“The Walking Dead” Ethics: The Toughest Leadership Dilemma Of All

“Michonne, you’re gone..these are words that Rick choke upon, my Michonne…

“Michonne, you’re gone..these are words that Rick should choke upon, my Michonne…

In the absence of “Homeland,” currently waiting for Claire Danes to get back in shape after becoming a mom, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is the best ethics show on TV. Apocalypse ethics is instructive and fascinating, because it addresses ethical problems as they were originally considered, before laws, before enforcement methods, and before organized morality. The objective is survival and continuation of the tribe and the species, without abandoning all semblance of humanity.

Yesterday’s episode built to an ethical dilemma of major consequence; naturally, some reviewers thought this was boring. Rick, the former sheriff leading the (mostly) good guys through the zombie-filled wilderness that was once the United States, is trying to protect the group’s refuge, an abandoned prison, from the imminent attack of a larger, better-armed commune run by a deranged psycho who calls himself “the Governor.” A former member of Rick’s group who now consorts (cough!) with the Governor (and who has been rightly condemned as an idiot for doing so, since she either knows or should know that he has the basic instincts of Vlad the Impaler), attempts a mediation to avoid bloodshed, and Rick and the Governor meet to parley.

One problem with judging the actions of the characters is that the audience always knows more than they do. Nonetheless, Rick knows enough, or should, to shoot the Governor on sight, white flag or not. (One interesting feature of the show is that its hero is none-too-bright, and in his pre-zombieland life as a sheriff was not faced with regular ethical dilemmas. His ethics skills are rudimentary at best, like most people. Rick’s vacillating, unsteady and inconsistent decision-making process is therefore infuriating, but disturbingly familiar.) In the previous episode, the afore-mentioned mediator similarly should have dispatched Gov by cutting his throat as he was snoozing in post-coital bliss. This is the “Would you kill Hitler?” problem, and the answer is, surely, “Of course.” This guy kills people, and will continue to cause chaos and destruction until he’s eliminated for good. There is no apparent deputy evil leader to take over with the Governor gone. Assassination, in this case, is mandatory.

Rick goes through with the “peace talks,” however, and is presented with an ultimatum from the Governor. He will attack the prison and kill everyone, Rick’s young son and baby daughter included, and nothing (almost) will dissuade or stop him. There is one way for Rich to save his people, though, says the Governor. If Rick delivers into his hands a recent recruit, the grim sword-wielding Amazon Michonne, who not too long ago was slated to be kicked out of the prison anyway. Rick knows that the vengeful Governor will devise some horrible fate for Michonne once he gets his hands on her—she killed his little girl (who was, after all, a zombie) and poked out the Governor’s right eye (when he was trying to kill her)—but seriously considers the deal as his best chance of saving everyone else.

This is the ultimate absolutist vs. utilitarian conflict, and is well-worth considering. Absolutism decrees that using a human being as a bargaining chip is unconscionable, whatever the gain. Utilitarianism would argue that to sacrifice one group member to save the rest from certain death is ethically defensible, and even admirable. “The Walking Dead” blows its ethics lesson by making it immediately clear that whatever Rick’s dilemma may be in the abstract, in reality sacrificing  Michonne would be a foolish mistake: the Governor can’t be trusted, and we learned that he is planning on killing everyone in the prison anyway.

But what if he could be trusted?

Amazingly Rick, at the end of the episode, is leaning toward giving Michonne up even though he suspects what the audience already knows—the Governor is lying. It’s a rookie leadership move; Rick’s leadership abilities are rudimentary at best. As a leader, he also has to be trusted to put the groups welfare before personal considerations, and to look out for the well-being of every member of the group equally. It is obvious that Rick is weighing his regard for Michonne, who has saved the life of his son and others in the group, against his concern for the safety of his own children. That’s a conflict of interest for a leader, and it is his duty to recognize and overcome it. He asks Herschel, the elderly doctor who also has children in the group, whether he would risk his daughters’ lives to protect Michonne. This is the wrong question. One decision reached on the basis of bias doesn’t validate another. In another bad leadership move, he lets the group know about their dire prospects in a battle to increase their fear, telling Herschel that if they are frightened enough, they may accept his deal with the devil. Justifying a decision that needs to be based on ethical analysis by appealing to non-ethical and emotional factors like fear is a sure way to choose a wrongful course.

