Contractualism, the sitcom!

From the most recent NYT Magazine (in print 10/7, on-line 10/4), “The Ultimate Sitcom” by Sam Anderson, about Michael Schur’s sitcom “The Good Place”:

(#1) Ted Danson and Kristen Bell

 “The Good Place” is not about philosophy in the way that “The Big Bang Theory” is about science — as a set of clichés to tap for silly jokes. A sitcom is not a grad school seminar, obviously, so the philosophy is highly abridged. But it is not insubstantial, and philosophical ideas actually determine and shape the plot.

I had been tangentially aware of the show (from its availability on Netflix), but didn’t appreciate its premise or its grounding in actual philosophy — a very specific brand of philosophy, as it turns out.

As embodied in a specific book.

By — moment of sheer astonishment — one of my oldest friends.

As Sam Anderson tells it:

At the beginning of Episode 6, Chidi holds up a book: a thick academic paperback with one of those devastatingly quiet covers (earth tones, Morandi still-life) that make you feel as if you will never be allowed to leave the library again.

Eleanor reads its title aloud — “What We Owe to Each Other” — and gasps.


“I saw this movie!” she says. “Laura Linney cries in a lake house because Jude Law left her for his ex-wife’s ghost.”

This synopsis, of course, is incorrect. The book is actually a dense work of philosophy by the Harvard emeritus professor T.M. [“Tim”] Scanlon. It introduces an idea called “contractualism.” As Chidi explains it to Eleanor: “Imagine a group of reasonable people are coming up with the rules for a new society. … But anyone can veto any rule that they think is unfair.” (“Well, my first rule would be that no one can veto my rules,” Eleanor responds, to which Chidi counters, “That’s called tyranny, and it’s generally frowned upon.”)

The book seeks to explain how human societies might find moral authority without appealing to a deity or inherited laws. The answer comes from a sort of idealized social negotiation — the process of thinking, in good faith, with a community of other good-faith thinkers. As Scanlon puts it: “Thinking about right and wrong is, at the most basic level, thinking about what could be justified to others on grounds that they, if appropriately motivated, could not reasonably reject.”

Pamela Hieronymi [a philosophy professor at UCLA, , brought onto the show’s staff as “consulting philosopher”, surely the first in sitcom history] introduced Schur to “What We Owe to Each Other”; Scanlon was her dissertation adviser at Harvard. It was the perfect way to deepen the show’s original premise — that mechanistic notion of an ethical points system. It was richer, Hieronymi argued, to think of morality in terms of cooperative human relationships — the way networks of people, with their interdependencies and conflicts, have to find a way to coexist and sacrifice and treat one another with respect. In such messy human environments, ethical choices rarely map directly onto obvious results. There are no leader boards. The problems can be almost infinitely complex.

Schur loved not only the central thesis of “What We Owe to Each Other” but also the book’s title. “It assumes that we owe things to each other,” he told me. “It starts from that place. It’s not like: Do we owe anything to each other? It’s like: Given that we owe things to each other, let’s try to figure out what they are. It’s a very quietly subversive idea.”

It is, in a way, deeply un-American — an affront to our central mythology of individual rights, self-interest and the sanctity of the free market. As an over-the-top avatar of all our worst impulses, Eleanor is severely allergic to any notion of community. And yet her salvation will turn out to depend on the people around her, all of whom will in turn depend on her. What makes us good, Chidi tells her, is “our bonds to other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity.” As the show progresses, “What We Owe to Each Other” becomes a recurring character, popping up onscreen at several crucial plot points. This amazed Hieronymi — the last thing she had expected to see was her dissertation adviser’s book featured prominently on a network sitcom.

Imagine her surprise.

And Tim’s. As he said in e-mail to me yesterday, in a characteristically understated note:

Never imagined that I would figure in a sitcom. It makes me nervous, but so far nothing really bad has resulted, as far as I know.

Me, I’m binge-watching the sitcom, with great pleasure. S1 E8 “Most Improved Player” is currently streaming past me.

Now: a few notes on the show; on the book; on Morandi (the artist); and rather a lot about Tim, most of which he will find embarrassing.

The Good Place. From Wikipedia:

The Good Place is an American fantasy-comedy television series created by Michael Schur. The series premiered on September 19, 2016, on NBC.

The series focuses on Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a woman who wakes up in the afterlife and is introduced by Michael (Ted Danson) to “The Good Place”, a highly selective Heaven-like utopia he designed, as a reward for her righteous life. She realizes that she was sent there by mistake and must hide her morally imperfect behavior and try to become a better, more ethical person. William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto co-star as other residents of “The Good Place”, together with D’Arcy Carden as Janet, an artificial being helping the inhabitants.

The Good Place received positive reviews upon its debut and has since gained critical acclaim. It has been praised for its acting, writing, originality, setting, and tone. In addition, its first-season twist ending and its exploration and creative use of ethics and philosophy have been positively received.

