Monday, April 01, 2013

THE WALKING DEAD: WHEN IS IT OKAY TO BLOW YOUR OWN BRAINS OUT?

The Walking Dead, saison 1

Okay, so the chances of a real zombie apocalypse happening are pretty slim, but if it did it would raise some interesting questions for Christians. For instance, on tonight’s season finale of The Walking Dead, one of the characters who has been with the show since episode one finally gets bitten, and instead of making someone else kill them after they turn, asks for a gun so they can put a bullet through their own head.

In a non-zombie filled world, and assuming there are no mental issues involved, blowing your own brains out would be a clear case of suicide. And as the Catechism points out, this is clearly not allowed because “suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.”

But what about once you add zombies to the equation? In the world of The Walking Dead, unless you manage to chop off the compromised limb within a minute or so, a zombie bite is a guaranteed death sentence. And in the case of tonight’s episode, the character in question was bitten in the neck, so amputation was not an option. That means without a doubt this character was going to die, turn into a zombie, and immediately attack any living person in the room. So, under those circumstances, was it moral or immoral for this character to take their own life?

Alas, as much as I’ve searched, I can’t find anything addressing zombie apocalypse ethics in the Catechism, and I don’t suppose we’re going to a bishop’s ruling on this question anytime soon. That being the case, I’ll go ahead and take a shot at it (so to speak) myself. According to the Catechism, “The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the "sources," or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts. The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself… In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action… [however] a good intention (for example, that of helping one's neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means… The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent's responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.”

So let’s see. If I’m reading things correctly, in this situation the intention is to protect others, which is inarguably a good thing, however, the moral object (the end towards which the chosen act is inherently directed) would be the extinguishing of one’s own life, which is a grave sin. I’d say the circumstances obviously diminish the culpability of the person pulling the trigger, but are they enough to make the action a moral one? Before we make a decision, let’s throw in one more wrinkle. The Catechism has this to say about defense. “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.” Given that, perhaps the first question to answer is, since returning as a zombie would obviously endanger others, could shooting yourself in the head actually be considered a legitimate act of defense of others, or would it still be considered suicide (and therefore immoral) because there’s always the possibility someone else could finish off your zombified corpse before it harms anybody?

Well, I’m not the Pope, but in this case, I think that personally I would rather err on the side of mercy and say that if someone in that particular circumstance felt it necessary to take their own life for the safety of the group, God would probably go easy on them. He tends to do that after all.

So, anybody got any ideas on this one?

24 comments:

Scott W. said...

Certainly there could be limited culpability if one chose suicide over dying an agonizing death and potentially rising again as a zombie. It IS a suicide however, and to be (granted, hard to do in these circumstances) avoided.

EegahInc said...

Which I suppose leads to the next question, once they've lost consciousness, do you go ahead and shoot them or take your chances and wait until they turn. Murder or defense?

Xena Catolica said...

I think I'd have to disagree on the grounds of full rationality. One's ability to reason is a factor of culpability, so a person whose reason is impaired by mental illness or extreme fear isn't fully culpable for a sin. So someone who jumps off a burning building in terror isn't fully culpable, but someone whose reason still governs their will is fully culpable.

Moral theology isn't my thing, but I was teaching RCIA when the 9/11 attacks happened. Suicides are buried by the Church now in presumption of mental illness or extreme fear.

For the Zombie-bitten, I think the victim is obliged to communicate their state if at all possible--leave a note (or whatever) while they're still conscious if they can. But shooting them before they're dead seems like euthanasia rather than self-defense...

EegahInc said...

Okay, so the actual shooting of yourself would still be suicide, therefore illicit, but the intentions and circumstances (which would include mental condition) would most likely remove culpability. That sounds Catholic.

As for the second question, it would seem more proper to wait until the person actually turned. That way you don't sin against hope. But what about adding another wrinkle? (We could do zombie scenarios all day) What if the person has been caught by zombies, is being eaten, and begs to be shot before you make your own escape? Moral or immoral to take the shot?

Xena Catolica said...

Immoral, because it is a still euthanasia and/or assisted suicide. I admit I thought about this with the mercy killings in "Starship Trooper" and "Old Man's War".

Surely someone has already done the moral ramifications of vampires, and we're merely reiventing the wheel here...