Sacrificing Michonne is also short-sighted.Rick isn’t playing ethics chess, which shouldn’t be surprising to us, as “Crazy Eights” is more his style. Once he, or any leader, demonstrates that he will sacrifice members of his own group, nobody in that group will, can or should trust him. The group will reject his leadership and fall apart, dooming it, and Rick’s family anyway.


Graphic: Superhero Hype


46 thoughts on ““The Walking Dead” Ethics: The Toughest Leadership Dilemma Of All

  1. I wish I could comment but gave up on the show when I saw how many commonwealth actors were cast in roles that easily could have been played by Americans.

    • and that can be supported with Utilitarianism as well (a much more complicated one than simply believing the Governor’s “bargain”). But it should only need to be supported from an Absolutist angle.

  2. This is a classic entertainment trope which usually follows the form of Either X dies and everyone but X survives OR Everyone dies including X. You see this in Star Trek with Spock (making the decision for himself) or you see this in movies such as Master and Commander, when the Captain must hack loose debris that is maintaining a shipmate overboard or the whole ship sinks, or even more in depth, such as U-571 in which the sacrificed individual is ORDERED to sacrifice himself in order to the save the rest.

    Walking Dead tosses in another twist in which, instead ofbeing confronted by some scenario beyond their control, another actor of free-will is imposing the decision on the Leader. Only Rick has strong suspicions that, although presented with X dies so that everyone but X can live is really just a big lie to cover up X dies first, then the rest of yall die later.

    From a review note, I was concerned by the tired World War 1 cliche at the start of the movie as enemies sat around realizing they all had more in common with each other while their bloodthirsty leaders carved out their fate outside of their control, but the show rapidly moved to the dilemma.

    I do concur, that given the nature of the information Rick has on the Governor, the knowledge that a battle is pretty much 100% inevitable (despite Andreas idiotic optimism), and the ruthlessness of the civilization they have inherited (which at times bounces from Greek City-State to simple Cave-man), Rick ought to have shot the Governor outright. Of course mitigating factors in that is knowing the Governor does not roll without back-up. Obviously for storytelling purposes the Governor didn’t do what he has treacherously demonstrated before, which is outright ambush under the guise of a good-faith meeting (such as when he killed the platoon of soldiers isolated in the countryside).

    Why Keep Michonne?

    Abandoning a group member to an enemy is Absolutely unconscionable. Group members may be unintentionally sacrificed, such as in battle, but intentional giving up a member to the *enemy* is WRONG.

    Some may argue that Michonne is not a member of the group. However, she was *de facto* on her way into the group when she assisted in the first Woodbury raid and even more on her way in when she defended the Prison during the ambush. She was finally *de jure* included at the last episode as was blatantly implied during the closing scenes by Rick & Carl’s exchange.

    From a utilitarian perspective:
    The governor thinks he has an advantage, but from what I observe is advantage is in numbers only. His only combat skill comes from defending (which wasn’t successful during the Woodbury Raid) and from treacherous ambushes. Rick’s group, although small, has a clear superiority in tactical skill. When the war develops, Rick’s group could easily achieve numerical parity in about 2 more raids.

    She is a very good and proven fighter. Necessary in the coming war (although it’d be nice if she’d hop on a firearm and ditch the Katana).
    She has intimate knowledge of Woodbury’s layout. This is indispensible.
    She is a lifeline to Andrea (for what that is worth).
    She is an additional counterbalance to control Merle (the other loose-cannon).

    Additionally, as Rick suspects and the audience knows, the Governor will not let another meeting with Rick go without combat. Rick cannot give up Michonne to that trap. He strongly suspects this, so I don’t know why he even holds out hope at all of the Governor’s offer.

    Decisions Made
    To get to the step by step of the last segment of the show:

    1) Rick is presented with the option give up Michonne and everyone lives, or the war is on.
    a) Rick could have said no and walked out. (Right answer morally, but possibly would have led to an immediate firefight or a definite escalation of hostilities before Rick could prepare a defense, so wrong from a common sense standpoint)
    b) Rick could have agreed (Wrong answer)
    c) Rick DID choose to “think about it” (Right answer if to buy time, wrong answer since he didn’t know the right answer right away)

    2) The two groups part ways. A sidebar, but one of note: one that should erase all further offerings of amnesty and reconciliation to Andrea. She’s had several opportunities now to rejoin Rick’s group or undermine the Governor. She has not and this last opportunity should seal her allegience (lest something drastic occur, which I think it will for story telling purposes).

