*Note: this post was originally written October, 2014.
Well, philosophy fans, it’s fall.
You know what that means.
That’s right. Fall means it’s the season for Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes, the smell of crisp autumn air, and the green leaves of summer turning into rustic scenes of brilliant shades of gold, crimson, and brown.
Unless you live in Australia.
Because it’s spring down there now, isn’t it?
If it is, do they still have pumpkin spice lattes in November?
I think we’ll all admit that nature’s splendor is great and all, but the beginning of the autumn season can only mean one thing to the horror television fan: the return of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
You know, the zombie show.
No, not that zombie show.
This zombie show.
The one with the ratings that regularly beats Sunday Night Football.*
Fans of the show know there’s plenty of things to talk about on The Walking Dead – the TV show versus the graphic novels, the show’s black guy rule, how much Andrea sucks, how much Beth sucks, the hotness of Norman Reedus….
With the half season over, it’s time for the regular-viewer’s eyes to turn to things other than hating on Beth Greene and zombie head shot counts (AKA: nitpicking the hell out of the show).
For those fans who are philosophically inclined also like to talk about one topic for
discussion in particular –
Guessed it yet?
Hint: this blog is about philosophy.
You may no know it, but some The Walking Dead fans (ok, maybe just me) like to talk about how the show is all about philosophy.
Really, it is.
If you have a preference for thinking about television philosophically, I should say that it’s worth mentioning that it’s awfully fun to talk about The Walking Dead and morality.
Well, fun if you’re a philosopher.
…. And you watch a lot of TV.
There’s plenty of moral dilemmas to be found in a typical episode/season of The Walking Dead, but the one moral dilemma that seems to rear its undead more often than others is the problem of moral ambiguity.
Moral ambiguity, as defined by Urban Dictionary, is:
[the] lack of clarity in ethical decision making. that is, when an issue, situation, or questions has moral dimensions or implications, but the decidedly “moral” action to take is unclear, either due to conflicting principles, ethical systems, or situational perspectives.
That is to say, moral ambiguity is lack of moral clarity; the line between good and bad actions is blurred.
Speaking of blurred lines….
Although, given my tastes, moral ambiguity in the zombie apocalypse would sound a little more like this:
The thing is, the problem of moral ambiguity isn’t exclusively a The Walking Dead problem. Moral ambiguity seems to have infected other AMC shows as well – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire and Hell On Wheels are all afflicted with morally ambiguous characters and situations.
This guy may be the worst of them all.
The problem, if you will, with moral ambiguity isn’t just a problem for AMC . It’s prevalent in more than quite a few movies and television shows.
Wait – everyone here knows when I say AMC I mean the television network American Movie Classics, right?
Just saying that so we’re clear.
‘Cause clarity is important when you’re talking philosophically.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: what’s the harm in a little moral ambiguity? After all, life isn’t as cut and dry as we’d like it to be – and sometimes, despite our own moral convictions, a situation calls for us to get our hands a little dirty. To violate our moral principles; to play on both sides of the moral fence.
In a land overrun by undead, morality (and especially moral consistency) takes second place to the act of surviving. We can excuse Rick Grimes when he violates his rule “you don’t kill the living” and we can sympathize with the murderous cannibals at Terminus because these characters do whatever is necessary to do to survive.
It seems inevitable that the will to survive leads to some moral ambiguity.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all had to eat a another man’s leg to save our own lives.
Wait, just me?
At first glance, a non-distinct moral style is more than justified in a zombie apocalypse. After all, when it comes to survival, are you really going to worry about moral consistency?
Yeah, me neither.
But we’re all philosophers here. And you know what philosophers don’t like? Non distinct things. And you know what non distinct things are? Ambiguous. Philosophers hate ambiguity.
And there’s an obvious problem that arises when we fail to clearly define the line between right and wrong. Namely, not clearly defining what is morally right and what is morally wrong makes it difficult to perform morally correct acts.
That is, when our morals are not clear we may fail to do the right thing.
Worse yet, if our morals are ambiguous, how can we judge which acts are good or bad?
And worse than that – if right and wrong are not clearly defined how is a TV watcher to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?
The ability to do so may be very important if you find yourself surrounded by a horde of the undead.
Believe it or not, doing so relies on having a clear sense of morality.
You see, moral ambiguity may be no big deal to television writers or to fictional fellows like Don Draper, Walter White or Shane Walsh, but in the real world, the consequences of moral ambiguity probably won’t make you anyone’s favorite antihero. In the real world, moral ambiguity can lead to such awful things like moral relativism or (gasp!)
Yeah. You end up morals like this guy:
Or (worst case scenario) a total breakdown or rejection of all morality.
Actually, that kind of stuff happens in the fake world, too.
You see, when a TV show begins to blur the line between good and bad it can become difficult to sustain one’s like for a character – especially if one’s fondness for a particular character is predicated on the belief that the character is good. For instance, Rick Grimes’ shifting morality and his willingness to violate his own moral principles (i.e., “we do not kill the living”) makes it increasingly difficult to discern which side of the moral fence Rick Grimes resides on: is he a good man who does bad things or a bad man who occasionally does good things?
