The Thinking Zombie’s Conundrum

Zombie Thinker by Mark Simms
Zombie Thinker by Mark Simms

I’ve been pondering a philosophical question for a while now, and it appears most relevant in the context of movies like American Zombie, I, Zombie, and Zombies Anonymous.  We discussed it a bit in my New Millennium Studies class today with regard to Frankenstein’s monster.  We also see it in the context of vampire stories in which vampires retain their personalities.  To whit:

What is the moral or ethical obligation of the thinking zombie to the rest of human kind?

Definition: the thinking zombie would be that variety of zombie present in some films that retains its faculties and personality from its previous life.  It must have an awareness of its former self, empathy for people, and an unquenchable hunger for them.

Examples: David Wellington’s Monster trilogy features zombies who remember being alive and know it’s wrong to kill people, but do so anyhow.  Numerous short stories play with this problem as well.  The three films I mention above all feature these dilemmas on screen.

If any of these defining elements are missing, it’s not worth thinking through.  For example, Return of the Living Dead features zombies who remember their former lives but are instantly and insatiably evil.  There’s no need to ponder their ethical obligations since they seem to have no conscience.  By contrast, the man in I, Zombie feels horrible that he’s killing people, but he does so anyway.  In the same way, if non-human meat satisfies the zombie, then the classic vampire solution would work.  So the zombie must hunger for people.

Discussion: I’ve always thought that in cases like the films mentioned above, once a zombie has killed someone and realizes the drive to do so again will be uncontrollable, isn’t the moral choice suicide or self-imprisonment? If we’re defined by our actions and actions and decisions rather than physiognomy, does that definition stop just because we’re undead?

By contrast, does the non-human state of the zombie obviate the morality of humans?  Wellington’s thinking zombies come to understand themselves as superior, so they have no problem killing people.  It’s similar to the attitude of the vampires in the Masquerade series: the humans are cattle for them.  One might also wield the self-preservation argument: zombies by their very nature can only survive by eating humans.  To refuse to do so is to deny their own purpose.  (This presumes a zombie mythology that draws nourishment from the eating, such as Return of the Living Dead or the Wellington Monster novels.)  Finally, like Frankenstein’s monster, one could suggest that zombies are justified in killing people because most people would happily kill them first.  (We’ll save the ethical question of killing zombies who aren’t an immediate threat for another day.)

But most of these films show the zombies struggling with the personal element of it: what kind of person am I that I will take the lives of innocents rather than my own?

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