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Zombies & Philosophy
What’s So Bad About Being A Zombie?
Dien Ho asks if you’d be better off undead.
The contemporary zombie narrative follows a fairly predictable path. A zombie-causing agent is released and spreads uncontrollably, causing an outbreak of zombies. The social fabrics that bind civilization and civility unravel. In this post-apocalyptic world, survivors survive by mustering all their resources and energy. and they do so under constant threat from both zombies and other survivors. In light of the harsh and uncertain reality of a survivor’s existence, one might wonder why a survivor doesn’t just give up and become a zombie.
Zombie and Zen
In some respects, the idea that becoming a zombie is a bad thing borders on a platitude. Zombies wander around in constant hunger in a semi-decomposed state. Their actions are guided entirely by impulses. They seem to lack the complex cognition that’s critical for most of the activities we consider worthwhile – social interactions, intellectual pursuits, personal projects, etc. But in other respects, the life of a zombie has characteristics many of us strive mightily to achieve. Their lives are highly centralized and simplified, since their needs and wants often revolve around just a few things, like brains or human flesh. They are largely indifferent to pain and suffering. Short of severe head injuries, zombies enjoy a type of immortality. Zombies do not care about most of the pesky concerns that fill our daily lives: they do not care about the weather, their appearance, their social status, their retirement plan, their morning commute, and petty office politics. They are not concerned about the threat of terrorism, floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. And they certainly do not become jealous, depressed, worrisome, or suffer the other anxieties that regularly plague our waking moments. Indeed, if we focus on just these qualities, the life of a zombie resembles the ideal state of a disciplined Zen Buddhist monk who has managed to let go of his earthly concerns.
If we consider these characteristics within the context of a zombie outbreak, becoming a zombie may appear an even more seductive possibility. Hobbes’ classic description of the state of nature is a remarkably accurate depiction of the world to which zombie survivors desperately cling. In a zombie outbreak, survivors
“live without other security than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of [a survivor], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
(Leviathan, p.100, 1651)
As the daily struggle of a survivor becomes more gruelling, the allure of zombie life increases. Considering how little enjoyment a survivor derives from his state of subsistence and the ever-dimming prospect of a return to normality, one must eventually question the value of their struggle. If one can be better off dead – as many advocates of euthanasia have suggested – surely one can be better off undead? (Whether one can indeed be better off undead seems to depend on the supposition that one survives zombification. This is a significant metaphysical issue concerning personal identity. The answer strikes me as itself dependent on exactly what happens to one’s cognition when one becomes a zombie. To wit, if one believes that one does not survive zombification, then (all else being equal) one should be indifferent towards how one ends one’s life. Yet, many of us would rather kill ourselves via traditional means than be turned into a zombie. Perhaps there is a worry that enough of our former self survives, and we do not wish to see ourselves continue to exist as zombies. I will ignore these hard metaphysical questions and assume that it is sensible to ask whether it is better to be a zombie or a survivor.)
Sisyphus and the Meaning of Life
One response to the question of what is so bad about being a zombie is that a zombie’s life appears not to be meaningful. What then makes a life meaningful?
In Good and Evil, A New Direction (1984), the philosopher Richard Taylor offered a remarkably simple method of answering this question: take an intuitively meaningless existence and ask, “What must we add to this life to make it meaningful?”
Taylor chooses the classic tale of Sisyphus as his baseline meaningless existence. As the myth goes, the Greek gods punish crafty King Sisyphus by making him push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as it reaches the top. Sisyphus must then roll the boulder back up, only to have it roll back down,] ad infinitum. According to Taylor, this eternal cycle of objective futility and psychological frustration typifies a meaningless life.
Taylor considers two possible ways for Sisyphus to turn his meaningless existence into a meaningful one. These address the ideas of objective pointlessness and psychological frustration respectively. To counteract objective pointlessness, he imagines that Sisyphus rolls his boulders to the top of the hill in order to create a beautiful and enduring temple. In doing so, Taylor believes that Sisyphus’s labor, however tedious and difficult, would be meaningful, as it amounts to something.
