The Ethicist: Rawls, Hobbes & the Zombie Apocalypse

By NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever asked yourself why the world is the way it is?

When I ask this question, I don’t mean to refer to what we consider to be scientific truths, such as the law of gravity or the existence of neutrinos; I mean questions like:

Why are some people rich and others poor, in every society and every age?

Why is the United States the only country in the western industrialized world without a single-payer health care system?

Why is Africa, a continent possessed of astounding natural resources, home to some of the most impoverished countries on the planet?

Why do so many governments find it easy to justify tax breaks for multinational corporations and so hard to increase welfare payments?

Why are Canadians not more disturbed by the living conditions on some reserves?

Why do those who describe themselves as “progressives” see the world so differently from those who characterize their views as “alt-right’?

While these questions are difficult to answer—and can probably never be answered in a simple or definitive way—it is clear (to a philosopher, at least) that a consideration of them requires us to think about our metaphysical beliefs and commitments.


Assumptions and beliefs

Susan Neiman

Susan Neiman

How do we know what is real, determine what is important, distinguish those facts of life which it is in our power to change from those that are beyond human control?(This last question is harder to answer than it might at first appear. Is our life expectancy, for example, set by nature, or can we alter it through lifestyle changes and modern medicine?)

These things come down to our metaphysical assumptions and beliefs, those ideas forming the bedrock of our thinking, the foundation upon which all our other ideas rest. They are both fundamentally important and largely invisible: we rely upon them but don’t often notice them.

And while they are necessary for all our other claims, they are not ideas that can be proven. As Susan Neiman, in her thought-provoking book, Moral Clarity: A Guide For Grown-Up Idealists, puts it, our metaphysical commitments:

…determine, among other things, what you hold to be self-evident and what you hold to be possible; what you think has substance and what you can afford to ignore.

Metaphysical beliefs and commitments, then, have enormous social, political and ethical consequences. They determine which features of the world we think we can change and which we cannot; what is real and what is only imaginary; and what is important and what is trivial. The short, inadequate answer to one of the questions I just asked—why do those on the progressive end of the political spectrum see the world so differently from those on the “alt-right” (and vice-versa)?—is that people falling into these categories have different metaphysical beliefs and commitments, are making different metaphysical assumptions. But, of course, since our metaphysical beliefs are both inescapable and largely invisible, each side believes their view of the world is simply true, and their opponents’ simply wrong.

People with different metaphysical beliefs live in different realities. The deeply religious, who see the hand of God in everything, for example, and the hard-core atheist, who believe reality can be explained through materialistic processes, see very different things when they look around. (And theism and atheism, of course, are quintessential examples of conflicting and incompatible metaphysical positions).

That we all have metaphysical beliefs and that those beliefs are largely invisible to us is a problem for philosophers. We are on a quest to discover the truth, but we also have metaphysical beliefs which shape what we see and metaphysical commitments that control what we are willing to question. How to see both those beliefs, and then reality, more clearly? This is where thought experiments can be helpful.


Zombie Apocalypse

Watercolor portrait of John Rawls by Mardy Rawls

Watercolor portrait of John Rawls by Mardy Rawls

Several columns ago, I considered the stories that compose the Zombie Apocalypse as an allegory of neoliberalism, and more recently, I considered the philosophical concept of the thought experiment. In this month’s column, I want to consider another way in which we might think about the Zombie Apocalypse; that is, as a thought experiment about the state of nature.

Understood this way, the various stories composing the larger narrative of the Zombie Apocalypse (whether presented in written or visual form), such as World War Z or The Walking Dead, can be seen as explorations of what life might be like if we were to return to what political philosophers call “the state of nature”—and about what sorts of disasters, natural or man-made, might take us there. Moreover, understood as a thought experiment about the state of nature, the Zombie Apocalypse has much to teach us, both about metaphysics and about ethics.

When we look at the world, we have a tendency to think that it must be the way it is—that there is something inevitable and beyond human control about our political arrangements, ethnic conflicts and economic inequalities.

How might we learn to distinguish those features of our existence that are beyond human control from those things that we have the power to change? How might we imagine different possible futures and find a standpoint from which to ethically critique what currently exists?

