Are Zombies People? — The Morality of Zombies

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An unusual question rings its ugly head.  Earlier this week, I had a discussion with a guy who believed that morality in a post-zombie-apocalypse world was absolute.  That is that the lines are clearly drawn:  zombies are bad, humans are good, and “killing” zombies is not a moral issue.  There are huge problems with this line of thinking, not least because it ignores the problems with “killing” zombies that arise in many zombie films and stories.  It is also disconcerting, since the very rhetoric used to justify this pure moral position is the same rhetoric used to justify slavery and discrimination against minority groups.

To start, I think it’s important to note that many zombie films/books do not subscribe to a purist moral model.  There are often huge conflicts between the act of “killing” a zombie and the people
who perform it, despite the recognition by the characters that zombies have no such compunction.  The problem with zombies is their origins:  at their worst, they are/were our loved ones (mothers, fathers, children, best friends, wives, husbands, etc.); at their best, they are/were people who might have lived next door or that we didn’t know at all, but former-people nonetheless.  Hesitation is usually a narrative conflict in zombie stories, and most recently in The Walking Dead.  One of the first characters we meet in The Walking Dead (the TV show) is a man (and his son) who is being followed by his zombie wife.  We watch him (and his son) struggle with the prospect of “putting her down,” and there is one particularly gutting scene where the man tries for several minutes to bring himself to shoot his wife in the head from a window.  He recognizes that his wife is not “his wife” anymore.  She is a zombie.  She will eat him and his son without hesitation.  But he also cannot let go of the past (i.e., who she used to be, the life they used to have, and so on).  These are frequent themes in zombie stories, but ones that I think are relevant to the problem of personhood.

Not as good as I would have liked…

To suggest that “killing” zombies is not a moral issue–i.e., that doing so poses no more of a problem than shooting a bear that is attacking you–is an attempt to ignore what zombies “used to be”:  people.  In the discussion I mentioned above, it was frequently said that “zombies are not people,” and do not have the rights afforded to people (defined here as sapient beings).  When pressed on this matter, he suggested that mentally handicapped people are considered “people” by definition of being “human,” but that zombies are not, since they are not human.  But the problem with zombies (most recent incarnations, at least) is that they are, in fact, still physically and, in part, mentally human.  One might suggest that zombie-ism is a kind of mental disability, but one brought on by a virus or other chemical/biological infections (or, in rare cases, the supernatural; some infections in the real world have led to mental disability, of course).  From a genetic perspective, zombies are as human as the rest of us.  Since human beings are made up of hundreds of species of bacteria, viruses, and so on, only a portion of our bodies are made of “human” material anyway.  Zombies are no different.  Their minds may be governed by natural impulses, but they remain human underneath.  Humans, of course, are also governed by natural impulses; it could be said that zombies have a ramped up metabolism which drives them to one-directional feeding compulsions, which is something humans sometimes do to themselves to burn calories and lose weight (in the form of pills).  The line between zombie and human, then, is a fuzzy one, if not impossible to mark.

Gross…

If we include “human by default, but not sapient” into the category of personhood, then it seems logical that zombies would also be included.  They may be dangerous people, but that, too, is no different from members of our “normal” species (i.e., murderers, rapists, etc.).  And if zombies are people–even undesirable people–then it poses serious issues for the formation of morality in post-zombie-apocalypse worlds.  The uninfected have to learn to be hard, not just in terms of having to sacrifice their old-world luxuries for the new-world of manual labor, but also in terms of learning how to cope with destroying the lingering figures of the past.  Some of us may adjust more effectively than others, which says more about human coping mechanisms than it does about one’s prior mental state, but adjustment is unavoidable.  The fact that we have to cope, regardless of how we do so, suggests that the destruction of zombies is, in fact, a moral problem.  Surviving a zombie world might mean learning how to shut down our internal (memory-based) moral “nerves,” because as much as I am trying to deconstruct the notion of zombies as “non-moral agents, the killing of which is a-OK,” I also recognize that killing zombies is necessary for the survival of the uninfected.  It would be akin to killing a murderer who has broken into your house and threatened your family.  You must learn to cope with your own act of murder, despite your understanding that doing so was necessary for your own preservation.  And if zombies are people, then they are nothing more than beings with “murder” on the mind.  They are the ultimate serial killers.

