February 13, 2014

What Does ‘The Walking Dead’ Have To Do With Deontology?

By: Ken Silva

The Super Bowl may have been a dud, but American TV viewers have something far more suspenseful to watch Sunday, when the next eight episodes of The Walking Dead’s fourth season began. The zombie apocalypse thriller has become an instant classic, and for good reason: Not only does it have compelling characters, plenty of action, and white-knuckled suspense; like any drama worth its sand, it also raises moral issues that really make the viewer think.

With scattered tribes of humans trying to rebuild society while simultaneously trying to survive their undead predators, a variety of political and philosophical questions are raised, most of which revolve around one core debate: deontology (doing something out of a sense of duty) vs. utilitarianism (doing what’s best for one’s group or community) — in other words, the question of whether the ends justify the means.

So far, it looks like Robert Kirkman and the rest of the show’s writers appear to be overwhelmingly utilitarian, because in every moral dilemma — whether to leave behind a straggler, let strangers into the group, or kill someone for a minor offense — the counter-intuitive decision almost always turns out to be the correct one.

When Shane, one of the main characters in the first two seasons, and his partner go on a mission to find medical supplies, the two are almost overrun by zombies before Shane does the dastardly deed of shooting his partner and leaving him as bait while escaping with the supplies. While group members were outraged by Shane’s decision, he correctly pointed out that the act saved both his life and the life of a boy who needed the supplies. Had he not murdered his partner, all three would have died. Instead, Shane and the boy survive.

Contrast this with Rick, who in Season One takes an armed group to rescue someone stranded in Atlanta. While Rick and his men are gone, the rest of the group is attacked and nearly wiped out by zombies. Rick comes back with more weapons, but never found the person stranded. Him doing the “right” thing (deontologically speaking) cost multiple lives and almost doomed the entire group.

Shane does something most would say is morally wrong, yet his action helped the group. Rick does something most would say is the right thing to do, but his action almost destroyed the group.

In these and many other examples in the series, utilitarianism is clearly the superior strategy.So is deontology necessarily a bad moral code? No. It just doesn’t work in a world turned upside down.

As F.A. Hayek taught, moral codes have been built through the millennia via individual and group selection. We hold certain deeply-rooted moral values that were passed down by our ancestors. Those ancestors may not have known why they believed what they did (nor do we, for that matter) but nevertheless what they believed “worked” from an evolutionary point of view.

For example, we may not know exactly why murder is wrong, but we know our ancestors believed the same and it seemed to help them survive, therefore we should hold true to the belief even if there is no “rational” justification for it. Moreover, because the future is so hard to predict, we should hold true to the belief even if murder seems to be the better option on the surface — this is the libertarian argument against preemptive warfare.

But those deeply-rooted values may not work when an environment radically changes, as in war and other crises. A lion’s hunting instinct helps it survive in the wild, but would get it killed in a human city. Our craving for sugar helped us identify nutrient-dense food in the paleolithic era, but gives us diabetes and other diseases of civilization today. Similarly, Rick’s moral instincts are great in civilized society, but are a calamity to his group when they’re being hunted by flesh-eating monsters.

When humans are given unchecked moral discretion to do what they think is best for society, bad things often happen for a number of reasons, not the least being that we’re usually too stupid to know the best action in a complex situation. This is why in most cases, we can and should rely on what our ancestors did — because it worked for them.

We should only break from tradition when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs, such as with racial or sexual prejudices — or during a zombie apocalypse.

Ken Silva is a writer based in Ohio. Zombie apocalypse image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.