Zombies Show the Limits of Our Ethics

Zombies: a danger to our ethical systems

I’m glad to see Rose Woodhouse giving philosophers a good name by discussing the permissibility of killing zombies.  It’s an important question, not because zombies might actually exist, but precisely because they represent what our ethical theories typically frame as non-existent and therefore ignore or exclude.  When zombies meander hungrily within our ethical horizons, even if only in our imagination, our ethical thought is faced with its own limitations.  I imagine Derrida would have liked zombie narratives for just this reason.

My favorite zombie moment may be from a Halloween episode of The Simpsons.   Zombies have overrun the city of Springfield.  The Simpson clan, led by a shotgun-armed homer, flee their house.  As they approach their car, their neighbor and Homer’s nemesis Flanders appears and, if memory serves, says something about nibbling Homer’s ear.  Homer blows him away.  “Dad, you killed Zombie Flanders!” Bart says, astonished.  “He was a zombie?” Homer asks.

The scene is funny because in the real world of The Simpsons, Homer despises Ned Flanders and is obsessively resentful of Flanders’ success, life, and happiness.  He wouldn’t kill Flanders, not in any normal circumstance, but then a zombie apocalypse ain’t normal.  It’s a disaster that’s not part of “the plan,” as the Joker in The Dark Knight would say, and so people panic and forsake their morals to an extent they wouldn’t when faced with a horror that at least makes sense in light of history or normalcy. Wars, poverty, Republicans–these evils happen and are expected, and ethics can chart discernible courses in view of them.  Zombies don’t happen, except when they do and all hell breaks loose.  Then we find out how limited and frail our ethical systems really are.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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22 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    It is this kind of thinking, I suppose, that justifies the murder of a bin Laden; or, to bring it closer to home, capital punishment.

      • Rodak says:

        We simply make bin Laden, or a convicted murderer, the equivalent of a zombie: “dead to us” and then elminate them, as such. Isn’t it the same mechanism?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          That’s a problem, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the line of thought I’m taking in this post.

          • Rodak says:

            No. I would assume that you’re making the opposite point. I was simply analogizing the point I thought you were making, so that it would apply to real situations, involving living human beings, instead of to zombies. If some people can be treated as no differently than zombies, then we are living in the village of the damned.

          • Rodak says:

            “When zombies meander hungrily within our ethical horizons, even if only in our imagination, our ethical thought is faced with its own limitations.”

            Insert “Islamoterrorists” where you’ve written “zombies” and you’ll see why we are already in the equivalent of a “zombie apocalypse.”

  2. Sam says:

    A couple of thoughts:1. I think Homer dislikes Flanders not because he’s resentful of his success, life, and happiness, but rather because he’s a high-strung, judgmental jerk. (Your description is basically straight out of the Mitt Romney’s description of his opponents playbook. Ned and Homer live in the same neighborhood, are both married, both have children, both attend the same church, etc. One of them is sanctimonious and the other isn’t. That’s the difference.)2. Why would it be immoral to shoot a zombie? Within the lore of zombies, those human beings aren’t coming back. Zombies don’t revert, don’t get better, don’t heal. In a few films, they can be controlled (in Shaun of the Dead most notably) but in general, the understanding is that once zombification has occurred, that isn’t a person that’s coming back. 3. You are right to discuss what we’d be willing to do to our fellow man to survive. But if we did anything other than put down zombies with great prejudice, I’d argue that our ethical systems were already broken. 

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      1. I agree that Ned’s sanctimony contributes to Homer’s dislike of him, but there are occasions in which Homer shows us his enviousness.

      2. I would say it is morally just fine to shoot a zombie. I wouldn’t hesitate.

      3. My interest here is less the ethics of killing zombies and more how the “visitation” of zombies disrupts our normal ethical calculations.

  3. Fnord says:

    Wars, poverty, Republicans–these evils happen and are expected, and ethics can chart discernible courses in view of them. Zombies don’t happen, except when they do and all hell breaks loose.

    That doesn’t seem right. I see no reason why devising ethical guidelines for a zombie apocalypse is impossible. It might not be a good use of time, given how unlikely a zombie apocalypse is, but it’s certainly possible. Ethics might break down in the heat of the moment (as demonstrated, fictionally, in that example). But ethics can also break down in those other extreme circumstances. As you say, ethics can anticipate wars and provide guidelines for behavior in a warzone. But that hardly means that people in a warzone will always act ethically, even if those same people would act ethically in civilized society. Does that mean our ethics are fragile? I guess that depends on what you mean by “fragile”.

