The Good Place is one of my favorite comedy shows ever. That could be recency bias at work, but I don’t believe so. It’s rare to see so many main characters have such chemistry with each other, despite being so wildly different. The writing was sharp over its four-year-run of abbreviated seasons, and ended long before it got stale. It’s the unusual comedy that reveled in both its humor as well as its intelligence, with a more than generous dose of warm fuzzies.
I also love the way the show deconstructed morality and ethics. It took rigorously researched topics, with their encyclopedic words and dusty, philosophical ideas, and distilled them into a digestible essence through four main characters who couldn’t be more different (and a couple of side characters who evolve along with them). Ideas like: don’t be a dick… life is what you make of it… the good place is the one we spend with those we love.
Take, for example, the Trolley Problem. The simplest form of this problem postulates that you’re driving an out of control trolley that will kill five people. However, you can pull a lever to divert it onto a siding and kill one person. The problem suggests that most people would choose the needs of the many (the five) over the needs of the few (the one) and pull the lever. Add complications as desired. What if the five are the Beetles at the start of their career and the one is Weird Al at the start of his? (You choose Weird Al of course!) What if the five are the members of Nickelback, but the one is Trump?. (A much more difficult choice!) Of course, Michael – the soulless demon who initially set out to torture our main cast only to throw his lot in with humanity – finds a unique answer to the question.
The trolley problem shows up everywhere these days. From sitcoms to dramas, all the way to our favorite genre movies. The Kobayashi Maru test that fictional Starfleet puts its cadets through is nothing but another example of the trolley problem. And, as we geeks know, Kirk becomes the only cadet to ever pass the test when he reprograms the simulation. “I don’t like to lose,” he says. Earlier in the movie he let Saavik know “it’s a test of character.”
People want to believe the trolley problem tells us much of what we need to know about truth and morality. About the nature of being human. About character.
What does rigging the test reveal about Kirk’s character? That he’s a cheater? That he’s never had to face death, whether his own or someone else’s, as Lieutenant Saavik and his son, David, say later? Unlikely, though that’s the intent of the script writers. But though Kirk says “I’ve tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity,” he has faced death numerous times, and lost numerous crew members. Red shirts became a trope for a reason. The City on the Edge of Forever presents Kirk with the love of his life in the character of Edith Keeler, a woman from Earth’s past he learns he must allow to die to restore the timeline. Kirk has experienced plenty of death and pain, much of it because of his own choices.
Watch any Star Trek episode. Watch it closely. Whenever the ship is in danger, how many different ways does the crew try to solve the problem? Particularly in the later shows, they often made many attempts before they found a solution. Everyone in Starfleet knows that there is more than one way to solve a problem. More than one solution you can try. Sometimes, though, you need to keep plugging away at it until you find the right one.
I personally believe the trolley problem is complete and utter fraud and tells us little to nothing about human beings. Like Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru test, I don’t believe in the no-win scenario (but I also do not define a win the way Kirk would). Moments when we must sacrifice the needs of the few for the needs of the many are rare and are generally not defining moments in human history. In reality, when faced with those choices, those who are at the controls of the trolley almost inevitably choose to sacrifice the many for the few (see: genocides, income inequality, poverty, political purges, pogroms, the military-industrial complex, drone bombings, the entire Third Reich, etc, etc, and on and on and on) while presenting us with only binary options. In hindsight, we consider those moments the worst that humanity has to offer. Yet we continue to allow them to happen.
The Trolley Problem has become a guiding principle of the United States’ national soul, a reason for so much of what we do. There’s no better example of Trolley Problem framing than what our leaders presented us over the course of the past year: is it better during a pandemic to do everything you can to save as many lives as possible, thus potentially damaging the economy? Or do you do as little as possible and let people fend for themselves while trying to keep the economy afloat?
The solution chosen by our government: “money first, people can get fucked and die.”
