In the two episodes to air so far this season, a few theories of moral development have been tried on Brent. His flaw, it’s clear, is entitlement: Being born into privilege has made him think he’s fundamentally better than everyone else. Thus, Eleanor’s first strategy is to expose him to people who are more admirable than him. She arranges a panel discussion with other supposed Good Place residents, including a woman who somehow saved all the ducks on Earth (and, the woman shyly adds when pressed, all the horses too).
Brent is unmoved. “I’m pretty interesting,” he says when it’s his turn to speak, before launching into an uninteresting life story of being raised in suburban Chicago and “earning” his spot at Princeton “just like my father and his father before him.” His recalcitrance makes sense: If he were oblivious to the relative values of his accomplishments in real life, why wouldn’t he be in the afterlife?
The next attempt to rattle his self-regard is more surreal: Eleanor and Michael engineer a cosmic hurricane of golf balls, SUVs, and Princeton tiger mayhem to make it seem as if Brent’s presence has disrupted the workings of the Good Place. In Season 1, a similar, Eleanor-themed storm amped her guilt so that she began to try and rectify the fact that her actions in life didn’t merit heaven. But Eleanor’s sins had stemmed from insecurity and a lack of self-worth. Brent’s stem from the opposite. He sees the Brent-nado as a sign that he doesn’t belong in the Good Place but rather somewhere better—the best place.
Eleanor and Michael, realizing that their attempts to shame Brent into self-improvement have backfired, try more direct manipulation. They tell Brent that he’s right and that there is a “better” Good Place that awaits the cream of the moral crop. He can get there if he tries, they say. “It’s like a good-deeds contest?” he asks. “That’s easy. I’m going to crush this.” He then gets to performing displays of politeness like picking up silverware other people have dropped and holding open doors.
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Is this progress? Michael notes to Eleanor that the problem now is that Brent is “saddled with a bad motivation”: He’s doing good for selfish reasons. Eleanor replies that that was how she started doing good, too—so as to not be caught. “We have to hope that over time Brent starts doing good things out of habit,” she says.
That line plays as a reference to Aristotle’s vision of morality as habit. “We become builders … by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp,” the philosopher wrote in Nicomachean Ethics. “Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.” It’s a solid concept for The Good Place to throw on its lesson plan. But it also feels too abstract, and too simple, for the issues the show has raised with Brent. It’s no wonder that when asked to perform “good deeds” he defaulted to holding open doors for people, a basic chivalrous act. Chivalry can look like a mere habit that men are taught to adopt—one that, it’s clear by now, doesn’t stop many men from acting monstrously.