The Permissibility of Killing Zombies

Kyle Munkittrick answers the vitally important question: is it ethical to kill zombies?

Now I dislike the Walking Dead, but I did sort of like one aspect. I half-watch it while my husband watches, and I believe one character refuses to kill his relatives who have turned into zombies, since he wouldn’t kill a relative who lost her mind. And, well, you know, that actually is an ethical issue that would come up were there zombies.

I agree with Munkittrick that the phase of infection and the possibility of regaining human consciousness are relevant in the way he describes. But he’s wrong on dignity of the body:

Whether you’re a consequentialist arguing the social impacts of disregarding the emotions of kin or a Kantian arguing the inherent dignity of the human form, there is a strong case that a human body deserves respect. The question as to what one can do to a zombified body are then called into question. I shouldn’t mutilate a corpse, therefore I shouldn’t damage an animated corpse, which is a problem when that corpse wants to gobble my brains.

The resolution is acknowledging that being zombified is itself a desecration of a corpse. I use the ideal of an open-casket funeral to judge whether or not a certain behavior reduces the dignity of a corpse. A moaning, mindless meat-seeking monster attempting to escape the coffin to disembowel those come to mourn it would reduce the dignity of said corpse.

I agree with the general idea on either a consequentialist or Kantian view, desecration of the human body is to be avoided. But the resolution does not lie in declaring the corpse already desecrated. What if there were a zombie virus that made the corpse especially good-looking and dapper. Even better than in life, with a spring in the step and renewed vitality! Surely it would still be permissible to kill the snazzy zombie.

The resolution is simpler: the right to (or benefits of) preservation of our life trumps the dignity of the corpse, on both a Kantian and consequentialist view.

Now, a question for another time: is it permissible to kill philosophical zombies?

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. In a remarkable coincidence, I just formed a rock band called Snazzy Zombie. Look for our first single, “Puttin’ on the Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaains” on iTunes soon.

  2. “The resolution is simpler: the right to (or benefits of) preservation of our life trumps the dignity of the corpse…”

    I believe Capt. Reynolds and the crew of Serenity proved this (in the movie, not the show).

    • There was no movie after “Firefly”. There WASN’T!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I can’t hear you — lalalalalala…

      • Shall I take this to mean you didn’t like Serenity? Because, even though the Reavers scared the ever-living crap out of me, I totally loved that movie.

        • You take it correctly that I hated the non-existant movie. Cheap deeaths for the sake of cheap deaths, retread of a plot done much better (“Objects in Space”), just UGH!

          Even the origin of the Reavers left me cold. Blergh.

  3. If you come across a zombie who’s not currently attacking anyone, is it ethical to kill him/her anyway, on the assumption that s/he’ll be attacking someone eventually?

    • Yes, this is a crucial question! I take it that since the zombie is no longer in any sense a person, but a corpse, that it is permissible to kill her before she is currently attacking someone. The desecration of the corpse (which is what killing a zombie amounts to) is still trumped by non-imminent but near-certain harm. But a person who wanted to reduce moral risk to the absolute bottom should ideally wait until the zombie is indeed attacking someone.

      • Do we know that the zombie is wrong to attack this person? Maybe the attackee stole the zombies wallet. Maybe the zombie is attacking a terrorist. Maybe what looks like an attack is merely amorous play. We should probably wait until the zombie actually starts to eat… Oh. Damn.

  4. The resolution is simpler: the right to (or benefits of) preservation of our life trumps the dignity of the corpse, on both a Kantian and consequentialist view.

    On other views as well. I wouldn’t call the desecration of a corpse an intrinsically immoral act–an act that is immoral in any and all circumstances.

  5. I’m just glad that someone is addressing these thorny ethical questions.

  6. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, the question becomes is it morally and unethically wrong to waste ammo killing zombies which could easily be put down using a crowbar or a baseball bat (aluminum, of course; modern wooden bats are far too fragile to withstand repeating bashings against skulls)?

    • Not sure about morally or ethically wrong, but my experience playing Resident Evil tells me that it’s strategically wrong.

  7. And it occurs to me that another reason that the corpse-is-already-desecrated resolution doesn’t work – surely it’s still immoral to further desecrate and already-desecrated corpse.

    • I think the point is that blowing a zombie’s brains out actually makes the corpse LESS desecrated. Even a dismembered corpse is less descerated than one which is animated and hungers for human flesh.

      • Maybe. But that really stretches the concept of desecration. And it doesn’t really seem like it’s permissible because we’re doing it for the zombie’s sake. It doesn’t seem like euthanasia (if we’re able to contain all of them, should we execute them?). It seems like we’re doing it for self-preservation. Which is totally morally legit!

  8. If only we could genetically alter the zombie hordes to eat weeds and trash alongside our great highways and byways like so many goats, instead of lusting for human brains, the zombie might be put to some productive use. This might raise ethical considerations of its own.

  9. What if they aren’t actually dead?
    (referencing the original tales, which were about the black death. see dailykos’ halloween issue)

    • Then I take it they are still not persons, where person means an agent worthy of inclusion in the moral community. So it’s okay to kill them.

      It really depends on what other mental states zombies have. If they are pure stimulus-response, it’s not all that different from killing a thermostat….or maybe a bug. I’m assuming they are not phenomenally conscious, that they don’t have emotions (I don’t consider desire an emotion), that they don’t experience pain or suffering, that they are not self-aware. Which amounts to basically no personhood.

      If they do have any of these things, then they are more clearly candidates for personhood. And then you’re on higher moral ground waiting for the zombie to attack you first. Because it’s permissible, of course, even to kill a paradigm person who is currently attacking you.

      I don’t think a just war theory is going to work, since zombies are not a legitimate state authority. But maybe if the zombies showed themselves to be centrally organized!

      • Also, that zombies don’t have a future like ours (to borrow Don Marquis’s phrase). THat is, that they will never revert.

  10. Assuming we’re all on the same page about the ethics of killing zombies, may I suggest a more productive tack:

    Zombies as a cheap and plentiful labor source.

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