    3a) Rick COULD have made the RIGHT decision to keep Michonne and return to the group with his big War speech to steel their nerves for road ahead. Initially, I hoped this is what had occurred in Rick’s mind and he was only accepting the consequences and preparing for the future.
    a) He had an option to tell the group of the offer at this point, while affirming his decision to keep Michonne. Pros: Affirms to the group that each member is valuable and will be fought for. Cons: Discontent amongst long-established and loose-cannon members of the group that would readily sacrifice a new member for the good of the whole.
    b) He kept the offer silent for the reason described in the Cons of a1. OF ALL OUTCOMES Rick could have chosen, I feel this would have been the most responsible.

    3b) Rick could have NOT given the War Speech and immediately told the group of the governor’s option, and began weighing in their opinions. This would have been a WRONG option. It would have opened up in the minds of the group that all individuals are expendable at the whims of leaders. It would have opened up divisions between group members to discover who would support the removal of Michonne and subsequently anyone else if push came to shove.

    3c) Rick HAS NOT decided what Michonne’s fate should be… this is still a failing as the answer is obvious. But he chose to give the War Speech, his justification we discover is as a future contingency: It serves both options of keeping Michonne (and a war is inevitable) and serves the option of getting rid of her (and thus having his terrified group more ready to cut off a segment of their society). Segue: this has massive parallels to modern civilization as we are willing to ostracize entire segments of population when convinced we are in crisis mode.
    His decision to give the speech I think is necessary, he knows War is ineviatble if he keeps Michonne, and he strongly suspects the governor is lying, in which case, war is inevitable.

    4) Rick has chosen to go to Herschel for advice. This is the first time, I think, he’s approached another group member for *strategic* advice. This is a good thing: He’s acknowledged he is cracking up in the last episode, but he knows he still a man of Action. In civilization levels such as this (think City-State or Cave-man), it is the men of action who lead, not reckless action (as I think a Glen-led group would have), not vision-less action (as I think a Darryl-led group would have). However, all successful men of action have been coupled with men of thought (Herschel). It is good Rick actively seeks counsel for ‘tough’ decisions. As Jack notes, Rick posits the question in improper parameters, and Herschel ought to have caught on to Rick’s hang up based on the question and advised him away from it. But I think that is all to help drive the Story (so kind of out of ethical consideration)

    • Wonderful, detailed and correct analysis. We’ll either get people to start watching, or drive them away from the blog. For what it’s worth, I’ve lost a bunch of followers today….good be Rand Paul fans and not zombie-phobics, though.

      I could teach a whole ethics course with this show….obviously, so should you.

      • Thanks! Credit also to Sarge983. We discuss every Walking Dead episode in depth.

        Hypothetical given the following conditions (that we know aren’t true but still):
        1) Rick knows they WILL lose the war and be all killed.
        2) The governor WILL follow through on his offer and leave Rick’s group alone if michonne is surrendered.

        We know that in this pre-civilization that getting as many survivors to survive as possible is the driving goal, then does the right decision then change?

        • No, it doesn’t, and for the reasons I alluded to in the post. Better to hope for survival via a miracle than to destroy the cohesion of group and let zombies or vagabonds pick everyone off one-by-one. There is no good leader to replace Rick, and split up, the baby, Carl, Stumpy, and several of the women are eventual zombie chow.

          It’s a good day to die, and Rick might be another Alamo fan.

            • Certainly there must be a reckoning with the Governor, his closest henchmen and possibly the bulk of his ‘army’. They’ve all been complicit in terrible and treacherous actions. I don’t think though we ought to destroy Soddom if there are 10 righteous people in it though. Remember, most of the people in Woodbury are there to survive, are probably decent, and may very well not know about the horrors the Governor has enacted.

              Of course one could always analogize that to the German people of WW2, I mean, from 1939-1941 the excuse “We didn’t know what Hitler was doing with the Jews” might have been remotely believable, but after while, especially after ’42 and ’43, the excuse becomes less and less believable.

              It boils down to how does one determine individual members of Woodbury are complicit with the Governor’s evils.

