When is it okay to kill a zombie?

The Walking Dead returns tomorrow night in the wake of a moral dilemma: Should zombies be killed on sight, or quarantined as sick humans? We look at some of the issues surrounding zombie murder, and want to hear what you think about the ethics of killing these infection-spreading cannibals.

Image from AMCTV.com.

We open at the beginning of the zombie pandemic. There are rumblings of an infection on the news, of people who have turned suddenly violent and spreading disease through their bites. You look out the window and see a bloody-mouthed being shuffling in the distance. Maybe it's an undead creature. Maybe it's a live person infected with a horrible illness, à la 28 Days Later. Would you rush out to kill it? What would you need to know about the figure in order to decide it's okay to kill?

Since the CDC has already put out a pamphlet on zombie preparedness, we asked CDC spokesman David Daigle whether the government agency would ever recommend killing a zombie. The answer was a resolute no:

No, I can think of no scenario where that recommendation would be employed, breaking the cycle of transmission is key and if we look at SARS, H1N1 we see pandemics that public health battled one without a vax and one where a vax was developed later using public health techniques of quarantine, isolation, changing behaviors (more washing of hands, social distancing, avoiding mass gatherings, etc).

Instead, if an individual encounters a zombie in the wild, the CDC recommends quarantine:

We have seen scenarios where patients could not be isolated in a Health Care Facility (facility not in proximity or facility not able to handle additional isolation cases, or family wished to isolate at home). In this scenario the public health team might provide recommendations for care and personal protective equipment (PPE) mask, gloves, etc to protect those providing the care. I was in Angola for a Marburg response and this was often the case where the WHO team helped by providing PPE and showing family members who served as care-givers (and we like to keep this to one person) how to don and care for the patient to protect themselves and prevent further transmission.

Of course, just because the CDC doesn't want us to run out with chainsaws in hand doesn't mean it's necessarily unethical. We turned to Kyle Munkittrick of Pop Bioethics for a more philosophical take on zombie killing. Munkittrick offered a lengthy and lucid analysis on the ethical issues that surround zombie eradication, and I hope he'll post the entire thing on his website soon. (Edit: It's up now. Go read it. Then come back here.) Munkittrick addresses whether or not killing an undead creature would constitute the desecration of a human body, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that zombiism is itself a violation of human dignity, since the human body has been transformed into a violent, shambling mockery of its former form. But even if we're talking about living rage zombies, killing them may still be a moral imperative:

It is possible that the 28 Days Later rage zombies actually exist in this category, in that they are not "dead" per se, but reduced to madness....[I]t is ethically permissible to terminate anyone infected with rage because of 1) the extremely high potential for harm to others 2) the strong possibility of current harm to the individual (presuming a nugget of preserved consciousness likely experiencing nothing but pain and fear) 3) and the fact that involuntary rage behavior violates [their dignity as a human being].

Even if zombiism happened to be reversible, that wouldn't mean that we wouldn't need to kill the infected under certain conditions:

The potential for recovering consciousness: If zombification is irreversible and incurable, the potential is zero and this point is moot. If zombification is preventable only through vaccination, the potential once infected zero. Considering stage 2 of infection [when an infected person is transitioning through death but is not yet dead/zombified], however, whether that is in the process of transition or in a non-morbid form of zombification like rage, there seems the potential for a cure. Presumption of destroying the micro-organism does not guarantee or even create a likelihood of a return to former consciousness undamaged. Based on the degradation of behavior and the nature of zombification (either reanimative or rage) a baseline assumption of severe brain-damage seems reasonable. The diseases effectively necessitate demolition of the pre-frontal cortex and all brain function outside of vulgar sensation for food-seeking and cerebellar activity necessary locomotion. There is also the real chance that the disease constructs temporary ad-hoc networks to overcome the colossal damage to the original brain function. Terminate the disease, the networks collapse and the zombie deanimates or the rage fades and the body is left in a persistent vegetative state.

Thus, the resolution is that, should a cure become available, it comes with the presumption that active killing may still be necessary to prevent further suffering. Delivering the cure during the transition of an individual may result in recovery with none, minor, significant, severe, or mortal brain damage. Based on the individual and the decisions of trusted surrogates, it may be necessary to euthanize anyone with significant or worse brain damage. To persist in such a state is undignified and violates [the dignity of the human body].

He also gets a bit into zombie end-of-life issues:

The resolution is that for those who know they are infected, an honest discussion about how they wish to die before infection sets in is had. Mourning, goodbyes and choice of euthanasia are allowed as the situation permits (we are presuming an ideal here, not under constant assault by a shuffling hoard). In this instance, the amount of pain likely caused by transition makes "letting die" an immoral and impermissible decision, thus "active killing" becomes the moral action.

For those who are infected and in transition to the point of having lost lucidity, the moral action is immediate death. Whether you are considering the later possible harms of the zombie, the current harms of pain to the individual, or the dignity of the person being robbed by the transition, the lack of reasonable thought means that person's protests and pleading are to be ignored. All thought is now the result of infection madness, through a haze of blinding pain, or the manifestation of the zombie micro-organism's self-preservation function and are not to be considered in the way the pleading of a lucid person would be.

I rather like this part, and it's now part of my zombie preparedness plan. In the event of zombie pandemic, you and your loved ones should draw up a living dead will.

One other element I'd like to throw out there: Under what conditions might we consider zombies a separate species, worthy of their own survival? We tend to prioritize human life, and you can bet that I'd aim for the brains if a zombie ever came after me. But I can't help but think of the infected in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, who want to survive as much as we do, even if they aren't human any longer.

So where do you fall? What would you have to know about zombies before you'd decide to kill one? Should all zombies be eradicated on sight?

Big thanks to David Daigle and Kyle Munkittrick for their help on this.