Other questions should be asked at this point, but I’ll leave them unanswered at the end of this post for now.  Feel free to tackle them in the comments (or what I’ve written above):

Is mass “killing” zombies considered genocide?  Why or why not?  Is it possible to change the framework of human morality (i.e., to permanently cope) so that zombie “killing” is no different than shooting deer for hunters?  How would we manage this?  Is it desirable, even in a post-zombie-apocalypse world?

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Note:  You might want to check out The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell, which looks at morality in a post-zombie-apocalypse world in a very unique way.  I reviewed the novel here and interviewed Mr. Bell here.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

10 thoughts on “Are Zombies People? — The Morality of Zombies

  1. I don't think you can even ask the question, let alone consider the morality thereof, without defining what you mean by 'zombie'.

    In the classic sense, zombies are reanimated corpses, and thus by definition 'not people'. Dealing with this kind of zombie may have be an extremely emotive issue (as in your example of a former loved one), but I'm not sure it's a moral one.

    In much modern zombie fiction, the supernatural is replaced with some form of 'infection'. The 'person/not person' question (and associated moral issues) would, I think, depend to a large extent on the nature of this infection. Specifically, whether or not it's curable.

  2. Why are reanimated corpses not people? Saying they aren't doesn't mean that they aren't. To do so, you'd have to provide a logical argument for why they are no longer human. Otherwise, you're arbitrarily applying non-personhood to a group of genetically-human beings based on their living status.

    The next question, then, is this: why does the curability of an infection change the status of personhood for non-supernatural zombies? Do people who are infected with other viral agents lose their personhood by dint of being infected?

  3. I agree with AndyB, though I think there is more to it: the definition of "zombie" is absolutely important, because the other side of that question is "what is a person?". Both must be defined, explicitly, and the answers shift with the details.

    Most importantly though, the question of zombie-killing morality does not hinge on "are zombies people?". To date, we know of no LARGE MASS of people that a) are predatory AND homicidal toward ALL other living things without recourse, reason, or pause, b) have no obvious capacity for reasoning or compromise (the "obvious" is important because we can't depend on specialists to save the lives of everyone in the world from moment to moment zombie attacks – it must be something your average joe can conceivably accomplish otherwise the killing of zombies is self-defense in most cases), c) can spread the infection and/or the unreasoning homicidal state of mind like a virus, thereby threatening the entire non-zombie human species.

    No people as we define as people today can be all of the above (only in our fiction). For this reason, "being a person" logically allows for certain rights that, by granting them, does not inarguably threaten our existence on an extinction-level scale. Zombies, but virtually all their definitions, do. This would change our outlook that "being a person" granted these rights by default, because suddenly "a person" would be capable of a threat far more overwhelming than they reasonably are today and in reality.

    The easiest way to linguistically say this is to say that "zombies aren't people" when speaking of ethical self-defense. That isn't to say they aren't biologically close to us, or even the same damn thing give-or-take. But the concept of self-defense take on a new ethical dimension when a threat as wide as zombies are concerned.

    It's not about making zombies akin to deer – deer are not a immediate, physical threat (save for over-breeding, but even that hinges on the debate of our over-populating ourselves to make deer population wreck havoc with our own). It's about understanding what the THREAT of zombies are (which is unique to humankind, and contains added dimensions that killers, rapists, etc. do not have), not what their social status might be if put on a census report.

  4. Dave: The problem with defining a "person" is that the barometer that we often use (i.e., the law) is inconsistent. For example (see Mary Midgley for this), a corporation is legally a person, but certain animals are not (dolphins and apes, for example). The law has also denied personhood to various groups under the assumption that granting them the "luxury" of being called a person would be detrimental to society. Sure, women and black people are not zombies, but they did, at one point in time, represent a threat to "civil society" near to the same magnitude. The law also only grants partial personhood to children, since they are allowed to testify, but are also not allowed to form decisions for themselves.

