Requiem for A Tarman

When Thinking of ethics, there’s always a problem that comes up, namely, given all the theories out there, how are we to decide what to do? Do we think of intentions or consequences, or what God wants us to do or duties, ourselves? There’s this book out there called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. The point of the book is that we shouldn’t get so wrapped up in the trivial stuff that ultimately means nothing that we miss the real important things in life. Unfortunately for many of us, our lives don’t get beyond the small stuff. This is why, I think, philosophers think up so many strange thought experiments. We get to think up big stuff and bounce it around. But thinking up thought experiments and setting up all the parameters can be quite time consuming. Besides, when you do, there’s always some joker that wants to dispute the circumstances of your thought experiment. Fortunately for most of us, we don’t have to think up anything. That’s what movies are for. There are plenty of philosophers who poo-poo the idea of using popular entertainment as a philosophical tool. The thought is is that nothing of any use comes out of the popular culture. This is simply not true. Whether we watch Disney movies, a buddy road-trip flick, or a romantic comedy, or we spend an evening with Truffaut, movies give us an ample glimpse of how philosophic theories work. Take, for instance, the movie The Terminator. At first glance, you’ve got an action/sci-fi flick. But if you look a little deeper, there’s questions of artificial intelligence, determinism, time and time travel, existential questions concerning the nature of Sarah Connor’s personality (she goes from wimp to tough chick, or is that who she was all along, since Kyle Reece tells her that she’s a fighter?). There’s really alot there — plus, it’s fun to watch. Which can’t be said about watching most philosophy professors giving their lectures. The late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, wife of Star Trek creator, the late Gene Roddenberry, said that, back in the 1960s, network censorship was so tight that, in order to get his ideas across, her husband had to be subversive. Barrett-Roddenberry said, “censorship was so bad in those days, that if he could take things and switch them around a little bit, and maybe paint somebody green… he could get some of his ideas across”. I’m not saying or even suggesting that philosophers be or are being subversive ( lord knows what that would be like), but by looking at one situation/question/moral dilemma in one context or medium, we can see how it would work in another. That is to say, that watching a movie in which a certain situation takes place, we may be able to apply that fictional situation to real life. Although they are easily dismissed as cinematic schlock, zombie flicks are especially useful in the area of ethics. For instance, we may consider life and death — what does it mean to be “alive”? , what is death?. By seeing how the undead are treated, we might be able to see how we treat those in our own world who are not quite dead or not quite living (people on life-sustaining machines, for instance). We can see how we treat those who are afflicted with certain brain disorders (that may produce mania or violent behavior) by looking at zombies. I was watching this movie called Automaton Transfusion a few days ago. While I was watching, I thought about how people treat the undead and how would we have to treat them if there were a real zombie plague in our world. After spending some time thinking about the question, I came to the answer that how we treat them depends on what kind of zombie we are dealing with. I thought that I would, for the sake of making the whole experiment worth considering in the first place, consider the zombies of George Romero and Dan O’Bannon. First, I agreed (with myself) that I would consider zombies people. This is important, because it may determine whether zombies are morally considerable at all. If a zombie ceases to be a person and is simply nothing more than a rotting trash heap, that ends the experiment pretty much right there. I don’t think that there are too many philosophers that would argue that we have a moral obligation to a pile of garbage. When I startign thinking about it, I almost immediately thought of Peter Singer ( I’m not sure exactly why). Singer takes Jeremy Bentham’s view that the capacity to suffer makes one morally considerable. Bentham writes, ” the question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”Although we know that the dead cannot be reasoned with ( as there are also many living humans that cannot be reasoned with), and that, with a few cinematic exceptions, none talk. But we haven’t made it our habit to determine if they suffer. According to Singer, this capacity is a prerequisite for having interests at all. If, Singer states, an object lacks the capacity for suffering, we need not include it in our consideration. Singer writes, “it would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare”. If we look at George Romero’s quintology of his “dead” films, we see that zombies are no more than moving meat. They do not feel physically or otherwise. They are nothing more than self-propelled