Ethical Considerations and Thought Experiments: Evolving Morality in AMC’s “The Walking Dead”

Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in AMC’s The Walking Dead. 2014. International Business Times. https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/walking-dead-season-4-episode-16-review-1442782

In AMC’s post-apocalyptic epic, The Walking Dead (TWD), the viewer is immersed in a thought experiment challenging conventional notions of morality. By presenting the viewer with ethical dilemmas to which there are seemingly no correlative “moral” actions, the show tests commonly held intuitions of what is and what is not ethically permissible. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, when attempting to define ‘thought experiment’ “it will be better to leave the term loosely characterized, so as not to prejudice the ongoing investigation” (Brown & Fehige 2019). However, it is commonly accepted that a thought experiment is a philosophical tool in which a writer invites a reader to reevaluate a given intuition about a particular problem per the consideration of a fictional scenario. According to Dr. Kroustallis of the Hellenic Open University, “a philosophical thought experiment is meant to challenge our intuitions or commonsense assumptions” (2012). TWD does this by presenting the audience with a world in which traditional notions of morality are challenged in an increasingly harsh and hostile world, thus inviting a reevaluation of presupposed moral intuitions.

TWD challenges countless moral intuitions. From execution to anthropophagy, the show presents its audience with a vast and diverse array of ethical dilemmas. Despite the breadth and variety, there seems to be two questions raised and revisited in all of the scenarios posed: a) is there an objective, static moral framework that is universally salient?, and b) can the “survival of the body and the integrity of the soul” coexist in a Darwinian dystopia (Wright 2016)? While there is much disagreement about what an objective moral framework would consist of, many people do believe that there are at least some objective moral truths. While I would not characterize TWD as endorsing moral relativism, the show does challenge the boundaries of supposed objective truths, such as the value of certain virtues, the permissibility of killing, and the nature of interpersonal obligation. In his analytical article, Hobbes, Locke, Darwin, and Zombies: The Post-Apocalyptic Politics of AMC’s The Walking Dead, Samford University English professor Geoffrey Wright argues that, “[i]n the Darwinian dystopia of The Walking Dead, the universal need for survival makes violence universal, and violence erodes the characters’ humanity” (2016). This is one interpretation of the show’s response to the question of whether or not the survival of the body and the integrity of the soul are mutually exclusive. However, I am led to conclude that the show is not so pessimistic. Instead, I interpret the function of the thought experiment presented in TWD to operate as a challenge, daring our presupposed ethical frameworks to stand trial in a Darwinian hellscape. It seems to me that TWD is not insisting that the alteration of moral frameworks is an indication of devolved morality. Instead, it is suggested that when judging a person’s ethicality, one ought to consider that person’s conditions of life and the relative weights of their various obligations. In the show, there is grace to be found for humanity, even in the seemingly futile struggle for survival. This is found in the acknowledgment of humanity’s sisyphean condition and the realization that the best we can do, both in reality and in the zombie apocalypse, is to try our best to fulfill our obligations and uphold our values, even if the fruit of our labors will inevitably spoil. This is not a defense of moral relativism or a license to argue that all is permissible, but rather an acknowledgment of the futility of moral perfectionism in a complex and conflicting world. In TWD, there are moments of peace, and hope, and forgiveness, and an interminable effort to rebuild despite repeated destruction. These recurring themes suggest that despite the realization that moral perfection is unattainable, our efforts are enough. Even if we do but die or fail in the end, it is the pushing of the rock despite its many descents that matters; there is no objective pinnacle of ethics to be reached.

