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Absence of Authority: Zombies and Hobbes

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2013 at 4:53 am

Zombie - hobbesZombie films evoke the fear of how people would respond if there were no authorities to keep the baser appetites in check.  I must admit, for me this is the source of zombie terror for me.  Without the authority represented by government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings turn on each other.  This fear of others—indeed, of one’s neighbours—is the basis of Hobbes’ analysis in Leviathan published in 1651.

For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war.  According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness.  Our natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man.  He also argues that competition, diffidence and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety and reputation.  We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life.  This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights.   To ensure that the contracts are performed, a society needs a sovereign who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints.  We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.  The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The zombies usher in a world where this third group invokes their natural right “even to one another’s body,” and they can do this because there is no longer a “sovereign” to enforce the contracts that Hobbes describes.  The loss of authority is central to zombie narratives.  Zombies are certainly horrifying in and of themselves, but, as Bishop points out,  “such monsters would not pose much of a threat if actualized in the modern-day world; most probably police or military could quickly exterminate these aberrations” (22).  But zombie narratives are almost always set during (or shortly after) the collapse of civilization, and whatever remains of the police or military, or any other governmental organization, is completely ineffectual and more often, nonexistent.  Zombie movies, then, “offer a worst-case scenario of the collapse of all American social and governmental structures.  Once people start to die at an uncontrollable rate, panic rages through all levels of the government and the military—a literal ‘dog eat dog’” world” (Bishop 23). At the end of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies have been contained and are in the process of being eliminated; by the end of Dawn of the Dead, they have apparently overrun everything.  Government, military and all other forms of civil authority evaporate.  According to Hobbes, the sovereign is supposed to establish “security and order, enforcing our agreements with others, resolving disputes, and imposing punishment.  Hobbes’ sovereign also determines the ideology of the state (what is right and wrong, just and unjust).  Under his authority, good and evil are absolute” (Fahy [The Philosophy of Terror] 65).  In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’  Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist.  In the absence of “good” and “evil,” each individual determines his or her own morality.  We desire what is good and have an aversion to what is bad.  But individual desires and aversions are pursued at the expense of those of others.  This is the role that the other, monstrous, humans play in zombie narratives.  The biker gang in Dawn of the Dead invades the mall to pillage it, and they will kill anyone—living or undead–to have their way.  Because the living and the undead are both driven by almost equally base desires to “consume” the other, the zombie holds up a mirror to man, revealing what he is in a world without authority.  The line between monster and human is blurred.

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  1. Good points about the living being the bigger threat to humanity than the zombies in The Walking Dead.

    You ask whether humanity “is” monstrous. Don’t forget that human consciousness, along with ethics, morals, etc can change over time. If the zombie apocalypse makes humanity more monstrous, it could also make humanity less monstrous and more compassionate.

    We might think of the level of human consciousness as the average of the consciousness of all the people in the group (or it could be some other way to gauge where “humanity” as a group is at in any given moment in time). And within that group there are individuals who are each at different levels of consciousness/spiritual awareness/ethics/morals.

    The Walking Dead does a pretty good job of telling a story that puts these philosophical/spiritual/ethical questions right in the forefront.

    To me, the interesting question is whether the crisis of survival that the human individuals and small groups of humans as well as humanity as a whole is experiencing, will that crisis lead humans to “devolve” into violence and selfishness in order to survive or will humans learn to work together to increase each individuals chances for survival?

    Or put another way, why does a survival crisis lead some individual humans to become more violent and selfish, distrustful and fearful for their own survival and why does it make other people want to band together to cooperate in trust? Will humanity as a whole devolve negatively or evolve positively?

    And of course, this same question presents itself to humanity as we know it in this day and age with all the crises of survival that humanity actually faces, so the story might help us learn about ourselves, increase our awareness of our own choices and allow us the chance to make better choices for the survival of our species, other species we share the world with and the world itself.

