“Walking Dead” Ethics: Hypocrisy, Substance Abuse And Survival

"The Walking Dead"...as always, providing abundant ethical dilemmas to chew on...

“The Walking Dead”…as always, providing abundant ethical dilemmas to chew on…

If you can stand the periodic spectacle of shambling, rotting flesh and heads being lopped off or split down the middle, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” still provides the most daring and interesting ethics storylines available on television.

The latest episode, titled “Indifference,” raised two gutsy issues that are unpopular in today’s culture to the point of taboo. It was revealed that Carol, previously the simpering and tragic mother of the now dead, zombified and executed little girl Sophia, has morphed into a stone-cold pragmatic survivalist who advocates killing on instinct when the threat is sufficiently severe. In addition to teaching methods of mayhem to the children entrusted to her instruction in the grim, abandoned penitentiary where our heroes have fortified themselves against the roaming zombie hoards, Carol summarily executed two members of the community who were fatally ill with a pernicious virus on the grounds that they threatened the safety of the rest. For this, Rick, the sheriff-turned farmer alleged leader of the non-zombies, orders her out of the prison.

Strange. In a world without doctors, medicine and hospitals, where the objective is simply to survive long enough for some remote miracle to rescue humanity, a runaway virus is as much of a threat as a maniac with a hatchet. Rick and the rest have long ago accepted the necessity of killing members of their group who are bitten by zombies, since they are certain to “turn”after death and start indiscriminately eating people. True, the preferred method is to withhold execution until the second after the living become undead after becoming unliving, but this is a distinction without a difference. Carol is quite right that a breathing, doomed, virus-carrier is as much of a threat to the group—perhaps more—as a newly-minted brain-muncher. Why is her strong action in defense of the group, a defensible utilitarian act, reason for exile?

I see two justifications, one legitimate, and one not. The latter reason is that Rick is an emotion-driven leader. a.k.a. “a bad one.” He decides critical matters with his gut rather than his brain, which means that his decision-making has no integrity or reliability, and often takes much too long. Rick couldn’t articulate the difference between killing a pre-zombie (also the result of a virus, we have learned) and an infectious and doomed colleague who is likely to infect more members of the group the longer he or she lives, it just feels different to him somehow. At least it does today: based on the past seasons’ evidence, Rick is likely to wake up some morning with a new idea of what’s right and start killing the sick himself. Rick, as a weak and feckless leader in a crisis situation, is a menace.

Rick’s valid reason for exiling Carol is her apparent coldness, the indifference referenced in the title. The problem of the zombie apocalypse survivors gradually becoming so used to death and utilitarian killing that they lose their own humanity and become cold-blooded murderers without conscience or hesitation is a looming problem for “The Walking Dead” characters, and one with cosmic significance: if humanity survives but in a form nearly as ruthless and without pity as the zombies, what’s the point? I’ll give Rick the benefit of the doubt and assume he recognizes this, and sees Carol as a threat.

The other tough ethical issue confronted in the episode involves alcoholism. Survivor Bob endangers the safety of the rest by falling off the wagon, and stalwart Daryl makes it clear to him that being alcohol-impaired is not acceptable in a community where there is so much interdependence. Of course, all societies are interdependent, and substance abuse, far from being a “victimless crime,” involves an abdication of one’s duty not to disable oneself from participating productively in the community, as well as being trustworthy for the tasks involved. Those whose judgment is impaired by drugs undermine the lives of others in myriad ways, at work, in their families, in the quest of self-government, and financially. This is obvious when fighting zombies, but it should be just as obvious here and now: we certainly have enough experience. Sadly, U.S. society appears to be charging in the opposite direction; the consensus is that we all have a right to disable ourselves. Whether it was the writers’ intent or not, “The Walking Dead” makes the better case that we shouldn’t have that right; that remaining productive, trustworthy and reliable is a mutual obligation of everyone in a community, even when there aren’t ravenous zombies just outside the gates.

33 thoughts on ““Walking Dead” Ethics: Hypocrisy, Substance Abuse And Survival

  1. Jack,

    I think it is very likely to give Rick the benefit of the doubt. I think his whole effort at being a farmer and hiding that little twit Carl towards that as well is a clear sign that he realizes how much of humanity they are trying to preserve has been lost.

    I think you are wrong to say Carol’s decision was right. Her decision was not calculated at all, she had just as much a gut reaction a you decry Rick for having. The community established a deliberative body and they decided to quarantine those two, with the intent to seek solutions to the disease. While quarantined the two posed no added threat than they already did as carriers of the disease (especially since it was an observation quarantine only… They could have been coughing for allergies). Carol *reacted* from fear of an unproven disease, that even if it was the disease in question had been isolated.