There is a widespread assumption held by many people that ‘morality’ is static and objective in nature (i.e., certain moral convictions are salient regardless of situation). TWD challenges this assumption by presenting scenarios in which commonly assumed moral truths (e.g., thou shalt not kill, thou shall not lie, etc.) are tested in a Darwinian dystopia. A “Darwinian dystopia’ refers to an environment in which human life is reverted to the laws of nature (i.e., survival of the fittest). TWD is Darwinian not only in its environment, but also in its ethical commentary. In his award-winning article, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: What Darwin’s Ethics Really Owes to Adam Smith, Stanford University PhD candidate Greg Priest reviews the moral theories of Charles Darwin. In his article, Priest argues that, “[f]or Darwin, evolution is the source of morality. […] Darwin believed that […f]or any particular lineage of intelligent social animals, there are clear and well-defined standards of morality. But those standards are and are only the ethical norms that have evolved in that lineage under its particular conditions of life” (Priest 2017).  TWD defends Darwin’s theory of a dynamic, evolving, and species-relative morality, borne from the “complex and sometimes varying conditions of life” (Darwin 1882). In congruence with Darwin’s theory, TWD suggests that in the zombie apocalypse, human beings are required to develop new ethical principles relative to their new conditions of life. Thus, the commonly held intuition that there is an objective morality as conventionally conceived is refuted and replaced by Darwin’s theory of evolved ethics. 

TWD presents its audience with a number of scenarios in which conventional moral principles are tested. The viewer is asked to consider if, given the circumstances, a change in moral law is justified and necessary.  One such trial exists in Judge, Jury, Executioner (Season 2, Episode 11, 28:13-37:00). In this episode, the main group (henceforth referred to as the “Survivors”) is faced with a complicated dilemma as they must decide the fate of Randall, a young man from a rival group who falls in their custody after an altercation in the nearby town. Rick, a former sheriff turned leader of the group, has reluctantly ruled that it would be safest to execute Randall, as he is an outsider and cannot be trusted to peacefully assimilate into the group, and also cannot be trusted to keep his word that, if released, he will not return to his own group and lead them to the Survivors’ homestead. The group discusses what ought to be done, with some firmly believing execution to be the only option, and others feeling more apprehensive. Dale, who during his time on-screen establishes himself as a voice of pre-apocalypse morality, argues vehemently against the execution. In an impassioned speech, he pleads with the other Survivors, arguing that, “If we do this, we are saying there’s no hope. Rule of law is dead. There is no civilization. […] This is a young man’s life! And it is worth more than a five-minute conversation! […] How are we any better than those people we’re so afraid of?” As the group continues to argue and deliberate, another member, Carol, finally interjects, saying “I didn’t ask for any of this. You can’t ask us to decide something like this. Please decide- either of you or both of you- but leave me out.” To this Dale retorts that “Not speaking out, or killing him yourself- there’s no difference.[…] If we do this, the people we were, the world we knew, is dead. This new world is ugly, it’s harsh, it’s survival of the fittest…and that’s a world I don’t want to live in.” Dale pleads with Rick, reminding him that, “You once said, that we don’t kill the living” to which Rick despondently retorts that “Well that was before the living tried to kill us.” This states clearly the changing principles of the group, and the reality that pre-apocalypse morality is no longer applicable in this brave new world. Teary-eyed, Dale concludes his speech with an appeal: “Please, let’s just do what’s right.” Although the group ultimately decides by majority rule to proceed with the execution, Rick is unable to carry out the act when his son, Carl, encourages him to kill Randall. At this, Rick returns his pistol to its holster and orders the others to return Randall to his holding place, now intending to release him. It is no coincidence that later that night Dale is killed by a zombie. From this, it seems that the writer affirms the fear voiced earlier by Dale: that this new world is ugly, harsh, and ruled by Darwinian theory; the old world and its frameworks are dead. This episode operates as a thought experiment by challenging the conventional belief that it is just to withhold punishment until a person is proven guilty of a crime. Indeed, Randall was to be executed for his potential transgression rather than to prevent a guaranteed harm; the Survivors were treating him as a threat to be neutralized rather than as a right-endowed human being. In the contemporary United States, it is not only illegal, but widely considered unethical, to sentence a person to death without sufficient evidence for the accused crime. However, there are considerations that exist in a Darwinian dystopia that are less imperative in the real world, such as the obligation a group has to protect its own members. In a Darwinian dystopia, obligations to self, to group, and to others often come into deadly conflict, and a breach of the traditional laws of morality are often required to uphold obligations to those one has entered a social contract with. 

