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IEET > Rights > Personhood > Affiliate Scholar > Kyle Munkittrick

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The Ethics of Zombie Killing

Kyle Munkittrick
By Kyle Munkittrick

Posted: Feb 17, 2012

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.

Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
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Great article Kyle. I am assuming as you mention that all this consideration takes place during a period in which there is time for careful thought. It is useful to have the basic thinking in place as part of our zombie preparedness plan.

I would suggest that knowing the nature and curability of the infection is problematic if one isn’t a medical person or researcher. The standard of conduct for the average shotgun toting survivalist would be different than for someone who had some understanding of the disease. Trying to perform research without proper safety measures would be dangerous and unethical if it endangered other people then yourself.

I am interested in your thinking on the ethics of researching a cure for zombiedom as portrayed for instance in “I am Legend”. Consent is of course difficult if not impossible to obtain, though the zombies fleeing the good doctor implies lack of consent.

Although this wouldn’t be very ethical, I guess we could mimic a zombie-like state in a lab, by altering a mammal’s brain in a specific way. Fore example, by implanting a stimulator in the Amygdala to create strong negative feelings, and artificially linking the Fusiform Face area to the Hippocampus to create a urge to eat whenever the subject recognizes a face. Additional alterations would be required to further drive the destructive/murderous thoughts, but it is possible that the alteration process would preserve, at least partially, the frontal and pre-frontal cortex as well as temporal lobes, although their action would be inhibited. Thus it is possible that we could create a reversible zombie-like state of madness (without the rotting flesh or the contamination) on a test subject without destroying any area in his brain.

Now let’s jump to the “contamination” part. A colony of unicellular micro-organisms would have to invade various areas in the brain, specialize, and co-ordinate their action to bypass the host’s normal control/thought paths and establish their own chemical paths between the said areas. Our current understanding and control over micro-organisms is not sufficient to reach that “goal”, and that’s fortunate.

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