watch week

What We Learned About Eating “Good” Food from ‘The Good Place’

published Feb 1, 2020
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The Good Place, which is ended this past Thursday, is a show about a lot of things. It’s a show about philosophy, friendship, love, and even the Jacksonville Jaguars. But ultimately, what The Good Place is about is what it means to be a good person. 

For any ashholes who have been living under a forking rock for the past three years, The Good Place follows four humans who die and find themselves in the Good Place (heaven) – or so they are led to believe. Eventually we come to learn that not only are these humans — Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jianyu — actually in the Bad Place (hell), but that no new person has been admitted to the Good Place in over 500 years. 

But this is a publication about food. So what does all this talk of heaven and hell and television have to do with what we eat?

Well, one of the reasons that no one has been admitted to heaven in over 500 years is that the world has become increasingly complicated. Seemingly simple actions have so many unintended consequences. Actions like buying a tomato. In season three’s “Chidi Sees the Time Knife,” we learn from friendly-demon Michael that buying a tomato nowadays can cost a person 12.368 points (and these points are how you get into the Good Place).

“Just buying a tomato at a grocery stores means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming,” he explains to the all-knowing (but purposefully uninformed when it comes to matters of earth) judge Gen. “Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t know they’re making.” 

Gen doesn’t empathize, at least not at first. “You don’t want the consequences? Do the research, buy another tomato!”

Michael convinces Gen to try out life on earth. Upon her return to the IHOP (Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes, where the pancakes kind of eat you), she changes her tune. “The first thing I did [on earth] was I googled ‘big juicy natural tomatoes’ which led me to a porn site that was for people with a sunburn fetish.” 

Gen figures out what we humans already know – that making good and informed choices about what we eat can feel next to impossible. The Good Place/Bad Place system seems to evaluate a food choice (and every other choice) as good or bad based on a primarily consequentialist system, the idea that the result of the action is the most important. In the case of the tomato, the use of pesticides and exploitative labor practices lost points because they had harmful consequences, even if the buyer wasn’t aware of these factors. And as Gen discovers, these impacts are not always apparent or easy to evaluate, especially if you have to deal with all the other complications of life, like a full-time job or two, kids, living in a food desert, having food allergies, or struggling with money.

“There are various ways in which powerful social, environmental, and economic factors all constrain our choices,” says Jonathan H. Marks, director of the Bioethics Program at Penn State University. Not everyone has the same resources and access to sustainable food, and the Good Place’s system does not seem to make any contextual allowances. 

“If you are a single mother living in a food desert with three jobs unable to get an organic tomato, what do you do with the math there?” Marks asks.

Andrew Chignell, a professor of philosophy and religion at Princeton University and a scholar of Kant (like Chidi!) who co-edited the book Philosophy Comes to Dinner: Arguments About the Ethics of Eating, is on the same page. 

“I don’t think of these things as absolutes,” Chignell says. “If you are well-educated and well-resourced and you have enough money and so forth, then you probably have a responsibility to eat and buy in ways that people who are food-insecure and have a large family don’t.”

Still, even for those of us with relatively easy lives, making the best choices can be hard. Both Chignell and Marks point to the larger food-industrial complex as part of the problem. The food industry has spent years getting us hooked on junk food and meat can often be cheaper than vegetables thanks to government subsidies. These problems can be hard to break and sometimes are out of the consumers control.

Gen figures out what we humans already know — that making “good” and informed choices about what we eat can feel next to impossible.

So what can you do? Well, you could try and live like Doug Forcett, the man on The Good Place who took mushrooms and figured out the afterlife — or at least 92% of it. On season three’s Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By, we learn that Forcett lives in rural Canada and subsists on a diet of lentils, radishes, and his own filtered urine. He donates his blood, does laundry for a teenage bully, and holds a funeral for a snail he accidentally steps on. Forecett does rack up a lot of points (although still not enough to get into the Good Place), but he is deeply unhappy. 

Maybe this all just means we should do the best we can within limits. Chignell says that if your 80-something-year-old grandmother offers you some of her famous meatloaf and nothing would make her happier than to see you enjoying it, even if you have no idea where that meat came from, then by all means go ahead and have a plate. Most of the time Chignell eats a vegan-based diet, but he would still eat that meatloaf. You don’t have to live a life of full abnegation, but you are still responsible for your food choices within the context of your life. 

By the end of the show, the beings in charge of the whole system begin to allow some changes. While the point system remains, Michael, Eleanor, and the others devise a test to allow people to keep working on their points even after they’re dead, in an environment with fewer external challenges. Perhaps the Good Place will end up with a few new residents after all.

So for your season finale party this weekend (if you haven’t already watched), put out a spread of organic tomatoes, lentils, radishes, and maybe wash it down with some oat milk (because as Chidi knows, the road to the Bad Place is paved with almond milk). On the other hand you could just eat the delicious chicken sandwich from the controversial fast food restaurant (like Gen and Eleanor so desperately want to), and hope that the afterlife will give you a chance for a do-over. Then again, maybe there’s something in between.