They’re in, you know.
When you’ve gotten to the point you’re using zombies to sell cell phone plans, you know society is in pretty bad shape.
You don’t have to ask around, but I think it’s entirely safe to say that zombies are probably the least appealing monster in the movie monster kingdom.
It’s not that the zombie’s least appealing status is undeserved. There are plenty of reasons to dislike them. Zombies aren’t at all like well-cultured, romantic, erudite Vampires. They’re not mischievous like your local poltergeist. They’re not powerful and all biblical like demons. And they’re not beastly manifestations of man’s repressed id like a werewolf.
Nope. That’s not a zombie.
Zombies are smelly, rotting, people-chomping, mindless bags of flesh.
If a zombie finds you, it will not bid you good morning or offer you its seat on the bus. A zombie will tear you apart and eat you.
Zombies don’t sparkle. They don’t talk to you through the TV. They don’t look like David Naughton. Zombies look like this:
You can’t get rid of a zombie with sunlight. Or by driving a stake through its heart. Or with love. You can’t hire a priest to perform an exorcism.
The only way to get rid of a zombie is to do this:
Even killing a zombie is pretty gross.
It’s a wonder why zombies are so popular these days.
Wait a minute. That movie Warm Bodies. They cured zombies with love, didn’t they?
If you ask me, Warm Bodies movie is the Nightmare on Elm Street 2 of zombie films.
It’s an ok movie, but… I think they aimed for the wrong audience.
But then, we’ve dealt with running zombies, haven’t we?
It is a well-established fact that you have to kill the brain to kill the ghoul. But zombie brain bashing might get a little messy.
Some people might be put off by that. Squeamish types, you know.
However, there is one thing about zombies that isn’t too gross – zombies are fantastically ethical monsters.
You can discuss matters of ethics using zombies, that is.
Luckily for us, the AMC television network has made discussing zombies fairly easy.
Yes. I’m talking about The Walking Dead.
In the season 4 episode “Indifference”, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) kicks fellow zombie apocalypse survivor, Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), out of the group for killing two people who are sick with a deadly strain of the flu. Rick tells Carol that the two might have lived (Carol hadn’t given them a chance to get well), and that Carol had no right to decide who lives and who dies. Carol tells Rick that her justification for killing the two sick people is that she was trying to prevent anyone else from getting sick; that she was protecting the group.
If we look at Carol’s actions through our ethics glasses, we see that Carol’s reasoning is based on the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. John Stuart Mill wrote in Utilitarianism:
The creed which accepts [utility] as the foundation of morals, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
Carol believes that she has done the right thing. And by killing two people, she believes that she will prevent the deaths of the several dozen living people in the camp. Carol argues the two were terminal, and it’s not wrong if you kill someone who is terminally ill. Carol tells Rick that she ended their suffering, and by hastening their deaths, she saved them from a very painful death of drowning in their own blood.
If a couple of people die so that others may live, Carol reasons, so be it. She tells Rick that she “stepped up” and did something when no one else (including Rick) was willing or able to do what had to be done.
If we judge Carol’s actions based strictly on the Greatest Happiness Principle, Carol appears to have done the right thing.
Of course, there’s a problem.
Vulcan logic might work well for Mr.Spock, but when people in the real world use the Vulcan logic dictate that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (…or the one)”, things don’t always work out well.
The problem with utilitarian ethics is that utilitarian-based decisions are often based on speculation. Our actions are based on what we estimate will be the best outcome. Unfortunately, we know, despite our best guesses, that speculation is sometimes wrong.
How do we determine what “the needs” are, and more importantly, how can we definitively know what is the best solution for satisfying those needs?
The answer is we can’t.
The reason why is simple: we can’t know all things. That is, humans lack the ability to foresee all possible outcomes. So all the utilitarian is really stuck with is good intentions and a hope that things turn out for the best.
So, we can assume that we’re doing the right thing so long as out intentions are good, right? If Carol meant to do the right thing, she’s in the moral clear….. Right?
We might think that what matters (when we act) is that our intention is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but according to utilitarianism, intentions don’t matter. An act is morally permissible if the act actually produces the greatest good for the greatest number. You might be driven by the best of intentions, but if your actions fail to produce real world good outcomes or makes the situation worse, you’ve done something wrong.
Carol did something wrong.
Listen, there’s no denying that Carol’s argument is appealing. She meant well and she did what she thought was the best thing to do. It’d be tough to argue that anyone shouldn’t do what they think is best. And several killings on The Walking Dead were committed (justified) in the interest of the Greatest Happiness Principle (Otis, Dave, Tony, Randall, Shane, Big Tiny, Tomas, Andrew, and Hershel’s leg). However, Rick concludes Carol’s utilitarian-based argument doesn’t hold.*
Of course, as Rick surely must have been thinking to himself, the problem with Carol’s argument is that her rationalization for killing the infected is based on speculation. Carol perceived the pair as an immediate threat and determined that the only way to deal with the immediate threat was to kill whoever was infected with the flu. Rick counters Carol’s argument, stating that there was a chance, however small, that the two might have recovered from their illness. We know that even the most virulent strain of flu (like the 1918 Spanish influenza upon which The Walking Dead flu is based) is not 100 percent fatal.
Utilitarian ethics tells us that if there is another, equally acceptable or better solution, we are obligated to either consider other options or not act as we had intended. In short, if there was a chance that the pair might not have died, Carol was morally obligated to NOT kill them.
Carol’s miscalculated utilitarian ethics led her to commit an act that ultimately was not only morally wrong, but showed that Carol was liable to act without fully considering other possible outcomes. Carol went for the immediate, not best solution. Carol’s impulsive act made her a threat to the (overall) safety of the group. This is why Rick is perfectly justified when he kicks Carol out of the group.
By removing Carol from the group, Rick did the greatest good for the greatest number.
Carol argues that she was trying to save the group, but ultimately her effort did not work. Other people were infected with the flu and died. AND to make matters much worse for Carol, Tyreese, the boyfriend of one of Carol’s victims, has pledged to kill whoever killed his girlfriend.
Carol not only failed to save anyone, but by killing people, she put her own life in double jeopardy – if the flu doesn’t kill her, Tyreese will.
Carol isn’t a well-intentioned hero. She’s nothing more than a common murderer.
let’s not forget that because of her actions Carol was kicked out of the group and left to fend for herself in a world populated by smelly, rotting, people-chomping, mindless bags of flesh.
* I speculate that Carol’s reasoning might have been more on the side of rule utilitarianism that simple utilitarianism (or act utilitarianism). I think Carol might have followed a rule utilitarian position as described by JCC Smart:
“generally, he argues consequences are not relevant at all when we are deciding what to do in a particular case. In general, they are relevant only in deciding what rules are good reasons for acting in a certain way in particular cases”
Carol might have believed that in any circumstance where there is an immediate threat to the group, one must eliminate the threat (the rule). However, as a rule utilitarian, she might have not actually acted on her principle until this particular set of circumstances.
John Stuart Mill. “Utilitarianism”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p. 571
Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 5th edition. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. (Wadsworth) 2007. p. 208.