What We Owe to Each Other. The Harvard University Press jacket copy:

How do we judge whether an action is morally right or wrong? If an action is wrong, what reason does that give us not to do it? Why should we give such reasons priority over our other concerns and values? In this book, T. M. Scanlon offers new answers to these questions, as they apply to the central part of morality that concerns what we owe to each other. According to his contractualist view, thinking about right and wrong is thinking about what we do in terms that could be justified to others and that they could not reasonably reject. He shows how the special authority of conclusions about right and wrong arises from the value of being related to others in this way, and he shows how familiar moral ideas such as fairness and responsibility can be understood through their role in this process of mutual justification and criticism.

Scanlon bases his contractualism on a broader account of reasons, value, and individual well-being that challenges standard views about these crucial notions. He argues that desires do not provide us with reasons, that states of affairs are not the primary bearers of value, and that well-being is not as important for rational decision-making as it is commonly held to be. Scanlon is a pluralist about both moral and non-moral values. He argues that, taking this plurality of values into account, contractualism allows for most of the variability in moral requirements that relativists have claimed, while still accounting for the full force of our judgments of right and wrong.

Giorgio Morandi and his still lifes. From Wikipedia:

Giorgio Morandi (July 20, 1890 – June 18, 1964) was an Italian painter and printmaker who specialized in still life. His paintings are noted for their tonal subtlety in depicting apparently simple subjects, which were limited mainly to vases, bottles, bowls, flowers and landscapes.

The Morandi on the cover of the book is his Still Life of 1956. In line with the theme of the book, it shows a small community of everyday objects — similar in many ways, but each distinct from the others. Against the usual custom in these things, which is for the publisher to pick the cover art, the Morandi was chosen by Tim and his wife, Lucy Welliver Scanlon (who is, among other things, a ceramic artist; see her excellent website).

Tim Scanlon. The Wikipedia version (with additions from me):

Thomas Michael “Tim” Scanlon (born 1940), usually cited as T. M. Scanlon, is an American philosopher. He was the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity in Harvard University’s Department of Philosophy until his retirement at the end of the 2015–2016 academic year. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2018.

Born June 28, 1940, Scanlon grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana; obtained his undergraduate degree from Princeton University in 1962 [in philosophy, as a student of Paul Benacerraf, who was also my adviser]; earned his PhD in philosophy from Harvard under Burton Dreben [at the time Tim and Lucy were in Cambridge for Tim’s graduate work, Ann Daingerfield Zwicky and I were there for my graduate work at MIT, so we got to spend pleasant time together]; studied for a year at Oxford University on a Fulbright Scholarship; and returned to Princeton University, where he taught from 1966 until 1984. He was made a MacArthur Fellow in 1993.

His dissertation and some of his first papers were in mathematical logic [my own specialization in mathematics as an undergraduate, before I discovered linguistics and defected], where his main concern was in proof theory, but he turned to ethics and political philosophy, where he developed a version of contractualism in the line of John Rawls, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Scanlon has also published important work on freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, foundations of contract law, human rights, conceptions of welfare, theories of justice, as well as on foundational questions in moral theory.

His teaching in the department has included courses on theories of justice, equality, and recent ethical theory. His book, What We Owe to Each Other, was published by Harvard University Press in 1998; a collection of papers on political theory, The Difficulty of Tolerance, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2003.

Scanlon is the father-in-law of philosopher and scholar of African-American studies Tommie Shelby [since 2013, the Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard; and married to free-lance journalist Jessie Scanlon].

The top of Tim’s entry in our Princeton 50th reunion book (in 2012), included here because it has Tim’s picture from our Freshman Herald book in 1958 (our facebook from long before there was Facebook):


(Disregard the addresses.)

And then Tim in a filmed conversation at Berkeley in 2007:


Then two notes on Tim as a person, the first from a 12/27/10 posting “Some deaths of 2010”:

[In 1981] I remarked to [moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who was one of the notable people memorialized in the NYT in 2010] that the only friend from my Princeton … years that I was still close to was the philosopher Tim Scanlon, and then she was in awe of me; “Oh,” she said, “I think Tim Scanlon is the smartest man I’ve ever met!”

(The Good Place has  has now reached S2 E5 “The Trolley Problem”, with its reference to Philippa. Like Tim, I find this sort of thing disconcerting. In the latest simulation of the Trolley Problem on the show, Chidi has opted to run over five William Shakespeares rather than one Santa Claus.)

Prodigiously smart, and also — this is the potentially embarrassing part — one of the world’s nicest people: humane, generous, engaged, empathetic, wryly funny, all that good stuff.

But how can it be almost 60 years since those Campus Club days at Princeton?

3 Responses to “Contractualism, the sitcom!”

  1. Lucy W Scanlon Says:

    What a nice post, Arnold! Tim will be embarrassed but surely also pleased.


  2. Ethical Surrealism | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] this blog, about the show and about another one of its topics: my 10/11/18 posting “Contractualism, the sitcom!” (see  recent work by the Harvard philosopher T.M. […]

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