Joseph R. said...

I agree that shooting yourself in the head in anticipation of turning into a zombie is morally illicit, though as you say culpability may be diminished or extinguished given the circumstances. The character in question from The Walking Dead was mentally sound if scared.

In the person being eaten by zombies, there's two issues. (1) Ending the suffering of being eaten, which doesn't seem licit since the act is inherent immoral (killing the person); if you shot them with a tranquilizer gun you could end the pain without taking the life, so that'd be okay morally. (2) Preventing the return as a zombie, which again is through an illicit act (killing the person); also, (and I realize this is pretty grim but hey you're the b-movie catechist, right?) the issue of returning as a zombie after being eaten is questionable since there might not be enough of the person left to come back (the difference between being bitten and being eaten). If the zombies eat the brains (as they often do), that would presumably prevent the false zombie resurrection.

Have I though about this too much? Have I used too many parentheses?

EegahInc said...

In the last scenario, you're probably right about there not being much left to return as a zombie. It would definitely be more of a case of ending suffering. That being the case, we're certainly not over-thinking things, because if you replace zombies with something like the situation in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, then the principles we're discussing suddenly have very real world repercussions.

Smiter the Archdeacon said...

I think we're overlooking the spiritual dimensions of the imminent zombification. Becoming a zombie puts one's soul at risk, and the Christian's response ought rather to be, "What profiteth one," etc. I would therefore argue that, to preserve one's hope of salvation, and to prevent wrongful injury to others (i.e., one's potential zombie victims), one has a moral duty to suicide in this case. One must first, of course, be morally certain of the circumstances (one actually was bitten, it actually was a zombie that bit, one has no other recourse to prevent zombification), and make a perfect act of contrition (it helps, when facing zombies, to be "up to date" on one's Confession and penances).

Scott W. said...

No, succumbing to a zombifying disease you didn't chose and utterly destroys your will in no way jeopardizes your soul. There is no such thing as a duty to suicide.

Smiter the Archdeacon said...

But zombification is precisely a spiritual, not a bodily, "disease." Choice is irrelevant. If one's soul is attacked and destroyed, it's no good saying, "But I didn't choose to have my soul attacked and destroyed!" If the will is gone, then what can grace act on? As the Psalmist says, "Neither do those who go down into the pit await your kindness," and "Some deadly thing has fastened upon him," etc.

Scott W. said...

Perhaps you are not familiar with The Walking Dead, but in that series, zombification is very much a bodily disease (unless there is some future unrevealed aspect of it I am not aware of). In any case, willful and deliberate suicide is always an objectively evil chosen act.

EegahInc said...

I guess it all depends on which zombie apocalypse we're talking about. If memory serves (questionable), there was an episode of Walking Dead where they explained that the person dies and all that reanimates soon after is the body. In that case, the only 'soul' present would be that of the virus (in the Aquinas sense that all living things have souls).

In some stories though, like the recent Warm Bodies, something of the person remains and can return over time, which suggests the soul is still present. So there might be a gray area during the transition as to where culpability would begin.

Marvel Zombies had an interesting premise where the zombified person was entirely conscious of what they were doing, but felt compelled to do it anyway. BUT, if you absatined from eating people long enough, you eventually lost the desire. Now there's a scenario with consequences for the soul.

wifeforlife said...

My 17 year old daughter and I had a great discussion about this last night.....
I firmly believe that Andrea (oops, sorry if that's a spoiler!) was sacrificing herself in a way. She took the moral responsibility away from anyone else having to kill her, while she was ensuring their safety by PREVENTING them from being exposed to the danger of fighting her. The entire episode (as was episode 15) had such an incredible Christian message about love, sacrifice and forgiveness.

Scott W. said...

We shouldn't confuse suicide with martyrdom. There are always morally legitimate options that reasonably protect others without resorting to suicide. Also, we should be very cautious about applying the principle of double effect. Sure, good effects might come from certain acts (although in this case they seem awfully vague and hardly a given), but those acts have to be morally legitimate in and of themselves.

Smiter the Archdeacon said...

I have to reject the premise that zombification is merely a bodily disease. If so, one has absolutely no explanation for how it might cause a change in one's will, much less destroy it completely. Further, such "monsters" are merely objects of pity, and not scary at all. So there's little point to stories about how horrible it is to become sad and pitiable. Most of us are sad and pitiable anyway, which is why we need Christ...

