I taught Philosophy of Zombies this summer, and I am increasingly convinced that zombies are not science fiction but are quite real and closer to us than we would like to imagine.
What is a Zombie?
Most of us are familiar with zombies through movies. Depending on the movies you watch zombies can have a slow, shuffling gait (like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead), or they can be fast, violent, and nightmarish (see 28 Days Later).
Whether fast or slow, zombies share several common characteristics. They lack traits like conscious awareness, imagination, empathy, and compassion that we often consider integral to our humanity.
In their undead state, zombies usually have one main purpose: to eat people—usually their brains. And it doesn’t matter if a zombie was once your father, your lover, your best friend, your wife. If a zombie gets a hold of you, it will eat you and often (depending on the movie) tear you apart in the process.
A zombie’s raison d’etre is to consume.
There’s Something About Zombies
Zombies are in a class of terrifying and dreadful all their own.
Certainly brain-eating and violent deaths are scary in themselves, but we seem to be much more terrified when zombies are out to get us than when, say, lions or even sharks are.
In the latter instance, natural predators are certainly scary and drive us to hide. Zombies, however, signal the apocalypse and the end of the world.
And all monsters are dreadful. Vampires are. Ghosts are. Medusa is.
But there is something uniquely dreadful about zombies.
I would argue that if most people were given the choice of being a vampire or ghost or Medusa or a zombie (if the person didn’t have a choice about becoming a monster), most people would choose to become almost any other monster besides a zombie.
Zombies are scarier than vampires.
Why is this?
The Particular Dreadfulness of Zombies
First, zombies are particularly dreadful because they are the opposite of being human. We don’t always get what it means to be human, but we are certain that whatever being human is, zombies are not it.
So, zombies are particularly terrifying because they are creatures who used to be human beings but who have become completely inhuman. Perhaps this especially terrifies us because it is frightening to think that we could still be us in some way (like being in our bodies) but completely lose what is most us: our humanity.
Zombies are scarier than ghosts.
Second, zombies are particularly dreadful because they are empty. Zombies do not have dreams. They do not have imagination. They lack creativity, compassion, and an emotional life. They cannot give, create, or improve. There is an element of dreadful passiveness to zombies. Their only activity is to destroy and consume.
So, whatever being human means to us, it must have to do with the ability to give, create, or improve through our dreams, imagination, compassion and other emotional—or what might be called spiritual–capacities. It seems that we believe that positive constructive power lies at the heart of our humanity.
Third, zombies are particularly dreadful because there is no better for zombies. There is just more. And it seems that the brains zombies eat only contribute to their terrible hunger. The more zombies consume, the more they want to consume, so that they sink further and further into a perpetual cycle of violent consumption and desperate hunger.
Zombies are scarier than Medusa.
Could We Ever Turn Into a Zombie?
We think zombie-ism is something that happens to someone else, and it is never something that happens to us, but I have been reconsidering this.
As I mentioned, I taught a class this summer on zombies. Zombies present a lot of interesting things to think about philosophically.
For example, they present important questions about the nature of the self. If you become a zombie and your body is more or less the same, but you no longer have your previous memories or emotions, are you still you?
Zombies also present interesting ethical dilemmas. For example, let’s say the apocalypse happened, but we captured all the zombies, and it turns out we can train them to do basic tasks. Is it okay to use zombies as our slaves? Would it be ethical to force zombie gladiators to fight to the death in an arena for our amusement?
I am definitely interested in these questions, but there is another question that interests me more: Is zombie-ism an either/or condition—as in, you’re either a zombie or a human? Or is zombie-ism just one end of the human continuum? For instance, perhaps zombie-ism is the extreme bad end of the spectrum of humanity.
If this is the case, could we become a zombie? And if so, what would cause such a change?
Do I Know Any Zombies?
If we consider that zombies mindlessly consume; that their hunger is never satiated; and that they lack compassion and creativity, we realize that it is very easy for us to behave like a zombie.
For example, how easy it is for us to get caught up in….
Using things mindlessly
Using people mindlessly.
When we consume mindlessly, we don’t really don’t think much about why we are consuming, and we don’t really appreciate the beautiful, delicious, or excellent qualities of what we consume.
Rather, it seems, we become obsessed in the act of consuming itself. We focus on clicking the Amazon purchase button or dropping stuff in our shopping cart or putting stuff in our mouths. This reflects classic zombie behavior.
