Zombie Ethics: Examining Human Morality Before & During the Zombie Apocalypse


“If we are born with a good nature, then it is society that corrupts us, and if we are born with a bad nature, society is what keeps our desire to commit evil at bay.”1

Philosophers have argued for centuries whether or not humans are born inherently good or evil. No matter which side of the argument you defend, it is an undisputable fact that when faced with apocalypse and the dissolution of society, actions once considered drastic become the norm as humans struggle to survive. This reversal of moral codes is explored well within the zombie genre. Flesh-eating monsters are an ever present threat within zombie media, but perhaps the greatest challenges are the repugnant choices humans are faced with - choices such as murder, theft, cannibalism, and many more sacrifices of morality. With the rise of zombies in our popular culture within the last few decades, there have been increasingly realistic and profound depictions of the world reacting to a zombie apocalypse. We center upon examples of these depictions here, through critical discourse analysis of select scenes from The Walking Dead, The Zombie Survival Guide, and World War Z. As a result of our analysis, we make predictions as to how humans will fare in the apocalypse. This is significant because our exploration of the landscape of zombie media illustrates not only the nature of humankind, but also the contemporary issues of racism that we face today, specifically in the U.S.


“Shoot first, ask questions about morality later.”

Structural racism is the combined results of institutionalized practice and learned behavior. For the sake of this essay, racism will be defined as

“the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage Whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color”.2

The adverse outcomes of structural racism surface in the inordinate amount of unarmed Black men being murdered by police throughout the U.S. One of the reasons this is such a prevalent issue is widespread acceptance of negative stereotypes associated with Black males. For example, the superpredator stereotype holds that Black males, no matter their size, are more dangerous than their white counterparts.

“For example, Black men are more likely than White men to be misremembered as carrying a weapon , are more likely to facilitate the visual recognition of a weapon, are more likely to be shot mistakenly in a virtual crime scenario while holding an innocent object such as a soda can , and are more likely to activate concepts related to crime.” 3

This study by Wilson, Hugenberg, and Rule (2017)gives insight into how police and others justify the murder of Black males based on the perception that they are larger and more formidable than their White counterparts. Given how racist practices like this surface everyday in American society, we predict racism will continue to surface in post-apocalyptic settings after the collapse of a society. Although society in America has not yet fallen apart, accurate predictions of human behavior can be drawn from previous cases in history where American society was on the brink of collapse. For example, both World Wars I and II were considered to be a “total war”, or a war that required the combined efforts of the entire population and resources of the entire country to win. This meant that people of color, women, and people of all gender identities were involved in the wartime effort. These two wars were the closest America has come to losing a global conflict on our own soil, and despite this, minorities were viciously oppressed during and after both World Wars. In the Digital History of World War II, there are many accounts of Americans of color being systematically excluded on the basis of their race.

“During the war, the Marines excluded Blacks, the Navy used them as servants, and the Army created separate Black regiments commanded mostly by white officers. The Red Cross even segregated blood plasma.” 4

Morality was at an extreme low and human rights continued to be violated during the two most deadly wars in American history, so the idea that human nature would become altruistic during an apocalypse is highly improbable. In fact, without the laws in place today that guarantee inalienable human rights, America’s moral compass could only become worse.

Dale and T-Dawg in TWD

The Walking Dead follows sheriff Rick Grimes, who awakens from a coma to discover a world overrun by zombies, commonly referred to as “walkers”. Grimes eventually reunites with his family and becomes the leader of a band he forms with other survivors in the Atlanta area. Together, they struggle to survive and adapt to a post-apocalyptic world filled with walkers and opposing groups of survivors, who are often more dangerous than the walkers themselves.

In Season 2, Episode 1 (2011) of The Walking Dead, T Dawg expresses fear for his life not only as a human attempting to survive the zombie apocalypse, but also as a Black man trying to survive in the American South . T Dawg is not making these claims without reason, as he was called the n-word and was assaulted by Meryl, a bigoted White southern male survivor. In a private conversation with Dale, T Dawg expresses his concerns for his immediate safety, drawing attention to his vulnerable status as the only black survivor he knows.