    From a personal perspective, most of the folks reading this blog probably subscribe to some variation of "humans are people, and that's it." Some of us might include certain animals based on their intelligence level, but would be unable to describe what that level is (how do you measure intelligence in any meaningful way while accounting for the variables?).

    Now moving on to the other bits:
    Other persons have been responsible for mass genocide, massive wars, and so on. We are constantly threatened by destruction. The species of Homo sapiens sapiens has literally put itself at the edge of extinction by its own volition. This is no different from zombies except in terms of how zombies go about their production of extinction. And we would destroy a zombie in much the same way we would destroy an invading army.

    Morality absolutely is tied to personhood in this case. We're talking about destroying biologically-human beings for self-preservation, yes, but to suggest that doing so somehow is separate from destroying an invading army (that is that it doesn't represent the moral conundrum or problem of destroying enemies) is to ignore what zombies actually are. (That very rhetoric is the same logic used to justify institutionalized racism, slavery, and other forms of discrimination. It's the rhetoric that says "you are a threat to my existence, and so I deny you personhood, even though you're human")

    It's not so much about rights as it is about recognizing what zombies are (us, our loved ones, etc.), what we must become to dispense with them (genocidal killers), and how we deal with that knowledge, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. The fact that zombie fiction/films constantly deal with this in entirely moral ways (i.e., people hesitating to destroy a zombie because they recognize its past personhood) seems to confirm that this is, in fact, a moral issue.

    Now, that doesn't mean that killing zombies is necessarily "wrong." It would not be wrong to destroy an invading army (in my opinion). I don't think most people would say otherwise. But it does mean that we don't get off without moral/emotional damage from committing genocide.

    Now that's what I've got. What about you? πŸ˜›

  5. I agree that the definition of "person", especially in regards to granting rights/freedoms runs largely political and never makes coherent sense until you consider that the motivation IS political. Which means the definition of "person" is (poetically) personal, which in some ways makes sense because ethics, in action, are personal as well, no matter how impersonal/objective we try to philosophize them to be.

    That part I'm with you 100%. I also believe that it's fair to argue that "zombies are people". Just as it's arguable that many/most living things should be "people" in the sense that they're individual lives that should have the same rights as we do. The line is a very migraine-inducing one to determine case-by-case, but it absolutely is the single most important question we encounter as an ethical/moral species.

    But back to zombies and your arguments on why the threat of zombies is similar to other threats by other "persons":

    You say: "Other persons have been responsible for mass genocide, massive wars, and so on. We are constantly threatened by destruction."

    I say: true, but no matter who much we may characterize other people as "mindless, genocidal maniacs", in the case of zombies this is definite – they are mindless, unreasoning, offering us no possibility for compromise or non-violent solutions. The morality of killing other violent persons is that there is arguably a non-violent solution. Even more to the point, a non-violent solution may lead to a diffusion of the entire threat (alliance, or one leader eventually dies to be replaced by another less volatile – this isn't assured, but it is possible, and therefore any solution that denies this possibility is arguably unethical). But zombies do not offer this. There is no other solution, unless there is. If there is, then yes, it should be considered on the ground of ethics. But in most zombie stories, this non-violent alternative does not exist due to the fundamentally (and all-encompassing) unreasoning nature of the zombie.

    You say: "The species of Homo sapiens sapiens has literally put itself at the edge of extinction by its own volition."

    No human beings have yet in truth but the entire species on the "edge of extinction". We have very deadly weapons that worry us. We've killed millions in wars. None of these have ever threatened species-level extinction without control. Even with nuclear weapons, everyone has to "push the button" to administer a world-wide event. With zombies, we could kick back and do nothing and it would still happen, slowly but surely.

    You say: "This is no different from zombies except in terms of how zombies go about their production of extinction. And we would destroy a zombie in much the same way we would destroy an invading army."

    Not true: the difference is in what WE can do about it, not how the zombies do it. OUR choices are what we're dissecting, but this hinges on what the zombies allow us in terms of choices. And while yes, we would destroy them like any invading army (well, kind of, they wouldn't be organized in any way like a true invading army, which increases their threat), we'd destroy like an invading alien army we could not communicate with and who seemed to have no interest except in killing us. Once we realized this, yes, we'd shrug and just start killing back. What other recourse is there?

