Zombies are a strange source of ethical inspiration, but as I mentioned to io9′s Lauren Davis, if academic ethicists get to spend all day talking about trolleys, I see no reason we can’t banter about the ethics of the undead.
Lauren posed the following query: When is it ok to kill a zombie? Should zombies be killed on sight, or quarantined as sick humans? As an answer, she has an excellent post up that has a some other cool responses to the questions and is worth a full read.
I responded as follows:
To answer your question, I think there are some things we simply can’t know in a realistic situation, so we have to make a couple assumptions for the sake of argument.
Assumption 1: We live in a materialistic universe. Zombies, therefore, are not the result of necromancy, demons, possession, or souls escaping from hell.
Assumption 2: We are discussing “classic” zombies – seek flesh, stimulus-response function, and the condition is communicable through bodily fluids (i.e. saliva to blood).
Both assumptions allow us to discuss most zombies, including those from The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and World War Z.
There are three criteria for ethical zombie killing to consider: dignity of the body, state of the infection, and potential for recovering consciousness.
A) Dignity of the Body: For those who don’t think it is possible to “desecrate a corpse” in a morally repugnant fashion, this point is moot. Whether you’re a consequentialist arguing the social impacts of disregarding the emotions of kin or a Kantian arguing the inherent dignity of the human form, there is a strong case that a human body deserves respect. The question as to what one can do to a zombified body are then called into question. I shouldn’t mutilate a corpse, therefore I shouldn’t damage an animated corpse, which is a problem when that corpse wants to gobble my brains.
The resolution is acknowledging that being zombified is itself a desecration of a corpse. I use the ideal of an open-casket funeral to judge whether or not a certain behavior reduces the dignity of a corpse. A moaning, mindless meat-seeking monster attempting to escape the coffin to disembowel those come to mourn it would reduce the dignity of said corpse. Thus, any action necessary to de-animate the corpse is an effort to return its dignity and, therefore, it is acceptable to lobotomize, ignite, and/or puree the zombie without violating your Kantian commitment to the dignity of the body.
B) The state of the infection: How infected is this person? Just bitten? How long until the shambling starts? There are three possible states that are ethically relevant: 1) Bitten Person knows they are infected and others know as well, but there are no signs yet 2) Bitten Person is in transition thru death – fever, shakes, morbidity – but not dead/undead 3) Bitten Person is reanimated. These states parallel the conditions of many illnesses and thus we can apply the general rules for informed consent and euthanasia.
The resolution is that for those who know they are infected, an honest discussion about how they wish to die before infection sets in is had. Mourning, goodbyes and choice of euthanasia are allowed as the situation permits (we are presuming an ideal here, not under constant assault by a shuffling hoard). In this instance, the amount of pain likely caused by transition makes “letting die” an immoral and impermissible decision, thus “active killing” becomes the moral action.
For those who are infected and in transition to the point of having lost lucidity, the moral action is immediate death. Whether you are considering the later possible harms of the zombie, the current harms of pain to the individual, or the dignity of the person being robbed by the transition, the lack of reasonable thought means that person’s protests and pleading are to be ignored. All thought is now the result of infection madness, through a haze of blinding pain, or the manifestation of the zombie micro-organism’s self-preservation function and are not to be considered in the way the pleading of a lucid person would be.
It is possible that the 28 Days Later rage zombies actually exist in this category, in that they are not “dead” per se, but reduced to madness. Criterion C may come into play, but in a state of anarchy, it is ethically permissible to terminate anyone infected with rage because of 1) the extremely high potential for harm to others 2) the strong possibility of current harm to the individual (presuming a nugget of preserved consciousness likely experiencing nothing but pain and fear) 3) and the fact that involuntary rage behavior violates Criterion A.
Finally, for the reanimated, see Criterion A.
C) The potential for recovering consciousness: If zombification is irreversible and incurable, the potential is zero and this point is moot. If zombification is preventable only through vaccination, the potential once infected is still zero. Considering stage 2 of infection, however, whether that is in the process of transition or in a non-mobid form of zombification like rage, there seems the potential for a cure. Presumption of destroying the micro-organism does not guarantee or even create a likelihood of a return to former consciousness undamaged. Based on the degradation of behavior and the nature of zombification (either reanimative or rage) a baseline assumption of severe brain-damage seems reasonable. The diseases effectively necessitate demolition of the pre-frontal cortex and all brain function outside of vulgar sensation for food-seeking and cerebellar activity necessary for locomotion. There is also the real chance that the disease constructs temporary ad-hoc networks to overcome the colossal damage to the original brain function. Terminate the disease, the networks collapses and the zombie deanimates or the rage fades and the body is left in a persistent vegetative state.
Thus, the resolution is that, should a cure become available, it comes with the presumption that active killing may still be necessary to prevent further suffering. Delivering the cure during the transition of an individual may result in recovery with none, minor, significant, severe, or mortal brain damage. Based on the individual and the decisions of trusted surrogates, it may be necessary to euthanize anyone with significant or worse brain damage. To persist in such a state is undignified and violates Criteria A.
So, to answer your initial question: I would need to know the state of the infection and the possibility of recovering full consciousness based on the criteria of preserving a person’s dignity.