Reflections 2009

Do Zombies Deserve Ethical Consideration?
Or, Should We Pull the Plug on Life-Support?

Cale Corwin

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While zombie ethics may at first sound like a bizarre topic, the deliberation and application of the conclusions drawn prove significant to our understanding of what exactly it means to be human.  First we must identify zombies, using the works of an acclaimed zombie scholar, and delineate their distinctions from humans.  Then by examining modern variations of Kantian and Utilitarian ethical frameworks we can determine what value, if any, zombies maintain and from there prescribe further relevance to the contemporary issue of life-support.

Everything you know about zombies from sci-fi and horror films should be forgotten.  Modern motion pictures have sensationalized zombies to an extreme end, often portraying them with superhuman abilities or using complex problem solving in order to catch their human prey (Brooks, 22).  In reality, zombies are simply humans who have been infected, killed and reanimated by the virus Solanum.  While the Solanum virus is completely fictional, its conception and treatment herein are founded within the realms of modern science and not mere science fantasy.  For example, there is a parasite that overrides ants’ nervous systems and forces them to climb to the top of grass blades and remain there until eaten by a grazing animal, thereby passing on the infection to a new host (Callahan).  The existence of this and other similarly functioning contagions leaves us little reason to disregard the potential of a human equivalent and offers to us a parallel for comparison. With these formalities dispatched, all of our further meditations should be treated with the utmost respect and seriousness for the topics discussed.

The Solanum virus is transmitted through the blood and is most commonly passed on through bites inflicted by an infected zombie.  Upon entering the blood stream the virus moves to the brain, where it utilizes the cells of the frontal lobe for replication to create a completely new organ (Brooks, 2).  During this process the patient experiences a succession of symptoms ranging from fever, loss of muscle coordination and numbness to eventual paralysis and coma.  Eventually all bodily functions cease, the heart stops and brain activity registers at zero, rendering the infected victim dead (Brooks, 3).  It is important here to note that while body and most of the brain, excluding the frontal lobe, are physically intact, every trace of the individual that once inhabited it is lost forever, just as the case with every human death recorded throughout history.  Shortly thereafter reanimation occurs, whereby the zombie organ utilizes the preexisting brain structure to control the body.  Although the zombie organ manipulates the brain, it cannot feel pain or utilize any higher brain functioning, and carries on despite loss of limbs until either the body decomposes or the brain is destroyed (Brooks, 14, 18).   Thus the zombie exists as a marionette: a human body reduced to reflexive functioning, movements orchestrated by the virus, and driven to infect any individual it comes in contact with.

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Though this zombie being bears some resemblance to a human, perhaps even to your mother or brother, it is not and must be regarded as such.  It can be agreed to that to be considered alive requires more than the simple functioning of biological apparatus.  Without brain activity, thinking, consciousness, or the potential for any of these, zombies are nothing more than a collection of biological functions carried out in the same way a computer program receives input and executes commands.  There are some who might argue with a definition of life as consciousness or the potential thereof. To those objectors I will simply clarify that we are not considering when a life starts but rather what traits we can all agree are recognized once human life is said to exist.  With this understanding of life in hand we can move on to the issue of determining what considerations zombies deserve.

The most recognized foundational ethical systems, those of Kant and Mill, find ethical consideration to be derived from the equality of men and their abilities to either reason or experience pleasure, but these features are far less recognizable in our non-human zombies.  We will be better suited viewing zombies as an animal along the lines of an insect or some similarly functioning pest while ignoring its human likeness to ensure dispassionate evaluation.   This being the case our first ethics will be those of Peter Singer, noted Utilitarian and animal rights activist, and his thoughts on non-human considerations. 

Singer explains that as humans we have recognized a principle of equality that deems each human individual, without regard to sex, race, or nationality, to be worthy of equal moral consideration.  Singer suggests that the principle of equality does not require us to give equal treatment but only equal consideration to each individual, and furthermore that equal considerations can be taken between human and non-human which may result in requiring differing treatment (Singer, 2).  The reason we can consider non-human interactions as requiring consideration, according to Singer, is due to the fact that “the capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all, and must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way” (Singer, 7).  The example Singer uses to illustrate this thought is a school boy kicking a rock; it would be nonsensical to Singer for someone to claim that the rock has moral interest because a rock cannot suffer, but a rabbit can experience pain and should consequently be given equal consideration.  Singer refers to this ability to experience pain and or pleasure as sentience and declares it to be the only significant concern when determining the interests of others, human or non-human (Singer, 9).  Just as with other Utilitarian theories, we should measure the happiness to pain differential of every possible interaction with this sentient object and act in accordance with the outcome that promotes the most net pleasure for all involved.  With these rigid rules in mind we can now inspect our zombie to determine its moral interests.

Our primary concern is to determine whether or not zombies are sentient and thus worthy of equal consideration.  It seems that since zombies, unlike kittens or puppies, lack a nervous system they are incapable of feeling pain.  This removes them from being worthy of moral consideration but does not give us free reign to roam the countryside killing every zombie we come across. From this framework their deaths are neither moral nor immoral and will require a deeper consideration for their impact on other sentient beings.  As this end result is not as definitive an answer that we had hoped, perhaps our zombie will have better luck when considered from a Kantian perspective.

