A reader writes:
I watched ‘Land of the Dead’ on Friday night, and on the way home had some thoughts about zombies.
Do zombies have souls? The most obvious theological position for us to take with zombies seems to be that they are the bodies of humans reanimated by some principle other than the [separated at death] soul. Of course, we can’t prove this conclusively, but it’s convenient for us to assume they lack souls because it makes it easy, ethically, for us to kill them.
The problem we have is figuring out what a zombie actually is. There may be some real-life basis to the zombie legend. There are claims that certain psychoactive compounds or mental illnesses may be at the basis of it.
On the other hand, zombies are extensively treated in fiction, where numerous causes are used to explain them.
Basically, though, it seems that the possible natures of zombies can be grouped into just a few categories:
- Zombies are human beings who have ordinary human souls (either under the influence of drugs, illness, or reanimation following death),
- Zombies are living bodies being animated by non-human rational souls (like I don’t know what),
- Zombies are living bodies being animated by non-human, non-rational souls (like non-human animals),
- Zombies are non-living bodies being animated in a way other than the way souls normally animate bodies some kind (e.g., long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead).
Which of these explanations is the correct one in the case of a particular zombie or zombie invasion that you may be facing is crucial for making the correct moral response. The basic divide is between options 1 & 2 on the one hand and optiosn 3 & 4 on the other.
If (1) is the case then they are humans and so have to be treated as such (see below).
If (2) is the case then their status is ambiguous enough that one should err on the side of treating them as humans. They may not have a human soul, but they do have a rational soul and until we learn otherwise we must treat rational souls (e.g., the kind aliens have) as having rights equivalent to ours. (Note well: For this option to occur it isn’t sufficient that a rational soul animate the body in a merely temporary or qualified fashion. It would have to have to animate the body the same way souls normally animate bodies. If it is a spirit merely telekinetically controlling the body without becoming its animating force so that it becomes a living body then option (4) is triggered.)
If (3) is the case then zombies can be treated as animals (see below).
If (4) is the case then zombies can be treated as robots (see below).
Given the assumption that they don’t have souls, then there’d be no problem with "killing" them.
True. Meaning: if options (4) is the case then we can kill them with no problem. Lock and load.
If, on the other hand, we assumed charitably that they did have souls, we’d be obliged to at least attempt to find other means to deal with them.
Not necessarily. They might have non-rational souls (option 3), in which case they could be treated as animals. While one would not want to be unnecessarily cruel to a zombie any more than one would want to be unnecessarily cruel to an animal, this would not preclude killing them. When faced with an animal attack or a zombie attack, use of lethal force would clearly be warranted.
Unless, of course, we take into account a seemingly implacable hostility to living humans. It could be argued that our legitimate concerns for self-defence as individuals or as a society could justify killing zombies.
Bingo! Their implacable hostility toward our race makes the filmland version of the zombie a legitimate subject of self-defense killing, even if options (1) or (2) are the case in a particular instance.
The problem would be to house zombies in such a way as to ensure the safety of the general population. Something like a maximum security prison.
I’m thinking that this proposal is ill-advised and would be likely to result in future zombie attacks. If there were some hope of curing the zombie–as might be the case in option (1)–then we would want to do all we could for them, including humanely housing (institutionalizing) the zombie population, but if we are talking a typical, incurable brain-munching zombie then, well, sticking them in prison is the stuff that sequels are made of.
It’d be more merciful to them and safer for us to simply exterminate them if zombie movies are any indication.
There are other problems than physical restraint to consider, given that their sustenance seems to be human flesh. Obviously we couldn’t provide that … or could we? If organ donation is allowable, would people be able to "donate" their bodies to feeding zombies, if all other attempts to find alternated food sources failed? There are practical problems with this: if there are a lot of zombies, it would be hard to find sufficient donors (if you can find any donors at all).
Well, if zombies were able only to eat human flesh (why this would be, I couldn’t say, but let’s go with it per suppositum) then it would be theoretically possible to donate non-vital human flesh (i.e., organs that you don’t require to live or the flesh of recently deceased humans) but this would seem to be ill-advised for several reasons, not least among them allowing zombies to survive. It would be analogous using human material to deliberately culture a virus that might one day burst forth to kill again.
What if someone is bitten by a zombie? People who are bitten die and become zombies themselves.
In some zombie stories, yes.
In Land of the Dead this frequently meant that they either committed suicide [to avoid becoming a zombie] or were killed by their friends. Obviously in Catholic theology we couldn’t allow this,
Correct. You can’t kill a person (or yourself) to keep them from becoming a zombie. There is another solution, however . . .
and we would be obliged to provide palliative care for bitten individuals to the best of our ability up to the point of death, and then immediately take measures to prevent zombification, i.e. destroy the brain.
Bingo. Wait until the person is either no longer alive and prevent their transformation or, failing that, kill them as soon as they have become a zombie and are now an enemy of mankind.
Incidentally, the same reasoning as above applies to vampires and other forms of undead.
If you’re interested in learning more about the real-world implications of a zombie attack, you might want to
though I haven’t read it myself.
You might also want to