How To Write Philosophy with Dr. Pamela Hieronymi

The “consulting philosopher” on The Good Place shares her process for thinking and writing

The Good Place is one of my favorite shows. It’s about a woman who wakes up in heaven, but realizes she was sent there by mistake and must cover it up or risk being sent to hell. It’s hilarious, but it’s also dream TV for a philosophy nerd like me. The primary way that the main character tries to stay in heaven is to learn to be good, and she does that by being taught most of the major strains of moral philosophy in the West—from deontologicalism to utilitarianism to contractualism. (Hint about being “good” in this show: it’s complicated.)The philosophy content strikes an incredible balance: it’s both easy to understand, hilarious, and it’s right. I've always wondered how they do it.

That’s why I was so excited to sit down with Dr. Pamela Hieronymi. She’s a professor of moral philosophy at UCLA, and is the “consulting philosopher” on The Good Place. Yep, that’s right, when the characters are bantering about the finer points of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason she’s the one who’s in charge of making sure the banter is, well, accurate.

Dr. Hieronymi’s philosophy work centers on moral responsibility and free will. More specifically, she thinks mostly about the active/passive distinction: the difference between events that happen to us, and things that we do in the world. 

There’s something deeply romantic to me about the idea of being a professional philosopher (which is maybe why I majored in it.) But there’s also something important about the tools and systems that philosophers like Hieronymi use to create and explain the complicated chains of logic and abstract reasoning necessary to make contributions in their field.

These kinds of thought processes are relevant to all of us, even if we're not explicitly doing philosophy. After all, a life of knowledge work is, to some degree, a life of the mind. And so there is a lot to learn from how the minds of philosophers navigate their work lives.

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