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Staring into the Zombie Abyss

By Guest Contributor Marc Merlin, Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern.

In his excellent review of the recent Zombethics Conference, Ross Gordon covers the central themes discussed during its morning session: a hypothetical neuroanatomy of zombies that would account for their hostile behavior, the possibility of the existence of philosophical zombies, soulless humans walking among us and, finally, the always-vexing question of free will, as it concerns both zombies and us.

Without a doubt these discussions have much to say about neuroscience and the philosophy of mind. What is less clear to me is what they have to say about ethics. They help us think more carefully about zombie behavior, but they offer little additional understanding of own our behavior, which is, after all, the grist for the ethics mill.

The Piano Kill, via Zombieland

The fact of the matter is that we are the ethical agents in the universe of human-zombie interactions. What motivates us and informs our behavior – consciously or unconsciously – is what is of primary importance here. Why is it that human characters in zombie dramas are moved to pursue the destruction of the walking dead with unabashed gusto, without the least apology or excuse? And why is their success at dismemberment and decapitation of zombie foes met with the eager applause of broad-based television and film audiences, many of whom would not be caught dead walking into a movie theater to catch the latest installment of the horror-porn “Saw” franchise?

From this perspective, the central zombethical question becomes, ‘Why do we find zombies so delightfully kill-able’?

One implication of this line of thinking is that neuroscience research relative to zombie ethics should focus less on the mental states of zombies and more on the mental states that zombies (and their destruction) evoke in us. There being a dearth of real-life zombies with brains to scan, this shift of perspective toward the human offers obvious experimental advantages. In addition, it suggests a testable hypothesis: the response of the human brain when presented with depictions of the killing of zombies will be different than that when it is presented with depictions of the killing of other kinds of threats.

Speculating here a bit, it may be that zombies occupy a sweet spot of sorts when it comes to hateability. Since they possess hardly a shred of personality, which makes identifying with them difficult or impossible, they hold little claim on our store of empathy. Yet, unlike empathy, which is bestowed on all sorts of creatures – even expressive robots – the antipathy that we feel toward zombies may not be an equal opportunity disposition. Perhaps this form of hostility, bent on annihilation, is especially reserved for members of our own species or facsimiles thereof.

All this leads me to suggest a topic for next year’s Zombethics conference: Zombies: Why do we hate them so, and why do we kill them with such glee? Some brainy food for thought until Halloween 2013.

Want to Cite this Post?

Merlin, M. (2012). Staring into the Zombie Abyss. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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