T Dawg: What are you, 70?

Dale: 64.

T Dawg: Uh-huh, and I am the one Black guy. Realize how precarious that makes my situation?

Dale: What the hell are you talking about?

T Dawg: I am talking about two good-old-boy cowboy sheriffs and a redneck whose brother cut off his own hand because I dropped a key. Who in that scenario you think is gonna be first to get lynched?

Dale: You can not be serious. Am I– Hey, am I missing something? 5

This scene is particularly powerful because it allows viewers to experience what race relations outside of a structured society might be like. Dale, a middle aged White male, refuses to acknowledge T Dawg’s concerns about racism, and defends Meryl without even acknowledging his well established racist actions. The refusal to acknowledge problematic power structures has continued for centuries in the U.S, and we have good reason to suspect that this trend will continue during an apocalypse as well.

Ethics in Human and Zombie History

The Zombie Survival Guide, published in 2003, is a fictional but comprehensive guide to surviving in a zombie-infested world. It presents an alternative history set in the real world. The author Max Brooks describes prevailing attitudes that Europeans had during periods of colonial expansion. Jean Beart Lacoutour, a French businessman, describes in a letter how the French colonists would force the residents of Indochina (or modern Vietnam) to fight in a cage with zombies for the entertainment of the French.

“A living human is placed in a cage with one of these creatures. Our human has with him only a small blade, perhaps eight centimeters at most… Will he survive his waltz with the living corpse? If so, how long will he last?”6

As this excerpt shows, the French had no regard for the safety of their colonial subjects, as they would treat their lives as a source of entertainment. The colonists notoriously committed dozens of human rights violations towards the people they exploited, and this excerpt demonstrates that racism or cultural superiority of a cruel nature can still persist during a situation as grave as a zombie apocalypse.

World War Z

Acceptable Forms of Cannibalism

Cannibalism has been present throughout human history, but it has long since been declared taboo. While there may not be specific laws that criminalise the act of cannibalism, there are many that prevent it indirectly. Nevertheless, it is only during times of peace and societal stability that cannibalism is frowned upon. An exception to this is the ‘Custom of the Sea’, which states that when shipwrecked, survivors are legally able to draw lots to see who will be cannibalized to ensure the survival of the others. During the apocalypse presented in World War Z, however, the global stance on eating other human beings drastically changed, as cannibalism became necessary for people to outlast prolonged periods of food shortages.

In World War Z, cannibalism was essential to the survival of one particular family unit. Jesika, the protagonist of one particular chapter in the book, describes to the narrator how her family became cannibals in order to fend off starvation. At first, when the situation seemed like it would get better, Jesika describes their predicament as one giant camping trip.

“We all sang around the campfires at night, these giant bonfires of logs stacked up on one another.”7

However, once they ran out of food, people turned on one another fairly quickly, and the situation became dire. The decision to eat people was a difficult choice for Jesika’s parents, one they debated viciously the night they first tried human flesh. However, as they valued their survival over their morals, they ultimately gave in. “No more fights, no more shooting. By Christmas Day there was plenty of food.” When first reading this chapter, we thought of it as no more than another interesting tale among numerous others in this book. However, upon further investigation, we began to regard this chapter as a social experiment that stood out, as it explores what life would be like if we were to remove societal norms and restrictions to our behavior.

Redeker Plan

The Redeker Plan is a long-term survival plan masterminded by Paul Redeker, a character in Max Brooks’ novel World War Z. It originated from Plan Orange Eighty-Four, which was a plan to save the White minority in South Africa in case the African majorities rebelled. A cold and widely criticized plan, the Redeker Plan features the intentional sacrifice of a significant part of the population so that a “chosen” lot of people can survive in a secluded safe zone. It even features the government replenishing the sacrificial colonies with more people to keep the zombie distracted continuously. As it stemmed from the salvation of a racist minority, it is no surprise that the Redeker Plan was designed to only save a small population of “chosen individuals”.

