“Walking Dead” Ethics

American Movie Classics’ excellent, if harrowing, zombie apocalypse drama “the Walking Dead” finally raised the ethical issue looming like a zombie Woolly Mammoth over all zombie films: Is it ethical to kill zombies? Are they still human beings?

Nobody seriously disputes that killing a zombie who is about to eat you or your compatriots is self-defense, justifying deadly force. But what about the common practice in every George Romero-inspired zombie epic: shooting the shambling things (or the sprinting variety, as featured in the re-make of “Dawn of the Dead”) on sight—in the head, naturally? Is it murder? Euthanasia?

The issue was raised in this Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead,” as it was revealed that the prickly doctor who presides over the remote farm where our zombie-fleeing heroes are currently taking refuge keeps a batch of captive “walkers,” including his rotting wife, locked in a barn. He feeds them chickens, which are presumably finger-lickin’ good. The doctor regards zombie killing as an atrocity, the equivalent of killing a sick person. “They are humans,” he says.

I think he’s wrong.

We should look at the zombie-killing issue as abortion in reverse. The infection of the human by a zombie is the equivalent of conception, with the anticipated progression moving toward death and non-human status rather than toward life and human status. Without intervention, the infected human will sicken and die over time, then awaken zombified, craving fresh human flesh (and the occasional chicken, apparently.) The newly infected human is still human, and a pre-emptive killing would be murder. As he gets sicker, however, there is a point at which his imminent transformation via death into a mindless cannibal presents sufficient ethical justification to kill him before that happens. As when an embryo enters the third trimester and gains additional rights that may preclude legal abortion, a pre-zombie’s late stages may allow execution.

The “birth” of a zombie is the death of the human, just as the birth of a human being ends all doubt about an infants rights as a human. The zombie’s “birth ends those rights. The individual is gone and the human being is gone: an animated corpse is no more human than an animated La-Z-Boy recliner. Does that mean that it is neither murder nor unethical to shoot zombies when they just wander the landscape, perhaps looking for an “Occupy” encampment to annoy?

Yes. I think that’s what it means.

The doctor should keep his chickens.

24 thoughts on ““Walking Dead” Ethics

  1. Clearly, the question goes back to what we define as “personhood.” The anti-abortionist may have exceptional issues with this one. (After all, a being that *once was* a human and could, at least conceivably, be cured of his “affliction” cannot be terminated)

    Another problem is the inherent science fiction of zombies. The cells are still “alive” because the body is still moving. The brain is clearly still “functioning properly” just in a different way. The only thing that separates the zombie from the human it once was is some metaphysical concept of identity.

    Ultimately, I’d treat a zombie (even if it were technically infected with some strange Rabies virus and was alive all along) as I would a psychopathic killer bent on murdering everyone I know (like Jack the Ripper, for instance) – I would shoot first and worry about justice and meaningless ethical considerations later so that my family and I would be safe.

  2. I’d just point out that zombies of this nature are (thankfully!) a Hollywood creation. That’s as fictional as pirates walking the plank or two gunfighters in a fast draw duel in the streets of a cow town. In Haitian folklore, a zombie is a reanimated corpse used for cheap slave labor. They’re not cannibalistic… except maybe where Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin are concerned, which would be good! The worst thing that zombies can do is come to realize that they’re dead and flee back to their graves. That’s what upsets the rum quota!

  3. I would just like to point out that the issue has been raised in prior films. At the end of George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, one of the principal characters prevents his subordinates from opening fire on a group of zombies who, as he sees it, are just looking to be left alone. Of course, the ethics are complicated by the fact that at that late stage in the overall continuity of the Romero films, the zombies had begun to develop some semblance of human intelligence and organization.

    Romero’s Survival of the Dead is almost entirely about the conflict between two factions in a small community, one of which takes to killing all zombies instantly while the other insists on simply keeping them chained up.

    • Thanks for mentioning this, Edward. This aspect of zombie ethics would justify a longer post, though perhaps the topic as a whole does not, zombies being, you know, fictional. My comments don’t (necessarily) apply to Romero’s later zombies, who do show isgns of cognition. Nor do they apply to the crypto-zombies of “28 Days Later” or “Quarantine,” who are not technically zombies because they haven’t died.

