The Walking Dead Philosophers

Goldblog, J.J. Gould and Scott Meslow are having an ongoing discussion about the current season of the zombie apocalypse. In response to the latest episode, Gould reflects on the show's moral implications:

The elementary struggle for survival in the zombie apocalypse isn't a struggle against evil; it's a struggle against an amoral horror. But it's also the context for another kind of struggle that determines all of the drama in The Walking Dead: the struggle among the survivors to remain human, to maintain their human identity. And as we've seen through Rick, through Andrea, through everyone from their group, this isn't a struggle against change as such; it's a struggle to change, to adapt, without losing yourself. … 

I still think [Goldberg's] right that the show makes a central [conservative] theme of what it means to "grapple with the tragic reality in front of you, rather than make believe that the world, and human nature, are things that they are not." I just don't think that's what the struggle against the zombies represents. Grappling with them, after all, ultimately means realizing that you're up against creatures among whom human nature is precisely and entirely beside the point. More than that, when you over-learn from the new world, when you over-adapt to it — becoming cynical and suspicious to the point of your own inhumanity — you don't necessarily become better suited to it; you may just become [dangerously amoral character] Shane.

I'm one episode behind, because Aaron was away and watching it without him would violate our marriage vows. But as a huge fan of the series, I agree with both John and Jeffrey. The series strips the infrastructure of civilization away, and sees what imprint it has left on the minds and souls of the human survivors. Civilization now exists entirely within their own selves. Yes, they just have to grapple with reality – and are no longer insulated from the cruel moral choices in which the lesser evil is the only option.

But they also seem to me to be defined by their need to retain some kind of hope.

For me, the most electrifying moment recently was watching a woman choose to die in order to give birth. Only one of them could live (at best); and the mother sacrificed herself for her off-spring. If you believe, as I find myself doing in my darker moments, that our modern civilization is environmentally and spiritually unsustainable – that it cannot go on like this as it has in the past – then the series helps you think through that likely collapse, whenever it may happen. And what's left is us and nature. And the audacity of believing in a better future that will almost certainly never come, if we do not collectively summon the courage and selflessness of that mother.

(Video: From the previous season's 11th episode, which centers on the debate over whether to execute a prisoner from an enemy camp.)