To counteract psychological frustration, suppose that the gods implant in Sisyphus an impulse to roll boulders that also grants him great satisfaction and joy from doing so. Sisyphus’s life, argues Taylor,
“is now filled with mission and meaning, and he seems to himself to have been given an entry to heaven… Exactly the same things happen as before. The only thing that has happened is this: Sisyphus has been reconciled to [his pointless activities], and indeed more, he has learned to embrace it. Not, however, by reason or persuasion, but by nothing more rational than the potency of a new substance in his veins.
(Good and Evil: A New Direction, pp. 259-260)
By embracing one’s project, however meaningless, it appears one can create meaning. Moreover, Sisyphus did not even have to be aware of, nor adopt authentically, a change in attitude in order to generate meaning in this way. A kind of unreflective enthusiasm (“nothing more rational than the potency of a new substance in his veins”) towards one’s life projects would suffice for a meaningful existence. As we will see, just exactly what constitutes this enthusiasm is a tricky and important matter, and it will require a closer look if we are to have a clear account of meaningfulness.
What of Taylor’s first tack – that of finding meaning by building something enduring? He offers two arguments why this option will not work. His first argument is that no one’s accomplishments can last for eternity. With enough time, the wear and tear of the universe will eventually undo the wondrous work of the most careful creator. Knowing this, we must recognize the ultimate pointlessness of our work. Building a beautiful temple differs only in degree from boulder rolling in the sense that both activities will eventually amount to nothing. It is just a matter of time before both projects result in no achievement. Indeed, when we perceive the vastness of the universe, we often feel a sense of existential dread, stemming partly from the realization of our inability to fight against the laws of thermodynamics. It would be foolhardy, if not contradictory, to attempt to find meaning by creating enduring works while realizing that nothing endures.
In his second argument against the possibility of creating meaning through accomplishments, Taylor asks us to imagine Sisyphus as he places the final stone on his temple. He writes,
“Now what? What picture now presents itself to our minds? It is precisely the picture of infinite boredom! Of Sisyphus doing nothing ever again, but contemplating what he has already wrought and can no longer add anything to, and contemplating it for eternity! Now in this picture we have a meaning for Sisyphus’ existence, a point for his prodigious labour, because we have put it there; yet, at the same time, that which is really worthwhile seems to have slipped away entirely.” (p.265)
The completed temple stands as a monument to Sisyphus’s once great life. It is a trophy, to be sure, but a trophy won at the cost of meaning. Once Sisyphus completes the temple, he has robbed himself of the only activity that granted him meaning.
Both of Taylor’s arguments against achieving a meaningful life by accomplishments are unconvincing. In respond to his worry that no work can last forever, one might point out that abstract ideas, the products of intellectual achievement, are immune to thermodynamic laws. Moreover, although wear and tear will eventually destroy the tangible products of one’s hard work, it cannot undo the fact that one has these accomplishments. Time might destroy Mount Everest, but it cannot destroy the fact that Sir Edmund Hillary climbed to the top of it. With regard to Taylor’s worry that one will confront ‘infinite boredom’ upon the completion of a project, one wonders why the commencement of a new project would not easily solve this problem.
Although both of Taylor’s arguments are at best incomplete, there is something plausible about his denying that one can find meaning solely on the basis of one’s accomplishments. Consider a scenario in which we inject Sisyphus with an impulse to build a temple, but this time around there will not be the accompanying sense of gratification. Our Puppet Sisyphus toils day and night to build the temple, while resenting every moment of his forced labor. Would we say that Sisyphus has lived a meaningful existence as he places the final stone on this glorious temple, and dies? My sense is that we would not. However wondrous a project might be, if the person undertakes it unwillingly and lacks any commitment to it, it seems implausible to say that his existence was meaningful for him. So the pursuit of a great project cannot be a sufficient condition for meaningfulness.
