The Walking Dead as a morality study

My latest weakness is AMC’s The Walking Dead. Aside from the great writing and its gorgeous cinematography and music it is one of the few shows on tv that portrays ethical choices and spiritual crises with depth.  

From Rick’s pleading with God in the abandoned cathedral to agonising over whether or not it is morally acceptable to kill a Walker, there is a richness and texture in the script that you just don’t find easily on tv.  

If you were looking to study the philosophy of ethics and morality you’d be hard pressed to find a better source material than Season Two. For as long as I watch tv shows, I don’t think I’ll ever forget what happened after Rick leaves the church fresh from making his “deal” with God.

But the choice that sticks with me is the episode in which Shane and Otis are fleeing from an abandoned high school after collecting medical supplies for the group.

As the Walkers close in on the two of them, Shane is confronted with a moral choice.  If he can slow Otis down, the Walkers will feed on Otis, guaranteeing Shane’s safe escape. Alternatively, Shane can continue trying to help Otis and hope that they both make it out of the schoolyard alive, but potentially jeopardising both of their safety.  Is one certain life worth more than two uncertain ones?  

To put it it in traditional theological terms, “Is it better that one man should die, so that many can live?”

It is a classic variation on the “right for right’s sake” versus “the greater good” argument. It is relatively simple for Shane to make a choice that he can justify in light of the greater good. If Shane can escape with the medical supplies, Otis’ death will allow the group to live to fight on.

The problem with that kind of cold calculation isn’t just that Shane is contemplating doing something that violates the natural instinct to never allow someone healthy to die. The problem with the greater good argument is that after a while it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference between actually serving the greater good and tricking yourself into calling something that serves your own interests “the greater good”.

In Shane’s dilemma, it is rather convenient that the greater good of ensuring medical supplies get to the group also happens to be the path that aligns with the guaranteeing his own personal safety.

The choices that face each character define the framework of the society they are trying to build in their new world.

Do you want to live in a world where you do right because it is right? Or do you want to live in a world where you do what have you have to do to survive?

This trailer also gets my award for most inventive use of the Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”.


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