Scanlon at Berkeley, Part I. Ideas of Identity and “The Good Place”


Last week, Tim Scanlon visited Berkeley to deliver the Townsend Lectures to the philosophy department on Ideas of Identity and their Normative Status. He examined “different forms of identity and the conditions under which they can give a person reasons for action.” His talks were fascinating and compelling, as much political analysis as philosophy. He described himself as “an explorer of the normative domain.”

Scanlon began by quoting Anthony Appiah from The Ethics of Identity: “Identities give those who have them reason for action,… and so people will say to themselves sometimes, ‘Because I am L, I should do X.’ ” He mentioned “erotic responsiveness”, which rarely comes up in philosophy lectures. Mostly, moral reasons supersede (don’t say ‘trump’) reasons based on identity. Being white, for example, is not a good reason, by itself, to do much of anything.

His question was “when do identities actually give agents reason to act in certain ways?” He argued that

1) There are many different ways in which a person can have “an identity”.

2) Whether an identity in one of those senses gives rise to reasons depends on further factors other than facts about the person.

3) The factors differ and different forms of identity give rise to different kinds of reasons.

Sometimes an identity is ascribed to us by social convention, which can be a form of discrimination or a form of privilege. “A person has no choice whether to have an ascriptive identity, but must decide how to respond to this social fact.”

Anthony Appiah: “Identities create forms of solidarity: if I think of myself as an X, then, sometimes, the mere fact that someone else is an X too may incline me to do something with or for them; where X might be ‘woman’, ‘black’, of ‘American’.”

For Scanlon, one form of solidarity is cooperation to provide a shared good or to combat a shared threat.

Scanlon has been reading history lately: the Civil War, slavery and race. A recent book, Lincoln’s Political Thought by George Kateb, and a classic by Gunnar Myrdal,  An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.

Not everyone was convinced that philosophical progress can be made by worrying about identity politics. One friend said he was reminded of a J. L. Austin anecdote. When asked what he thought of Soren Kierkegaard (considered a father of existentialism), he thought it over and said “You can’t sharpen your thoughts on that.”


All illustrations from NYT article on “The Good Place” 10/4/18


Philosophy department Chair Hannah Ginsborg, who was a student of Scanlon’s at Harvard, introduced him by saying she watched a TV sit-com over the weekend, “The Good Place”.

Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other is referenced multiple times in the American television series The Good Place, serving as the initial text used to instruct a woman who has apparently ended up in a Heaven by mistake. The phrase “What We Owe to Each Other” is used as the title of the episode six in the first season, and said episode features a summary of Scanlon’s ideas, as does the season two finale.

“The Good Place” introduced itself as very much a follow-up to “Parks and Recreation,” only more surreal and high-concept. The first episode is about a selfish American jerk, Eleanor (the elfin charmer Kristen Bell), who dies and goes to Heaven, owing to a bureaucratic error. There she is given a soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Senegal-raised moral philosopher. When Chidi discovers that Eleanor is an interloper, he makes an ethical leap, agreeing to help her become a better person, tutoring her with T. M. Scanlon’s “What We Owe to Each Other.” These secret lessons pay off, and the show evolves into a charming, if chaotic, romantic farce, in which Eleanor and Chidi—plus another stealth bad person, a wannabe d.j. from Florida named Jason Mendoza, and his own wrong soul mate, Tahani, a celebutante-philanthropist—slam doors and trade partners, all the while exploring questions of what goodness really means.



NYT 10/4/18


“The Good Place” — the story of a group of recently deceased earthlings navigating the afterlife — is the best sitcom on TV…

As Michael Schur, the show’s creator and driving force, began to plan the show, he embarked on an intense program of philosophical self-education. He read the classics (Aristotle, Mill, Bentham, Rawls) and hunted new academic papers online. He compiled thick reading packets and gave them to colleagues. He started to wish that he could go back to college to study philosophy full time. Jennifer Philbin, who is now his wife and is also a writer, was overwhelmed by the number of boxes arriving at their front door. One night, she walked into the bedroom, brushing her teeth, to find Schur in bed studying a slim black book with a raven on its cover — the title of which was simply “Death.” (“What do we make of ourselves,” the book asks, “if the death that undermines us is a necessary feature of our lives being worthwhile?”)

“This show is going to ruin my life, isn’t it?” she asked.

One day out of the blue, Pamela Hieronymi, a professor at U.C.L.A., got an email from Schur, asking if she would speak to him about ethics. Hieronymi is not a TV watcher and had no idea who Schur was, but she agreed, and they ended up talking for three hours, largely about whether it is possible to become a good person by trying — about how intention and motivation color our moral behavior. Hieronymi was impressed by Schur’s earnestness and curiosity. It was clear that he didn’t just want to make jokes about philosophy; he wanted to actually understand the ideas. Eventually, Schur asked Hieronymi to join the show as a “consulting philosopher” — surely a first in sitcom history. Later he brought on Todd May, the author of that slim book about death. The consultants spoke not only to Schur but also to the writers’ room, giving lectures on existentialism and the famous thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem, ideas which were later woven into the show. All of which is to say “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.

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. 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 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.






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