Political philosophers have made use of a concept already referred to, “the state of nature,” to help them see political and social reality, and their own metaphysical beliefs, more clearly. The state of nature, in simple terms, is a thought experiment, a hypothetical construct. It asks us to imagine what living conditions were like for human beings before societies came into existence, and why people living free of societal burdens and constraints might agree to enter into a society with one another.

Depending on how we imagine the state of nature, we will provide different reasons for our initial agreement, and will visualize the resulting society differently. The American moral and political philosopher John Rawls, for example, asks us to imagine that we (you as you read and I as I write) can put ourselves into the state of nature and together draw up the blueprint for the kind of society we want to live in.

In true thought experiment fashion, however, Rawls throws in a twist: he asks us to imagine that when we meet to design our society, we temporarily lack all personal knowledge of who we are or what characteristics we have – we don’t know whether we are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, startlingly intelligent or with special needs, physically strong or somehow disabled, religious or not.

Rawls argues convincingly that a society designed under these constraints would not privilege wealth or race or gender or ability. If we didn’t know who we were, we would design a radically egalitarian society in case we turned out to be a poor, female member of a racial minority with a physical disability.


Nasty, brutish, short

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Rawls’s thought experiment is one with profound ethical implications: the world we actually live in is one that unfairly privileges certain people over others, based on personal characteristics like race and gender over which they have no control, and can – in light of his thought experiment – be considered profoundly unjust.

In short, his imaginative description of the state of nature provides us with precisely the objective standpoint we were looking for — a place outside what currently exists from which to critique our actual world, and this space allows us to recognize that what might have once seemed inevitable and natural (the inequalities that largely determine how our lives go) are anything but: they result from historical and personal contingencies and can be altered by government policies and laws, and by rethinking our economic and social arrangements.

The state of nature, being a hypothetical thought experiment, is hard to visualize, and the way in which it is imagined also affects the kind of society that will result when people leave it and enter into a new kind of community with one another.

Enter the Zombie Apocalypse: the Zombie Apocalypse can be understood as a thought experiment about one possible version of the state of nature, one that exists, not in some far distant past, but which might come into existence in the future.

The society that results when all governmental controls and protections collapse under the onslaught of the insatiable and ravenous Zombie horde is nothing like Rawls’s civilized state of nature, but one much closer to that proposed by Thomas Hobbes: a constant war of everyone against everyone in an endless—and usually futile—struggle for survival.

It is a world in which only the very strong will last long, and in which life for the weak will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It is a world without agriculture, without police forces, without laws, without industry, and without medicine; a world in which we must rely on our own devices; and one in which most of us will be found wanting. For example, I am very short-sighted, and cannot function without my glasses, in Hobbes’s state of nature, with neither optometrists nor opticians, I would be essentially helpless—just as I would be after a Zombie Apocalypse, when I would be easy prey.


A warning

Zombie portrait by Gexon from Darmstadt, Germany (Attack), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What distinguishes the Zombie Apocalypse from most philosophical articulations of the hypothetical state of nature is that this period is usually imagined to be sometime in the distant past, rather than in a possible future. As such, I believe, the idea of the Zombie Apocalypse as we presently imagine it serves as a warning: societies are fragile, conflicts can spin out of control and most of us would be far worse off in a world without laws and without civil protections.

And we should not be complacent—even if Zombies are never going to appear (although that is what everyone who survives the Zombie Apocalypse thought too…), we should not think total societal collapse can happen only in fiction.

Whenever you hear that Somalia and Libya have become “failed states,” or that Syria is a failing one, think of them as reverting to something like Hobbes’s state of nature, or fast-forwarding to something like the world of the Zombie Apocalypse, in which some people prey on others without any legal, social or political constraints. Nor should we be complacent about our own situation, convinced the reality endured by Somalis or Libyans could never happen here. If nothing else, the Zombie narrative reminds us that society and its protections cannot be taken for granted, and that most of us are too weak to survive without them.

Finally, when you see pictures of refugees fleeing these failed and failing states, think of them as trying to escape a reality which approximates, in our own world, the state of nature envisaged in the various narratives which compose the Zombie Apocalypse.


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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