rocks. Using Bentham/Singer’s criteria, we need not consider their welfare. This is in line with Singer’s approach to individuals who are brain-dead or in a persistive vegetative state. People with those conditions are no more than individuals who have no conscious quality of life (oops! let’s clarify things before we go slumming towards Hitlerville). Like a person who has no higher brain function (without any hope of recovery), a zombie does not experience life. If we “kill” either, what “life” are we depriving either of? In this case it may be argued that to kill either would be a better good. We would speak of ending their “suffering”, but the suffering we’re referring to is primarily metaphorical or our own. But what if a zombie could suffer? What do we do then? Do our obligations to them change? Perhaps they might. Dan O’Bannon’s zombies in Return of the Living Dead are not the shambling moving meat of Romero’s films, but zombies who exhibit Robert Fletcher’s “indications of humanhood” (which are self-awareness, self-control, sense of the future, a sense of the past, the capacity to relate to others [if only to eat them], concern for others, communication and curiosity). O’Bannon’s zombies speak, plot, and retain their personality enough to remind their girlfriend that if she loved him that she’d let hime eat her brain. O’Bannon’s zombies, unlike Romero’s, experience pain. In one sequence, a female zombie reveals that there is pain in death. She explains that eating the brains of the living is the only way to end the suffering of death. The secen takes place in a funeral home between Ernie, the mortician, and the female zombie who is strapped to an embalmbing table: Ernie: you eat people. zombie: not people, brains. Ernie: brains only? zombie: yes. Ernie: why? zombie: the pain. Ernie: what about the pain? zombie: the pain of being dead. Ernie: it hurts to be dead. zombie: I can feel myself rot. Ernie: eating brains, how does that make you feel? zombie: it makes the pain go away. For starters, that scene is just plain creepy. Second, it really makes me nervous about dying, because what if that zombie is right and it is painful being dead? But more importantly, does the fact that they suffer now demand that we include their needs among our own? If feeling one’s own flesh rotting is painful (as one may well imagine), then we may be obligated to end that suffering. But wait, the only way to do that is to feed brains to zombies (this is the only way to end their suffering). That spells trouble for us. If we were good utilitarians, and we have as a prerequisite for moral inclusion the capacity to suffer, how do we deal with the needs od a brain-eating zombie? Is this a case where our uttilitarian ethics runs amuck? If logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and we may assume that (at least in some locales) the dead outnumber the living, then we might find ourselves, for the sake of consistency, handing our brains over to the undead. But this already doesn’t sound right. I think back to my ethics class. We had an assignment to find a True Moral Theory. We had as a guide, several “desired” features which included: the theory must not have implausible implications, it must place realistic motivational demands on the agent, and it can’r be self-defeating. When we consider the matter utilitarianally, we find prima facie that we may have to indulge the needs of the zombie. But if we apply our desired features, we find that giving our brians to flesheaters is not only inplausible, there is absolutely no reason for giving up our brains that motivates us to do so. Lastly, by giving the brains of the living to the dead, eventually, the dead (because the dead is an ever-increasing number) will outstrip their food supply. Therefore, doing so is eventually self-defeating. Next, feeding our brains to zombies butts up against something called the sadistic pleasures objection. It goes something like this: a group cannnot achieve its excellence at the expense of another group (especially if that group is smaller). So, let’s say that the main purpose of a zombie is to eat flesh. This, according to Aristotle, is its(a zombie’s) excellence (characteristic function). If we give living brains to the dead, so they can flourish, and since the net pain of the dead outweighs the net pain of the living (remember, the dead outnumber the living), we would be achieving one group’s excellence at the expense of the smaller group. A utilitarian does not ignore the needs of the smaller group, they figure into the greater good as well. This is especially relevant in the fact that a zombie does not need to eat brains to survive. Eating brains merely relieves a bothersome condition. A person zombie can “exist” with pain. A living human, however, cannot live without his brain. Of course, it’s easy to see that living people shouldn’t give up their brains so that zombies can feel better. But in the case of organ transplants or biotechnology the lines may not be so clear. If a good friend need a kidney to survive and I am a match, am I obligated to give my kidney? At what point am I obligated to give up a part of myself to help or save others? Am I obligated at all? Food for thought.
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