Decisions, decisions ...

Photographer: Gene Page/AMC

'Walking Dead' and the Fat Man Puzzle

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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During this fifth season of “The Walking Dead,” I have been analyzing ethical problems facing the intrepid survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Alas, this week’s episode contained relatively little ethical meat -- Was Noah justified in stealing the weapons? Should they have left him pinned beneath the bookcase? -- so let’s instead revisit an incident that occurs in one of the flashbacks.

Carol remembers (from season three) her days at the prison, when during an outbreak of what was apparently flu, she killed fellow survivors Karen and David and burned their bodies to keep them from spreading the disease. Confronted privately by Rick, she admitted the act but insisted it was justified, because of her fear that everyone would otherwise have died. Rick sent her into exile, but didn’t tell the others what she’d done.

The ethical problem is plain. Karen and David were innocent, but they were also carrying an infection that, in Carol’s judgment, would have wiped out the entire group. Does self-defense of this kind count as an excuse for taking a life?

Here we might usefully consider the self-defense hypothetical often known as Fat Man, introduced by the philosopher Robert Nozick. The puzzle has many versions. Here is how I present it to students in my Ethics of War seminar: You are in a small boat at the bottom of a chasm. You hear a sound and look up, only to find that an enormously fat man is hurtling down. You don’t know whether he jumped or was pushed or fell by accident.  You do know that if he hits you, you die. You can’t escape. But you have a weapon that can vaporize him, thus saving your life while taking his. Given the significant chance that the fat man is innocent of any malicious intent, do you have a proper moral excuse to fire the gun?

St. Augustine, to take one extreme in the argument, would say absolutely not. Your life is not intrinsically more valuable than anyone else’s, and therefore you have no right to kill another in order to survive. Most contemporary theorists of self-defense argue that the killing of another may be excused depending on what he is doing -- for example, if he is actively trying to kill you or someone else, and thus morally culpable for his actions.

What makes Nozick’s example both useful and frustrating is that the fat man has done nothing wrong, and so carries no moral culpability. He is innocent. But you are as innocent as he. Must you die to protect his life? My students say not. Most of them take the view that the threat to your own life will excuse use of the vaporizing gun to kill the fat man.

This is Carol’s judgment, too -- although she has more reason, even, than does the hypothetical boater in the Fat Man puzzle. Remember that she kills Karen and David to save the lives of the other survivors. The numbers alone, then, might suggest that she has more moral weight on her side than does the boater who sits alone at the bottom of Nozick’s chasm.

Yet this utilitarian calculus quite properly chills us. Suppose instead that Carol had killed Karen and David to harvest sufficient organs for transplant to a larger number of others who, without the transplants, would die. Few of us would hesitate to condemn her. It’s true that in the story, Karen and David constituted an actual threat to others -- they were sick after all -- but they were nevertheless every bit as morally innocent as if their organs were needed.

One might nevertheless decide that in the unique circumstance of a post-apocalyptic world where the human race might not survive, the fact that Karen and David were ill makes them more like the fat man. They may not be morally culpable, but they are the instruments of death all the same, and can therefore be destroyed. When, as I intend, I offer the example of Carol in my seminar this spring, I suspect that my students will reach the conclusion that her acts are morally excused.

This, however, is not quite the end of the matter. Carol is never forced to defend her actions -- except, very briefly, to Rick -- because she does not tell others what she has done. Does Carol have a duty to tell the rest of the group, present them with her excuse, and let them make up their own minds?  The question of when we are obliged to confess our wrongs, and to whom, is a lively and important one, but I lack the space to discuss it here. Perhaps some other week.

  1. And along the way, let’s do our best to ignore the implausible notion that so hardened a survivor as Carol would respond to a hallway full of danger by sliding her gun through the narrow gap between two chained doors, putting the weapon down on the far side, then slipping through the gap herself -- backward. Maybe Carol of season one would have been so careless. But not Rambo Carol, who, let’s remember, took down the heavily armed Terminus encampment essentially by herself.

  2. In Nozick’s original version, Fat Man has been pushed, and therefore is morally innocent.

  3. Remember that Carol eventually tells Tyreese, and even invites him to kill her if he thinks she should die. He settles for a stern lecture instead.

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