Theanthropic Ethics in the Zombie Apocalypse: Why the Disposition of Your Heart Could Save Your Brain (and Soul)


A fair warning to all who read this article: If you aren’t up to date on AMC’s The Walking Dead, then be forewarned that there are spoilers in this article. In fact, the entire article is one giant spoiler for Season 2 (up to this point at least).

For those who aren’t familiar with the premise of The Walking Dead (WD), it’s a show on AMC that deals with how society would handle the zombie apocalypse. As you can imagine, society doesn’t handle it very well. What differentiates the show from normal zombie flicks, however, is that it’s more focused on the human response to the apocalypse rather than millions of zombies running around in shopping malls attempting to devour whatever is in their path (except for each other, which leads to one of the great mysteries of the universe: Why don’t zombies eat each other?).  The show focuses on the human interaction during a time of great crisis when the future is entirely uncertain; while WD has its fair share of monsters (or, “walkers” as they’re called in the show), in many ways the show demonstrates both the greatness of humanity and how, in our own way, we too can be monstrous even without being zombies.

Season 2 demonstrates the above brilliantly, specifically in the last few episodes. Earlier in the season, one of the characters – a boy named Carl – was accidentally shot by a stranger named Otis. Otis was shooting at a deer for food and the bullet passed through the deer and into Carl. As it happens, Otis lives on a farm with a family where the patriarch is a veterinarian (yet somehow knows how to operate on humans – the MacGyver of veterinarians). Problem is, he lacks the necessary equipment to operate on Carl. Thus Shane (another character in the show, not the boy’s father) and Otis embark on a quest to bring back the equipment. The good news is the equipment is easily found a few miles away at an abandoned FEMA shelter. The bad news is the FEMA shelter is abandoned because there’s a bunch of zombies wandering around it. Why they chose to stay there rather than wandering off, who knows.

Shane and Otis break in, get the equipment, but are noticed by the zombies. Rather than letting bygones be bygones, the mindless horde of flesh-eaters decides that Shane and Otis look quite tasty. The two men, objecting to the advances of the zombies, decide to make a run for it. In the process, Shane hurts his leg and hops along. As he and Otis slowly move towards their truck it becomes obvious that the zombie horde will catch up with the two men. Shane tells Otis to take the equipment and get it back to the farm to save the boy. Otis rejects the offer and chooses to continue to help Shane. Shane, realizing a sacrifice needs to be made, pulls out his gun and shoots Otis in the leg, leaving Otis as zombie bait while Shane makes his escape. Shane gets the equipment to the farm and in turn saves Carl’s life.

The show presents the act as disgusting and Shane is obviously the villain in the act and to most people Shane certainly is a villain; leave it to a philosopher to question common sense. The moment I saw what Shane did I was appalled, and then I realized that what he did is entirely ethical under most modern ethical theories. So I did what any sensible Christian philosopher would do, I asked what Thomas Aquinas would do. If Thomas Aquinas lived during the zombie apocalypse, what would his response be on how we who are living should act against the (un)living?

Sadly, Aquinas was a rather large man, so chances are if the zombie apocalypse broke out he wouldn’t last. After all, being large we know he wouldn’t be able to run for long distances or very fast. But in the brief time period of his survival from the zombie horde it would be safe to say that Aquinas would roundly reject Shane’s actions; in fact, under Thomistic ethics there is simply no way to justify killing an innocent in order to save the life of another innocent. Yet, I’m not sure that Aquinas goes far enough. Is virtue enough to stop Shane from killing Otis?

I argue that only through theanthropic ethics (theanthropic = God-man, or a human life lived in the Divine) could one look at Shane’s actions and find a justification for moral repulsion. Ultimately, Shane’s actions are selfish and not sacrificial; theanthropic ethics relies on love as the foundation and Shane’s actions simply weren’t loving.

The Failure of Current Ethical Theories to Explain Our Moral Outrage

Most audience members experienced some initial revulsion at Shane’s actions. There was almost a prima facie rejection of Shane’s actions, as though collectively everyone thought, “I would never do that!” Yet, while the show is fictional, it serves as an appropriate analogy for real life situations; remember that in Nazi Germany many people faced the decision of killing an innocent in order to save their own lives, or to save the lives of others. German soldiers were told to kill Jews or face having their own families killed or being killed themselves. We can also think of the modern-day tragedies in Africa where RUF soldiers, or some other guerilla group, forces young children to kill innocent farmers or face being put to death themselves. So while I do write this article a bit tongue-in-cheek, we should understand WD does a magnificent job of presenting a very real ethical dilemma.