The pandemic never needed to be treated like an either/or proposition. There were dozens of other paths we might have chosen, balancing both the health of the people with the economic health of the country. Economic health, by the way, is NOT how rich the richest people are, or how high the stock market has risen. It’s how many people are working, how many are homeless, how many live in desperation. And by that measure, saving the economy also failed because too many will now suffer not only the possibility of illness from the pandemic, but the slow death from poverty and all the ills that lack of money brings.
Nothing is either/or, black/white. Yet too many people find that simple view appealing. The world is complex, and we as a species despise complexity. We want to distill complexity down into the simplest form we can. Us versus them. We postulate questions that are founded on cruelty for the sake of being cruel while claiming it’s “the only way”, without regard to the fact that the world is not cut and dried.
For example, here’s a typical moral philosophy question we hear a lot: if you had a time machine, would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler? Kill a baby to save the world?
Why do you have to kill a baby? Why is the question couched in such cruelty? How about you go back in time and remove Hitler from his family and take him to another country to be raised by a compassionate Jewish family desperate for a child. Or perhaps you become his tutor and teach him love and respect for all life, all humanity. Maybe you go back to WW1 and, if needed, convince the man who spared the life of a young German soldier who would become a mass murderer to pull the trigger. There is no need to kill a baby. There are thousands of alternatives to choose from that can change the direction of the world.
No, the Trolley Problem does not teach us about our humanity. The trolley problem is a reflection OF our cruelty towards others, a form of problem solving adopted by cruel people in power who have an intrinsic need to remind us that our fates are theirs to play with and we will be tossed onto the tracks if it suits them. Only the details of who lives and who dies are important, but someone will be run the fuck over at some point.
Kirk is no messiah of course. He’s arrogant, a womanizer, a product of 1960’s male navel gazing tropes. Gene Rodenbury tried to elevate his universe by reflecting diversity and pushing boundaries on cultural topics that others wouldn’t touch. He was, however, a product of his time. Hence the mini-skirts the female crew members wore, and no female captains, let alone captains who were anything but white male stereotypes of masculine bravado.
But on the topic of the Kobayashi Maru and the Trolley Problem, the writers pegged Kirk correctly and got to the core of the issue. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” he says. Treating every scenario as if it’s no-win leaves the decisions about who lives and who dies in the hands of those in power. And they will always make the choice that best serves them and serves the interest of those with money, not the choice that best suits the people of the world. The only thing the Trolley Problem does is blind us to the possibility that there are more than two answers to any problem. It teaches us to think in binaries instead of the possibility that there is more than one right answer.
In trying to explain the Trolley Problem to Michael, Chidi says, “Well, that’s what’s so great about the trolley problem, is that there is no right answer.” Michael’s response cuts to the heart of my feelings. “This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.” Because Chidi misses an important point in his thought experiment: there are no binaries, either. No either/or question that a person will face in their lifetime that isn’t shaded with a hundred other possible choices. When you’ve reached the place where you only have two choices, chances are you are destitute and in dire need of help. You’ve hit rock bottom.
If humanity’s existence ever boils down to a simple binary choice, then we’re all going to the Bad place because we’ve done something wrong.
In order for us to elevate ourselves, hard work is required. We need to work together to pull each other off the tracks. We must take a pass on dealing with life as though it’s one continuous trolley problem. It’s not “us versus them,” it’s all of us together. That’s the way forward. But getting there is going to require some folks to give up cherished notions of some people being more worthy than others. Because we’ve seen what happens when we push those notions to the front of our policy efforts. It’s not pretty, and it’s not worthy of who we are as a species.
Your religion, your race, your sex, your wealth, your health. . .none of these make you better than anyone else. If we want to get to the Good Place, it’s time to stop treating the world like a trolley and other people like obstacles to run over. Let’s put the Trolley Problem to rest and focus on the real, complex issues that face us. Let’s reprogram the simulation to reflect reality.
There never was a no-win situation. That’s just what some folks want you to believe. “Kill one and save five,” Eleanor says, in answering the Trolley Problem when Chidi first presents it.
To hell with that. Let’s save six and get the fuck off this stupid trolley.