    P.S. – we would likely have specialists TRYING to find ways to communicate, as the less we have to fight the less of our own are killed, but things change only when we discover a way to do this, and not one second before.

    More to come….

  6. You say: "Morality absolutely is tied to personhood in this case. We're talking about destroying biologically-human beings for self-preservation, yes, but to suggest that doing so somehow is separate from destroying an invading army (that is that it doesn't represent the moral conundrum or problem of destroying enemies) is to ignore what zombies actually are."

    It seems to me that the reverse is true: that harping on the "personhood" of zombies, true or not, is ignoring what zombies actually are as laid out in my first comment yesterday. This is not a political stance full of unsupported or solipsistic allegations on how such-and-such a race will take away our jobs, pollute our bloodlines, and destabilize our society, etc., etc. Or how their government abuse is so much more of a danger than our own government abuse. This is a threat which is, as I pointed out in my first comment, a threat which "persons" have never been able to achieve. Yes, one person today might be homicidally violent, or unreasoning/unable to be reasoned with, or fatally contagious with a disease that has no cure and "kills" swiftly. But none are all of the above, with a systematic spread, except zombies. That IS a threat level unheard of in human existence to date. It changes how we'd have to respond. It's not wordplay on "threat" or "person". And it's certainly not about a "threat to society", which is always subjective because society is not an unchanging organism.

    You say: "(That very rhetoric is the same logic used to justify institutionalized racism, slavery, and other forms of discrimination. It's the rhetoric that says "you are a threat to my existence, and so I deny you personhood, even though you're human")"

    Yes, but just because rhetoric is picked up to justify horrific activities, doesn't mean concepts of self-preservation, self-defense, and threats to personal existence don't exist. Just as there are true elements of society that threaten economic growth and the well-being of the lower and middle classes, even though the rhetoric is used largely to vilify minorities and, frankly, politically useful things to vilify.

    Plenty of people have very clear-headedly thought through "threats to our society" and suggested unbiased and theoretically successful ways to combat these "threats". The fact that these suggestions are ignored does not mean that considering these threats as threats is an unethical thing. It means that ignoring the alternative non-biased, non-violent, non-vitriolic solutions is the unethical thing.

    So: IS there a non-violent alternative to zombies? We'd have to devote time, effort, and resources to caging them against their will, feeding them synthetic food (otherwise we're feeding them other living beings, which could be seen as unethical), and all to preserve an entire organism that does not give back anything to life as whole. And their existence continually does remain a possible future threat.

    Zombies, for all their human bodies (or other animal bodies, come to that) are closest to a viral threat in action and inability to communicate. And we never hesitate to exterminate a virus/germ to extinction when possible.

    More soon….

  7. You say: "It's not so much about rights as it is about recognizing what zombies are (us, our loved ones, etc.), what we must become to dispense with them (genocidal killers), and how we deal with that knowledge, whether we want to acknowledge it or not."

    This is virtually a religious argument, unfortunately. Is a dead body "our loves ones, etc."? If you're of a religion that believes so, then yes. If you're not, then they're not. And either way, if a loved one started trying to kill you relentlessly without cause or explanation and would not stop until you killed them, you may mourn later (because whether you kill the zombie body or not, the "loved one" is gone insofar as interaction and life with them is concerned), but it is a direct survival concern until they are dead. This, again, is not a "mentality" of seeing threats in things that are different. You can't "not provoke" a zombie or try to understand them (unless you can, but most zombie fiction does not allow for this).

    You say: "The fact that zombie fiction/films constantly deal with this in entirely moral ways (i.e., people hesitating to destroy a zombie because they recognize its past personhood) seems to confirm that this is, in fact, a moral issue."

    I disagree. I think it's more a focus on how we'd deal with getting around what is – until the moment of zombies becoming reality – a moral issue. It's a sudden, jarring, instant call for a shift in moral judgment if one wants to survive. Because five seconds ago zombies were not a reality, not even a possible one.