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Paul Taylor seeks to establish an environmental ethic, based in principle on the teachings of Immanuel Kant, that will guide all human interactions with the natural ecosystems of earth and the communities of life that dwell within them (Taylor, 9).  To do this he goes into great detail on the specifics of each rule of interaction, its foundation and justifications, and it is my job as our guide to compress his thoughts into a succinct, comprehendible theory, relevant to our discussion.  Taylor suggests that we have a duty to maintain a respect for nature, by this he means nature and her creatures retain in-and-of themselves an inherent worth, regardless of their instrumental value, that is to be respected by all moral beings (71).  This inherent worth is based on the fact that these entities have a good of their own and can be said to benefit from the promotion of this good.  We can determine if an entity has a good of its own by simply attempting to discuss what is good for that entity.  Taylor explains that “If we can say, truly or falsely, that something is good for an entity or bad for it, without reference to any other entity then the entity has a good of its own” (61).  We can say that more sunlight is good for a tree simply on the grounds that it does the tree good.  Taylor suggests that we can make similar claims of every other living entity, species, and community and thus each holds its own inherent worth and is owed our respect as inherently worthy beings.  With the understanding of how to determine if an entity has a good of its own and is owed an attitude of respect for nature we must examine the limitations of this respect and how it determines our actions.

Taylor proposes five principles to settle problems that arise between duties to humans and duties to other entities that have inherent worth.  The principle of self-defense is the only one we will consider today, as the other four principles rely on the condition that the non-human entities involved are harmless; in our case the zombies are anything but harmless in their interactions with humans.  Taylor notes that these principles do not give us definitive normative, or ought, answers but instead provide a level of confidence in our judgments.  This does not mean that our decisions become subjective or arbitrary, but that we should instead apply these principles to form our best judgments and appeal to an ethical ideal that underlies all of our moral decisions.  In keeping this ideal we aim at creating the “best possible world” (Taylor, 264) and thus respecting the interrelations of nature and man.  This theory should be recognized as similar to Kant’s “kingdom of ends” where actions are measured in their ability to treat each individual as a member of the kingdom of ends.  Taylor suggests that his principles should act as guides toward achieving this “best possible world” and are ultimately only useful inasmuch as they direct us toward achieving the ethically ideal world.

According to Taylor the principle of self-defense states “it is permissible for moral agents to protect themselves against dangerous or harmful organisms by destroying them” (Taylor, 8265). This is not carte blanche to kill every entity that poses any sort of threat to humanity, as we must also take into consideration the entities inherent worth and how our interactions with it will promote the best possible world.  Zombies can be said to have inherent worth and thus must be treated as will result in the best possible world.  Maintaining the moral agency of individuals is of the utmost concern and allowing zombies to roam freely puts that agency in undeniable danger.  We are therefore obligated to exterminate the zombies in a way that invites the best possible world, all while doing as little to affect those entities who are of no immediate danger to man.  This obligation rules out the use of nuclear weapons or other large explosive as their employment has widespread negative effects on the environment.  Ultimately we would be confined to targeting the specific threats and removing them while ensuring minimal impact on the environment.  Killing zombies is required of us to ensure the protection of moral agents.

The virus acts to maintain biological functioning, just as a breathing machine or feeding tube, to keep the body alive.  While these processes might be required to maintain life, they do not define it or determine its value, ethical or otherwise.  Even when taking into consideration the previous life the zombie’s body had, we are able to set aside those feelings of nostalgia and determine the proper course of action.  Lacking any potential for human existence the resulting problem is a matter of determining whether zombies feel pain or if their harmful existence should be allowed to continue or be terminated.  In the case of the zombies, the ethical theories concluded that it was either amoral or within our duties to dispose of the zombie problem.  This determination can aid us in another field of inquiry, specifically that of mechanically maintained subsistence or life-support.

The parallels between life-support and zombies are irrefutable; a zombie is no different from an individual with no brain function whose bodily processes are maintained by artificial intervention.  Both the zombie and the patient had human lives before they were ended, and in both cases bodily processes are being carried on artificially despite clinical death.  While some might argue that persons on life-support pose us no threat, I beg to differ.  The life-support recipient requires constant attention and upkeep from medical staff that, according to both ethical theories, would be better off serving the needs of actual moral agents.  The harm being done by essentially maintaining the functioning of a collection of bodily processes should be considered for the resultant “best possible world” it creates.  With ever-improving medical technology this practice has the potential to maintain hundreds of thousands of these lifeless processes functioning indefinitely and subtracting from the care needed by those agents who still have actual ethical worth.  And while we can continue discussing possible exceptions to the rule it would be a practice in futility because in the case of both ethical theories it is entirely morally wrong to allow a body to continue functioning on life-support when that effort could better the life of an actual person.

In conclusion we have determined what exactly constitutes a zombie and how its existence is far from that of the human whose body it inhabits.  We examined the ethical theories of Peter Singer and Paul Taylor and their aspirations of considering non-humans as part of the moral landscape and concluded that zombies do not deserve such considerations.  This conclusion was then applied to the questions logical equivalent, life-support patients, where it was determined that they too are outside the scope of moral consideration. 


Works Cited

Brooks, Max. The Zombie Survival Guide.  New York: Three Rivers Press. 2003.

Callahan, Gerald N. MD. 2002. “Infectious Madness: Disease with a Past and a Purpose” Emergency Medicine News 44(11): Retrieved February 4, 2009 (http://journals.lww.com/em-news/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=2002&issue=11000&article=00034&type=fulltext)

Singer, Peter 2002.  Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Taylor, Paul W. 1986.  Respect for Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

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