In my sophomore year of college, I took an ethical theory class. We ambled through philosophies that sought to answer the question: what makes right actions right? We decided, by the end of the course, that the best ethical theory was the Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. In terms of reasonably determining the best course of action an individual should take in an ethical dilemma, it had the least shortcomings. Now, I haven’t been a sophomore in college for over 13 years, but I remember this much about Kant’s imperative: it posits that if everyone took a certain action and the results were okay, then the action would be okay. To examine the correctness of an action, you create a maxim. For example, if my maxim is “It is correct to steal,” my maxim would be flawed. If everyone in the world stole everything, then there would be no rule or law, money would have no value, and our exchange system would collapse. Clearly, such a maxim is infeasible.
When I combine The Walking Dead and Kant’s theory, they raise a question: what ethical maxims work in a zombie apocalypse? The Walking Dead has shown me that Kant’s imperative operates awkwardly in dystopian Atlanta, Georgia, because actions that are rational and feasible in an apocalypse are different from those that are presently rational and feasible. In fact, in such a setting, the theory is notably flawed; it doesn’t always produce satisfying answers to ethical questions. To reach this conclusion, I had to play with a few ethical situations in my mind.
Suicide is the first action worth examining with the categorical imperative. In The Walking Dead, there are people who feel hopeless and would rather commit suicide than die from a zombie attack. Suicide initially seems reprehensible based on the categorical imperative. If everyone committed suicide, then there would be no earth left. But the problem here is twofold. First, the world is ending, so it matters less if humanity is obliterated. If that sounds heartless, I’ll just say that I get the sense from The Walking Dead that it’s only a matter of time before humans are wiped out. Second, we have to word our maxim correctly.
If we say “Every person who feels hopeless should be allowed to kill himself or herself,” our maxim is less problematic. The maxim doesn’t deem that every person kill herself, only that those who feel hopeless should be given the right to kill themselves. Of course, such a maxim could have damaging effects on group psyches, but it doesn’t seem completely infeasible and problematic. Still, our result seems unsatisfying. If Kant’s categorical imperative deems that hopeless people should have the right to kill themselves –instead of being stopped—are we appeased by this conclusion? Should 17-year-old Beth have been left alone to kill herself on the farm in season two? Ethics are certainly disrupted and altered in a zombie apocalypse, but they’re not non-existent. Humans still exist on earth, and despite their imminent demise, there should still be some code determining how people treat one another. If the question—“What makes right actions right?”—has been stumping philosophers since the inception of the discipline, then imagine the complications inherent in the question: “What makes right actions right in the heart of the apocalypse?”
Lori’s pregnancy is a quintessential example of this problem. Lori imagines raising a child in apocalyptic Georgia, a child who will not have the happy memories that she, Rick and Carl have. All the child will know is the arduous life of running from place to place and fighting zombies. Lori ultimately keeps the child, but not without some serious back and forth and an instinctual impulse to swallow pills that she later vomits. The categorical imperative would initially suggest that abortion is wrong. If all women killed their children, then humanity would be terminated. But this is an apocalypse, and one in which “the walkers” are only becoming more powerful and prevalent. Does that reality matter anymore?
Inherent in Lori’s conundrum is not only whether or not she wants to preserve the child’s life for the sake of the child, but whether or not she wants to bother trying to perpetuate a dying race that will likely know only difficulty and sorrow. To argue that preventing a pregnancy in the apocalypse is wrong, because humanity would end if all women did it, is to raise a set of conjoined questions: “Is it possible to save humanity, and do we want to give it a try under these circumstances?” Lori’s initial reaction to her pregnancy suggests that her first answer to these questions is “no.” It is likely only after she contemplates that this is the life of a little being that her and (probably) Rick created that her heart tells her to throw up the pills and keep the child. But the outcome of humanity is too tenuous in this example to satisfyingly apply Kant’s imperative, because we cannot make the assumption that it is possible to save mankind, or that it is worthwhile trying to do so when people are dying at such an alarming rate.
More problematic than the fate of Lori’s child is the fate of the rival gang member who catches his leg on a fence and is simultaneously saved and captured by Rick and Hershel. The gang member sat on a roof with a gun and shot at Rick, Hershel, and Glenn, who were in town that day. When his gang abandons him, we feel some level of sympathy for him, and Rick and Hershel make the call to tear his leg off the fence post, save his leg, and bring him back to camp. But then they find out that he knows Maggie, and they determine that if they drop him in the middle of nowhere, he could find his gang, return to the barn, and wreak havoc on the barn.
Initially, murder seems like a big “no no” through the lens of the categorical imperative. If everyone killed everyone else, then everyone would be dead and the world would end. Again, this matters arguably less in the apocalypse, but I still think we need to work on wording our maxim. What if we said: “If someone poses a serious threat to your life or those you know, it is right to kill that person.” That maxim seems completely workable, especially in a lawless apocalypse. Okay, so according to Kant’s categorical imperative, it’s okay to kill the gang member. Maybe. But how do we define serious? He was a serious threat when he was on a roof shooting at them, but is he a serious threat now? The group is trying to determine the answer to that exact question, and it seems like the outcome of their decision to kill or save him is too unpredictable for Kant’s theory to condemn or condone their choice.
Even if we do consider the gang member a serious threat, deeming it defensible to kill him is an answer that sits uneasily with us. After all, the “gang member” is hardly a gang member the way we envision the label: he’s a quaking, trembling kid who may only be guilty by affiliation—affiliation brought on by necessity and a desire to survive. And there’s no verifiable evidence that he’ll turn the farm over to his gang. Indeed, Dale, who is the only resident of the farm blatantly opposed to killing him, says “we are killing him for a crime he hasn’t even committed.”
Again, chaos disrupts during an apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean that lawlessness and complete heartlessness have to reign, although the characters in The Walking Dead do seem to harden as the seasons continue. But many viewers would agree that killing the gang member – the kid – is the wrong thing to do. The categorical imperative might deem the action correct, but it sits uncomfortably in a lot of our guts. The act seems ruthless.
Which is just to say that the categorical imperative – in many ways an ingenious determiner of all things ethical – has three major shortcomings in an apocalypse: first, how an individual words the maxims greatly determines whether or not the action is correct, second, the things that we assume are true in contemporary times are not necessarily true in an apocalypse, and third, sometimes the outcomes of the decision characters make in The Walking Dead are unpredictable. Surely, the characters in The Walking Dead need a system of ethics. They are still human beings, and what is the point of being alive in an apocalypse if you aren’t treating those around you well? But what makes right actions right in an apocalypse? It seems we have yet to answer that question.