The new half-season of The Walking Dead starts in about a week.
I’m pretty excited about it. So excited that I’m writing another blog post about the show.
Yeah, I know. I write about this show a lot.
Writing about The Walking Dead (other than writing an episode review) may seem like a
stupid pointless unphilosophical thing for a philosopher to do.
Yeah. Immanuel Kant would probably say something like that.
How do you say stupid in German?
I’m pretty sure that means something else…
But here’s the reason why I do: I think the show is very philosophical.
Ok, listen. This is how The Walking Dead is philosophical: Have you ever thought about whether a zombie is actually alive or dead? I mean really thought about it.
Sure, you can ask a scientist. But seriously, what’s a scientist going to tell you? A scientist is going to ask you if the zombie is breathing or if it’s decayed or if it has any measurable brain activity.
Something like that.
But you can much more fun if you ask a philosopher.
A philosopher will tell you all about metaphysics and ethics. And talk to you all about philosophers like Rene Descartes, or David Chalmers, John Searle, or Richard Rorty.
Sounds pretty exciting already, huh?
The reason why we would ask something like, “Is a zombie actually living or dead?” is this: Wait – let me ask you a question first.
When someone on a TV show is arrested what’s the first thing they say to the arresting officer?
The perp invariably will declare that they have rights.
But what kind of people have rights? I mean, what does a person have to be to have rights?
Living people have rights.
A person who is alive can declare he has rights. A dead person can not.
But what about the rights of the undead?
Do the dead even have rights?
First, I’m not getting all new agey on this. I’m not talking about life after death or whether beings exist in an alternate plain of existence. These (can be but) aren’t really typical philosophical topics. I’m talking about our general definition of what death means.
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (13th edition) defines clinical death as:
Permanent cessation of all vital functions. [defined by]
1) total irreversible cessation of cerebral function of the
respiratory system, spontaneous function of the circulatory
system. 2) the final and irreversible cessation of perceptible
heartbeat and respiration.
This describes a zombie perfectly.
To make things clear, here’s a definition of zombie (as defined by Urban Dictionary):
Zombie: The Walking Dead. Scientific name Homo Coprophagus Somnambulus
A deceased human being who has partially returned to life due to undeterminable causes… In its near-mindless state, it grasps no remains of emotion, personality, or sensation of pain… Circulatory, respiratory, and digestive system are unaffected by reanimation…
I think it’s safe to assume that we can all agree that a zombie is definitely dead. In horror films the undead are mowed down without a second thought. They must be exterminated before they infect or consume the living.
This is because the living have rights that the dead do not. Namely, the living have a right to life.
Our rights are intrinsically linked to the idea of interests.
The Israeli moral and political philosopher Joseph Raz describes rights like this:
X has a right if and only if X can have rights and, other things being equal, an aspect of X’s well-being (his interest) is a sufficient reason for holding some other person(s) to be under a duty….
In short, our rights involve not only the well being (interests) of others, but also our well being.
It is in the interest of every human being to live as long and as safely as possible. Therefore humans have a right to life.
But here’s the catch – in a zombie apocalypse the undead inevitably will outnumber the living.
Alright. Let me tell you something.
You may have noticed it already, but whenever a philosopher talks about stuff like rights they’re talking about politics, or as professional philosophers like to call it, political philosophy.
Political philosophy is:
… the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why (or even if) they are needed, what, if anything, makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it should take and why, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.
Remember we were talking about interests awhile back? Well, it’s not just political philosophers who chat about interests. Moral philosophers (also known as ethicists) write about interests, too.
Political philosophers may speak the language of rights and freedoms, but at the heart of every law, policy, or political argument is a question of ethics.
So – the zombie apocalypse has begun. News reports say the nation is overrun by hordes of the undead.
You’ve locked yourself and your loved ones behind closed doors. You’ve boarded up your windows. You’ve hoarded an ample supply of toilet paper and armed yourself with your weapon of choice.
Several of your neighbors have decided to form a posse to hunt down and destroy the revenant menace. You want to join them but you’re a philosopher. You have to think about things first.
You ask yourself, is participating in the mass destruction of the undead really the right thing to do?
As a philosopher, you know that when you act you’re not just required to consider your own interests but the interests of others as well.
According to the website Dangerous Universe, during the first year of a zombie outbreak, the zombie population would surpass the remaining population of living people.
Now, if having rights is all about having our interests served, whose interests are being served in a world populated by the undead? More to the point: whose interests should be served during the zombie apocalypse? Can the living morally justify killing the dead?
