A MORAL DEFENSE OF CHIDI'S SWOLENESS
AN ETHICAL EXAMINATION OF ABS IN 'THE GOOD PLACE'
Follow Me on Twitter @Lethrup
NBC’s “The Good Place” centers its drama around the moral and ethical development of four lost humans struggling to be good in the face of a broken system. Their improvement, slow as it is, mostly comes thanks to the teachings of doomed moral philosopher Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), who challenges them to ask, like he does, “How can you be good?”
Perhaps instead he should have been asking them how, like him, they can be so good-looking.
For many viewers taking to Twitter, the biggest surprise of the most recent episode, “Jeremy Bearimy,” was Harper’s incredible swoleness which we see when, as Chidi, he reaches his breaking point and takes off his shirt. As character, however, does Chidi’s clearly obsessive working out make sense? In other words, is it ethical to be that jacked? We examine the moral implications of obsessive working out through the lens of the three dominant philosophies Chidi himself mentions in the episode as ways to be good.
In contrast to ethical frameworks with focus on duties (deontology) or results (consequentialism), virtue ethics posits that we can become good people by striving to identify and embody those virtues which make us moral. Codified by early philosophers like Aristotle and Plato, those virtues included things like wisdom, justice, and moderation. They also include getting incredibly into crunches. Plato, himself such a stellar athlete that his very name means “broad shouldered” (his birth name was Aristocles), was a firm believer in physical fitness producing moral fruit. Plato advised everyone to take up sport. He writes in “Theatetus:”
“Is not the soul informed, and improved, and preserved by study and attention, which are motions; but when at rest, which in the soul only means want of attention and study, is uninformed, and speedily forgets whatever she has learned?”
Plato warns, however, that while the pursuit of physical swoleness is virtuous, and therefore worthy, the pursuit must be moderated by temperance, and not sought to the detriment of the mind.
“Excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilized type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft,” he writes.
We can assume that Chidi, clearly ethical enough to effectively teach three losers and a demon how to be good, has mastered the balance.
Consequentialism, of which utilitarianism is the most well-known example, challenges us to act morally by deciding upon actions that bring about the most good. Exemplified in the famous Trolley Problem (which Chidi teaches to Michael and Eleanor in the titular episode from Season Two), consequentialism teaches that an action is only good or bad based, not on strict moral code, but on whether it brings good or bad results into the world - and the more good for the more number of people, the better. In other words, of all the things a person might do, consequentialism says the ethical one is the choice that has the best outcomes. With that in mind, and given that as a writer and professor Chidi is responsible for the moral and ethical development of so many others, how in the world can he justify getting so jacked? Wouldn’t his time be better spent imparting his wisdom than listening to p90X?
Maybe not. Chidi suffers from crippling anxiety brought on by an inability to make decisions and a resultant cluttered mind. Exercise is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce stress, something vital to Chidi as he navigates the world. Physical activity produces natural painkillers called endorphines, which help stabilize mood and improve the ability to sleep. Far from being selfish, Chidi can argue that by working out he’s actually engaging in a fully utilitarian activity because the act of exercising is necessary for him to help people at all.
First articulated by “The Good Place” favorite Immanuel Kant, deontology differs from consequentialism by suggesting that the morally right way to act has nothing to do with outcomes (good outcomes can come by accident, for instance). Instead, moral actors are instructed to act from duty. What makes something right or wrong has nothing to do with the benefit it produces, but by whether or not the person acts with good will. “Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will,” Kant writes in “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.” Additionally, for something to be good, it must be good in and of itself (exercise qualifies!) but also “good without qualification,” meaning the choice can never make a situation ethically worse.
It’s impossible to qualify whether or not Chidi exercises with proper motivations, or whether he does it selfishly. Also, every picture of Immanuel Kant makes him look sickly.
Towards the end of “Jeremy Bearimy” Chidi himself seems to accept nihilism in acceptance of a meaningless universe. He needn’t have. At least according to the moral philosophy he advocates, he’s free to continue work on his incredible pectorals and abs. And “The Good Place” is free to invent more reasons for him to be shirtless without ethical contradiction.
Inspired by Jamie Lombardi & a conversation with Alan Sepinwall. Please read his excellent coverage of "The Good Place" at Rolling Stone.