This post discusses Season 2 of The Walking Dead. If you are still crawling at zombie-pace through Season 1 on Netflix, you might want to back off at this point and come back later.
In Season 2, Episode 11 of The Walking Dead, “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” Dale argues to save the life of a prisoner. He reminds Rick of Rick’s own earlier mandate: “We don’t kill the living,” which is of course something Rick said before he found out how big of a threat the living could be in a post-apocalyptic world. Dale also poses the question of “What makes us human?” If we start sacrificing the living to protect ourselves, how much humanity do we have left?
At this point, Dale has suspected for some time that Shane killed Otis, and we, as the audience, know that Shane sacrificed Otis in order to save Carl.
Both situations address the same moral question that is a continuing theme throughout the show. It is a question we probably all ask ourselves while watch. Who would we sacrifice to save someone we love? What makes one life more valuable than another? Within the context of the world of The Walking Dead, what makes killing okay? How do we rationalize our support for a character who kills other people?
Do what degree do we think Shane was right or wrong in sacrificing Otis? Do we have an ethical scale for judging this? Can we think he was wrong but still understand why he did it and still find something redeemable in him as a character? Do we only think he was wrong because we found Otis likeable as a character? What if Shane had sacrificed someone like Ed (the wife beater from Season 1)? Would we have felt differently about the ethics of Shane’s choice?
And where do we side in the debate over whether to kill the prisoner or trust him or do something else somewhere in between? Is it more justifiable to sacrifice one life when the exchange is not just one other life but the safety of the group as a whole?
What about if we take these questions outside the world of a fictional TV show, and apply them to real life situations?
Read these articles about ethics:
- Calculating Consequences, A Utilitarian Approach to Ethics
- Obligations to People We Do Not Know
- The Walking Dead: Can Morality Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?
To delve deeper into questions of ethics, read from some of the philosophers themselves:
When is it okay to kill to protect those you love? When is one life more valuable than another? These are questions for moral philosophy, and they are questions for analytical essays in English classes. They lie at the heart of apocalyptic fiction, but they are there as a reflection of our fundamental human need to work out our real morality for the real world and its real potential for violence.
What do you think?
- Is Rick’s group more important on moral grounds than groups he knows nothing about? Is he justified in killing to protect his own group?
- Is Shane’s sacrifice of Otis any different morally than Rick’s decision after much consideration to sacrifice his prisoner?
- If the two situations are the same morally, do we still feel differently about them? If so, why? What does this say about human nature? What does it say about how we adjust our sense of ethics to protect things we care about or things we are more familiar with?
- What happened to change Rick’s view from “we don’t kill the living” to “we must protect the group even if it means killing living people outside the group”? Does an increase in our perceived level of threat change the morality of our actions?
- In Season 2, both Rick and Shane could be described as flawed heroes, but Shane becomes an antihero and even a villain. What’s the distinguishing characteristic between the two?