Now there is nothing wrong with consumption in itself. After all, we have to consume a certain amount to live or to have the material on which to exercise our intellect and creativity.
And there are some times in our life, like when we purchase a new house or move into a new apartment or get married or have a child or begin a new business in which we have to consume, and even consume a lot, in order to move successfully into the next stage of our lives.
There is nothing wrong with consumption in itself, but there can be something wrong with how we consume.
For instance, we might also consider this. How often do we consume things without considering…
How it affects us,
How it affects other people,
How it affects the world we live in?
How often do we consume without asking, “Have people or other creatures had to suffer needlessly in order for me to consume this?”
How often do we believe that we must keep doing the things we have always done in the way we have always done them because this is just how things are and they never change?
I ask these questions not to shame us–shame is rarely a helpful motivator for change–but rather to point out that it is pretty easy for us to exhibit zombie-like behavior when we consume mindlessly.
That is one of the major reasons why, I believe, zombie movies are so popular and so terrifying. They tell us what we already know and fear: We, too, could become a zombie.
What is the Alternative?
The fact that zombies are on the extreme bad end of the spectrum of humanity raises another question: what is the extreme good end of the spectrum of humanity? If zombies are the Undead perhaps we could call it the extreme good end of the spectrum the Super-Alive, and it is interesting to think about what kinds of characteristics the Super-Alive might possess.
At a minimum, it seems that the Super-Alive would possess the opposite character traits of the Undead.
So, for example, if the Undead consume mindlessly, then it seems that the Super-Alive would consume with presence, attention, and care when they choose to consume.
If the Undead have no choice but to consume, the Super-Alive are conscious of a choice. They realize that there is a time to consume and a time not to consume. And they can act on this knowledge.
If the Undead have no ability to act in productive, creative ways, the primary mode of the Super-Alive is to act in these ways in order to bring more beauty and goodness into the world (instead of acting in a way that brings more chaos and destruction).
If the Undead have no ability to have compassion, to express emotions, to dream and to imagine, the Super-Alive regularly engage in such activities and practices.
If the Undead have no conception of a different way of life and are passive participants in their reality, the Super-Alive realize that they contribute, at least in part, to the construction of their world. They take an active, thoughtful role in this process.
We Can’t Always Be Super-Alive
Once again, the goal of sharing these characteristics of the Super-Alive is not to shame us. No one can be Super-Alive all the time.
But if we are looking at the spectrum of humanity, with the Undead on the one side and the Super-Alive on the other, a reasonable thing to wonder at this point is to wonder what might turn us into a zombie.
How Does the Zombie Apocalypse Happen?
No one wants to be a zombie. No one wants to be Undead.
In movies, zombie apocalypses are often precipitated by a contagious virus that afflicts a small group of people. And then, of course, other people are exposed to the blood of the infected, usually by being bitten by a zombie.
If zombie movies are a type of metaphor for human existence, then we might wonder what types of cultural “viruses” encourage zombie-like outbreaks in our world.
It seems like they would have to be cultural habits that encourage mindless consumption, passivity and that also encourage a lack of compassion, creativity, and hopeful activity.
It is important to consider how completely unregulated capitalism or a completely unregulated market matches this description of a zombie virus.
The good side of capitalism is that it can, in certain scenarios, financially incentivize people to come up with creative solutions to problems or to think of new products to make our lives better.
The dark side of capitalism is that pure capitalism’s only value is more: more money, more production, more output.
So, if capitalism is completely unregulated or completely unchecked by principles such as compassion or respect for people or care for communities and land, the only value left is more, more, more. That means that businesses and companies completely driven by this value will consume people, communities, and land without any thought to the effect this consumption.
These businesses and companies are driven by zombie economics.
For example, let’s say that there is a chain store purely driven by making more money and increasing profit. That store might do things like pay its workers less, take away their health benefits, decrease opportunities for overtime, and make these employees work in hot environments without air conditioning (in the hopes of making more money by turning off the air.)
Or, as another example, consider a company that sells clothes made in a different country. Making clothes in another country is not bad, per se. But imagine this company makes clothes in a different for the sole purpose of making more money by dodging regulations (like labor unions or OSHA).