      The other issue is whether it is ethical to use zombies as weapons, experimental subjects or as zoo exhibits. I think I may talk about that in another post.

    • It is a different issue, though…there is no clear delineation, like the one provided by death. When does a mutation make one conclusively inhuman, if ever? This issue comes up in the X-Men movies and also in stories like “Tommyknockers,” “The Fly,” the Star Trek episode when the scientist gradually replaced so much of himself that he was more machine than human, or the Gary Lockwood episode where the crewman slowly mutates into a malevolent god-like creature. When does your DNA become inhuman, so that you forfeit human rights?

      Yes, compared to these, zombies are easy.

      • If they think and feel, does it matter if they are “human?” Why is it “human rights” and not “sentient rights”? If the zombie behaves similar to a severely brain damaged human, why should the human have more rights than the zombie.

        I think the difficulty with these questions is that we don’t like the obvious answer.

        • Because we don’t worry about sentient right with, say, chickens? (I forgot “The Island of Dr. Moreau”) The issue isn’t whether the zombie behaves like a brain damaged human—so does Rick Perry. The question is whether they ARE human…unless you want to get on the PETA “whales are slaves too” bandwagon.

          • You begged the question. What’s the difference between a human and another sentient being that feels and thinks? Why does one have rights and the other not?

    • Entertainingly, your example appears to be on my side. Your response is based on the aliens eating people. The response is based on their conduct. If they weren’t doing such, could we shoot them for sport?

  4. I think it depends on whether we could determine through empiricism whether zombies are A. incapable of the upper-level thinking of even the dumbest humans, and/or B. inherently hostile toward human life.

  5. I hate joining this discussion a year late and $365 dollars short. But having just gotten into the Walking Dead, my wife and I love the many ethical quandaries they find themselves in.

    We’ve finally decided that this show is a study of Modern Ethics dumped into a Hunter-Gatherer World. Which modern ideas survive, which do not?

    Here’s a few premises, I may be wrong, but for discussion’s sake:

    1) A man is king on his own property. In the earliest civilizations this seemed to be an overriding notion. Although curtailed greatly, modern Property rights still reflect this.
    2) Rule of force. If you can take someone else’s land and force their submission, the land becomes yours. An impulse rightly suppressed in modern society, although technically still played out on the international stage through war.
    3) Use force in case of imminent danger. Timeless.
    4) Don’t take unnecessary action. Do not do something that the situation does not require just because you can…your judgement leading to that action may be flawed, therefore making your needless actions unjustifiable if WRONG.

    That being said:
    Just killing Zombies as they are seen, if posing no immediate threat (#3), without the knowledge provided by the CDC at the end of season 1, IS WRONG. (#4).

    Killing Zombies as they are seen, with the CDC’s knowledge, but still without any immediate benefit to the group, COULD BE WRONG, because the CDC may be in error, so don’t do it.

    Wantonly killing zombies on Herschel’s property, AFTER Herschel Said Not to, IS WRONG (#1). That of course necessitates EVERY reasonable effort to convince Herschel of the CDC’s findings. But until Herschel consents, Herschel is King on his own land.

    That leads to the Ethical Conflict. Which premise takes precedence. Shane would invoke #2, and say, we have the force, we can take control and do as we please. Rick would invoke #1, and say, until Hershel consents, we are beholden to his lack of agreement with the CDC and therefore are beholden to his rules as Guests on his Property.

    I tend to lean towards Rick’s decision, simply because Right to Property is a foundation of Western Civilization and a concept worthy of preservation. The Zombies locked *securely* in the barn pose no IMMEDIATE threat, so there is still time to convince Herschel.

    • Great post. Yes, “The Walking Dead” has been the best ethics show on television for its entire run. Some responses:

      \
      1) A man is king on his own property. In the earliest civilizations this seemed to be an overriding notion. Although curtailed greatly, modern Property rights still reflect this. Agreed.

      2) Rule of force. If you can take someone else’s land and force their submission, the land becomes yours. An impulse rightly suppressed in modern society, although technically still played out on the international stage through war. That’s unethical, though. Just because there are no laws, shouldn’t mean there are no ethics.