EegahInc said...

Sounds like we're hitting an impasse here. Wonder if there's any chance of getting a ruling from the Pope?

Smiter the Archdeacon said...

I can't offer anything from the Pope, but I can provide any number of references from "The Big Book of Spiritual Warfare" by St. Pseudonymus the Hoplite, 5th founding abbot of the Skopelite monastery (originally Basili Regula, later Augustinian, finally KFC*) on the slopes of Mt. Etna that kept watch on the reputed doorway to hell...

* "Knights of the Fulgent Cross," a small military order of the sort typical of the later Middle Ages.

Scott W. said...

I have to reject the premise that zombification is merely a bodily disease

Then I would suggest that your argument is with the writers of The Walking Dead, and not with me.

If so, one has absolutely no explanation for how it might cause a change in one's will, much less destroy it completely

I trying to think of any zombie movie that does that and I'm coming up blank. We may be miscommunicating, but it seems like you are suggesting that zombies should be like Anakin Skywalker.

Further, such "monsters" are merely objects of pity, and not scary at all.

Oddly enough I suppose, The Walking Dead is one of the most popular zombie series out there and has attracted people who would otherwise never touch a zombie story. Now, obviously popularity doesn't necessarily equal good, but I think the scariness is not so much from the zombies themselves, but in the setting of only a handful of survivors in a wasteland that struggle not only to survive, but also to try to find reasons to survive at all. Also, I'd say that some of the appeal comes from the many moral dilemmas presented in it. For my part, I appreciate how Sheriff Rick Grimes is a classic hero rather than yet another anti-hero or, Heaven forbid, a superhero.

Most of us are sad and pitiable anyway, which is why we need Christ..

I agree completely, so I'll end on that.

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EegahInc said...

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Cari Donaldson said...

So so slow to join the party, but has anyone viewed this in the context as the Church's teaching on the death penalty? It is my (flawed) understanding that the Church teaches that the death penalty is to be strictly limited to societies that lack the technology and resources to ensure that a clear threat to the safety of the surrounding peoples cannot be contained.
So, in cultures like the USA, that have the resources and technology to make escape of violent, truly violent criminals impossible, the death penalty is not licit. But to other societies that don't have the penal system we have, capital punishment may be allowed.

If we apply this to zombies, what do we have? It doesn't address the suicide question, certainly, but it may shed some light on the "when is it ok to kill a soon-to-be-zombie?" question. If evidence shows that a particular injury is going to result in zombism, then isn't it an administering the death penalty in a volatile situation to kill the person even before they turn?

EegahInc said...

I'm not sure. Maybe it would depend on whether you're dealing with old school shambling zombies or modern super-speed zombies. If there was no means to contain them, I could see an argument for a death penalty for the bitten in the case of the latter.

Rachael Chambers said...

I don't think the Zombie would be culpable for their actions and have their soul at risk. Depending on the brand of Zombie. 1. The body dies first, no soul, simply a reanimated corpse. 2. Rabies style Zombie, mental illness, will is impaired. 3. As in the example of Marvel Zombies or Warm Bodies, the person is aware but without the ability to control their actions so not a free action.

I think in that episode of the Walking Dead, her culpability might be lessened because she had to shoot her own sister, knows how that feels, and was attempting to protect her friends from that. I personally would not have given her the gun.

I think many times when someone gets bitten and commits suicide it is more of a selfish motive, not wanting to "become one of those things" and that in my opinion is not justified.

I do think there could be scenarios where protection of others would be valid. A parent protecting a child. A child (Carl being the obvious exception) may not be capable of pulling the trigger once mommy turns.

Death penalty scenario... The problem I see with that is that you would be executing someone based on crimes they have yet to commit. Self defense maybe but I don't think you can necessarily find someone guilty before the fact.

EegahInc said...

Hi Rachael, The only qualification I might make is in the Marvel Zombies scenario. In the series I read, if the zombies didn't eat for a long time, they eventually lost the desire. So there's some period in there where they become, at least in part, culpable for their actions. I guess it could be comparable to an alcoholic trying not to fall off the wagon.