The problem is, we can’t tell. Rick’s morality isn’t static. We can’t pinpoint exactly where Rick Grimes’ morality (or any of the other characters in The Walking Dead) falls on the morality scale. It’s ambiguous. The characters of The Walking Dead aren’t guided by a ethical code as much as they are dictated by expediency.
That often makes the characters act inconsistently.
And inconsistency causes trouble.
Moral ambiguity trouble.
Ok. Let me give a long winded example: As many fans of the show know, Rick kicked Carol out of the group for killing two people, Karen and David; deaths that Carol claimed were necessary to save the rest of the group. Carol believes that although she intentionally killed two people, her actions are morally correct and tells Rick that (morally speaking) her actions are no different than when Rick killed his best friend Shane.
By the way, if you don’t know who Shane is or was, go back to The Walking Dead seasons 1 & 2.
Anyway, Rick is outraged at Carol for killing two people that Rick argues could have recovered from their illness.
An illness that, by the way, when it kills you, you end up looking like this:
So naturally, Carol thought the solution for that was doing this:
Rick’s moral outrage (because Rick suddenly has a clear sense of morality) seems to be rooted in his season 1 declaration “we do not kill the living”. Rick declares that no living person is to be killed even if that person poses a potential risk to the group.
Of course Rick’s moral outrage would have made sense if we were still in season 1.
That was back when Rick had a clear and distinct moral view.
But something has happened to Rick that the fact that Rick takes offense to Carol’s actions should strike us a little odd. The thing is this: by the time Carol kills Karen and David, Rick’s morals are no longer distinct as we would (or the writers would ) like (us) to believe.
In fact, by season 4, Rick has developed a nasty habit of killing living people.
This is a pretty easy thing to if your morals are ambiguous.
Because TV. That’s why.
Seriously, the reason why Rick Grimes is so willing to kill the living is because Rick’s ethics are no longer grounded in the distinction between the moral rules dictating what is morally good and what is morally bad. Ok, remember when Rick told the racist (and soon-to-be mono-handed) redneck Merle Dixon that distinctions among races no longer exist; there are no more black and white people; only the living and the dead?
Well, like race, in a world populated by the living dead, morals are no longer distinct. Good guys like Rick do bad things and bad guys like The Governor do good things. So much so that it’s hard to tell who is good and who is evil.
We are supposed to be morally offended at Claimer Joe’s ethic of teaching a liar a lesson “all the way”, but we commend Joe for doing the right thing and defending Daryl against Claimer Len’s false accusations. That makes Joe a good guy, right? But then, when Joe and the Claimers threaten to kill Rick and rape Carl and Michonne, Joe is a bad guy again.
Kind of confusing if you let it get to you.
Here’s the thing, though: we’re supposed to think that Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors are good people (certainly better than the cannibals at Terminus or at Phillip Blake’s (aka the Governor) who ruthlessly turns his weapon on his own people), but how can we think that Rick or his actions are good when we see Rick and his group massacre (a bad thing) the survivors of Terminus? Or when Rick’s loosely-rooted morality enables him to kill the living like this:
And like this
And like this
And like this
And like this
And like this
And like this
And finally, in the season 5 mid-season finale, like this
Mind you, Rick kills the cannibal (by necessity) Gareth even as Gareth begs for his life.
Now, some folks may have no problem with Rick Grimes’ actions. They still believe that he’s a good guy. But think about it: can we to simply shrug off Rick’s actions because we think he’s doing what is best for his group; because his actions are in service to the greater good?
Because all those other bad guys – they’re trying to serve the greater good, too.
Even Officer Dawn Lerner says so.
This got me thinking; Is Rick really more morally certain (i.e. morally right) than the Governor? More certain than the cannibals at Terminus? Than Joe and the Claimers? Or more morally certain than Eugene Porter who lied to save his own life?
Can we tell?
Ok, I know. I know what you’re thinking. I’ve got this all You’re thinking the problem on The Walking Dead isn’t moral ambiguity. Well, for starters, you’re probably right.
The appearance of moral ambiguity on The Walking Dead may not be that Rick Grimes has succumbed to Walter White syndrome; it may be nothing more than the product of sloppy writing.
Gee, I hope not.
After all, Rick Grimes isn’t very much like Don Draper or Walter White. However, any fan of the show is bound to notice that there has been a noticeable moral shift in Rick Grimes. Rick’s moral certainty seems less assured now than it did at the beginning of the series. It’s clear that Rick is more than willing to cross the moral line, even in situations when it seems that Rick is clearly doing the wrong thing.
It is exactly in the space between moral certainty and moral nihilism that we see Rick Grimes headed towards. It’s why we find – ok, why some of us find – Rick Grimes such a compelling television character.
Someone explain to me how killing one of the “good” cops benefits the situation, again?
In the end, whether Rick’s moral shift is television’s finest example of rule utilitarianism or some other ethical theory (or bad writing), the manifestation of moral flexibility (or moral degradation) to the point of moral ambiguity is worth thinking about – not just in the fictional world of a zombie apocalypse, but in the real world where we often feel that we can no longer easily navigate what is morally right versus what is the morally wrong thing to do.
But I’m sure that by the next half season Rick will be fully morally functional and none of this will make any sense whatsoever.
…. If it doesn’t make sense already.