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