The approach of Halloween tomorrow seems an appropriate time to raise the sensitive topic of zombie euthanasia. Of course, Halloween festivities may be muted on America’s eastern seaboard. A once-in-a-generation storm, Hurricane Sandy, is lashing New York at the moment. Lights are off, streets are flooded, traffic has stopped. There may not be much trick-or-treating.
People who have been preparing for the zombie apocalypse are ready for scenarios like this. Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a book “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” which tells you everything you need to know about coping with epidemics of infectious diseases — hordes of flesh-eating zombies, for example. Hurricanes are a piece of cake compared to a zombie apocalypse.
Officials at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) believe that a zombie apocalypse is only a remote possibility on current trends, but it is not impossible. In fact, according to a survey carried out by the Committee to Re-elect President Obama, about 48% of Americans are already zombies. A poll commissioned by the Committee to elect Mitt Romney found that the figure is about 47%. Clearly, if either of these is correct, the price for unpreparedness could be high. The CDC’s handbook should be in every home.
But one important issue which is not addressed in the CDC’s manual is whether or not it is ethical to euthanase zombies. George Romero’s classic zombie documentaries, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, and so on, make some very big and very questionable ethical assumptions.
Much of the action is taken up with ingenious methods of dispatching zombies. But is it really morally permissible to kill them?
There are bioethicists who contend that it is. Kyle Munkittrick, of Pop Bioethics, has outlined three principles involved in deciding whether zombies may be ethically shot, pitchforked, beheaded, incinerated, etc: the dignity of the body, the state of the infection, and the zombie’s potential for recovering consciousness.
Dignity of the body: a zombie has none. De-animating a zombie restores its dignity. “Therefore, it is acceptable to lobotomize, ignite, and/or puree the zombie without violating your Kantian commitment to the dignity of the body.”
The state of the infection. The situations of people who have been recently infected, who are in transition to zombiehood, or who are fully-committed zombies are different. But the safest course of action is immediate euthanasia.
Consciousness. Even if zombiehood is reversible, the person would survive with significant neurological deficits which would compromise its dignity. The safest course of action is immediate euthanasia.
However, this is a shabby utilitarian approach to decision-making which assumes (a) that the zombies are really dead and (b) that they are no longer humans. If either of these are false, the case for a utilitarian solution to the zombie apocalypse collapses.
Let’s examine whether they are really dead.
A professor at Harvard Medical School, Steven Schlozman, has just published a book on the neuroanatomy of the zombie brain, The Zombie Autopsies, to help prepare for the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. In a very informative video, “Zombie Autopies 101”, he dissects a brain to show the parts which are malfunctioning.
A zombie’s shambling gait is due to problems with its cerebellum. A zombie craves human flesh because its ventromedial hypothalamus is “messed up”. It is stupid because its frontal lobe has been damaged, perhaps irretrievably. its rage is due to a malfunctioning amygdala. The only way to kill zombies is to crush the brain stem, destroying their autonomic nervous system and making it impossible for their hearts to beat or for them to breathe. A meat cleaver in the frontal lobe or parietal lobe may not be sufficient disrupt their functioning.
The conclusion to be drawn from this data is that the zombies are not dead. They are not even brain-dead. Neuroscientists at the University of California San Francisco have identified the particular disease: Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder. Victims suffer from “the loss of rational, voluntary and conscious behavior replaced by delusional/impulsive aggression, stimulus-driven attention, and the inability to coordinate motor or linguistic behaviors”.
So, while they may be different from the rest of us, there is no reason why these differences should not be respected and why their constitutional rights should be ignored. They are still human, albeit severely impaired and very hungry.
One of the main insights of another documentary investigation of the zombie condition, Shaun of the Dead, is that a very thin line separates the day-to-day life of zombies and aimless inner city dwellers who spend their lives watching television and tossing back beers.
In fact, the documentary shows that it may be possible for zombies to regain some cognitive capacity and to live normal lives (as long as they are chained up). The final scene depicts life after the apocalypse. One of the zombies, Ed, has been domesticated and plays video games in a shed in his friend’s backyard – which is not much different from his pre-zombified occupations.
It could even be argued that zombification is an enhanced form of humanity. Although a significant amount of cognitive capacity is sacrificed, zombies gain in strength and endurance. Life is also less complicated by existential anxieties when the daily grind is focused solely upon the next meal. Some people might actually prefer to live as zombies.
Self-preservation is deemed ethical by most reputable bioethicists. Consequently, in the midst of the mayhem of a zombie apocalypse, there can be no objection to killing zombies, provided that it is done humanely.
The question of euthanasia arises after the zombies have been beaten back and the infection placed under control. What should be done with the surviving zombies? Given the successful outcome for Ed in Shaun of the Dead, perhaps we could think of innovative ways to house zombies and integrate them back into society. As long as there is no danger of infecting less impaired humans, they could play with X-Boxes or watch reruns of “Seinfeld”.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.