For instance, this company can set up a shop in Thailand, hire a ten-year-old boy, and pay him twenty cents to sew zippers into pants for twelve hours a day in a building so unsafe that it eventually burns to the ground (because of shoddy electrical wiring) and kills the young boy.
As another example, consider a politician who decides to lift restrictions on air and water pollution and who decreases the amount of natural land that is preserved for public use and for future generations. The politician does this solely so that companies can maximize profits and develop land without having to worry about pollution and their destruction of natural habitats .
In all of these instances, the stores and companies and politicians seem to be operating in zombie mode. They are driven by values of consumption, to the exclusion of compassion for people and the environment. They are also driven by an inability to look at the world through any other lens than one of consumption. This is tragically uncreative.
The Most Effective Zombie Virus
Now imagine if, as a society, we decide that this is just the way the world is–that this is just how our economy has to work. So, we continue these practices, we absorb these consuming values into our everyday life and politics, and we educate our children in these ways.
What I believe we are doing is spreading a zombie virus in a highly efficient, thoroughgoing way. In fact, our zombie virus is so powerful that we do not even realize that we are infected.
In fact, the more we are infected with our virus, the more productive, efficient, and successful we think we are.
Zombies R Us: How Do I Know If I am a Zombie?
It is troubling to think that we could be infected with a zombie virus and not even realize it—that we, in fact, could come to think that our infection and the infection around us is a sign of success.
What we need, perhaps, is a checklist that allows us to see if we are infected with a little bit or even a lot of this zombie virus.
Here are at least some of the questions that should be on such a checklist:
Does the patient value compassion, creativity, and positive engagement with the world more than consuming things? Do these values show up in his or her life?
Is the patient able to, at certain times in his or her life, decrease consumption levels? For instance, could he or she, at some point, go weeks or months without buying new stuff except the essentials?
Does the patient support an economic system that is primarily based on the consumption of people and nature? Does the patient know how his or her food, clothes, and other possessions are produced?
Is the patient willing to change his or her habits in order to ensure that people and animals and nature are treated with compassion and to support companies that value compassion and creativity over profit and consumption?
Does the patient support politicians who value consumption over compassion and creativity? Is the patient aware of what his or her chosen politicians think about these issues?
Does the patient believe we can create a different world together?
This List Scares Me
This checklist scares me, and I am the one who wrote it.
It scares me because it indicates that I am infected at least a little bit with a zombie virus or that, at the very least, I am susceptible to being infected with such a virus.
I do love my possessions.
I love buying books off at Amazon, which I sometimes do mindlessly, and without thinking much about how Amazon treats its customers.
I love clothes, and I sometimes I purchase clothes without considering how or where they were made.
This is me when I’m a zombie.
I often eat mindlessly without being totally aware of what I am eating or why I am eating it or how the food I am eating was produced.
I am often so frustrated about the state of politics that I am tempted to give up hope that things will ever change.
Sometimes my life has been dominated by habits and patterns like this, and those times have been pretty dark episodes of my life.
But I am totally committed to not being a zombie. I want to be Super-Alive. And I am committed to encouraging at least my little corner of the world to be less zombie-like and more Super-Alive.
What is the Antidote?
I believe there is an antidote to our zombie virus, and I do not believe that shame is the antidote. After all, no zombie was ever cured by shame. (e.g. Aren’t you so ashamed you are a zombie? What were you thinking?)
No, the antidote to zombie-ism has to involve kindness, care, and compassion for zombies, and it must be rooted in understanding deeply where the zombie virus came from in the first place. That is what I will discuss that in an upcoming post: How Not To Be a Zombie, Part II.
This is me when I am not a zombie.
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 This is not to say that people who have become disabled in some way and lose part or all of their ability to create or to have certain emotions or compassion are less human. Rather, it suggests that their situation is tragic, as we all realize it is, and that they have had something precious stolen from them.
 Whenever we use people as only a tool to get what we want, rather than seeing them as human beings with goals and projects of their own, we mindlessly consume them.
 I have been extremely fortunate to be surrounded by many thoughtful people who have made major changes in their purchasing and eating habits because they realized that their previous habits were causing animals and humans suffering. These friends continually challenge me to be a better person.
 These represent some of the current practices of Wal-Mart.
 Working conditions like this are, of course, called sweatshops, and many popular clothing companies like The Gap produce their clothes in sweatshop conditions in foreign counties.
 This represents the President’s current politics.