    • Fnord says:

      Eww. That’s not very readable.What happened to my line breaks?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Oh, it’s possible, it’s just not typically done because the ethical problems poses by zombies are not typically considered.

      Every ethical system has its limits. Virtue ethics, for example, focuses on the acting agent. An ethics of rights or obligation, on the other hand, focuses on the other.

      The zombie narrative is useful because it helps us see that there are ethical possibilities beyond the horizons of our thought and consideration. There are possible situations which our ethical theories are ill equipped to address.

      • Rose says:

        I like that 28 Days later sort of addressed this. Not in terms of our obligations to zombies, but the army guys posited that since there was a zombie apocalypse, all ethical bets were off and rape was on the table. Our good guys knew that ethics should be preserved in a zombie apocalypse.

        • Patrick Cahalan says:

          Once you’re out of the State of Nature, there’s no turning back, come hell or Zombie Apocalypse.

        • BSK says:

          I think that had to do with a larger societal breakdown. It was not that the presence of zombies suddenly made rape okay. But that the damage done to society, which at that point was believed to be humanity’s near exitinction, justified rape to help it continue. The “good guy” was opposed to the rape but went on a murderous rampage to stop it and seemed indistinguishable from the infected in doing so. Also, he had an emotional attachment to the potential victims, which changes the moral calculus a bit. All this is to say that it wasn’t that simple a good guy/bad guy thing, which is part of what made that movie so brilliant.

      • Fnord says:

        Considering zombies might well be a useful exercise, just as it could be in, eg, epidemiology. But I’m not seeing any major difficulties it poses that aren’t also present in other (realistic) scenarios, particularly wars, pandemics, and severe natural disasters.

        The Simpsons example isn’t an inherent flaw in any ethical system, other than “people don’t always act ethically”. In that regard, it’s no different from Abu Ghariab or any of the other countless atrocities committed in wars throughout history, despite wartime ethics being a significant subject of study.

        Perhaps you could be more specific about the unique problems you see zombies presenting.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I suppose the undead would pose a unique challenge to ethics, but unique problems are not the reason I raise the idea of zombies. Zombies are one example of what I might call the ethically unexpected. Every ethical system frames the world within boundaries established by its terms, but these terms are abstractions created by human beings to make sense of human action. We speak of virtues and rights and values and imperatives, for example. The temptation of ethics is to think that once we have the system down, all possible situations and circumstances are covered. Zombie narratives show us both that there can be previously unexpected ethical situations and that people hold on to their ethics more strongly when the world makes ethical sense. When the world is turned topsy-turvy, right and wrong are thrown into the air.

  4. BSK says:

    Have you read or scene the original “I Am Legend”? (I think the Heston film might have had a different name…)

    They touch on a similar subject, albeit with vampires in the place of zombies. By the end of the book, the protagonist has become the monsters. Vampires have created their own society (they’re much less monsterous than in the new movie) and this d-bag keeps going around and killing them in their sleep. A really fantastic story that not only turns the traditional story on its head but demonstrates the importance of perspective. If we can so quickly otherize and then kill a group, they can just as quickly do the same to us.

    All that being said, kill all the goddamn zombies! I have a completely irrational but very intense fear of zombies. No fishin’ around.

    • Patrick Cahalan says:

      The Omega Man (the Heston movie) is not like I Am Legend, the novella. In The Omega Man, the bad guys are more like smart zombies, and in I Am Legend, they’re more like vampires.

      But in The Omega Man, it’s clear you to have no sympathy for the smart zombies. Even though they’re not mindless braineating hordes.

      • BSK says:

        Thanks, PC. I fell asleep during The Omega Man, but I don’t remember the smart zombies being completely unsympathetic.

        The “28 Days Later” series (I believe a third installment is due this year) also tackles the zombie topic in a different way. Rather than viewing them as “undead”, they are considered to be infected. They are never actually named as zombies, but their behavior mimics the typical movie zombie. Many characters are in anguish when forced to kill a loved one who has become infected.

        Would I kill my wife/mother/father/brother/sister if they were a zombie? Such a hypoethical is almost impossible to answer, since I’m not realistically threatened with such a possibility… not even remotely. It might be easy to offer an answer, but that will be based on so many presumptions as to be meaningless. Zombies are not a reality for us. Thus, whatever ethics we draw up about them are inherently unreal.

        At least, I think that is what Kyle is getting at here.