On a previous post I grazed a subject slightly tongue-in-cheek. I had paused my The Last of Us game at an interesting moment. Joe, the apocalypse survivor resignedly explained a massacre that occurred by saying, “You sacrifice the few to save the many.” Ellie, the 14 year old girl that accompanies him says, “That’s kind of shitty.” I jokingly extrapolated from this, by comparing these two apparently inconsequential states to the opposite utilitarian and Kantian moral philosophies. By opposing minimalism with an overwrought idea I intended to make humour happen. I failed in that, but the idea stayed with me.
In The Last of Us, like in all post-apocalyptic books, movies, TV shows, there is a shift of moral codes. In this setting your mortgage payments cease to be a priority, and fucking your new nanny loses, in the battle of importance, to filling your reserves with Twinkies*. In this setting it’s probably justified to kill your new nanny to get those Twinkies; but not to fuck her. No, necrophilia is still not cool in Zombieland.
The issue of morality and economic systems in a post-apocalyptic world is so rich, that I don’t know where to start. I’ll start randomly, a system of organization as good as any other and very dear to my heart:
One of the first things that would happen, should be the inversion of importance of roles. Basically, the people whose skillset we value the most and the people with the least valued skill-set would switch places (the only exception being immediate health care specialists). By value, I mean pay. Entertainers, professional athletes, highly specialized professionals and scholars would see their skills completely devalued. Army men, Handy men, plumbers, electricians, would see their value increase diametrally. This was covered for the first time (as far as I know) in World War Z. In the second moment of the zombie apocalypse, after survival to the first wave of zombies and the creation of a new society, famous artists were taught by plumbers or electricians a new trade. Imagine Jay Leno lisping “Oh, but this shit isn’t going down!”
This specific example shows the volatility of the current system of free enterprise. It can be used as the perfect argument for socialism: Cringe, Americans! While in World War Z this isn’t stated, the flaws of capitalism become evident. What we value today is decided by our society; the fact that Jay Leno gets millions of dollars for talking in front of a camera is decided by the people who want to sit and watch him. Easily enough, the paradigm in which his skillset is valued shifts. The same is true for any other profession. Michael Jordan made millions as a basketball player, because in the eighties and nineties there were enough people attributing value to tall men putting an inflated piece of leather, through a hoop twice as large (they still do). With the same skillset, 50 years before, he’d be stacking cans in the top shelves of Kroger, while Mr. Bernhaum warned him that the tomatoes go over there, boy.
In a free enterprise system, merit is attributed solely to the person that better explores the current needs of society. A zombie-apocalypse is an extreme case, in which everything changes, but it can be an example that makes you aware of smaller changes, noticeable if one pays attention. The leader in faxing machine sales or the beeper king of some years or decades ago, worked as hard, and had as much merit, as someone who is now collecting the benefits of inventing the new smartphone or the new app. If you use these examples to understand how random success can be, how little merit has to do with it, it becomes easier to make the argument that taxes should be the highest for people who benefit from the importance society briefly lends them.
As to the subject of morality: When a human is faced with immediate danger, his decisions revert to basic survival. We’re built to remain alive, so our body doesn’t let us die, if he** can avoid it. Our brain may tell us there’s no point in living, that life doesn’t make sense since Mr. Whiskers the Third died. Our brain can even tell our body to die, but if you check suicide methods, they always try to sneak past our bodies. Bullet to the head, sliced wrists, monoxide asphyxiation, hanging from a wood beam with a carved name on it. Make your body know that you intend to commit suicide, and your brain will flood with pain. Put your head in the oven, slice your chest with a saw or, you can even try this one at home, try to asphyxiate yourself. Just close your mouth for five minutes and don’t breathe through your nose. Mortgage payments will be the last thing on your mind when your oxygen supplies run short.
It’s understandable that society is permissive when it comes to life preserving actions. The extent of what you can do is blurry though, and it gets blurred further if that life threating moment becomes your routine. If a man comes swinging at you with a crowbar, it seems clear that a shot in the head is justifiable. But not all decisions are that clear-cut. I’ll use an excellent example, tainted by my poor memory – it was given by Michael J. Sandell in one of his lectures.
Three men survive a shipwreck. They managed to get on a lifeboat and float for weeks. They get dehydrated and hungry. They could be rescued tomorrow or it could take weeks to shore up somewhere. Two of the men – the stronger two – decide they should kill the weaker man and eat him.
According to a basic utilitarian morality it would be the right thing to do. One must die so two can live. Two out of three survivors is a better scenario than zero out of three survivors. The jury didn’t agree. They felt cannibalism was morally abject, and even more abject their lack of repentance (this very Catholic idea that repentance atones for wrong-doings). They showed an excellent sense of humour when they described the moment they were rescued. According to their testimony, the rescuers interrupted their breakfast.
Would cannibalism still be morally abject in a post-apocalyptic world? In our culture it’s up there with child molesting, as one of the most despised actions. Unlike child molesting there’s nothing inherently wrong about it, it’s just morally intuitive. If you kill a person and eat it, the killing is easily the more reproachable of the two actions. Eating the body would be the most honorable thing to do. If you believe in a soul, it has obviously left the body and, if in a pre-apocalyptic world that body could be used by coked-up med students to train their scalpel use, it would certainly find a better purpose feeding a starving person.