  2. I’m Team Carole all the way. She had to make some quick decisions for the survival of the group, not just individuals within the group. Rick made it clear that he was acting on behalf of his two children, the murderous Carl and the screaming zombie-bait baby. That he forced Carole, the sole remaining person who isn’t in isolation with some medical experience, to leave says something about his decision making skills.

    • Carol’s only medical experience is what Hershel & life taught her & she clearly doesn’t understand germ theory. How do you excuse Carol & judge Carl? At least the person Carl killed had just been attacking them & was holding a gun, though I didn’t agree with Carl’s actions. Again, as texagg04 states, the two sick people were no longer a threat when she killed them!

      • I didn’t say Rick was wrong and Carol was right, please note.

        I think Rick is correct that Carol is dangerous. But lack of medical expertise is hardly a reason to condemn her for taking action—again, all the action against the zombies and pre-zombies was based on amateur judgments. And Herschel, a doctor, applied his expertise and reached the idiotic conclusion (driven by denial and confirmation bias) that zombies were just sick people. In this world, there’s no reason to disqualify non-medical staff from making best guess judgments in life or death situtaions. I agree that Carol was wrong to act unilaterally…but this again is partly Rick’s fault. He’s a weenie, and she knows it. Everyone does, or should.

        • Rick abdicated, Jack. Authority is now derived from the council, who expressly (with CAROL’S participation) decided to quarantine the two for observation to see if they even had the disease in question during a period that they would seek a solution to the disease.

          Carol wasn’t acting in spite of Rick, she acted in spite of the leadership she was part of.

          The killing of *living* ‘pre-zombies’ has occurred with bitten people, a condition known to guarantee 100% conversion to zombie-hood (sans amputation, if the bitee was lucky enough to be wounded in the extremities). This disease is entirely different: the disease doesn’t convert people to being zombies. The disease is very highly fatal, in which case, the people already infected will turn. The leadership council acknowledged this, but they also acknowledged the possibility that two they quarantined had an unrelated cough OR if they had the disease, perhaps a cure could be found before fatality resulted.

          • Councils don’t work in crisis situations, though, and immediate leadership decisions have to be made. Carol violated process, an ethical value. Still, I’m not sure she wasn’t right. And pre-zombies are killed because they turn into zombies and kill more people, who also turn into zombies. Infected fatal flu victims infect and kill others, who also infect and kill. In risk terms, I don’t see much difference.

            • The decision to kill the quarantined people wasn’t made during any pivotal or decisive moment during the crisis which negated the ability for the council to decide. They were quarantined AFTER the pivotal moment when the affected cell block was cleared of zombies and survivors. The council had plenty of time to deliberate and came to a decision after things calmed down. The isolation of the affected ended their immediate threat to the rest of the group. Killing them or not killing them made NO difference to the rest of the ALREADY exposed people in comparison to their value as members of the group.

              They were still facing the crisis, but were not at a point where decisive unilateral leadership was needed, so Carol’s action was NOT warranted, NOT needed, nor was it a sound judgment. Councils don’t work when, during crises, certain emergencies arise in which there is no time for the council to deliberate. Even a single leader, empowered to make decisions when time is not available for the deliberative council to act, would still be expected to make decisions within the value system, culture or constraints established by the council.

            • Gosh, it’s almost like the prison needs some sort of system in which a single authority is expected to execute the decisions reached by the council. Perhaps if the council reaches a decision that the leader feels is a detriment to the group, the leader could say NO to that decision, but perhaps a supermajority within the council could override that “NO” and compel the leader to execute the decisions.

              Maybe within the system, the group acknowledges that certain emergencies may demand immediate decisive action and would cede to the leader limited authority to act in those situations, but still relegate to the council the ability to decide if action should be continued, expanded, or ceased.

              It may even make sense to periodically rotate individuals out of the council if the group at large feels they aren’t being well led anymore. Of course, it would only be a cool system if the Council were given the authority to grant letters of marque and reprisal.

              Of course, that would work. But I bet then the leader and the council would just bicker about the budget when the leader wants to spend more money than they have.

            • Councils dowork in crisis situations, if they are the right kind of council, e.g. a council of war. With those, it is made quite clear that there is an officer in command who is only seeking advice, and the custom is to ask everyone in turn for advice, going from junior to senior so the latter don’t get egg on their faces from not yet having had the benefit of the former’s advice and so that the former don’t feel constrained by the latter’s advice, and then the officer in command decides and issues orders on the basis of all that.

