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.
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?
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.