              From a utilitarian point of view, allowing any number of Merle’s former compatriots into the group allows Merle, who still harbors resentment towards Rick, to form an element necessary for a coup against Rick.

    • Since you’ve covered most of my feelings, I figured I’d expound on the foolishness of even considering taking the Governor up on his offer. While there is always the possibility for doubt, there is no way that Rick can (rightly) believe that the Governor will keep his promise to leave the prison alone if Michonne is turned over. Lets see what Rick (not the audience) knows about the Governor:
      A) His agent (Merle) kidnapped two innocent people (Glen and Maggie) and imprisoned them (True, it was Merle who actively attacked them, but he allowed them to be held)
      B) He ordered the torture of Glen and sexually abused Maggie to gain information about the location of their friends (and was preparing to execute them). This alone should be enough to reveal his true nature…as a sadist and possible psychopath
      C) This is purely speculation by me, but Michonne had to have told the group about what she found at the Governor’s house, including his unique entertainment center

      While the attack that Woodbury engaged in (with the awesome use of a “zombie bomb”) could be seen as retribution for Rick’s group’s attack, Rick knows that his group did not start this fight. In fact, they didn’t even know about Woodbury until Merle grabbed Glen and Maggie.

      Based on this knowledge, how could Rick ever actually believe anything the Governor says short of,”I’m going to kill you all and put your heads in my new aquarium.”?

      I cannot more strongly agree with the idea that abandoning a member of the team is completely reprehensible. Maybe it’s the Army’s Warrior Ethos of “Never leave a fallen comrade” that is influencing me, but Michonne has shown herself to be a full member of their group on multiple occasions. Hell, the first contact she has with Rick’s group is to deliver needed baby formula and to inform them of Glen and Maggie’s abduction.

      More importantly, you never give up your ninja in a zombie apocalypse, especially when you’re facing with an “army” made up of asthmatic tweens who’s only combat experience involves a wii controller and Call of Duty.

      • Indeed. I don’t even think Rick took anything the governor said seriously. He came to the table to negotiate “no contact” rules. He could care less about anything else requiring a rational opinion of te governor. I think it is apparent he initially came to the table with his wits about him as he subtly tossed doubt for Andrea’s consumption. I think he even maintained most of his wits despite the governors nostalgic swoon about loved ones prior to the “offer he couldn’t refuse”.

        Which is why I find it all the more difficult that Rick even has qualms about this decision. I think it’s mostly a plot and drama driving device.

        Good analysis.

      • No, Andrea is the attractive but anxst-filled blonde who had to kill her own sister when she was zombified, was going to kill herself for a while, kept getting talked out of it, suddenly blossomed when she found her inner warrior and developed a knack for sharp-shooting, got a little trigger-happy and shot a group member, evidently has a weakness for bad-boys, got separated from the group when Herschel’s farm was over-run, was rescued by Michonne and may or may not have had some kind of relationship with her, ended up in the Governor’s town and becoming his main squeeze, and for some reason, despite ample evidence right in front of her face, is the last person not to have figured out that he’s as sane and trustworthy as Goebbels.

        That’s who Andrea is.

    • Great show, great post and great comment.

      I was profoundly disappointed when the Governor revealed his betrayal plan to Milton. It completely spoiled the ethical tension.

      I usually don’t speak to my TV, but I told Rick to drop him the moment he had the Python’s sights on him. He will regret not listening to me.

  3. It’s not just about the ethics of sacrificing one person for the good of the group, it’s about how we decide who is a member of our group and who is not. Michonne seems to be making the transition from outsider to member of the group, in Rick’s mind and others. On the other hand, it looks like turning away Tyreese’s people made them enemies when they didn’t have to be. And Merle is a troublemaker who should be banished, but the cost of doing so is high. Some of the most stressful parts of the show come from watching them make these decisions, and they are decisions we make in our own society, setting immigration rules, deporting undesirable people, imprisoning criminals, even executing some of them.

    • Michonne is part of the group. Rick has implicitly made it so and since he’s the ‘law’ that settles it.

      Tyreese’s group was NOT kicked out by Rick. Lets be clear. He was yelling at a vision of his late wife and Glen interpreted the yelling to refer to Tureese’s group.

      That woul have been a great time to show loyalty through disloyalty and lock up Tyreese’s group until Rick calmed down and then revisit the issue.

