Is Lying OK If Zombies Are Chasing You?

Lying exacts a cost. Let's see what that means for the characters of "The Walking Dead."

Pants not yet on fire.

Photographer: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

It’s been my habit this season to take a couple of days for reflection before posting on ethical questions that arise in episodes of “The Walking Dead.” The fifth episode, which aired on Sunday -- very far from the best -- raises several questions with useful moral dimensions. (Spoilers follow.) I would like to focus on a single issue: the entirely unsurprising “reveal” that Eugene has been lying about his secret mission to get to Washington and tell what’s left of the federal government how to use biological warfare to stop the zombie plague.

Viewers had mostly guessed that Eugene was lying. Readers of the graphic novels already knew. And it’s good the point was resolved because the credulousness of the show’s main characters, who have survived this long by being suspicious of pretty much every piece of good news, long ago became both implausible and annoying.

But what about the ethics of Eugene’s lie? We know now that he manufactured it on the spur of the moment, so that Abraham wouldn’t leave him behind to die. Eugene lacked the skills necessary to fight off the walkers, so his survival depended on his ability to ally with those who did have them. Can we justify his deceit on that ground?

In general, we don’t much care for lying. We despise the man who lies to his wife about his fidelity. A political candidate will seek our vote by assuring us solemnly that the other guy is a liar. If we lie to the government in the course of pretty much anything official, we can be prosecuted for it. (Quick note: In a democracy, where the people rule, one would think the law would be the other way around. Government employees should be prosecuted for lying to the rest of us. But that’s for another day.)

Lying exacts a cost. It weakens the bonds of trust on which civilized life heavily depend. We tend to recognize this instinctively, whether or not we pause to articulate it. Thus our habit is to treat lies as presumptively wrong, even though we probably all tell them.

This leads us back to Eugene. Had he not lied, he would likely be dead. How then to judge a lie told for the purpose of self-preservation?

In philosophy there are basically three views of lies. First is the view, associated with such diverse thinkers as Immanuel Kant and Saint Thomas Aquinas, that a lie is always and everywhere a grave wrong, and, in almost all circumstances, inexcusable.

A second view, popularized a few decades back by Sissela Bok, is that a lie is always a wrong, but practical ethics often excuse it. Third, there is the view held by many modern philosophers that a lie holds no particular moral status, but must be judged entirely by context and consequences.

Eugene’s lie cannot be defended under any of these visions.

Analytically, we might say that a lie to save your own life might be justified. Say a murderer comes to your house looking for you. He has no morally acceptable reason to kill you, but you are the one he wants. So you lie and say you aren’t who you are. Most of us would make that choice.

Kant would condemn it and argue that by denying your identity to the murderer, you enhance the likelihood that he will kill someone else in your place. In other words, to save your own life, you are placing others at risk.

Kant would say the same, a fortiori, about Eugene. Note that the people Eugene is placing at risk aren’t abstractions. They are living, breathing individuals who, because of his deceit, will try to protect him. By claiming to be on a secret mission, Eugene even implies that they should sacrifice themselves in order to save him. Our undoubted right to self-preservation does not allow us to put innocents at risk.

Bok would have the potential liar ask whether others, once they become aware of the deception, would consider the choice reasonable. Here again Eugene surely loses in the moral calculus. No doubt anyone fleeing from zombie hordes -- or hordes of any other sort -- would find the calculus understandable. But that isn’t the same thing at all. I can readily see why the deceiver deceives yet still objurgate him for the damage he does with his lies.

Even the consequentialist philosopher, who does not begin with an aversion to lying, would condemn Eugene. The consequence in this case is enormous. There have been hints since last season that Abraham has taken many chances for the sake of Eugene’s mission. He has risked. He has killed. And in the larger arc of season five, our plucky band of survivors has been split in two because of the need to get Eugene to Washington -- and on “The Walking Dead,” splitting the ensemble has rarely led to good things.

None of this is to say that no lie can ever be excused. And in the post-apocalyptic world of “The Walking Dead,” Rick and his followers have told lies galore. What they have so far avoided -- and quite properly so -- is engaging in deceit that puts innocents at risk. That is what Eugene has done, and his own desire to survive is no excuse.

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