The Meaning of Undeath
The approaches to rendering one’s life meaningful Taylor offers are an internal approach and an external approach respectively. We can define the internal approach as creating a subjective positive attitude towards one’s life projects. The gleeful and fanatical Sisyphus who loves rolling boulders for its own sake typifies this attitude. The external approach, on the other hand, says that meaningfulness of one’s life consists solely in terms of the objective value of its content (ie, the projects that one pursues). Our intuitive judgment that (all else being equal) a person who spends her life trying to find a cure for cancer lives a more meaningful life than if she spends it playing video games, depends on some form of external evaluation. Nevertheless, our example of Puppet Sisyphus who rolls boulders against his wish shows that the external approach cannot be sufficient for a meaningful life. (Whether the actual completion of a project affects the meaningfulness of one’s life is a fascinating question too. Imagine the scientist discovers late in her career that she has made an assumption that has rendered it impossible for her attempt to cure cancer to succeed. Is her life meaningless?)
Notice that an internal approach entails that zombies live a meaningful existence. Indeed, if meaningfulness means living life enthusiastically, the fact that zombies are far more certain of what they want than we are and directly pursue it, means that they are more likely to live a meaningful existence. Taylor would happily accept this conclusion, as he argues that our existence differs only in degree from that of a cannibalistic glow-worm. Yet if we cannot demonstrate that zombies live a less meaningful existence than that of a survivor, it will be difficult to show that being a survivor is better than being a zombie.
The conclusion emerging from our consideration of Sisyphus is that to live a meaningful life one must have a positive attitude towards one’s life projects. But what constitutes the appropriate positive attitude? For Taylor, it consists largely of finding joy in one’s activities – that is, in living life enthusiastically. He sees his gleeful and fanatical Sisyphus who loves to roll boulders as epitomizing his conception of meaningfulness.
However, finding joy in one’s activities also seems insufficient for a meaningful life. Taylor’s Sisyphus resembles a compulsive addict who toils away for no reason other than the immediate pleasure that comes, strangely, from pushing boulders. One might explain away this intuition by pointing out that were Sisyphus engaged in a more meaningful activity we would find his life of constant pleasure ideal. Our judgment that the life of Taylor’s fanatical Sisyphus lacks meaning is tainted by our implicit belief that rolling boulders is objectively meaningless. It follows that a meaningful life must be more than experiencing joy. It must also contain objectively meaningful activities to experience joy in doing.
A number of philosophers have defended a hybrid view of this kind – see for example David Wiggins, ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, The Proceedings of the British Academy, 62 (1976), or Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (2000). More recently, Susan Wolf has argued that meaning emerges when “subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, 2010: p.9). Were we to replace boulder-rolling with something objectively meaningful, then we might conclude that life is meaningful when we also find joy in those projects.
To show why this conclusion is false, consider Wilma, a slacker who spends the bulk of her time on frivolous things. One day, the gods inject in her veins the impulse to find a great deal of joy in conducting medical research. She spends the rest of her life happily working away in a laboratory. After many years of hard work, she eventually finds the cure for cancer.
Suppose for the moment that we assume that finding a cure for cancer is objectively meaningful (it satisfies Wolf’s criterion of objective attractiveness). Would we say that Wilma has lived a meaningful life? My sense is that we would not. One can imagine for instance that Wilma cares little for the outcome. She might even dread the prospect of finding the cure , for it would suspend her otherwise constant stream of joy in doing the research. Like Taylor’s fanatical Sisyphus, Wilma resembles a drug addict, and her drug of choice is work. Indeed, many of us fill our existential gaps by dedicating ourselves to work. But filling our lives with professional activities, even if the activities are objectively worthwhile, and even if we derive pleasure from them, does not necessarily translate into a meaningful life.
The flaw demonstrated by Wilma’s situation is that she takes up her project of finding a cure for cancer for the wrong reason. As long as she derives an intense pleasure from it, she is indifferent to the content of her work. Notice that even if Wilma comes to recognize the value of her project, her life might still lack meaning. She can readily acknowledge the objective value of finding a cure for cancer; but if her motivation for finding the cure is rooted entirely in the drive for her own pleasure, her life still lacks fundamental meaning. What appears to be necessary for Wilma to generate meaning in her life is that she must not only recognize the value of her project, but be motivated to find the cure for cancer because she sees that it is a worthwhile thing to do. This dependence of meaningfulness on the need to engage in a project because one sees its worth also explains why Puppet Sisyphus lives a meaningless life. He builds a glorious temple by rolling boulders, but he does so entirely against his will. Even if we judge that the building of the temple is objectively worthwhile, his life is still meaningless precisely because he did not choose to engage in the project on the recognition of the project’s worth. In fact, he did not choose to engage in the project at all. He had no choice but to undertake it.
