Zombies and Matters of Pragmatism

Funny thing about zombies…

The zombie film, most associated with George A. Romero’s flesh eating ghouls first depicted in Night of the Living Dead (1968), isn’t supposed to be something that one thinks about — that is to say, when one watches a zombie flick, one’s attention would not be focused on analyzing complex philosophical issues or concepts. Certainly with the standard zombie fare represented by notable titles such as Bong of the Dead, Redneck Zombies, Hood of the Living Dead, L.A. Zombie, Nudist Colony of the Dead, Zombie Strippers, Pot Zombies, and Aaah! Zombies, it’s no surprise that any serious philosopher would dismiss the entire zombie horror sub-genre as crap. I will admit I am no exception to this rule.

Don’t get me wrong, most zombie movies are crap. And really, they need not be anything more than what they are — simply movies with people being attacked and consumed by hoardes of the undead. (NOTE: the fact that a movie is crap does not negate the fact that it may be entertaining). The funny thing about generalizing, even when you generalize in the name of philosophy, is that sometimes — often times — you make a mistake. The mistake I’m thinking about goes by the name of the AMC series The Walking Dead.

Now I know what you’re asking, “what on earth does a TV show about zombies have to do with philosophy?”. Philosophers can debate whether zombie movies and TV shows like The Walking Dead are worthy of metaphysical or epistemic analysis, but certainly no philosopher in his or her right mind would ever claim that a zombie and/or zombie movie or TV show cannot be subjected to ethical scrutiny. My answer to the question is this: SHANE WALSH IS THE MOST PHILOSOPHICALLY FASCINATING CHARACTER ON TELEVISION. And how, you say, is Shane Walsh the most fascinating character on television? The answer is this: ETHICS.

Ethics is defined as the science of morals in human conduct. Ethical philosophers construct theories concerning how individuals can and should act. Ethical theories include utilitarianism, deontological ethics, situational ethics, divine command theory, ethical egoism, emotivism, intuitionism, pragmatic ethics and applied ethics. To be sure, Shane Walsh, or rather the late Shane Walsh (formerly played by Jon Bernthal) is certainly an ethical piece of work. We, the audience, watch Shane, a cop before the zombie apocalypse, devolve into a paranoid, murdering, unrepentant, would-be rapist psychopath, whose scheming to murder his best friend and former partner Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) results in Shane’s eventual death and zombie resurrection. To the causal observer Shane Walsh lacks any remaining thread of civility, but the philosophically-oriented eye, Shane is a case study in pragmatic ethics.

Just as pragmatism, founded by American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) holds that the truth of a theory rests on how the theory works in practice, Shane Walsh’s method of dealing with and operating in the zombie apocalypse rests on his ability to get things done — that is to say, how his theories work in practice. William James wrote, “In practical talk, a man’s common sense means his good judgment…”, and certainly Shane Walsh’s common sense is based on his good judgment.

So… when Shane shoots Otis in the leg and leaves him to be eaten by a pack of zombies, or openly expresses his desire to call off the search for Sophia, or when Shane, against Rick’s orders, opens Hershel’s barn and treats the denizens of Hershel’s farm to the zombie equivalent of a turkey shoot, or when Shane openly challenges Rick’s ability to protect his wife and son (Shane tells Rick, “I don’t think you can keep them safe”), or when Shane leads Randall out to the woods to kill him, or attempts to kill Rick on three separate occasions, it’s not because Shane has lost all contact with his humanity. Shane does what he does because he know that his method of getting things done is simply what works.

Shane tells Rick, “You can’t just be the good guy and expect to live”. And in the end, Shane is right. In the last episode of season two, “Beside the Dying Fire”, Rick Grimes (after dispatching Shane) declares that he is leader of the group of survivors and that the group is no longer a democracy (fans of the show lovingly refer to Rick’s declaration as the beginning of the “Ricktatorship”). Rick realizes that Shane is right. In the post-civilization zombie world, high-minded ethical systems like Kant’s deontological ethics or Aristotle’s virtue ethics are no longer applicable. If a man wants to survive the onslaught of the undead he has to be willing to only do what has practical value — what will allow not only himself, but others to survive.  Shane Walsh does not lack morality, as some have claimed. He is neither amoral, nor is Shane Walsh purely in it for himself (Shane’s repeatedly tells Rick that he wants to protect Rick’s wife and son, and even saves the lives of others, including Rick Grimes and fellow survivor Andrea, thus demontrtating that he is motivated by someting other than his own desires). Instead, Shane Walsh exhibits the kind of morality that is not bogged down by concepts of virtue or absolute duties. Shane’s willingness to follow the pragmatic approach to morality not only saves lives, but also allows Rick Grimes to live long enough to stab Shane through the heart.