This appears to be a line never crossed, even in the direst of scenarios. The bad guys eat people and the good guys kill them, sometimes just as a precaution. They might even kill innocents, if they’re standing in the way of their survival. But one thing they won’t do, is to eat their nutritious bodies. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the unwillingness to resort to cannibalism feels, to its main character, like the only thing that allows him to keep his humanity. He tells it to his son repeatedly. We don’t eat people. We’re good persons.
It’s a flimsy thing, the result of living in a society that says something is wrong. Or maybe, in the end, when left to face death, our moral decisions continue to be dictated by our body. The Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea was almost wiped out from Kuru, a disease they contracted by eating human flesh. Again, maybe it’s our body telling our mind that having an old friend for dinner might be bad for our health.
The moral compass for people facing life-threatening decisions seems to be children. Before they get used to this new world, and lose their naïf sense of right and wrong, they question the adult’s decisions. A child will always ask, “Why can’t we help him?” when she encounters someone in need. An adult, even the good guy, will most likely let that person die so he can avoid risks and manage to stay alive.
Adults and children differ. Adults revert to Darwinism. Those who don’t, are the first ones to die. No matter how good your cardio is, the fittest are those who adapt. In any of these worlds this means basic Darwinism. Children take longer to learn this, and maybe they shouldn’t learn it at all.
A baby deer will come out his mother’s vagina and, after some stumbling, spring to four legs and be good to go. A human baby needs to be breast fed and carried for a year, then it starts giving some steps and stumbling, into an oven if not watched constantly. A 6 year old is more helpless than a baby deer. More stupid, too. If you don’t agree leave your 6 year old in a forest with a baby deer and check who’s fared better in a few days; hours might also do.
The way humans evolved to care for their children made them more dependent of their progenitors and for a longer time. This permitted us to create stronger bonds and develop a deeper emotional range, which makes us a sociable species*** – for the most part. Children depend on that. The fact that they are still alive is explained solely by the human species’ unique trait of caring for their weakest (Shhh, Mogli and Tarzan! Not taking to you). In this new world, children are reminded that they belong in the same category of the wounded man in the woods or the old men pushing a cart that weighs more than his 100 pounds.
They’ll forget this when they get bigger and stronger. By the time they stop depending on others they’ll lack empathy for people who can’t take care of themselves and it’ll come to their children to keep them humane.
What I don’t see often is a word decades or centuries after an apocalyptic event. I wonder if there could be such a word or even if that world would be worthy to fight for.
One of the first dilemmas in the continuation of our species starts with giving birth in this new paradigm. For most people there is a justifiable reason for abortion. For some, pregnancy is reason enough. For others it’s justifiable when it concerns teenagers giving birth or women being raped, and almost all agree that if the child would endanger the mother’s life, abortion is justifiable. In comparison, bringing a child to into a desolate, joyless world would almost certainly result in a great deal more of suffering than any of the other options. In The Walking Dead, Lorrie struggles with the idea of bringing a child into zombie-riddled Atlanta. As usual, the child is the light that shines on all their lives, the glimpse of hope for humanity, the… blah! The decisions are homogeneous in fiction, because what for me is an obvious truth, becomes too horrible to write. I’m not condoning abortion (I’m anti-abortion in all cases that don’t concern my future child), but if there is a single reason to stick a needle in your belly or to “trip” down the stairs, it’d certainly be this one: to avoid that your child is born in Atlanta.
When that baby grows up, he’ll face the same decision. Lorrie had a normal childhood, average teenage years and a common adulthood, right up until people start snacking on their friends. She had lived only a year or so after zombies took over, which might have let her keep some hope that things will improve. She was faced with atrocities, yes, but for just that tiny period of her life. Now imagine that baby, growing up surrounded by maiming, death, cannibalism, and utter ruthlessness by most people surrounding him – any glimpse of humane behavior would lead to probable death. Even if the people who care for him, have managed to build a precarious society, the chance of what we consider normal to be near being re-established are close to zero. That baby, faced with the same choice will have all the more reason to think twice before bringing a new life into the world, because he’ll have faced all the trials that child would face.
Extrapolate from this baby, to all the apobabies (post-apocalyptic babies). Zombies would nearly obliterate humans and fear for their possible offspring would either finish what the zombies had started or at least aid it.
My question now, and it’s just that, a question, comes down to: is it worth it? To take humans to the depths of hell for the possibility of the continuation of the species. For the individual, evading death it’s the obvious action but, for human society, is it really that obvious? The amount that we’d lose and the suffering of entire generations. Is humanity worthy enough to be preserved at all costs? We’ll eventually fade into oblivion when the sun goes boom or an asteroid comes close enough, or a drunk Slavic president can’t deactivate a doomsday machine. Kim-Corean-Un could even do it tomorrow.
*I typed in twinkies and Word kept correcting it. I thought the Office People didn’t include this delicious meal in their software. What happens is, according to their corrections, twinkies are only properly spelled with a capital letter “Twinkies”. I found this respect for Twinkies hilarious.
** Undecided if a body of a living person is he or it.
*** I know, biologists. This is based on bits of what I remember from some science special, meaning it’s probably a free interpretation of the truth. It suits my train of thought, so please go back to your bugs and leave me be.
– see also:
I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me: