. The deontological driver is, however, thought to do nothing and run over the five, since killing one is worse than allowing five to die.He is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed.
2. Self-Sacrifice in Philosophy and Popular Culture
3. “The Good Place” on the Trolley Problem and Self-Sacrifice
3.1. Introducing the Series
Other references to the Christian (or Buddhist for that matter) theological tradition are scarce. In “When you are ready’” the four are told that—finally—the great medieval philosopher and theologian “Saint Thomas Aquinas” has entered The Good Place. Moreover, in “The eternal shriek” (S01E07), one of Chidi’s flashbacks brings him to the lecture room of his friend and colleague Henry (no surname), who also features in the Trolley Problem episode. On Henry’s chalkboard the subject of his lecture can be seen: “Philosophy 322: Eschatology and notions of the Apocalypse”. On the board, there are some theological reading suggestions, Alan Segal’s Life after death (Segal 2004), Jürgen Moltmann’s The coming of God (Moltmann 2005), Brian Daley’s The hope of the early church (Daley 2010) and Jeffrey Russell’s Paradise mislaid (Russell 2006), all famous theological works on—indeed—the concept of the Christian afterlife. Chidi however, never quotes or discusses any theological or religion-related topics in his classes.For spiritual stuff, you gotta turn to the East. Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through, and it’s there, and you can see it, you know what it is. It’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore, and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, and where it’s supposed to be.
3.2. The Episode “The Trolley Problem”
3.3. The Theme of Self-Sacrifice in the Series
Michael hints at an insight, formerly impossible for any demon to have had: could self-sacrifice be the solution to the Trolley Problem? This insight is made explicit two episodes later. When Michael contrives a plan to cross the real Bad Place—the demons’ offices—to enter the realm of Gen the Judge, he needs five official pins (depicting a thumb pointing downwards) to be able to pass the through portal between the two places (“Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent”, S02E10). After much ado, he still only has four pins. Chidi, Tahani and Jason have already passed through the portal into the Judge’s office, safe from the demons in the Bad Place, but Eleanor lacks hers. Then Michael grabs her shoulders and says:“Speaking of Chidi” is something no one has ever said, because no one talks about Chidi, because no one likes Chidi, because he’s so annoying about ethics. Now, when you taught the Trolley Problem, did you secretly wish that it could be you who wound up under the trolley? Because all your students did.
Eleanor is not very appreciative at that moment, but Michael insists:Hey, guess what? I just solved the Trolley Problem. Remember? The thought experiment where you’re driving the trolley, and you can either plow into a group of people or turn and hit one person? I solved it.
Then, Michael attaches his own pin to Eleanor’s breast, giving her his own passage to safety. Even though she tries to resist Michael’s actions, he flings her through the portal, while Shawn and a couple of other demons close in on him. Michael has not only found a “solution” to the Trolley Problem, a problem earlier deemed unsolvable in principle by Chidi, but he executes this solution immediately, pushing both the problem and the solution from the purely theoretical domain into the real world. Later, Eleanor explicitly identifies Michael’s actions as such: “He sacrificed himself to save me” (“Burrito”, S02E11).See, the Trolley Problem forces you to choose between two versions of letting other people die. And the actual solution is very simple. Sacrifice yourself.
This is the final self-sacrifice of the series: to let your loved one go because you love them. It is also a reference to the book What we owe to each other by American philosopher Thomas Scanlon (1998), which popped up regularly throughout the four seasons. Scanlon’s contractualism demands, with regard to our theme of self-sacrifice: “If we can prevent something very bad from happening to someone by making a slight or even moderate sacrifice, it would be wrong not to do so” (Thomas Scanlon 1998, p. 224).I proposed a rule that Chidi shouldn’t be allowed to leave because it would make Eleanor sad, and I could do this forever, zip you around the universe showing you cool stuff, and I’d still never find the justification for getting you to stay. Because it’s a selfish rule. I owe it to you to let you go.
4. Self-Sacrifice as a Solution to the Trolley Problem
Conflicts of Interest
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In a rather strange twist of fate, the film Meet me in St. Louis (1944) featured Judy Garland singing the actual “Trolley Song”, the lyrics of which include: “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley/Ding, ding, ding went the bell/Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings/From the moment I saw him I fell.” Maybe Philippa Foot was inspired by Garland’s song in naming her famous thought experiment, maybe not, but I am not the first to teasingly address this odd coincidence (Joyce 2015; Edmonds 2014).
The notion of “altruism” is in and of itself not without conceptual problems of its own. Critics have argued that true altruism cannot exist, since it defies rational self-interest, and has long-term and/or indirect (perceivable) positive “pay-back”, ultimately undercutting the essence of altruism itself (Hwang and Bowles 2012). While this is certainly true, in the course of this article, I will ignore this topic because of practicality. In this article, we will assume that all acts designated as altruistic are, indeed, unproblematically perceived as such by all individuals involved in and effected by it.
© 2020 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Bosman, F.G. Five William Shakespeares Versus One Santa Claus; Self-Sacrifice and The Trolley Problem in the Series “The Good Place”. Religions 2020, 11, 366. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11070366
Bosman FG. Five William Shakespeares Versus One Santa Claus; Self-Sacrifice and The Trolley Problem in the Series “The Good Place”. Religions. 2020; 11(7):366. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11070366Chicago/Turabian Style
Bosman, Frank G. 2020. "Five William Shakespeares Versus One Santa Claus; Self-Sacrifice and The Trolley Problem in the Series “The Good Place”" Religions 11, no. 7: 366. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11070366