We’re told that the undead are no longer our friends, family and neighbors, but should that matter? Do the reanimated have no rights that the living are bound to respect?
Perhaps the correct question isn’t is participating in the mass destruction of the undead really the right thing to do? but rather, should the living give their lives to respect the rights of the dead?
Utilitarian ethics tell us that an act is morally permissible if the intended outcome results in the greatest good for the greatest number (The Greatest Happiness Principle).
In a zombie apocalypse the dead outnumber the living.
During the first year, anyway.
If the dead outnumber the living might we argue that according to the Greatest Happiness Principle the interests of the deceased take precedence over the interests of the living?
It would be unwise for a mortal to assume that the fact that the undead can’t articulate their interests infers that they don’t have them. It’s undeniable that zombies, despite being dead, have interests. They clearly want human flesh (or brains, depending on what zombie movie/TV series you’re watching).
If our ethics tell us that the only morally permissible acts are the acts that secure the greatest good for the greatest number and the dead outnumber the living, isn’t the happiness achieved if the dead are allowed to consume the living?
Now would be a good time for a …..
Let’s say, in the real world, cockroaches outnumber humans, and we’re not bound to respect their interests. That’s right. Simple numbers do not determine whose interests count over another. We wouldn’t say the fact that cockroaches outnumber humans means that we are morally obligated to place their needs before our own.
The fact that this:
Is not enough to declare one group’s rights should be achieved at the expense of the other.
Especially if those rights includes consuming the other group.
So – we must choose different criteria for having one’s interests count. How do we do that? How we determine whose interests count without running the risk of being arbitrary or speciesist?*
Before we define our new criteria, watch this scene from the horror-comedy zombie film, Return of the Living Dead (1985):
Ok, did you watch the movie clip?
In the clip, a zombie describes the state of being dead as painful and says that eating brains is the only way to relieve the pain of being dead (it’s worth noting that the zombies in the Return of the Living Dead films can articulate their interests, which is eating brains).
So, the zombie’s want to decrease physical pain gives us reason to make the argument that a zombie has at least one interest.
It’s been established that the living dead outnumber the living. It is also the fate of all men to die, and according to zombies death is painful. Ending the pain of death is actually in the interest of every being that is dead or eventually will be dead. And if the consumption of brains (or human flesh, depending on the movie) is the only thing that stops the pain, then the only moral thing to do is to permit the dead to eat the brains (or flesh) of the living.
Now, I know you’re raising an objection to my utilitarian logic.
Bullocks, you say.
Zombies are dangerous. Zombies eat people.
Well, as any fan of The Walking Dead knows, the undead can be subdued simply by removing their arms and lower jaw, thus rendering the once-threatening revenant harmless.
The character Michonne has employed this successful method not only once but twice.
As has the character Andrea:
Wrangling zombies is all really quite simple**
Let’s look at it this way: what if being a zombie wasn’t dead, but suffering from a mental illness that makes them attack and eat other living people. If zombies were not dead but living individuals overcome by a compulsive behavior, we wouldn’t hesitate to declare that despite their mental illness, zombies have rights we are bound to respect. Even those individuals who are most dangerous to society would not be immediately done away with. This is because they retain rights because that every human is entitled to by virtue of being human – a being with interests that we are morally obligated to respect.
So when “good guy” Rick Grimes slays the undead the audience may cheer for him, but he really is an evil man carrying out an evil deed. Rick Grimes (or any other zombie hunter) has no moral authority to impede on the rights of the undead.
Even if a person is not mentally “all there” or lacks measurable brain activity, or lacks the ability to articulate their interests, we can‘t morally justify killing them – even if they‘re icky or stinky or want our brains or can’t be reasoned with.
Or perhaps even if they’re dead.
Any other ethical reason we have for killing zombies boils down to some arbitrary quality like the aesthetics of the undead.
The mere act of finding a zombie unpleasant smelling or to look at or just because it wants to eat your brains are hardly justifiable reasons for committing genocide.
Even if you’re Rick Grimes.
*speciesism is defined as the human assumption that humans are superior to other animals and therefore entitled to use, abuse, or exploit non-human animals as we see fit.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that many of the living would adopt a speciesist position towards the undead.
** According to utilitarianism the Greatest Happiness Principle requires us to consider the happiness of everyone who stands to be affected by a particular act. “Everyone” also includes zombies. If removing a zombie’s jaw and restraining it is as (or more) effective as killing it, then our utilitarian calculus suggests that we may be morally obligated to remove and restrain instead of kill.
Adam Swift. Political Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide for Students and Politicians. Second Edition. 2007 . Malden, MA: Polity Press p. 143.