Sadly, almost all systems of ethics can justify Shane’s action of killing an innocent man in order to save Carl’s life (or to save Shane’s life). I can give a brief run-down here, though the list (and explanations) are hardly comprehensive:

Utilitarianism – this is the ethic that easily justifies Shane’s actions (and for those keeping up with the show, we’re seeing this ethic continue to arise on whether or not they should search for the missing girl, how to handle the zombie barn hoedown, and the like). Utilitarianism teaches that one is obligated to beget the greatest good (or happiness) for the greatest number of people. When looking to Shane’s actions we see Shane was faced with a few options:

(1) Continue to run with Otis, which would almost certainly lead to their deaths and subsequently Carl’s death, thus leading to the loss of three people from their group

(2) Sacrifice himself by shooting his own leg, forcing Otis to continue on. Of course, Otis had no obligation to Shane’s own group, thus Shane would be committing an act of disservice for his group because they would lose him

(3) Sacrifice Otis in order to get the medical supplies to Carl, thus saving the life of a young member of the group, someone who could help repopulate the earth once the zombies had sated their appetites

Thus, from the Utilitarian perspective Shane was merely aiding the human race by ensuring that (1) Carl was saved and (2) a more productive member of the two groups (himself) survived the ordeal. One can’t show any moral outrage at Shane because he brought about a greater good, even if the means are a bit uncomfortable.

Ethics of the Übermensch – Under Nietzsche’s view of ethics, Shane was simply creating a new ethical framework and then living within that framework. That framework put Shane at the center and gave him the power to act above all others. As the episodes go on, one can see that Shane is attempting to persuade those of influence within the group that his own ethical viewpoint is the valid one. He is acting as the Übermensch, so he can’t be faulted; as Nietzsche would say (or as I would paraphrase Nietzsche), “There is no right or wrong, just interpretations of actions.”

  Evolutionary Ethics – Shane is simply ensuring the survival of the fittest. By finding a way to survive the situation and outwit the circumstances that nature has thrown in his way, one cannot say he is wrong; he is allowing his genes to continue on (and by the time the show is over, he will probably have slept with at least half of the female survivors on earth).

Deontology – If Kant lived during the zombie crisis he would be the ultimate survivor; he would simply read his works to them and the monotony of his works would convince them he was a fellow zombie. Aside from this, however, Kant’s ethics simply wouldn’t work for most people. That’s because Kant’s ethics do not bend, but are rigid. Is it wrong to lie to the Nazis to save the life of a Jew? Most people would agree that it’s not only ethical to lie in this situation, it would be unethical to tell the truth. Kant would stamp his German foot down in a fit of rage and say that if it’s wrong to lie, it’s wrong to lie. So while Kant’s deontology would condemn Shane, it would inevitably lead to everyone dying because it wouldn’t allow for a change in conditions (in fact, Hershel could be viewed as a deontologist; that even in the zombie apocalypse he won’t kill the zombies because they’re “people”).

Theanthropic Ethics in the Zombie Apocalypse

Certainly the “theanthropic ethic” is a Christian ethic, which begets the question, “Is a Christian ethic really better to anything else presented?” After all, Christians seem to be jerks. The most famous and celebrated Christian holiday, Christmas, elicits images of a zombie apocalypse (or is it zombpocolypse?) every year during “Black Friday.” Atheists and non-Christians are obviously sometimes far more moral than their Christian counterparts – think about how American Christians tend to focus on homosexual marriage and abortion, but how hard it is to find them fighting poverty, slave labor overseas, climate change, or other social ills. In the zombie apocalypse one of the last places you’d run to is a church, out of fear of being turned away or finding out the church had allied with the zombies (zombies are the walking dead and if you’ve seen some Christian services then you’ve seen the walking dead).

Thankfully, in discussing Christian ethics or ethics in general we’re not dealing with what is, but with what ought to be, or the justification behind what ought to be. Though Christian ethics is more than an ideal, it is best to say that we’re dealing with the ideal and not the real. We’re not dealing with the present state of affairs, but with what all Christians (and humans) should aim toward.

Christian ethics begins with virtue ethics, the teaching that humans were created to pursue happiness and must gain an inner disposition to achieve this happiness. This happiness isn’t meant in an epicurean way, that each one pursues pleasure, but instead that in finding “happiness” one will have found the ultimate good. Basically, it’s vague, which has been a plague for virtue ethics since Socrates began to toy around with the idea. While virtue ethicists would like to treat this happiness as the ultimate good, when asked to define the happiness you’re going to get a lot of absolute answers (meaning none of them are absolute).

