Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Zombie Ethics

Do zombies have rights?

In order to liven up my class in Environmental Ethics during the usual mid-term doldrums, I started a discussion of zombie ethics. I'd just watched the popular movie Zombieland and it occurred to me that the major ethical issues about dealing with the environment would arise in a different form if zombies actually turned up. I planned to spend only the first 15 minutes on the topic, but the large class got excited by the topic and a lively discussion took up the whole 75 minute session.

In preparation, I had compiled the following questions that I thought might interest the students:
1.Do zombies have rights?
2.Do zombies raised from the dead by voodoo have different rights than zombies infected by viruses?
3.Do zombies have intrinsic value?
4.Do zombies have needs?
5.Should ethical decision making consider consequences for zombies?
6.Are zombies sustainable? What are their environmental effects?
7.Should we care about zombies?
8.Should we care about future generations of zombies?
9.Should zombies be managed by governments or by free markets?
10.How should zombie costs and benefits be distributed?
11.How do zombies affect international justice?

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We spent most of the time on questions 1 and 3, which are analogous to questions in environmental ethics in the following way. Traditional ethical theories are anthropocentric (human-centered), concerned with rights and duties of people or with the consequences that actions have for them. Some environmentalist philosophers have challenged this approach by arguing that animals have rights and that even plants and the planet itself have inherent value not dependent on the uses they have for people. The "deep ecology" movement advocates ecological egalitarianism intended to put an end to the priority that ethics has usually given to what matters for people.

To my surprise, most of the students were adamant that zombies are completely lacking in rights and inherent value. Having seen a few movies about zombies of the virus type, I assumed that zombies are sick people and should therefore have basic human rights that are attributed even to people who become incapacitated or aggressive. Of course people have a right to defend themselves against attacking zombies, but that is different from assuming that the zombies have no rights at all. I was particularly puzzled that the denial of rights and inherent value to zombies was maintained even by some students who accept the deep ecology view that extends rights and value to non-human animals and even trees.

Fortunately, there are no zombies, so I don't want to spend much time arguing hypotheticals about their ethical status. But the class discussion was useful for clarifying issues concerning the extent of rights and value. I discovered that some students were confused about the idea of inherent value, when they talked about how some zombies such as ones that had been their grandfathers could have inherent value for them. But inherent value is supposed to be a property that things have in themselves, independent of others, so the idea of something having inherent value for someone else is contradictory.

My own ethical view is that we have ample reason to take strong measures to protect the environment for the sake of the needs of current and future humans. Attributing rights to non-humans whose cognitive capacities and needs are very limited compared to ours adds little to the reasonable imperative to prevent environmental damage. My book The Brain and the Meaning of Life defends the view that ethical judgments should concern the consequences of actions that affect human needs.

I abhor the philosophical use of thought experiments to provide pseudo-evidence for claims that merely reflect the biases of the arguer. But thought experiments in philosophy and science can be useful for generating and clarifying hypotheses, and for identifying incoherencies in alternative hypotheses. Hence discussion of zombie ethics has a legitimate role to play in motivating discussions about the obligations that people have concerning the environment.

 

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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