However, imagine now that over many years Puppet Sisyphus comes to realize that the project is in fact worthwhile, and he adopts it as his own. We might change our judgment, and conclude that he now lives a meaningful life.
This transformation is akin to one aspect of child-rearing. Quite often we force our children to undertake activities they might not wish to engage in, like playing the piano, in the hope that as they grow older they’ll realize the objective worth of these activities and adopt them as their own. We help them paternalistically or maternalistically to find meaning in their lives by placing them on what we think are meaningful tracks in life.
In further articulating the notion of a meaningful attitude, Wolf tells us that one must engage in one’s projects “in a positive way.” This means the agent must care about the project he’s undertaking in a loving and active manner. But just how often must one be aware of one’s care about one’s projects? Must one reaffirm one’s commitment weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, to ensure that the pursuits remain meaningful (as opposed to them de-evolving into daily grinds, for instance)? In other words, does life cease to be meaningful if one forgets the reasons for one’s projects, or loses the passion for them?
However, the critical observation for our purposes is that whatever “engagement in a positive way” means, zombies do not have it. Zombies do not reflect on their choices: that is, they do not choose to want brains. It is this lack of reflection upon one’s projects that ensures zombies are incapable of living a meaningful life according to Wolf’s criterion of meaning.
Notice that we can draw this conclusion while remaining entirely agnostic as to whether the internalist approach or the hybrid approach to meaning is correct. A person who builds her life around solving Sudoku puzzles (a paradigmatically meaningless activity according to Wolf) has a meaningful existence for Taylor if she tackles these puzzles enthusiastically. She engages these puzzles because she sees them as important to her. The difference between the internalist and the hybrid approach here, is that the latter would require the doing of Sudoku puzzles to be objectively worthwhile.
Strangely, Taylor’s fanatical Sisyphus might not satisfy this account of a meaningful existence. This Sisyphus does choose to embrace boulder-rolling as the center of his existence. He rolls boulders because he is compelled to by the substance in his veins. This Sisyphus lives no more truly enthusiastically than a lab rat that obsessively presses a lever in order to receive another endorphin injection.
What’s so bad about being a zombie? If this account is correct, then regardless of whether we adopt an internalist or a hybrid approach, it’s bad precisely because in becoming a zombie we lose the complex cognition necessary for a meaningful life. Zombies cannot reflect on their life’s projects, they cannot engage them in a caring manner, and they certainly are not motivated to act on the basis of recognizing the objective worth of the projects (a requirement for a hybrid view of meaningfulness like Wolf’s). Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind that being able to live a meaningful life is but one of many things we value. We certainly also value pleasure and comfort. Therefore, survivors must consider the balance between holding out hope for finding a meaningful life again, versus the constant suffering and pain that comes with being a survivor. When life becomes unbearably difficult, a meaningless life that is nevertheless devoid of pain and suffering might actually be preferable to the grind of survival.
The zombie genre has become an easy vehicle for social criticism, and our analysis provides an explanation for this: our own lives can lack meaning, just like the lives of zombies. Indeed, if a caring and deliberative attitude towards one’s life-projects is a necessary condition for a meaningful life, the failure to reflect upon them entails the absence of meaning. In the brilliant parody Shaun of the Dead (2004), as he steps out in the morning for his paper, the eponymous protagonist hardly notices the world has been taken over by zombies. In the background, zombies drone along in the same manner as they did while they were humans. This parody succeeds precisely because all too often our herd-like reality reduces us to a zombie-esque existence – an existence devoid of reflection, and thus meaning. In this sense the examined life might not be the only way to live well, but it is nevertheless a necessary activity for a meaningful life.
© Dr Dien Ho 2013
Dien Ho is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Health Care Ethics at MCPHS University in Boston. His research focuses on philosophical issues with pharmaceutics, philosophy of science, and health care ethics. He has been trying to find some way to combine his love of zombies with his love of bicycles.
• Dien would like to thank Jane Leo and Ken Richman for their comments.