We’ll put aside the issue of happiness for now, except to say that happiness cannot deal with temporal happiness or material items for happiness. After all, how could we obtain happiness in a zombie apocalypse? At that point, happiness becomes hard to find in the situations of life, leading us to conclude that life isn’t worth living unless there is an ultimate happiness we’re heading towards.

Putting the issue of happiness aside (for now) we can look to exactly what virtue teaches us. Aristotle brought up a lot about the habits of virtue – we come to know what the right thing is, or what the good is, and then make a habit of acting towards it. At first we have to force ourselves to act good, but eventually it just becomes a natural thing we do without even thinking about. We think of how we raise children; we teach them to open doors for the elderly and at first they have to make a conscious decision to do so, but as they get older and get used to doing it, it simply becomes a habit, something they naturally do. Thus, they become “naturally” good.

Essentially, virtue teaches that we are to change our inner disposition so that we’re consistently choosing to do the right thing regardless of the situation. Rather than setting up rules – like deontology – we ‘organically’ pursue the good so that we will act different in certain circumstances, yet remain good. When we see a zombie, we’ll recognize that it’s okay to kill it in self-defense (unlike Hershel), but we’ll realize it’s wrong to kill an innocent to save our own lives (unlike Shane).

One doesn’t have to be a Christian to accept the virtues either, especially considering that virtue theory really arises from a Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian base. Even Thomistic Virtue is better seen as Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna) virtue theory, which is based on Aristotle. The four cardinal virtues – justice, courage, prudence, and temperance – make us better humans, something you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize. As fallen humans we tend to be beasts, we tend to be zombies without being actual zombies; we become mindless drones who lose control of our brains and walk around devouring the minds of the living, the thinkers, to satisfy our sinful desires (don’t believe me? Look at the political process in America). Virtue fixes this, virtue makes us more than a zombie and restores our humanity.

If virtue can be said to make us human, then theosis is what makes us divine. It’s hard to give a definition to theosis not because it hasn’t been defined, but because in our modern times when we face pantheism and the “New Age” movement, the idea that we become “a god” inherently sets off the heresy alarm. But it should be noted that this teaching has been around since the beginning; we’ve just abandoned it in the West.

Essentially, theosis is the process that makes us like God in all things except essence and being and all of this is accomplished through grace. We don’t become “gods” in the Mormon sense where we get our own planets, nor do we become one with God in the Hindu sense, where God is just a type of Brahma that we unify with. We still remain distinct from God, yet unified to Him through grace. This is best represented in the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Paul teaches that faith, hope, and love drive the Christian ethic, but love is at its foundation. I would contend that what Paul says is almost a commentary on Christ’s teaching of the two greatest commandments; we are to love the Lord God with all our hearts, minds, and souls (our entire being), and the second is like it, to love our neighbors as ourselves. In short, the two greatest commandments summarize the theanthropic life, and Paul is merely adding commentary on what that means. Whereas virtue makes us better humans by living in a good fashion, theosis makes humans Divine by teaching them to live in love, to live in a God-fashion. In other words, happiness is God, the purpose of life is God.

Thus, humans are called to love God and to love God’s image (humans), and this is true happiness. This is why Jesus says the second greatest commandment is like the first, because if we love God then we must love those who have His image. This would mean that to destroy the image of God would display a lack of love towards God Himself. The perfect verse that demonstrates this is one I wrote about a while ago, Proverbs 14:31. As I stated in that post, depending which translation one reads, it’ll either say that if one loves God, one will help the poor, or that if one helps the poor, one then loves God. This is a case where though the two readings are different, both are true if we take them in light of the two greatest commandments; if we love God, we will love humans, and if we love humans, we will love God.

Now of course there are times where destroying the image of God becomes a tragic necessity. In the case of self-defense, the case of a just war (and they do exist), or other similar situations justifies killing. No one is saying it is morally good to kill in those situations, merely that it does become necessary. What is always wrong and never justified, however, is the intentional murder of innocent humans to save the life of others.

So what about Shane? Does the theanthropic life teach us anything about Shane’s actions?