      Merle, I think, can be redeemed as he has certainly shown a small tendency in that direction. And the loss of Darryl is no good anyway.

      Rick does have a clear issue with group expansion. In that scenario one needs to grow to survive. Rick driving past the hitchhiker was unacceptable. Who knows that guy could have been a master farmer or a doctor or any other useful skill set. But before that, you just don’t leave a member of the species behind. It violates Good Samaritan concepts.

      • Of course I think without explicitly telling someone they are only temporary they have a right to assume inclusion. Rick did tell michonne that she was on “probation” but all her subsequent behavior and group attitudes indicated she was on her was in.

    • That’s a terrific point, Mark. One of the reasons Rick’s a flawed leader at this point is that he won’t trust anyone new unless he’s forced into it—that hitchhiker incident, where he left a stranger on the road to die—was instructive. In that respect, he’s becoming more like Merle. If the Governor wanted Merle back in exchange for peace, Rick would presumably give him up….just as the US might have been tempted to give up, say, Werner Von Braun to end the Cuban Missile Crisis.

      • What was even more instructive is that he backed up to pick up the dead hitchikers back pack. The hitchhiker served no purpose to him and was seen as a liability but what ever was in the back pack was valuable.

  4. I’ve stayed out of the conversation until now for one good reason. I’m sick to death of movies, series and whatever that contain vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons and others of their ilk. Meaning no disrespect to any, but I fail to see how anything relevant can be gleaned from this nonsense. To me, all this unending flow of filmation reveals is that the American cinema has hit rock bottom as far as creativity is concerned… along with just about every other vital factor in storytelling. At least Hammer Films didn’t try to moralize with their idiotic Dracula and Frankenstein potboilers back in the ’60s. Sorry for being a wet blanket, but there are better ways to make ethical points than with one Zombie Apocalypse after another, courtesy of Hollywood.

    • I’m tired of vampire and werewolf movies as well, but they appeal to a certain thing that is missing from a particular demographic’s psyche.

      The same exists for zombie movies.

      Why do zombie movies appeal so much to our Western mindset?

      We’ve always seen (rightly or wrongly) our enemies as un-thinking masses that just rush into chaos. From the first encounters of the Greeks against barbarians, down through the Romans fighting the Germanic tribes, to the Settlers against the Plains Indians, we’ve felt our cultural lineage to be one of rational Civilization versus irrational Barbarism. Zombies fit that stereotype.

      We’ve always seen our heroes having to stand alone despite the odds. Sole survivors and small group survivors of zombie worlds fit those stereotypes.

      Since it isn’t politically correct to identify any set of humans as that archetypal opponent anymore (even though our nation still has enemies, we can’t rightly cast them all into the group of irrational barbarism…although some get close to it), we conveniently pick things that don’t exist or often times ourselves (as per our nation’s current malaise of self-loathing). But in the case of picking things that don’t exist aliens are comfortable fall-backs, but zombies are even more appealing as of late.

  5. So only a few new items from this week’s show, nothing crazy groundbreaking:

    1) Despite months of surviving in the wilderness with Michonne, Andrea apparently doesn’t know how to avoid being tracked or how to Break Contact or how to get in the Governor’s truck (which we can hear he left running) when the Governor was trapped fighting zombies.

    2) Tyreese is upstanding, but still ultimately willing to trade his values and doubts for *supposed* security. Of course, he takes a cheap shot at his former compatriot. He assured him that he never held his ‘friend’ in contempt when he saved his friend’s wife. Then turned right around in a moment of anger and states that he does hold him in contempt.

    3) Milton, the supposed educated member of Woodbury, elevates loyalty over common sense.

    4) Andrea finally does realize the Governor must die, to be foiled 1st by Milton and 2nd by the ever present Deus Ex Machina.

    5) The Governor places revenge over all other considerations.

  6. It seems very interesting that the ethical decision in this case (not to sacrifice a life for the good of the group) is the exact opposite in the Shane/Otis decision on the farm. Why is it okay to shoot Otis in the leg to get medicine for Carl and not okay to sacrifice Michonne, also indirectly for Carl (among others)? I agree that one decision is ethical and the other not (in that order), but I wonder what your take on this comparison of dilemas is. Seems as if these answers resist the categorical imperative.

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