by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
The Good Place: A new NBC comedy is not about medicine but about a selfish woman, Eleanor, who accidentally is brought to the “good place” after death. Surrounded by humanitarians and selfless people, she quickly realizes that she does not belong there. After learning that most people end up somewhere else and that it is a place of eternal torment, she wants to stay. She is introduced to her soul mate, Chidi, who turns out to be a professor of ethics and moral philosophy born in Senegal. To help her be worthy of staying, he begins tutoring her in moral philosophy. He talks to her about the Critique of Pure Reason and comes to the conclusion that a selfish person cannot change to being a moral one. But then he stumbles upon his Aristotle, who believed that moral character was built through practice. If she does good things then we will become good. The characters also are faced with a series of ethical dilemmas: Should Eleanor go flying with the others or pick up garbage after a storm damages their neighborhood; can an indifferent person become a good person; should Eleanor admit that she does not belong there (and prevent a series of what will most likely be unending weekly calamities). Overall, The Good Place is a mediocre show with some intelligent jokes. Seeing a philosopher as a major character is refreshing (and probably the only reason that my mom suggested I watch the show).
Also premiering this week was Grey’s Anatomy (Season 13, episode 1). The ethical issue in this episode was Karev, an attending, who beat up a resident and then was hoping no one would find out given the consequences could include being fired, prison time, and losing his medical license. He confides in Meredith who not only does not report him up the chain of command but actually lies to everyone else, saying she does not know what happened. The resident survives but with likely permanent damage. When Karev finally turns himself into the police, it is revealed that Meredith knew all along and her colleagues feel betrayed by her deceit. There is a cultural myth that doctors stick together even when that means covering up wrongdoing. Ethically this is a balancing of one’s duty to support and protect a friend or colleague who may have acted out of character and who actions have severe consequences, against a duty to report a wrongdoing that caused great harm to another person. From the outside, such dilemmas seem clear cut: You turn the person in. You may first try to convince them to admit wrongdoing on their own, but ultimately, as Meredith decides, you need to inform. Such a perspective is quite Kantian and does not take into consideration the consequences of such an action, such as losing a friend, destroying a person’s professional life.
However, I have been faced with exactly this scenario: a friend reveals doing something that caused great harm to someone beneath them in the hierarchy. You know the action is wrong and you know that someone was harmed. You try to convince them to do the right thing and admit what they did. But the friendship makes it all seem more complex because the admission will cause great harm and grief to your friend. With Kant, the emotions do not come into play but in reality, they do. I consulted with some colleagues and gave my friend a little time to do the right thing. When he did not, I had to turn him in. The result was that I lost a good friend that day and was dragged through the mud. I also believe that I protected someone who was harmed and might have been harmed further. Thus, I probably have more empathy for Meredith than most viewers did.