Everything You Ever Wanted To Ask About Zombies, Answered.

By Kyle Munkittrick | October 31, 2010 9:46 am


Halloween is a-comin’ and this Sunday brings us AMC’s The Walking Dead. In honor of that, we’re discussing The Ethics of the Undead here at Science, Not Fiction. This is part IV of IV. (Check out parts III, & III)


In my last two posts, I established some pretty important ground rules: What is a zombie and is a zombie actually dead?

Before I get onto the other exciting questions, a quick recap: a zombie pathogen could not be a “live infection” (i.e. rabies/Rage), but would be a re-animation virus: infection-death-reanimation. Bodily fluid transmission, non-regeneration/growth, and slowed decay were also key features of my hypothetical zombie pathogen. A zombie is a corpse with the appearance of life. The distinction is between brain-death and brain destruction. A zombie is brain-dead. In reality, it is the pathogen which is alive, hijacking the corpse. When one damages the corpse sufficiently, the pathogen has nothing left to “hijack” and therefore the zombie is de-animated.

With these key points answered, we can answer a whooooole bunch of other questions about what a zombie is and isn’t. Answers after the jump!

  1. Is a zombie still human? A zombie is as human as a corpse is human. The DNA in the cells, the general body configuration and appearance will be that of a human being. But there’s nobody at home upstairs. The humanness will only be corporeal.
  2. Is a zombie a person? No. Though there is some neural activity, there is no brain activity, particularly no consciousness. The philosophical zombie (p-zed) is something that looks and acts like a person, but lacks actual consciousness. Based on our description of how the zombie pathogen would have to work, there would be no higher brain function, therefore a zombie would have zero personhood.
  3. Can a zombie feel pain? What about memories? In that both of these mental phenomena require some form of cognitive processing, not merely mental stimulation, I would say No. There is no advantage for the pathogen to activate these more complex parts of the brain and, furthermore, both pain and memories would likely complicate the “eat flesh” drive. Zombies aren’t even sentient (i.e. able to feel pain), to presume even second-effect electrical stimulation could trigger memories or pain is implausible in the extreme.
  4. Does a zombie have dignity? Now this is a complex question. A rough and ready definition of dignity is that if thing X has dignity then we have a duty to respect thing X. Corpses are considered to have dignity, which is why we bury and burn them in respectful rituals. A zombie is, in large part, a corpse and, therefore, would have dignity, thus obliging us to treat it with respect. However, letting a corpse be overrun by a re-animation virus that causes it to perambulate about and terrorize the neighbors is highly undignified; therefore, we would have an obligation to de-animate the corpse (perhaps violently and stylishly) and burn (dignified and sterilizing) whatever was left out of respect for the dignity of the corpse.
  5. Is it wrong to kill someone who is infected but not yet a zombie? I am going to anger someone with my answer here, but presuming we are certain they are infected and that the process of infection involves suffering, then it is not wrong to kill that person. The ethical distinction between “killing” and “letting die” is dubious at best. Intention, not method of death, determines the morality of the situation, particularly when “letting die” significantly increases suffering. In the case of a zombie apocalypse, I’d say voluntary active euthanasia is a moral duty. First in consideration of the quality of life of the person dying and second, out of respect for the dignity of what will be that person’s corpse. The extremely contentious involuntary active euthanasia would likely be morally permissible if one was certain a person was infected but refused to acknowledge it. I, for one, never want to be faced with these decisions.
  6. Could we cure zombification? A pathogen is something we could vaccinate against, but to “cure” zombification would require the ability to reverse the effects of death completely. Only killing the infection before death would “cure” the person. Killing the infection after the fact would just leave a still-quite-dead corpse.
  7. Could a zombie outbreak actually happen? I sure hope not. The zombie pathogen I described is immensely complex and precise – impossible in nature. Thus, the pathogen would have to be engineered. Every feature of the pathogen (including neural take-over) is, in some rudimentary form, currently present in nature. The disparate features would have to be heightened, recombined, and honed into a single doomsday plague.
  8. Should it happen, however, my only consolation is that based on metabolism and decay, it would seem that zombie pathogen would be consuming the host body at any time that it wasn’t getting sufficient nutrients. Thus, the decomposition rate of a zombie body would be slowed in relation to a normal corpse to point X – with point X being minimum necessary nutrients for host body and pathogen – beyond which the pathogen would then begin consumption of the host body, resulting in accelerated decomposition. Unlike most zombie stories, in an actual zombie apocalypse I imagine zombie-on-zombie cannibalism and starvation-induced decay would save us from total annihilation. Quarantine and evade = salvation.

    I hope.

For all of you zombie lore fans, survivalists, and boffins, I know there have to be points I missed, so hit me up in the comments on all of our Ethics of the Undead posts (I, II, III). Good luck out there tonight and guard your braaaaiiiiinsss.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Apocalypse, Biology, Philosophy, TV

Comments (5)

Links to this Post

  1. Zombies! Zombies everywhere! - Nerdcore | October 31, 2010
  1. ChH

    I gotta go with cracked’s approach on this one. Well – this approach anyway – they have many conflicting approaches…
    Also – on dignity – I’d argue that being dead is inherently undignified, and that any dignity at a funeral is an attribute of the survivors present, not the corpse.

  2. Don

    Why do we see no Zombie pets?

  3. Sam

    Under what circumstances would the pathogen transfer from a zombie to a living human? Also, what about the possibility of transfer to non-human animals?

  4. JD

    Zombie pets. Read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.


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