    Morality, like society, is not immutable. It changes constantly, usually the one shifting alongside the other, because morality is always determined within the framework of a society. No matter how "liberal" you try to stretch your moral thinking, it can only go so far as you're starting within a framework/structure that informs all that you cogitate.

    Look at how slow morality is to shift when, say, women's rights or African-American rights were gained. DECADES of people still trying to deny what a new moral shift said they were wrong to deny. Now imagine having to shift your morality overnight. For most, it's not going to happen. This is commentary on our moral inflexibility, more than the nature of morality in relation to zombies objectively.

    You say: "Now, that doesn't mean that killing zombies is necessarily "wrong." It would not be wrong to destroy an invading army (in my opinion). I don't think most people would say otherwise. But it does mean that we don't get off without moral/emotional damage from committing genocide."

    That depends on you moral flexibility πŸ˜› I would see zombies – barring the ability to reason with them and/or cure them in any way – as viruses in human containers. Those human bodies, without the capacity to reason or be reasoned with, and unable to be cured of their need to kill us and spread the virus, would be simply a animated bodies, animated by a virus. The virus is what I'd be killing. The person is already dead. Some may wonder if there was another way, or worry that they nevertheless "killed" the person they once knew. But if there is no alternative at the moment of fight-or-flight, then there is no moral dilemma. That's not to say there is no morality concerning this – just no dilemma.

  8. "Why are reanimated corpses not people?"

    Because they, at least the classic Romero type, are not conscious, self-aware beings. There are computer game AI routines with significantly more sophistication and learning ability, but they're not people either. =)

    "The next question, then, is this: why does the curability of an infection change the status of personhood for non-supernatural zombies? Do people who are infected with other viral agents lose their personhood by dint of being infected?"

    You've almost answered the first question with the second – because, in my view, the kind of 'infection' seen in a lot of modern zombie fiction turns the victim into some that is no longer human. Now, if that change is reversible, the moral issues associated with killing them become much more complex. If, on the other hand, the changes are permanent, then the morality becomes somewhat less murky. At least in my opinion. =)

    To take a real world example, if your dog becomes rabid, it may still be a dog in a technical sense, but is no longer *your* dog – indeed, by attacking the brain and nervous system, the disease renders it incapable of being so, and in the second 'excitative' stage of the disease it is as likely to bite you as anything else that gets too close.

    Not only is putting your former best friend down the only sensible option at this stage, but it's also the moral option, as by doing so you are saving it from a horrific and painful death from paralysis and respiratory arrest.

    Of course, that doesn't mean that ending the life of your pet isn't a hard and painful experience, which leads me to…

    "The fact that zombie fiction/films constantly deal with this in entirely moral ways (i.e., people hesitating to destroy a zombie because they recognize its past personhood) seems to confirm that this is, in fact, a moral issue."

    I'm afraid we see these kind of 'hesitation' scenes quite differently. I don't think the difficulty that characters tend to have in these situations lies in and intellectual question of whether it's right or wrong, but in the conflict between their intellect(which knows it's the right thing to do) and their emotions (which make them *feel* like it's the wrong thing because the zombie looks like a person, especially in the case of a person they love).

    Of course, just my 2 cents, and your mileage apparently varies. =)

  9. SMD, Andy B, Dave B

    I have been puzzling over this issue myself. Personally I think it boils down to a few concepts one is left to grapple with.

    1) a zombie's capacity for reason and communication
    2) a zombie's potential to be cured and/or taught.
    3) a zombie's attributes outside of the collective-unconsciousness that comes from being swept into a herd mentality.

    Some may suggest that a zombie is by definition devoid of a capacity for reason – if so what is the criteria by which one measures that capacity? To me this reasoning has to get to question of who has more to give in a post-apocalyptic world trying to rebuild, if it is merely a primal fight for survival – what put's a "humans" right to exist above a "zombies" ?

    Is there a cure? If all they need is a sustainable food source, do they have the capacity to be taught the skills needed to feed themselves? If they have this capacity, and you have the knowledge is it your duty to teach them?

    Perhaps 1 or 2 zombies used to be biochemists – and could find a cure to the virus – but when in a larger group the herd mentality takes over – what should be a response in that situation?

    How does one avoid killing zombie's indiscriminately?

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