What Do We Owe to One Another?

Out of all television media produced within the last three years, I would be hard pressed to find a comedy show more intriguing than The Good Place. For those who haven’t seen it, The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop after she dies and finds herself in “the good place,” despite knowing that she’s not meant to be there. Convinced that she can learn how to belong as a good person, she enlists the help of a (former) professor of moral philosophy, Chidi Anagonye. As one critic described just over a year ago in The Atlantic, the show “stands out for dramatizing actual ethics classes onscreen, without watering down the concepts being described, and while still managing to be entertaining.”It fascinates me to no end that a show based explicitly on ethics and philosophy could dominate primetime airwaves, not to mention the amount of time it does in the lives of my friends.

One important concept that Chidi brings up fairly early in the series, and one that is revisited several times in the course of the first three seasons, is what we owe to one another. Taking the social-contract-based question from the philosopher T. M. Scanlon, Chidi asks Eleanor to consider what it is that we each owe to the human race; what can each of us be expected to give to another human being?

In my wholly anecdotal experience, it seems that we have shifted from comedy shows that deal with how we treat each other within our families (anything from Leave it to Beaver to Fresh Prince or Everybody Loves Raymond) to those about friendship (Seinfeld, Friends), and then on to work relationships (The Office, Parks and Recreation), before finally dealing with how we treat those we’ve actually never met. Rather than dwelling on what it means to be a good husband, wife, parent, child, friend, or coworker, The Good Place attempts to tackle what it means to be a good person—and it does so in a way that is completely hilarious.

In this, I see the show not as a fluke but as a weathervane (speaking of its call for ethical behavior and not of its hilarity). In our increasingly singularized and simultaneously global world, we may need to ask what it is that we owe to each other, not only in our own families and communities but to all people. Perhaps we are ready to discuss what we really do owe each other and to realize how much of our meaning derives from the ensuing relationships we create with others.

Last semester, thanks to a suggestion by my brother, I read a book of lectures by Sam Scheffler entitled Death and the Afterlife.Scheffler’s main project in the book is to consider the impact of ongoing human history—what Scheffler calls the “collective afterlife”—on the meaning we construct within our lives. By proposing new and provocative thought experiments, Scheffler examines how behaviors would shift if our assumption that other humans will survive us were somehow unfulfilled. In a way, Scheffler is asking not only what we owe to one another but also how that owing creates meaning and structure within our lives. Although responding scholars (included within the book) argue that such meaning is still egocentric, Scheffler’s argument persists that personal meaning is dependent on the continued existence of others and, to some extent, what we leave for them—including how we treat them while we’re here.

I’m not suggesting that there has ever been a time when people have not been interested in morality, nor am I heralding this as a new ethical revolution. But I still find it significant that these influences have come to me through popular rather than strictly academic means. Perhaps after decades of disillusionment, we are ready to reestablish ideals in how we treat one another and interact on a global scale.

Of course, these ideas seem to fit right alongside contemporary movements within the academy as well. This very week, we were fortunate enough in the Humanities Center to enjoy the company of Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who on Thursday led a group discussion surrounding her book, Generous Thinking.It was a wonderful experience and I hope everyone got as much out of it as I did. Cue my surprise, though, in my preparation for the discussion when I read on page 51 of her book: “Do we have an obligation to the world?” In other words, what do we owe each other pertaining to scholarly criticism? Suggesting in her book that we could do more as an academy to interact with and benefit from better communication with the public, Fitzpatrick wants to explore “that which binds us together” (51-52), thereby interrogating “our belonging” (53). Her project in championing generosity “as a potential ground for reestablishing that sense of belonging, and in so doing rebuilding the relationship between the university and the public good” is meant to function as “a way of being that creates infinite, unbounded, ongoing obligation” (54, emphasis mine).

Even among our ranks, we, too, wonder what it is that we owe each other. How do we conduct criticism that acts ethically in coordination with our objects of study? How do we accept our embeddedness in the public and strive for public good? How do we account for inter-personal meaning in the classroom and teach our students to think generously? These types of questions are in the air, and they are vital to ask and answer—not only for the continuation of our own scholarly work, but also for the continuation of the goodness of our species.

This post was written by Isaac Robertson, Humanities Center Intern.

[1] *SPOILER WARNING* Yuko, Elizabeth. “How The Good Place Goes Beyond ‘The Trolley Problem.’” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/10/how-the-good-place-goes-beyond-the-trolley-problem/543393/.

[2] Scheffler, Samuel. Death and the Afterlife. Oxford UP, 2013.

[3] Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, 2019.

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