Zombies = hostis humani generis.

'Walking Dead' and the Ethics of War

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The grimly foreboding conclusion of the second episode of season five of "The Walking Dead" raises some interesting questions of ethics. What we discover at the end (spoilers follow, but if you're a fan, you already know, and if you're not, you don't care) is that not every member of Gareth's merry band of cannibals was burned to death in the destruction of Terminus. The remnant, led by garrulous Gareth himself, is on the loose, and poor Bob is on the menu.

Now the questions. For years I've been teaching and writing about the ethics of war. Do the usual rules apply when the war one is fighting involves the zombie apocalypse?

First, let's think about the battle against the zombies themselves. Whatever the zombies might represent allegorically, in the context of the story, they are individuals who have died and been reanimated, so it's reasonably clear that they are not biologically human. Thus although other ethical principles might apply to the battle against the zombies, the considerations of just war do not. (And as we saw in season two at Hershel's farm -- and to some extent last season in Lizzie's bizarre behavior -- treating the zombies as still human can have disastrous consequences.)

What about fighting against human beings? At the end of episode one of the current season, Rick wants to go back to Terminus to make sure that none of the cannibals survived. He is persuaded instead to get away as fast as possible, leaving whoever is left alive in the conflagration to make their own way. As we now know, this was a mistake. (Well, okay. As television viewers, we knew it at the time: Why else would the writers have anyone raise the question? But I digress.)

Suppose that Rick had taken the advice. Suppose he had returned to Terminus and slaughtered the survivors. Unless the survivors were actively resisting, this would seem to violate both the law and ethics of warfare.

But is this necessarily so? It seems reasonable to treat the cannibal as the pirate was traditionally treated, and as some (including, in effect if not in so many words, the Barack Obama administration) argue that the terrorist should be treated -- as hostis humani generis, the enemy of all mankind. The point of the designation hostis human generis was that the person so designated could be slain wherever found. A nation (in the case of Terminus, effectively a city-state) engaged in wholesale cannibalism would seem to fit the definition at least as well as Islamic State.

The other intriguing ethical question that might arise involves preventive self-defense. The ethics of war require a distinction between a pre-emptive action (attacking the tanks heading toward your border even though they haven't yet crossed it, meaning the war hasn't officially begun) and preventive self-defense (launching an attack to prevent a potential adversary from even obtaining the means to build tanks). Preventive actions aren't strictly forbidden, but they are quite difficult to justify.

Yet it is becoming plain to Rick's band that they will often have to kill on suspicion. That was the point of the interrogation of Gabriel. It was plain to everyone that if Rick decided that Gabriel was trying to deceive them, he would never make it back to his church. The group had been fooled too many times, and had suffered too often from leaving suspects alive.

Killing on suspicion goes beyond even preventive warfare (where at least one believes oneself to know the adversary's intentions) into a distant realm where no practical ethics can reach. We speak of the realm of desperation, of existential threat. The philosopher Michael Walzer has argued that when the nation-state sincerely and reasonably believes that it might cease to exist, "the rules can be and perhaps have to be overriden." In such moments of "supreme emergency," we may expect too much if we demand that its leaders hew to a set of abstract principles about the proper conduct of warfare. Nevertheless, the overridden rules are still the correct rules, Walzer says, and once the existential threat passes, we should expect (or demand) a return to our normal ethical practices.

In the imagined post-apocalyptic world of armed groups rather than proper government, we would expect every group, all the time, to believe sincerely that it may be destroyed in the next instant. And that is indeed what we've seen in "The Walking Dead." On Sunday night, Rick made this point explicitly to Carl before heading off with Gabriel to hunt for food.

But if this last proposition is correct, does that mean that in the zombie apocalypse all ethical considerations are off the table in every encounter of group-versus-group - or even, perhaps, of individual-versus-individual? There is a very human temptation to cling to the belief that the spark of the fundamental knowledge of right and wrong will transcend any calamity. The writers of "The Walking Dead," however, are voting with Walzer.

  1. Or, not so poor Bob. We all can all make an educated guess about why he was crying just before he was kidnapped. And if we're right, he might be better off dead. The cannibals, not so much. Or if, as tends to happen in the show, Bob is rescued before being fully consumed -- well, we can work out what happens next.

  2. Yes, okay, I get it: The same question might be raised were we to face intelligent nonhuman extraterrestrials. Think "Avatar." One might proceed by analogy, and ask whether a particular life form is sufficiently humanlike that just war principles should apply. And, in the sci-fi world, don't think the question hasn't been mooted. Just look up any short story by James Tiptree Jr., the pen name of the brilliant Alice Bradley Sheldon. Or consult the amusing but pointed Klingon take on human rights in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."

  3. Nice to see yet another veteran of "The Wire" join the cast.

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net