The Ethical Zombie: Are Zombies Moral Persons?

*This post contains Walking Dead Season 2 and Warm Bodies spoilers*

Walking Dead is back for another exciting season and, as a result, I’ve got zombies on the brain. If you didn’t know it already, I wrote my undergrad thesis on the American zombie. In grad school, professors tend to ask me (rather, they question me) about it, curious to know why the living dead are so appealing to the masses. One professor in particular, an ethicist, really got me thinking when he asked about the ethical questions I had to address while writing my paper. I was pretty sure of myself and arrogantly explained that I had to talk about cannibalism, murder, rape—the usual problems in post-apocalyptic society. After I finished listing off ethical dilemmas in zombie narratives, my professor asked what I thought about the moral status of zombies themselves. Are zombies moral agents? Can they comprehend the complexities of moral decision making? Well, as it turns out, I’m not entirely sure.

On the surface, the obvious answer is no. Zombies are instinctual creatures. They aren't really even animals—more like a virus—and most American zombie writers tend to see it that way. Zombies aren't deserving of moral thought, because they simply aren't persons anymore. 

Robert Kirkman, author of the infamous Walking Dead graphic novel series, demonstrates that we live in a post-zombie world. That is, we live in a culture that's aware of the canon surrounding zombies and zombie stories. We know what zombies are and we know how they act. That’s why most zombie stories assume that we already know zombies are bad, and the characters within zombie stories know it, too. Few contemporary zombie stories begin with characters hesitating to kill zombies—they already know that zombies must be shot in the head, for example. When Walking Dead protagonist, Rick, wakes up from his coma, he comes upon several (un)dead beings. Although he can’t know that the world has been populated by the walking dead, he seems to quickly pick-up on this fact and immediately begins killing zombies willy-nilly. He doesn't wonder if they are thinking, living beings and he doesn't feel guilty after he defends himself against them. This approach to zombies is fairly common. I’m a self-proclaimed Zombie Scholar and even I accepted (without any investigation) that zombies lack personhood. But recent zombie narratives are beginning to address the question of zombie personhood as well as the ethics of killing zombies.

In season 2 of Walking Dead television series, Rick’s good-looking group (seriously, how do they all look so fresh?) settles at a farm utopia. All is fairly peaceful until Rick discovers that Hershel, the owner of the farm, has been storing live walkers in his barn. The series is heavily skewed to Rick’s point of view and so Hershel is made to look like an idiot for keeping walkers—among them infected family members—alive (well, as alive as walkers can be). But his reasoning isn't that crazy. He argues that walkers are suffering from an illness and that someday someone might discover a cure. Well, he’s correct, isn't he? In our society, we don't execute the sick/contagious or the violent (at least not in Canada). We try to rehabilitate and cure them so that they may eventually rejoin society. Of course, we keep violent persons locked away from the general public—just as Hershel does—until they 're able to safely participate in society again. 

Season 2 reinforces this ethical debate about personhood by including an abortion subplot. Lori discovers that she’s pregnant—the child might be Rick’s or it might be Shane’s, she’s not sure. With her marriage and survival at risk, she must decide whether or not to abort her fetus. After all, she doesn't have access to a hospital or medical care of any kind and, even if she did, a new baby would severely handicap her group. While Lori carefully ponders the ethicality of ending her pregnancy (even while her life and marriage are at risk) and eventually decides to have the baby, the “abortion” of the barn zombies isn't afforded such thoughtful deliberation: the personhood or potential personhood of zombies is easily dismissed when it comes right down to it.

The 2013 film, Warm Bodies, ridiculous as it was, doesn't appear to accept this common understanding of zombies. That is, it doesn't accept without question that zombies are—pardon the pun—“brainless.” Rather, it proposes that true human love can actually cure zombiehood. I often wondered why Warm Bodies would make such a corny assumption about the nature of zombies. Today, I suspect that this film’s underlying message reflects and reveals how much anxiety surrounds the existential question of personhood and humanism within zombie flicks. Zombie stories, like cyborg narratives, complicate the idea that the essence of humanity, the soul, exists. A zombie virus appears to immediately strip the human body of all personhood, leaving it as dead on the inside as it is on the outside. Undoubtedly, it makes us uncomfortable to think that our “essence” (our soul, if you will) could be so easily disemboweled—and perhaps that’s why zombies scare us. It really is no mistake that zombie narratives have little room for God or religion other than to imply that God has abandoned humankind altogether. Warm Bodies fights against this anxiety by arguing that the most essential human quality of all, love, can restore personhood and humanity. Interestingly, in Warm Bodies, once the zombie is able to love, it is also able to communicate through human language, another supposedly and uniquely human characteristic. Warm Bodies ambitiously takes the nihilism inherent in zombie narratives and reestablishes the idea of the human soul, making a pretty unscary and naive zombie movie that hipsters and romantics digested with ease.
Fact: Most zombies attend church regularly.
While both zombie narratives offer different (though entertaining) approaches to the question of “the ethical zombie,” it’s clear to me that both approaches are flawed. The contemporary resonance of the zombie narrative means that there is a culturally shared message, desire, and/or fear about zombies. In other words, zombie stories mean something to us at this time in our western society—if they didn't mean anything to us, they wouldn't be so popular. This culturally shared message, desire, and/or fear in turn suggests that zombie narratives deserve thoughtful investigation, because they’re saying something important about our culture today. Thus, zombie personhood deserves close ethical scrutiny within and without zombie narratives, not a quick, fiery death or a campy resolution. 


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