“Those who were left behind were to be herded into special isolated zones. They were to be human bait, distracting the undead from following the retreating army to their safe zone. Redeker argued that these isolated, uninfected refugees must be kept alive, well defended and even resupplied, if possible, so as to keep the undead hordes firmly rooted to the spot.”7

Although the Redeker plan follows common principles of utilitarianism, it still shows little or no regard for the individual human life. In the Zombie World War, the role of power in determining the matters of survival is well explored with implmentation of the Redeker Plan. Paul Redeker, pioneer of the Redeker Plan, was publicly hated and ostracized, as that sort of plan seems outrageous when proposed in today’s society. However, days into the zombie outbreak, the South African government called in Paul Redeker to execute the plan. Although the plan was heartless, it was a well-thought out and shockingly effective method that prolonged the survival of South Africans. In today’s reality, governments, intelligence agencies and authoritative figures have taken action that demonstrates their belief that some loss of life is justifiable as a means to an end, as seen in World War II. Because of this, it is not farfetched to assume the American government would abandon the majority of its own population to ensure the survival of the elite minority. If this were proposed today, the response would be almost all opposed at the outset, but perhaps a combination of time and desperation would change the mind of the public. This goes to show that World War Z is an astonishing but a well thought-out simulation of a zombie outbreak, which shows us that when faced with global catastrophe, our morals might be put on the back burner.


An inescapable consequence of the zombie apocalypse would be the death of countless human beings. As a result we consider the dissolution of society and the change in our morality - how does this mentality affect the long-term strategy that we use to endure the zombie outbreak?

A common thread that we have explored in our seminar Languages of Fear, Racism and Zombies is the notion of savagery and civility. We compared different groups of people, cannibals and zombies, and placed them on the cline of ‘savagery’. We discovered that while the concept of civilisation has long been tied to society, norms, and delicate sensibilities, what might really help us understand what this means is examining a circumstance of apocalyptic proportions. Maybe only when faced with the task of rebuilding our lives can we really consider what it means to be civilised and what the fundamentals of societies are.

Key questions that this essay has considered concern whether humans are inherently good or bad, and also society’s influence upon our behavior. We have argued that our moral compass will spin south during the apocalypse, but historic periods of colonization, as with French Indochina, or circumstances of total war, as in World War II, suggest that humans have not shown much regard for life in the first place. Furthermore, numerous examples of racism in history and fictional zombie accounts suggest that power structures that promote racism may be too deeply embedded within societal structures to simply vanish with the collapse of American society. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act prohibited laws that encouraged segregation, yet ideologies of racism and white supremacy are still prevalent over 50 years later. Despite the prohibition of segregation, minority groups have continued to face brutal acts of discrimination. This is evident in all walks of life, from the alarming statistics of Black Americans killed by the police to the discrimination of minorities within the American military that still occur today.

Perhaps when we first considered the zombie apocalypse, we would think that the dissolution of society will be accompanied by the dissolution of all its ills - White supremacy, elitism, corruption and sexism. However, historical evidence suggests that perhaps these manifestations of structural inequity may be too deeply embedded within society, and each one of us, for these to be completely overcome.

  1. Stafford, Tom. “BBC - Future - Are we naturally good or bad?” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017.

  2. Lawrence, Kieth, and Terry Keheler. “Structural Racism.” N.p., 2004. Web.

  3. Wilson, J. P., Hugenberg, K., & Rule, N. O. (2017, March 13). Racial Bias in Judgments of Physical Size and Formidability: From Size to Threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000092

  4. “Social Changes During the War.” Digital History. N.p., 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

  5. Moore, Tony, Charlie Adhard, Frank Darabont, and Robert Kirkman. “Bloodletting.” The Walking Dead. 23 Oct. 2011. Television. Transcript.

  6. Brooks, Max. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. Baltimore: Cemetery Dance Publications, 2014. Print.

  7. Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2006. Print. 2