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Doing the right thing: ethics in the Zombie Apocalypse [video]

From popular television shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones to countless films, video games, and comics, stories of the Zombie Apocalypse have captivated modern audiences. With horror and fascination, we watch, read, and imagine the decimation of human society as we know it at the hands of the undead. As human civilization comes to an end with the Zombie Apocalypse, so does our existing code of ethics. In a world that now lacks order, our traditional conception of what is right and what is wrong is immediately thrown into question. We sat down with Greg Garrett, author of Living with the Living Dead, to discuss what ethics look like in the Zombie Apocalypse and how zombie films and literature force us to examine our modern system of values.

The man and the boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road have a running conversation about the ethics of the apocalypse. They agree that it’s wrong to consume their fellow human beings at any time, but the boy struggles with some of his father’s other guidance because in the course of their daily lives, they sometimes must make choices that seem to violate their code. When they take food or possessions they find on the road, the boy needs to be reassured that the people who own them are dead, that they are not simply stealing from others who are in need as they are. He even wants to hear that those owners would want them to take it. Yes, his father reassures him. They would. Just like we would want them to if the situation were reversed. Because we’re the good guys, and so were they. Still, the boy has a child’s unbending moral code and sense of fairness. “If you break little promises you’ll break big ones,” the boy reminds his father. “That’s what you said.” And on their journey, as they try simultaneously to find food and avoid becoming someone else’s meal, promises get broken.

When the man shoots a stranger who has threatened them, the boy is covered with his blood, a visual representation of the guilt that splashes across them both. The man is not a killer, but as he tells the boy, he will do whatever he has to keep him alive: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” This does not mean that the man has not also been affected by the killing; it simply means that he has made an ethical concession common to the Zombie Apocalypse. Just as Wichita in Zombieland says that she will do anything to keep her sister alive, many “good” characters in these zombie narratives do things they would never have done under less extreme circumstances. They compromise moral beliefs. They become more fearful, more calculating, more suspicious than they would wish, all in service of keeping themselves and those they love alive. Like the man, they have this mission, and within reason, they will do whatever it takes to survive. As Shane tells Rick in the “18 Miles Out” episode of season two of The Walking Dead, “You can’t just be the good guy and expect to live.” For many of the survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse the difficult choices arise out of that formulation: You can do the right thing, or what once was the right thing.

Or you can be dead.

The seventeenth-century British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes placed fear at the heart of his understanding of governments and of individual human behavior; for Hobbes, survival was the paramount human drive, and nothing could be worse than a world unraveled by war, the threat of violence, or, one supposes, an overrunning horde of the walking dead. In such a world, Hobbes wrote in his hugely influential work Leviathan, there can be “No Arts; No Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” For those in The Road, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and many other stories of the Zombie Apocalypse, this is an accurate accounting of the life they can expect: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Who would not be afraid in such a world? Continual fear, Hobbes concludes, is worse than all other calamities, and fear drives people to compromises and actions they might not otherwise take.

Featured image credit: “monster-spooky-horror-creepy-weird” by markusspiske. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Tucker Lieberman

    There are recent psychological investigations into how we as individuals don’t have a single stable “character”; our character is largely a product of our immediate situation, more so than we like to admit. This raises questions about our responsibility to engineer social and political situations to promote and elicit good behavior from a majority of people. That may be more effective than preaching what people ought to do when certain situations happen to arise. You can instead design the situations that make certain behaviors more natural and obvious.

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