In a second and more chilling scenario, TWD presents the audience with a graphic and emotional scene. In A (Season 4, Episode 16, 8:58-14:50), Rick, Michonne, and Carl are ambushed by a band of men who seek revenge on Rick for killing a member of their group. The men attempt to r*pe both Michonne and Carl, with their leader holding Rick at gunpoint, telling him that he intends to force Rick to watch, and only after Carl and Michonne have both been r*ped and killed before his eyes will he finally end Rick’s life. Eventually, the leader of the group raises Rick to his feet, bringing him to eye-level. Disarmed and possessing no other option to stop the horror occurring before his very eyes, Rick seizes his opportunity for salvation, biting out the leader’s jugular vein. This buys Michonne, Carl, and Daryl (who had been surviving with this group of men after being separated from the Survivors only to now be reunited with Rick, Carl, and Michonne) the necessary distraction to free themselves from the other men. After all are killed but the man who attempted to r*pe Carl, Rick brutally stabs him to death. The next day, Rick sits, visibly traumatized by the brutality he was unaware he was capable of, covered in his blood sacrifice to the people he loves. I argue that TWD challenges the viewer in this scene by suggesting that the debased savagery committed by Rick was the only viable ethical action. Of course, our moral intuitions revolt against this. How could it be that biting a man’s jugular vein out of his throat was an ethical decision? Here, TWD endorses the Hobbseian view that human beings possess a right to self-preservation. Additionally, it suggests that Rick’s action was not only morally permissible in its fulfillment of his right to self-preservation, but also actively ethical as it was a fulfillment of his paternal duty to protect the life and well-being of his son, Carl. Because Rick had no means of protection but his own body, he was put in a position in which the only way for him to fulfill his moral obligation to his son was to commit this brutal act. This was even sacrificial, as Rick had to cross an internal boundary that previously separated him from the undead (i.e., mauling human flesh). In essence, he sacrificed his self-concept for the preservation of his son and the group. However, the show did establish an ethical boundary, a moral law for action. In this scene, two actions committed by Rick could be reasonably characterized as brutal and savage: the first being his biting out the leader’s throat, and the second being the impassioned stabbing of the attempted r*pist. TWD seems to draw a line between these two actions, and suggests that there is a boundary that ought not be transgressed. This is indicated by the camera cutting to the horrified expression of Carl as he watches his father’s impassioned stabbing, and the subsequent apprehension with which Rick is addressed by both Carl and Michonne. In the killing of the leader, the action was borne from a lack of options and desperation; the killing of the r*pist was borne from vengeance. Thus, TWD does not suggest that in a Darwinian dystopia all is permissible now that the social guide-rails of civilization have fallen. Instead, it suggests that one may do what is necessary to protect his own rights and fulfill his obligations to others, but he ought not act in savagery beyond those ends. If brutality is necessary to self-preservation or the fulfillment of obligation, one may enact it, but one ought to avoid it if possible. 

Although the aforementioned scenarios depict situations both gruesome and tragic, TWD does not assume an entirely nihilistic stance. Though suggesting the possibility of hopelessness and despair, and even going as far as to insert a shot of a sign with the declaration “God is dead” in one episode, the show maintains its sisyphean attitude. There is always grace to be found. There is always forgiveness. There is an acknowledgment that life is often nasty, brutish, and short, but this does not diminish its value. Even after Daryl had been surviving with the group that attempted to kill Rick, Michonne, and Carl, Rick welcomes Daryl back, saying, “You are with us now. That is everything. You are my brother.” 