First, did Shane kill an innocent man? After all, it was because of Otis that Carl was in that predicament. It was Otis’ carelessness that caused the entire situation to come about. At the same time, Otis did not intentionally shoot Carl. If it happened in a civilized society (you know, one that didn’t have zombies) then Otis would be held for an involuntary act. Even our legal system sees a difference between voluntary acts of aggression and involuntary acts. Thus, while Otis was responsible for the situation, morally he was innocent because he did not intentionally cause Carl’s pain. Furthermore, in the zombie apocalypse you simply don’t expect a child to be standing on the other side of a deer.  In killing Otis, Shane took the life of an innocent man.

Second, the motivation for killing Otis wasn’t entirely pure. The primary motivation for Shane’s action was to save Carl, of that there is no doubt. In fact, Shane even told Otis to continue on without him and offered himself up as a sacrifice. Otis, however, refused to leave Shane behind, which of course ran the risk of both Otis and Shane dying. At the same time, how was Shane showing love to his neighbor by sacrificing Otis?

At the end of the day, Shane put his life ahead of another’s life. Rather than forcing Otis to move ahead or by fighting on against his impending death. He wanted to make sure he was around to make advances on Carl’s mom (the wife of Rick, who’s still alive, but there’s some very awkward backstory there) and protect Carl as well. When he got back he acted as the hero, reminding everyone that he saved Carl’s life.

No mater how you look at it, from the theanthropic view it’s better to suffer an evil than to cause an evil. It’s better to be tortured and murdered rather than be the torturer and murderer. It’s better to be eaten by the zombie than to be the zombie (let’s face it, either way that’s just a bad situation). For Shane, it would be better to be attacked by zombies and lose his life than to escape the zombies but lose his soul.

Going back to virtue, if doing the right thing becomes a habit, then it’s true that choosing to do the wrong thing is also a habit (or habit forming). One doesn’t wake up one day and decide that it’s okay to kill innocent humans to save other people; that comes through years of choosing to do the wrong thing or to act immorally. This is even prevalent from the first season where Shane is shown making advances on Rick’s wife just a few weeks after Rick was thought to be dead (told you there was an awkward backstory). It simply goes to show that Shane has already formed a habit of making the wrong choices before killing Otis.

Under virtue, one would say that Shane should have chosen the good and formed the habit of choosing the good. Had he, perhaps he could have been creative enough to choose the good in the situation and still survive. At the very least, even if he lost his life, he would have gained his soul.

More importantly, however, is how Shane’s actions look in the theanthropic life. Shane’s actions were the antithesis of loving. Had he sacrificed himself then he would have proven to be loving (as love is a sacrifice). The theanthropic life, then, is one of constant sacrifice, or at a minimum it’s not sacrificing others to achieve your goal. It’s treating people as people (love your neighbor) rather than means to an end or zombie bait.

On a more serious note within this hypothetical, in many ways humans in their present state are far worse than they are as zombies. After all, no one chooses to be a zombie. Once a zombie, no one chooses to eat the living, that’s just a part of its nature. Humans, on the other hand, choose to be beastly to one another. A zombie eats a human and goes on, not knowing what it has done; a business owner uses slave labor in Africa to bring over cheaper chocolate, but does so willfully. Which one is the real monster? Which one should we truly fear, the one who commits evil acts by nature or the one who chooses evil though he doesn’t have to?

Along those same lines, it is into this morally reprehensible world that God spoke to bring light, to show people that they were called to be more than what they are. God sacrificially created the world and then sacrificially gave it a way to live as He lives (via the Incarnation). That is the foundation of theanthropic ethics.

In the end, if we live in the ethics of love (theanthropic ethics) then we can never sacrifice an innocent to save another, or to save our own lives. We must always put the other before us. While it’s fun to contemplate how that looks in a zombie apocalypse, consider it in the real world as well. It’s wrong for the business owner to put himself before his employees. It’s wrong for the father to put his needs before those of his family. It’s wrong to elevate ourselves and to use other people as a means rather than as ends. Theanthropic ethics means we are self-sacrificial, even if it costs us our lives.

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3 thoughts on “Theanthropic Ethics in the Zombie Apocalypse: Why the Disposition of Your Heart Could Save Your Brain (and Soul)

  1. I feel like I’m living with the zombies today, no need for a show about them. They suck you in with smiles and cookies, then make you eat the flesh, and drink the blood of their long dead zombie leader. Then they threaten you with eternal torture if you don’t join their legion of The Walking Dead.
    Great post Joel, although I admit I only read the first part about the zombies, and I thought Shane was stupid to shoot Otis in the leg.

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