              I have somewhere heard that, after the Duke of Wellington conducted his first Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister, he complained afterwards in a puzzled way that “I gave them their orders, but then they wanted to discuss them”. It appears that he was expecting to conduct a council of war.

              • No, jack is correct, collective decision making is utterly disastrous in the middle of decisive action of crises. We only differ with him on what constitutes those crises. A general holding council prior to battle is not making a decision in a crisis.

                If in the midst of said battle a decision is needed in 30 seconds to win the battle, then no committee would ever be convened to weigh the possibilities.

                Your example does not cite leadership during a crisis.

                • No, jack is correct, collective decision making is utterly disastrous in the middle of decisive action of crises.

                  No, he is wrong precisely because “collective decision making is utterly disastrous in the middle of decisive action of crises”, and you are guilty of a bait and switch leading to a straw man – because we were not talking about collective decision making but about councils, and I pointed out that some sorts of council don’t do collective decision making.

                  A general holding council prior to battle is not making a decision in a crisis.

                  You made that up and added an inessential constraint. Councils of war also cover making a decision in a crisis, e.g. a major quickly consulting a captain, and two lieutanants in a dug out receiving incoming fire to decide what to do about it.

                  The Duke of Wellington example was not intended to show “leadership during a crisis” but rather the essential difference between a council of war and other kinds of council. There, there was a misunderstanding that the Cabinet was a council of war; you should expect that, since it wasn’t one, it would have been operating under quite other conditions that didn’t involve “leadership during a crisis”.

                  • You are far off. Switch out my “collective decision making” with council, and my objection still stands, because we are still discussing decisions. And in this context, decisions made BY A COUNCIL. Please read the comment that started this to fix your context. I made nothing up as an ‘inessential’ constraint. Your example is not a deliberative council, if you think so, I’d hate to see what you consider deliberation.

                    If that’s your clarification of why you brought up anecdotes of 19th century Britain, then the Duke of Wellington’s war council is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

                  • In an apocalypse scenario, counsels are exactly what are not needed. “The zombies are pulling down the East border fences! Quick! Convene the council!” It is a perpetual crisis. The only reason the WD heroes resorted to a council was because Rick wasn’t up to the task of being a leader, and would be an untrustworthy follower.

                    That’s why U.S Presidents become near- dictators during wars. Rick had it right, just as the Governor had it right—a benevolent dictatorship works best, with a genuine advisory council. But Rick was weak–he dithers, he can’t accept accountability, he fears being wrong; and the Governor was nuts. A council was the next best option, but it’s a lousy second best.

        • I don’t think he’s a weenie. A weenie wouldn’t have made some of the unpopular decisions he’s made. He just has too many conflicting priorities that weigh on him & make it harder to make a decision. Miss Carol got too big for her britches!

  3. Thank you for writing about my favorite show, The Walking Dead. I agree that the show is full of moral & ethical dilemmas. I have to disagree with your assessment of Carol’s decision based on science. Now maybe Carol didn’t pay attention in Biology or get a college degree but as a nurse, I would say that germ theory makes her actions unnecessary & inexcusable. Contact & especially respiratory pathogens are generally contagious shortly before (1-2 days) symptoms appear & while symptoms persist. The group had already isolated the two people she killed so they had done all the damage they were going to do & were no longer a threat. Not to mention, there was no guarantee they would die. In any outbreak, some will live & some will die. They already had the perfect quarantine set up in the form of cells. If they did die & turn, they would be locked in & killed at that time. What Carol did, & Rick correctly assessed, was play God. That being said, Rick is a horrible communicator & handled it poorly. The group should have been told & allowed to vote on what to do with her. Heck put her in a cell until her ‘trial’. Then again, maybe he was trying to protect her from what the group would do once they found out. It was wrong of her to expect him to keep a secret like that & wrong to compare what she did to his self-defense killing of Shane. Maybe she is safer on the outside.

  4. Yes! As I was watching last night, I thought, “This is a great topic for Jack to discuss.” I have to come down against Carol on this one. Though I understand the pragmatic nature of her actions, those actions created even more strain for the group at a time when they are facing perhaps the most dangerous crisis yet. Let’s be clear, she murdered two people. Yes, I am aware that the nature of the “zombie apocalypse” forces traditional ethics to change, even when it comes to killing, but this decision went too far. She went outside the group’s council, disregarded the advice of TWO doctors, and executed two innocent people. That, by itself, is a major threat to the stability of the group. How do we know she won’t perceive other survivors as “threats” in the future for her own reasons and decide to off them?
    Finally, there is no way Rick could risk bringing her back to the group, especially once Tyrese returns. Even if Rick kept the secret, Tyrese would be questioning everyone to find the culprit, causing paranoia and fear. If Rick revealed the secret, Tyrese would kill her. The threats to the overall group dynamic were simply too much for Carol to remain with the group.

