The Forking Trolley, An Ethical Journey to The Good Place by James M. Russell

I have been enjoying the popular television show, The Good Place, for several seasons now. When I saw the book The Forking Trolley, an Ethical Journey to the Good Place by James M. Russel, I had to pick it up. If a book made into a movie is good, how good would a book based on a television show be? I had to know!

If you are familiar with The Good Place, then you know that the main characters, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason have died and arrived as The Good Place. Or have they? Eleanor asks Chidi, an ethics professor, to help her become a better person and eventually, all the characters are turning to Chidi to learn how ethics can make them a person worthy of “The Good Place.” If you are unfamiliar, just know that it is full of amazing quotes, rife with ethical dilemmas, and you cannot curse in the good place. Hence, “Forking” trolley.

Author James M. Russel has a philosophy degree from the University of Cambridge, a post-graduate qualification in critical theory, and has taught at the Open University in the UK. I had not run across his writing before but two things are clear from me after finishing The Forking Trolley. First, he absolutely suffered through at least one ethics class. Second, I cannot wait to read more of his books. Weird, wonderful, funny and interesting thoughts are present on every page of this book.

I took an ethics class in college and hated it. For a person who enjoys arguing as much as I do, you would think that I would relish the debates present in all ethics classes. But, as is made clear in The Forking Trolley, ethical dilemmas seem specifically crafted to have no right answer or even a clear pathway to completion. These arguments can go around and around forever. This meant that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday all semester I just left ethics class enraged. Or, as Russel puts it,

“The study of moral philosophy can be frustrating as there are lots of difficult questions and no easy answers.”

theforkingtrolleyBut as I read through this short book about ethics, Russel proved to do the impossible for me. He made ethics and philosophers accessible and (finally) understandable. Within the first chapter is a baffling chart of the major different ethical mindsets which Russel entitles “Meta Ethics.” Additionally, through the book, terms like cognitive realism and welfare utilitarianism are thrown about as though we were making a grocery list. There is even a glossary!

But through the glorious connection to the television show and to the familiar plot points, Russel helped me actually understand the terms, ideas, and philosophers behind all the thick terminology and ideology. Through this unique association, Russel managed to finally help me understand the basic premises of ethical thought and reasoning. I feel confident now saying I mostly subscribe to Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism (the idea that there are no hard and fast rules, but that all decisions need to be taken in context.)

More importantly, this book helped me understand that the only people who really enjoyed ethics class were probably sociapaths studying “normal” people and how they think and individuals who just really love to go into a situation and stir people up. But real ethics are about guiding me from “mostly good” to better because, really, the only person who belongs in “the good place” is Doug Forcett. Wait, even Doug doesn’t belong! And around we go again on the ethical merry-go-round.

Tell me, please!

Who is your favorite ethical philosopher? Or, favorite Good Place character?


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Satabdi Mukherjee

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