Some contend that a television show is not a valid medium of philosophical discourse. This is largely rooted in the false and elitist dichotomy drawn between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. It is often thought in academic circles that the media of the hoi polloi is little more than mindless entertainment. I refute these judgments outright.  Countless psychological studies have established the influence of mass media on the individual and larger society, for which reason I argue that it is imperative that philosophical discourse takes place in such media. There is little value in philosophy if its impact is hardly felt beyond the privileged ivory tower. 

Additionally, it has been argued that such a medium is not appropriate for the operation of a thought experiment because it fails to maintain the emotional objectivity required for “rational” discernment. Indeed, films and television shows often portray characters with which the audience is expected to- and does- bond with. This is very much the case in TWD, as a key tool in the series is the emotional turmoil felt by the viewer when watching the suffering of the characters she has come to care for. The argument that ‘rational’ moral judgment may only be made when one maintains emotional objectivity is, at best, worthy of sympathy. Indeed, it would be much simpler, but it happens to ignore the reality of life. The tension of moral deliberation is inherently emotional; we do not care what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ for any other reason than the fact that it affects us. We possess moral intuitions that we feel. We are only able to comprehend the weight of our decisions when we are emotionally invested in the consequences. In fact, the inability to feel this weight emotionally is a symptom of several listed psychological disorders, including antisocial personality disorder. Thus lies the essential challenge of ethical deliberation. Let us not arrogantly reject our own nature for a passionless fantasy that may in practice be less desirable than we suppose. Indeed, I am inclined to argue that a world in which morality is decided by apathetic actors would be less than desirable; it reeks of utilitarianism, and holds boundless potential for the neglect of human rights in the name of the statistical “greater good.” 

TWD has now been on air for ten years; the graphic novel has been circulating for even longer. In that time, the series has inserted into popular culture an arena in which conventional conceptions of ethics, politics, and social dynamics have been challenged. The series addresses the question of whether or not the survival of the body and the integrity of the soul are mutually exclusive. It seems to answer that they are not, because what is ‘moral’ for homo sapiens has evolved and continues to evolve from their particular conditions of life. In a Darwinian dystopia, these conditions change drastically, thus altering the trajectory of human morality and redefining what is and is not permissible. What has been left is the suggestion that our ethical principles are not so static and objective as we may like to believe. Rather, morality is evolved and evolving, and with this knowledge we may, perhaps, be more fluid, humble, and ultimately, compassionate, when judging the moral soundness of ourselves and others. What is particularly effective about TWD as a thought experiment lies in its length, complexity, and emotional involvement. All of these features allow for an experiment that seems to accurately reflect the true nature of life: messy, unpredictable, and often contradictory. In TWD, there are no easy answers, but there is room for human ingenuity, emotion, and most importantly, grace. Thus, TWD operates as a thought experiment in which common notions of morality are tested, refuted, and redefined within the context of a Darwinian apocalypse, and also suggests through trial and challenge that even in the relative comfort of modern civilization, morality may be less rigid than we believe. 

Works Cited

Brown, James Robert, and Yiftach Fehige. “Thought Experiments.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 26 Sept. 2019, plato.stanford.edu/entries/thought-experiment/.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. 1882. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=6AUAAAAAQAAJ&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Kroustallis, Basileios. “Film as Thought Experiment: A Happy-Go-Lucky Case? .” Film-Philosophy, 2012.

Priest, Greg. “Charles Darwin’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: What Darwin’s Ethics Really Owes to Adam Smith.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 78, Oct. 2017, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/676147/pdf.

The Walking Dead. AMC, 2010.Wright, Geoffrey A. “Hobbes, Locke, Darwin, and Zombies: The Post-Apocalyptic Politics of Survival in AMC’s The Walking Dead.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 34, no. 2, 22 Apr. 2016.

Published by Grace Hart

Grace is an undergraduate student majoring in Psychology and Philosophy in Boston.

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