Zombie Philosophy

We watched Shaun of the Dead last night. It wasn’t very good, but it raises some great philosophical issues. I’m not thinking about philosophical zombies; I’m thinking about the philosophy of zombies. What’s the difference?

The zombie argument is a standard, if rather strange, move in the philosophy of mind. A “zombie” (although shouldn’t the singular be “zomby?”) is physically identical to a human, and acts just like one, but has no conscious experience. This hypothetical is supposed to prove something about physicalism. (To me it’s just a bizarre way of pointing out that we don’t really understand the nature of subjective experience and never will.)

It should be clear that the zombies we see in movies (let’s call them “cinematic zombies”) are not philosophical zombies, since they’re quite clearly distinguishable from normal, non-undead humans by their shambling gait, hunger for brains, and moaning vocalizations, and variant neurology (which permits, for example, motor control of the legs even after the spinal column has been severed). It’s possible that some cinematic zombies are also philosophical zombies in the sense that they’re physically and behaviorally identical to normal cinematic zombies but lack whatever conscious experience cinematic zombies normally have. But there’s no more (or less) reason to think that J. Random Zombie is a philosophical zombie thank to think that J. Random Human is one.

Assuming, then, that cinematic zombies have conscious experiences (accordingly, I shall henceforth omit the adjective “cinematic”), the more interesting question is that of the subjective nature of zombiedom. What is it like to be a zombie? If we adopt the intentional stance, a zombie appears to have a desire to eat the brains of the living, the sensory ability to distinguish the living and the undead, and the motor control to shamble towards the living and surmount minor obstacles.

These characteristics are not trivial. We don’t have evidence for genuine use of language, for the use of tools, for rational or abstract thought, or for social organization, but we do have evidence for motivations and at least instincts. Emotions and subjective sensory experience are unknown. This puts zombies at a level with many animals, and leaves unresolved the resulting question of their moral status.

That’s unfortunate, because most zombie movies raise much deeper ethical problems than they realize. Most movies treat the killing of a zombie as justifiable self-defense, and under current law, it would appear to be. But is it really?

Consider: zombies come back from the dead. Yes, they come back as zombies, but don’t knock it unless you’re prepared to say that being a zombie is no better than being dead. (I think we don’t have the evidence to let us say that definitively.) And if being one of the undead approaches the experience of being one of the predead, we have some serious ethical headscratchers to deal with.

Zombies have a shot at practical immortality, until we annoying living humans (who don’t how great it is to be a zombie) come along and ruin it by chopping off their heads. If the zombie kills you, you get to live again as one of them. If you kill the zombie, it’s dead for good. If zombies have moral worth, then it’s not clear how that tradeoff ought to come out.

Perhaps the zombies are violating basic precepts of liberalism by trying to dictate how we should live, viz. as zombies. Thus, we’re entitled to defend our way of life by taking theirs. That argument may work, but it presupposes some deeper principles. Can zombies be said to have consented to a diverse human/zombie society? From behind the veil of ignorance, wouldn’t we chose to be zombies rather than to have the miserable experience of being humans desperately holed up until the zombies kill us all?

Let me close with an open-ended question. How would law be different if there were zombies? Some possibilities:

  • Having become a zombie in the interim is a defense to breach of contract.

  • Guillotine returns as preferred method for executions.

  • “Reasonable man” standard supplemented with “reasonable zombie” standard.

  • Zombies granted standing to contest their own wills.

Your ideas?

I’m sure this is an interesting post, but the first clause of your second sentence made it nearly impossible for me to pay attention to the rest. Did you somehow see a different Shaun of the Dead than I did? Or was that a clever reverse-psychology sort of thing, an “it wasn’t [just] very good, it was extremely good” type formulation with the second half meant to be understood?

James —

I appreciate what you’re saying, but I think you’re missing the point about zombies. Zombies live their zombie lives, as far as I can tell, doing nothing but shambling about in a quest for human brains and moaning. They don’t care about their appearance. They don’t form complex societies. They don’t blog.

This is not human flourishing, and I doubt it is even zombie flourishing. Indeed, I find it quite plausible that some zombies would prefer to be put out of their misery.

Greg: zombies do write blogs.

Aislinn — Yikes — I didn’t know that!

I had better watch what I say about them from now on! :-\

James, I’m confused by your self-doubt. We don’t kill zombies because we disagree with their lifestyle. We kill them because they’re trying to eat our brains. Even assuming their sentience and self-actualization, I think that gives us the entitlement to take’em down.

Incidentally, this same argument applies to those urbane, witty, but pesky vampires.

Forget zombies, much of that argument can be applied to ordinary death if you believe in Heaven. Why should we make any effort to avoid death if we go to something better afterward? Some theologies get around that by divine fiat: God wants you to try to remain alive and that’s all there is to it, and if you don’t make the effort and especially if you deliberately kill yourself, you forfeit the eternal reward. But some contradictions remain. Why do people who think they’re bound for Heaven bother seeing doctors?

Just to note briefly, “we don�t really understand the nature of subjective experience and never will” is roughly the problem for physicalism that the argument points out. That is, if physicalism were true then we could in principle understand the nature of subjective experience using a conceptual structure we already have (that is, physical terms and causal relations/etc - leaving aside questions of how well we really do understand these of course). But if we can’t capture it in those terms, and it does happen, then it’s not clear how those terms could capture everything that does happen/does exist. There isn’t, I think, a difference between how you’ve described it and how it characteristically is described as much just a different angle.

luckily i have a 12 gauge and a .22LR if a zombie attack ever happened i would prolly be your best friend to come to =]