The Walking Dead and Ethics: Hershel as Virtuous

(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS CONTAINED)

The Walking Dead is an immensely popular show with a large fan base of people who are attracted to either the deep personal and emotional drama, the post-apocalyptic setting, the blood and gore, or perhaps a combination of several of the above.

As with all television, you can really just watch passively without even a modicum of interest in anything beyond a mere surface level of engagement. I think a lot of people do that, which is evident from  responses to those episodes that seem to drag along with no zombie action (though, this is judging from mere individual accounts I hear from people in my personal life). Television is naturally a passive medium of entertainment, one that beckons the watcher to “relax and enjoy the ride.” We all need those moments, sometimes.

Just some survivors survivin’.

But, I think The Walking Dead is ripe for the picking when it comes to philosophical, ethical, and theological questions. Perhaps that is why half of the Religion profs at my university are hooked on the show, some even incorporating ethical questions, and philosophical questions about the nature of the self mined from the show, into class. There are numerous avenues and areas to explore (what does the concept of “zombie” say about the metaphysics of the writers? To what end do we follow in order to survive? Is surviving more important than retaining humanity? Can one be properly human in the face of infinite consumption? Is killing a zombie “murder”?), but I want to focus primarily on Hershel as a sort of guardian of the ethical, and as following a sort of ethics that is counter to modern utilitarianism and contemporary “decisionistic” models that one finds in some circles.

Let us start by identifying “utilitarianism” and “decisionistic” ethics quickly, and perhaps identifying some TWD characters that can be classed into these categories, then we can contrast them with Hershel.

Utilitarianism can be summed up by the cliche adage: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” or, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” Here, of course, there is no transcendence, no actual right or wrong, except in regards to the overall end “number” of pain or pleasure. Of course, this requires  quite laborious calculation, what one could call hedonistic calculus, or “felicific calculus.”  The ethical agent takes into account various variables coming to an ultimate conclusion about which action to take; after all, it’s just the rational thing to do.

Look at the character of Shane. He commits unspeakable acts and threatens to throw away the humanity of the group in order to, hopefully, survive. He kills Otis because the action, perhaps, saves him and Carl and also keeps Lori and Rick from feeling infinite pain. The problem is the “perhaps.”

We cannot calculate these things.

Recently we can see Carol take the same route. She murders two members of the community because they are sick. If she eliminates the source of the illness then everyone lives. If she doesn’t, then everyone will get sick.

Not.

She’s wrong and everyone gets sick anyway. We don’t live in a pretty mechanistic universe where we can account for all of the variables, tidying the up into a pretty package like a nice little accountant. It doesn’t work like that. Utilitarian ethics is not a workable path because we do not have sufficient knowledge; but also, it does not work because even if we were able to break the epistemic (dealing with knowledge) problems we have a larger problem. When there is no “good,” or the good is primarily defined as “whatever makes the greatest number happy or safe” almost any thing can be seen as rightly justified, whether the calculations hold true or not. This is moral fiction, as Alasdair MacIntyre would say.  Perhaps the primary sin is emotivism, or, the appeal to manipulation or power in order to justify the “right” path.

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Hershel in the sick zone.

And then there is Hershel. Before Hershel we had good ol’ Dale, the seemingly sole moral voice in the zombie apocalypse. Only he stood up against the desire to murder. He was killed off and Hershel became the medium, trying to guide the temporarily insane Rick during season three.

There is a direct contrast between Hershel and Carol in season 4. When the plague hits, Carol murders in order to “save”; Hershel sacrifices his self in order to save.

The context is dark. Almost everyone in the prison camp is sick, dying from this strange and quite catch-able flu. Entering the quarantine area almost certainly means sickness and probably death. But, Hershel is a healer and knows that he is not currently sick and that the sick need his help.  Hershel enters a situation that is unthinkable and works, slowing down the sickness with a tea concoction. There is no real calculation on Hershel’s part ; he does not excuse his behavior with vacuous”greatest good” talk; it is quite obvious he does this because of his character, and because he has a certain “good” in mind, the good of sacrificing oneself in order to provide service to the dying, whether they die or not, and despite his possible infection. He is a healer and so stays true to a character of healing and care, much like Jesus sacrificing his safety to cure the lepers, another people of contagion. He believes in an actual “good,” that human beings are worth it, that all life is valuable (that last point is important; he isn’t suicidal).

In the end of the mid-season finale Hershel is murdered. But, his murder is in the face of peace. His impact, the ethical transumptive echo seen through Rick’s requesting the unthinkable to the face of his enemy, brings death. But Hershel smiles in the face of death, a smile of peace because the ethical impact of his character has truly changed Rick.

Part of me wanted to lambaste Rick for not giving into the demands of the Governor; if he had maybe Hershel would be alive. What I did not immediately see is that Rick did not pick the route because he saw the death of one equating to goodness for the greater number, he picked an infinitely difficult third option not mentioned: peace. Co-existence is possible, both Rick and Hershel saw it and believed it.

Sometimes the correct path is a much harder road, one fraught with epistemic uncertainty, difficult trials, and perhaps even death; but, perhaps correct action is not resolutely attached to supposed empirical ends but is found instead in truths that go beyond frenzied survival.

Hershel just before the Governor murders him. He smiles, proud that Rick calls for peace between the two factions.

What do you think of utilitarianism? Have you noticed that you too often justify actions through unknown calculations in order to determine your actions as right? Do you think there is a different foundation, or non-foundation, to ethics? What would that foundation be?