    • To make a few more points:

      Rick’s group, which is made up of basically good people, I see as struggling with whether the crisis will make them evolve to survive or devolve to survive. Rick’s character arc has him, perhaps unconsciously, falling more towards brutality and distrust to survive.

      Nagan’s group, The Survivors, have clearly embraced the violent path to survival (he calls it the New World Order in which he takes what he wants/needs by threat of violence or actual violence).

      It will be interesting to see what direction Rick’s group and Rick himself will take in the next season. Will the temptation for revenge and retaliation drive Rick further towards violence and distrust or will something in him or outside of him lead him to transcend the violent approach to survival?

      • I agree. Rick is leaning toward “Kill first, ask questions later.” Morgan is the antithesis. Carol’s thesis is: Love begets violence. Morgan learned that Carol was right, you have to kill other people if you love anyone else. If nothing else, the show tells us that we that ethics are complicated.

        Have you ever read Rene Girard? I thought there was a lot of Girardean thinking in the finale.

    • I wonder if human beings are, in general, likely to become less monstrous and more compassionate. I believe, and I think Hobbes would agree, that people have tendencies toward selfishness–which is the root of many evils. While there is a powerful impulse toward evil, there is also a compulsion toward the good–and it’s a lot easier for us to be principled when we are not under stress–the zombie apocalypse creates that stress, and then we get to watch things devolve. This is exactly what you are saying, I think. And, as you say, some characters in The Walking Dead attempt to hold to these principles and try to help the group to live under them. The characters are often faced with situations where they have to choose between principle and survival. Lately, Rick is leaning toward instant violence. It’s a fascinating “conversation.” This too is my favourite aspect of the show.

  2. In reply to this article, I wholeheartedly disagree with Hobbes. I don’t think conflict, competition and fear are inherent permanent traits of humans and human societies. Instead, I believe that these traits that do seem to have prevailed in the entire history of humanity represent a low level of ethical/spiritual/social development. Human societies, in my view, are basically at a 2 year old level of development: mostly selfish, mostly concerned about their own wants and needs.

    I think human societies are undoubtedly capable of far more development and sophistication than what Hobbes describes and what we see in the world today.

    I think the primary lesson of the immature level of development that human societies appear to be at is to learn to not make decisions based on fear. We will either learn that lesson sooner or later or destroy our species and probably take down the world and many other species with us if we do.

    • I was picking up some of this from your first comment. I’m closer to Hobbes than I am to your more optimistic view of humanity–as I said before, when we are doing OK, we can be more magnanimous, but under stress our true nature is shown. I think that we can progress in our knowledge and technological knowhow, but morally we are not all that different than we were when we lived in caves. The 20th century is evidence of that–and I think that the angst created by this realization is one of the things that gives rise to the zombie genre.

      • Thanks for reading, Matthew, and taking the time to comment.

      • Yes, we know humans as a whole have been less than impressive in their ethical/spiritual/moral developement in the past and in the present, but do you think that humanity is unlikely or unable to develop in these areas or do you believe that violence is our unavoidable nature as soon as scarcity of resources occurs? Do you think that human societies could be characterized by cooperation and mutual respect even in a time of crisis? I think its possbile.

        I tend to think that solutions come when the problems become so threatening that they can’t be ignored and hopefully its not too late for meaningful change and progress.

        I tried to get a handle on the basics of Girard, at your suggestion, thank you! and even his somewhat bleak theory of human desire leads him to suggest that humans are being pushed towards “unconditonal peace” because scapegoating, as he describes it, is no longer functional, no longer serves the purpose it once did (to bring two or more humans together by giving them a common enemy, if my understanding is correct).

        From an article in a Stanford newspaper several years ago:

        “Man is creating “more and more violence in a world that is practically without God, if you look at the way nations behave with each other and the way people behave with each other,” he said. “History, you might say, is a test for mankind. But we know very well that mankind is failing that test. In some ways, the Gospels and scriptures are predicting that failure since it ends with eschatological themes, which are literally the end of the world.”

        His conclusion: “We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.”

        https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=29620

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