Moral Responsibility and Zombies

Much has already been said about zombies, and the relevance to the current ethos of our era. The collection of essays entitled Zombies and Sexuality (2014) edited by Shaka McGlotten and Steve Jones contain analyses from necrophilia to queer studies, and subjectivity to sex work. There has also been scholarship done in racial studies, political science, immigration, and even religion. But thus far, little has been said about the commentary zombies signify in terms of moral responsibility. I don’t mean moral choice generally, a lot has been said about that too. Protagonists in zombie narratives often face difficult choices, and the audience is asked to reflect on what choice they would have made in that situation. Would I kill an infected loved one to ensure my own survival and that of our species?

The kind of moral responsibility I’m talking about is associative, the kind that makes you culpable for the choices you didn’t make. If I know people are starving to death on the other side of the world and I don’t send aid, am I committing a moral wrong? I didn’t directly participate in their deaths, but intuitively it seems that neither do I come away with a clean slate. Peter Singer addresses this issue in his essay “ Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972). We typically think of morality in terms of what we ought to do, and not what we ought not not to do. Especially with regard to charity and the global community. Societies value giving in forms of philanthropy, but don’t usually condemn those that don’t. Reasons are typically one of distance and numbers, but this shouldn’t be the case according to Singer and he uses the example of saving a child drowning. Just because there may be other people around doesn’t lessen his moral obligation to save the child, and regardless of whether he is ten feet away or ten miles away he ought to save the child. Neither lessens his moral duty. Yet the wider American society rebels against this type of moral paradigm because it makes us more culpable. If I buy a $10 latte instead of donating that money to organizations that help refugees in the Sudan, then I’m in the wrong. Choosing not to help is not a morally neutral choice, it is the wrong choice. In a rich, capitalist society where privilege is often seen as an entitlement, pointing to the good not done and casting blame tends to ruffle feathers.

Globalization has increased the range of culpability. Before the industrial revolution propelled the world into an era of colonization, the types of evil I could do and the amount of wrong I could commit were limited. I could kill my partner, refuse to help a neighbor, and buy shoddy goods from a traveling vendor that might have been stolen. Furthermore, the amount of good I can do was limited. By the time I heard about an event occurring on the other side of the world, the window of time for aid may have passed. With limited means of travel and communication, my ability to help was likewise limited. But now, I can buy a cell phone with a silicone chip mined with child labor and engage in morally questionable behavior without leaving my home. Or I could read about a disaster across the ocean and instead of wiring money to an aid group, I can buy a third car on Ebay. That is a wide net to cast and it is daunting. How can I possibly know what kinds of good I’m not doing, and how can I make the best choice when faced with so many?

Perhaps zombies represent our anxiety regarding moral responsibility, and the refusal to acknowledge our culpability in withholding good action. Resident Evil (2002) has capitalistic overtones with the villain Umbrella Corp. whose greed rooted in consumerism destroys the earth. Did my economic choices gave authority and power to this machine that lead to the apocalypse? It’s interesting that in World War Z (2013) the weak and diseased are spared by zombies. In a manner, they are already victims neglected too by their human counterparts. In every zombie film, no matter how far away the infection starts, it spreads and races closer to our protagonists. Maybe zombies reflect our indifference and indecision coming back to haunt us. No matter when the outbreak occurs, eventually the virus will spread and find me where ever I’m hiding.


McGlotten, Shaka and Steve Jones, eds. Zombies and Sexuality: Essays on Desire and the Living Dead. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014.

Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1.3 (Spring 1972): 229-243.