      3) Use force in case of imminent danger. Timeless. Yes, but not unlimited or unnecessary force.

      4) Don’t take unnecessary action. Do not do something that the situation does not require just because you can…your judgement leading to that action may be flawed, therefore making your needless actions unjustifiable if WRONG. Fair enough.

      That being said:

      Just killing Zombies as they are seen, if posing no immediate threat (#3), without the knowledge provided by the CDC at the end of season 1, IS WRONG. (#4). Nope. Zombies are inherently a threat, aren’t alive and aren’t human beings. You kill them to prevent them from killing or infecting others. Rapid dogs are the correct analogy.

      Killing Zombies as they are seen, with the CDC’s knowledge, but still without any immediate benefit to the group, COULD BE WRONG, because the CDC may be in error, so don’t do it. You have more reverence for the CDC than I do. Have these people seen George Romero movies? If so, they should act accordingly.

      Wantonly killing zombies on Herschel’s property, AFTER Herschel Said Not to, IS WRONG (#1). That of course necessitates EVERY reasonable effort to convince Herschel of the CDC’s findings. But until Herschel consents, Herschel is King on his own land. Again, the government will come on your land and kill a rabid dog. Herschel has no right to endanger everyone else, only himself. Serves him right to get bitten this season.

      That leads to the Ethical Conflict. Which premise takes precedence. Shane would invoke #2, and say, we have the force, we can take control and do as we please. Rick would invoke #1, and say, until Hershel consents, we are beholden to his lack of agreement with the CDC and therefore are beholden to his rules as Guests on his Property. They were both wrong. Shane to want to take the farm, Rick not to make sure all the zombies were killed that might be threat. The farm wasn’t zoned to keep zombies as pets.

      I tend to lean towards Rick’s decision, simply because Right to Property is a foundation of Western Civilization and a concept worthy of preservation. The Zombies locked *securely* in the barn pose no IMMEDIATE threat, so there is still time to convince Herschel.

      The real point is that the normal rules of ethics don’t apply in a zombie world, because too many of the ethical values get you killed, or endanger what’s left of civilization. Think Dark Ages, with added wisdom of about a thousand years—which makes a big difference. They hadn’t seen George Romero’s work in the Dark Ages.

  6. The lastest episode of WD has me questioning Rick’s vision of group solvency (setting aside commentary on his clear nutter tendencies with his ghost wife)

    He’s made the call to cut off people he doesn’t trust, he’s allowed people in when they’ve had the moral luck of proving themselves useful while he was watching.

    But he doesn’t have a clear vetting system for potential new members. They callously drove past a hiker on the highway. At the end of the episode they drove back by and the hiker was dead.

    I can fully agree with a VERY VERY stringent ‘try out’ system for joining the group. One in which many people get turned away afterwards for not fitting the bill, simply because the stakes are too high for group survival. But to leave someone who is clearly not a threat behind, when they may be useful? That doesn’t make sense to me.

    • I no longer regard Rick as consistently rational or analytical enough to give credit for any ethical thought at all. The hiker was the last straw. Crazy old friend who tries to kill Rick is more worthy of trust because of Rick’s perceived past debt of gratitude to him? He sends his son off with a female Ninja who has proven to be a loner and unreliable? Rick is beyond situational ethics to “making it up as he goes along according to his mood at a given moment, with distrust being default position one.

      The Governor has better leadership skills.

      • A big question:

        After the inevitable battle with Woodbury, Rick (for story purposes we know will win), what comes of the civilian survivors of Woodbury? Obviously a sane Rick would gradually assimilate them.

        But what of the governor’s most loyal and likely uncontrollable henchmen? What to with them?

        Imprisoning them eats resources…execution is wrong.

        The Greek city-states (which I think most closely mirror this scenario) had the precedent of exile .

  7. Same as the Zombies: execution as active threats to the community and civilization as a whole. Exile allows the (high) chance of retribution that destroys the community, and incarceration hurts the community by taking needed resources.

    The moral is don’t act like a criminal and you won’t be treated like one.

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