A Good Place
How I can tell the difference between a good place and a bad place.
I’ve been watching “The Good Place” again. Season 4 is finally on Netflix and as much as I enjoy the discussion of philosophy in a pop culture TV show, I still see the same dynamics at work: good and bad, punishment and reward. The plot is about protagonists who thought they were in The Good Place but they don’t really believe they should be there. They discover that they aren’t really in The Good Place and a philosophical debate ensues.
While I’m enjoying the show (still on the 4th season, not done yet), I can’t help but notice the subtext. Each side in the drama hopes to punish the other side. Each side wants to win in a struggle against the other side. Each side wants to prove they’re right. And digging further, underneath it all, I see a subtle assumption that many people make: people are good because they want the rewards of being good.
What I realized after watching the 3 seasons and two episodes, is that there isn’t a single discussion of the skills required to do better. It’s all about morality and the reasons why we should be moral. As I write this, I’m reminded of what Einstein said:
“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
So far, the plot of The Good Place has been about punishment and reward, struggle with and victory over the adversary. There is no discussion of skills, there is only a discussion of motivation. This I fear, is the blindspot of humanity.
I see a similar narrative in popular culture, politics, and in much of our philosophy. Much of our thinking is about whether or not we can dangle enough reward in front of people to get them to the right thing or to point to enough peril, contrived or not, to keep them from doing the wrong thing. The Good Place is the carrot, The Bad Place is the stick. It’s magical thinking because there is no discussion of skills and capacities. In this narrative that most of us live within, skills are not even a secondary consideration. They are not even considered. It’s as if the motivation is the only criterion upon which we decide what to do with our lives.
In our popular culture, the struggle between good and evil has no discussion of skills. There is no collaborative problem solving ahead of the struggle between good and evil. There is only the destruction of those we’d call evil.
In politics, the narrative is framed as a struggle between good and bad. The narrative says one faction will destroy us all if that faction were to attain power. Both sides call each other out as the destructive force we must fight against. Nowhere in this narrative do we mention that with better skills, we might work together to improve our collective fate.
In much of the philosophy I’ve read over my life, it’s all about motivation, motivation, motivation. It is rare indeed for me to read any discussion about a philosophy that even touches upon skills or capacities. Most philosophy that I know of is an exercise in splitting hairs about motivation. Philosophy seems to be an endless effort to divine the source of humankind’s motivation to do right or wrong. Very little of that effort is directed towards the skills or capacities of humanity.
Most parenting philosophies assume that motivation is the driving force behind child development. I have found a large body of evidence to show that when we remove the clutter of our discussions about motivation, we find that child development is all about skills. We also learn that children are always motivated to do well, to do better. We run into trouble when we assume otherwise.
So I don’t worry about motivation in anyone. I am only concerned with skills and capacities. I am only concerned with ignorance and knowledge. There is no good and evil. There is only the confused, which we might call, “evil” and the less confused, which we might call “good”. Where there is good behavior, I see very well developed skills. Where there is evil, I see evidence of abuse in the distant past, a lack of knowledge, developmental delays, and an inability to see the consequences of our actions.
If man is defined by his consequences, the skills of a man define his ability to navigate the consequences, regardless of whether the consequences of his actions are natural or artificially contrived. I am mindful of this with everyone.
Therefore, I seek not to punish for unwanted behavior. I seek to inquire, to explore, to understand. I assume that the motivation to do well is already there. I assume that all I need to know is the capacity and skill of other people to respond proactively to the problems that may give rise to unwanted behavior. As a father of two children, I can tell you that in every instance that I can recall where I’ve been able to make this inquiry, to solve the problem, and observe the result it has never been about motivation — it is always about skill.
I am this way with everyone. I don’t worry about people being motivated to do well. I am only concerned with skills and capacities. In this world, nothing that anyone says or does to me is personal, and none of it has anything to do with motivation. I believe that we are built to treat others the way we want to be treated. If and when we fail that, I assume confusion.
I have tried the other way and found it wanting. I have tried to punish others for their perceived sins, their slights, or their mistakes. All I ever got was grief in return. So I err on the side of peace. I assume ignorance before malice. I promote collaboration, not punishment and reward.
Collaboration is the foundation skill of all of humanity. I have looked far and wide for another, but it all comes down to our capacity to cooperate for our mutual benefit. If there were another, better way, I’m sure we would have found it.