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6 thoughts on “Zombies and Matters of Pragmatism

  1. I’ve argued this very issue many many times in ethics discussions, where I point out that Deontological Ethics, or “Duty Ethics”, are not a choice but instead a luxury of living in a civilized and secure society. Civilized people are more than comfortable living according to absolutes such as “Thou Shalt Not Steal / Kill / Lie / etc”. When a crisis hits, however, they revert to Consequentialism, or at least a much more utilitarian ethical position, when people are forced to “do the math” to figure out what the right choice is. In school I successfully defending an ethical theory of “Utilitarianism with Rules of Thumb” as a moral theory I thought most people should follow, because that is what people actually do when they’re up against the wall, and they shouldn’t be forced to feel guilty about having to make hard choices because the religiously derived “Duties” that most live buy are actually the Rules Of Thumb that people arrive at when things settle down and people can get back to being “civilized”.
    Of course, Shane had lost it, that much is clear. Being forced to make such hard choices coupled with the guilt he experienced from not living up to his duty to Rick, in addition to the general lawlessness of the zombie apocalypse and the effect that would have on one’s sanity, caused Shane to slowly but surely lose it. In addition to all of that, there are really no consequences for criminal behavior. Might makes right in the zombie apocalypse, and Shane has guns and training. Morality gives way to a kind of will to power situation that he struggles to resist for two seasons while he butts heads with Rick and his natural leadership of the group. The books were quite different than the show as you can well imagine, but Rick killed Shane in the show while in the comic it’s young Carl who takes out Shane when he tries to kill Rick.

    • I agree with you, Jim that ethics such as Kant is a luxury of civilization. I’d imagine that in a ZA (zombie apocalypse) morality would be much too fluid to practice Kant’s ethics to a tee (for any length of time anyway). The show is a great example of that happening, actually. Rick attempts to maintain his duty-bound ethics, but in the face of a loss of civilization, he puts away his badge and Kantian ethics, and assumes the “Ricktator” position by the end of season two. Shan was correct when he observed that Rick was not made for the (new) world (Shane screwed up when he told Rick what he thought about Rick’s ability to lead).

      My previous blog was called “the kantian egoist”. This is where i say my ethics are. I appreciate Kant’s commitment to concepts like duty and rationality, but I also realize that philosophical theories often work better on paper than in real life. Life rarely presents us with the opportunity to be consistent on anything, let alone situations concerning morality and our ethical decisions. I realize as a human being, that I am also driven by certain primal urges — including the urge for self-preservation (Dawkins might suggest this is the work of our “selfish” genes). I am, by nature, self-centered and often self-serving. And try as i might, i cannot completely divorce myself from my own point of view. I am, as much as I want to follow Kant’s ethics, an egoist. I am a Kantian egoist.

      Where was I? Oh yeah… I understand that Shane was indeed a little loony towards the end, but his insanity had in it, a kind of ethical code. He still made everything he did make sense, and his actions were consistent with his moral view. … Now, if one wants to discuss morality and insanity, that is another issue.

  2. I love zombie flicks cause they’re the ultimate in paranoia. Outnumbered in a world full of creatures that would love nothing better than to feast on their brains. Everyone knows the sensation of being surrounded by mindless brutes, everyone’s afraid of being eaten alive. It puts the protagonists of the story in a desperate survival situation that invariably brings out the worst and the best in them. A metaphor for everyday exsistence. Regardless of how comfortable or easy ones life may be, we all struggle desperately to survive, and the circumstances of our lives and our reactions to them reveal our true nature by those values we choose to represent and defend. Each according to their own potentials and conditionings.

    • exactly, jim. that’s kind of the point of the original Night of the Living Dead, isn’t it? our civilization hangs by a thread — it doesn’t even take as much as a zombie outbreak to set things rollong down a shit hill (excuse the language). the point, at least in Romero’s flims, has been the real monsters are us — the humans. the walking dead suggested this in the scene when hershel, glenn, and rick are in the bar and the two guys come in. one of the guys refers to women as “cooze”. you know, just by a simple word, that this is a man who has lost touch with civilization. but, then, in the real world we don’t need to “lose touch”, but to simply feel that we can get away with whatever we intend to do.

  3. I don’t believe Shane was a bad guy. If he were, I don’t think that shooting Otis would have made him go nutty. A bad guy would not have been bothered by that.

    Shane isn’t a rapist either, that CDC thing was sexual assault and a mistake which he later admitted to.

    Without him, Rick and his family would’ve died. He’s a fully complex character. He has everything what it takes to survive the apocalypse, if it weren’t for her screwing around in his head in that windmill scene, he would’ve eventually pulled through.

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