  5. My viewing of the show has been spotty, but I read the comics for quite a while and they show Rick as a bad leader, while still presenting him as the primary protagonist and never blatantly pushing his poor leadership in your face- it’s a fantastic and subtle version of the Unreliable Narrator technique, and feels like much less of a cheat than Fight Club did.

  6. A pox on both their houses. They’ve got a leadership committee, it seemed to be working, They had a plan for addressing the crisis. Carol should have presented her concerns to them. When Rick discovered what Carol did, he should have done the same. Let the community decide.

      • Heh. Whatever they called it. They seemed to have a system in place that was working fairly well.

        Before he went crazy, I assumed they were planning to show Rick growing into the leadership role. To some extent, he was thrust into it: People looked to him for answers, and he did his best to provide them, even if he wasn’t very good at it. That’s normal. Nobody gets it right at first. Like everything else, leadership has a learning curve. I was hoping we’d see him get better.

      • Part of the problem too is that Rick’s leadership behavior is the product of television and comic book writers, some of whom may not ever have held real jobs before. This problem was especially evident on 24, where the Counter Terrorism Unit was run by people who would have been an embarrassment as shift managers at McDonald’s.

        • Great point, and oh so true. Unless they do their homework and study history, a typical writer is neither qualified by temperament or experience to create realistic leaders. Never focused on that before—and it explains a lot.

          • The show is horribly written and is in desperate need of a technical director and a military advisor. The scene in the grocery store where it just started raining zombies through the roof was laugh out loud funny .

            It is, to quote George Romero, ” A soap opera with an occasional zombie”.

            • I don’t know if that is fair.

              Remember, the show charts the troubles following a group of civilians trying to figure things out. A military advisor would be useful if it were a military show. As far as it being a soap opera with an occasional zombie, the show’s focus has never been the zombies and fighting zombies. Zombies have always been a BACKDROP because the show’s focus has been on a small not group of people trying to retain their humanity amidst the collapse of civilization and rise of vicious anarchy.

              • The military advisor isn’t always needed but there have been several scenes where it would have come in handy as the writers showed their total ignorance of military ordnance, weapons and training.

                My buddies who are also brother Marines joke that if this really happened Marines and soldiers would be making the shooting of zombies and drinking game and would be marching through Georgia killing zombies like Sherman to the sea.

                I agree that’s the zombies are just a backdrop but I think that makes Romero’s point that its really just a soap opera with an occasional zombie, and there is nothing wrong with that, but in my opinion some of the praise for the show is over blown.

              • George has no reason to be bitter. Hell if it wasn’t for George there wouldn’t be The Walking Dead. Its a direct rift on his movies and hell half the people working on it use to work for and with him.

  7. Ethics Observations from the past Walking Dead:

    1) Misplaced priorities Herschel wished to protect the ill from seeing the dead turn and be put out of their misery. A noble goal, but he took loyalty to that goal and made it a vice. During the uprising in the quarantined cell block, he wasted time trying to lure zombies out of sight of survivors before dispatching them, meanwhile other zombies were still threats to defenseless survivors. Herschel should have killed the zombies outright, in the immediate decisive crisis, the goal of softening the gore to bystanders is not only of no value considering the existing emergency, but the gore has made itself obvious by the uprising.

    2) Incompetence Buckets of weapons and ammo by the perimeter fence, exposed to the elements (most notably WATER) is DUMB! It doesn’t do any good to cache weapons for immediate access, if they are rendered useless by rust and corrosion.

    3) Procrastination & misplaced priorities Shoring up the fence against the zombie herd vs killing the zombie herd obviously was the wrong answer. With zombies outside the fence, a simple duty of killing a small amount per day would have kept the herd from becoming so big it overwhelmed the fence foundations.

    • They also flagged an interesting theme in “Talking Dead,” which I usually ignore: Herschel trying to shield the children and others from the ugly reality (of friends turning into zombies and having to be terminated) even though it is 1) unavoidable 2) beyond hiding and 3) a form of denial. In such situations, the responsible course is to deal in reality, not lie about what is happening to preserve a comforting myth.

      An engineer noted that Rick’s method of shoring up the fences was idiotic.

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