By Ben Colon-Emeric, Timothy Dwight ’22. Ben is majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
NOTE: The following article contains spoilers for Seasons 1-3 of NBC’s The Good Place.
There’s a lot of talk around the Yale campus about being “complicit.” The idea is that if you put money into a system that is participating in immoral actions, you are engaging in immoral actions. The protests about Yale divesting its endowment from various investment groups, for example, often use this language of being “complicit.” The problem this raises in a deeply interconnected society is where to draw the line: are we complicit in immorality simply by participating in society? One exploration of this question comes in the NBC show “The Good Place,” which examines how to make moral decisions in the interconnected modern world. A much earlier attempt to address the problem of perpetuating a broken system came from Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience,” who discussed how to deal with a government that supported immoral practices. These two works show the two ways of dealing with a sinful world: engagement, or detachment.
Thoreau published “Civil Disobedience” in 1849 to a morally divided nation. The Mexican American War had ended the year before, with the U.S. claiming large swaths of the West in a somewhat lopsided treaty with Mexico. Of even greater moral significance to Thoreau was slavery, which the federal government still supported. Thoreau had every reason to feel his government did not represent his morality. He asks, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?” His disgust with the government’s support of slavery leads him to swear off government altogether, starting his essay with the provocative statement “’That government is best which governs not at all.’” Clearly, Thoreau believes that when government is unjust, it is best to detach oneself from it entirely rather than attempt to reform it. He decries those who would stay with their broken government while describing a night he spent in jail for refusing to pay poll tax, saying “If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with the State, they do but what they have already done in their own case, or rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires.” Thoreau believes that if you support a system guilty of immorality, you too are guilty of that immorality.
At first glance, “The Good Place” may seem to concur with Thoreau’s indictment of humanity. In Season 3, the characters discover that no one has made it into the Good Place for hundreds of years. One human on Earth, Doug Forcett, had a vision of the Good Place and spent his entire life earning the maximum number of points he could, but was still far below the minimum. The reason for this barrier of entry is the interconnectedness of society. Buying a tomato earns negative points because the money spent funds farms that use pesticides and put carbon in the atmosphere. This is precisely the viewpoint advocated by Thoreau, where it is a sin to participate in a sinful society even when the sin is beyond your personal control. But this is where Thoreau and “The Good Place” creator Mike Schur diverge. Rather than accept the broken systems of the world as proof that humans themselves are broken, the main characters fight to prove that participating in a society that does bad things does not make you a bad person. The argument of “The Good Place” is that we are so interconnected, being complicit is inescapable, therefore it is not truly sinful.
The Christian is called to see the beauty of God in the world and to denounce the ugliness that is present there. As Christians, how do we engage with a society that is frequently unjust or downright evil? While there is much to admire in Thoreau’s moral consistency, the underlying motivation seems selfish. Thoreau believes that he has no mandate to help others, as he says, “I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society” and, more severely, “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.” This seems like an inhumane, not to mention un-Christian response to the problem. “The Good Place” seems to have a more compassionate response, promoting participation in society and arguing that we do have a duty to help others. The problem with the approach promoted by “The Good Place” is that it utterly discards the idea of being complicit, deciding that complicitness is not reflective of a person’s actual goodness. This also seems wrong, as I think there is a point at which being complicit is sinful. If I held stock in Monsanto back when they were making Agent Orange, I feel I could be justly reprimanded for being complicit.
I think that to live as a Christian in an interconnected world, the correct response is somewhere between Thoreau and “The Good Place.” I should recognize the sin in the world, but I should not disconnect myself from the world or ignore the role I am playing in society’s sins. Thoreau was right that we should, whenever possible, take our support away from immoral systems. Like the characters in “The Good Place,” I should work to be a good member of society, improving my community, instead of abandoning it, even when society is a little forking crazy.