We are going change tack tonight and use the movie Shaun of the Dead to examine the question, “What are you?” on the Sci phi show
In the 2004 film, Shaun of the Dead we have a comedic take on the zombie apocalypse that also raises some interesting questions of personal identity and what we are as human beings. Zombies are interesting creatures because they cross a boundary. They used to be our friends and loved ones but our now transformed into creatures that want nothing more than to crack open our skulls and scoop out the tasty insides. This presents us with a number of quandaries that all revolve around the idea of personal identity and bring them into focus for us.
Questions of personal identity are centered on questions of who you are and what makes you you.
The most basic question of personal identity, is “What makes you you?” as opposed to someone else. What properties do you possess, what properties must you possess to be you.
In philosophy properties come in two basic flavors, Essential and Accidental and this distinction goes back at least to the ancient pagan philosopher Aristotle. The distinction is that essential properties are something that a thing must possess to be what it is while accidental properties are properties that could change without changing what something is. For example consider my cat Spooky. She is a black domestic cat, being black is an example of an accidental property, she would still be a cat if she was a different colour but if she was of the species Canis Familiaris, then she would no longer be a cat but a dog. So colour in cats is an example of an accidental property but the species, specifically Felis Catus, is an essential property as Spooky would no longer be a cat if that property were changed. Although she could still be my pet potentially, just no longer a cat. What counts as an accidental or essential property will vary depending on exactly what the category being considered is.
In terms of personal identity the question becomes, what are your essential and accidental properties? This turns out to be a non-trivial question as even your accidental properties, for example skin or hair color, may have contributed to the experiences that made you the person you are today. Are you just the sum total of your experiences? Are you something more or less than that? What are the essential properties that make you you? Even a short reflection on this will suggest that the question is going to be complicated and difficult to answer.
There is also the question of personhood. This is an involved issue and is worth an episode in its own right. The basic idea is to determine what criteria a person must meet to qualify as a person. This can be determined by some intrinsic property a person possesses or some function they must exhibit to qualify as a person. We will return to this concept in a future episode.
Next comes the question of persistence over time. What does it mean for you to exist as an individual over time? Does a consistent identity exist over time at all? Do I share a personal identity with the child I was or the old man I will eventually become? Is my personal identity able to transcend the death of my physical body and if so in what form? Would I even want it to? That may depend on the form it takes.
There is another sense in which persistence over time is significant as well. What sort of experience can you have that will allow your personal identity to survive and what sort of experience can you have that your identity will not survive? Could you as an individual survive a complete loss of memory? Would you as an individual survive a radical reorientation of life goals? What would count as a radical reorientation of life goals in that case?
Another question that questions of personal identity raise are questions of obligations to individuals. If I owe you money what would cancel that obligation? What would discharge a marriage vow and free you to marry someone else, assuming you took the idea of “till death do we part” seriously.
There turn out to be a host of problems here, and I'm sorry to say that some of them will have to wait for a later episode.
Coming back to the topic of zombies we find some specific questions cropping up. Zombies after all are our loved ones, or they used to be. This is nicely illustrated when Shaun is confronted with his reanimated mother and faced with the problem of killing her zombified body, He says, “That's not a zombie, that's my mum!” There is a similar scene in the Walking Dead when one character is confronted with the shambling corpse of his wife.
What do we do when confronted with this dilemma? Do we owe them any sort of a debt? Could they be happy or at least happier as a zombie? Can we kill them? Leaving aside the obvious self defense case, if there is a possibility of reversing the zombification, then by killing the person you are destroying their potential future. If it is a matter of survival then it would seem to be no different to the case of someone high on a drug who is behaving radically out of character due to the effects of the drug but who will return to normal if sufficient time is able to pass or they receive treatment. It would be unfortunate to kill them, but it does seem morally permissible to defend yourself. The zombies in Shaun of the Dead do seem to be actually deceased and have started to decay but the zombies in a film like I am Legend or 28 days later do seem to be in a state that i reversible with treatment. Do you owe these people and obligation to not harm them? Would it be morally permissible to wipe out zombies if there is a chance it can be reversed?
One of the interesting things about zombies is that they are physically if not psychologically continuous with the people they used to be. They have a change of life goals and priorities but there is no denying that they still seem to be alive. Do we owe them an obligation at that point and if so what? Just a head shot and an appropriate burial? Or something more? What about a more mild case of an alternation of life goals? Somebody who undergoes a religious conversion can have an extremely radical change of life goals, radically reorienting their life in light of their new faith, or loss of faith. Does such a radical change in life goals change the obligations we owe to someone? Can their identity survive such a change? Is it more or less radical than the change to a brains obsessed walking corpse?
There is one horrible possibility with zombies that needs to be considered. Perhaps the persons identity and consciousness persists. This was well illustrated in a scene from a Graphic novel I enjoyed when I was younger. A future war set on a different world against an alien race who had developed a means of reanimating the human dead and setting them upon their former comrades. The story was called Bad Company and had a horrible scene where one of these war zombies apparently had a flicker of recognition and hesitated from attacking a former comrade. The soldier survived the encounter and made sure his friends rest would never be interrupted again. It could be the case that zombies are aware of who they used to be and are aware of their new state in some way and of their new life goals.
Would you want to live like that? Perhaps it is quite pleasant. It certainly seems simpler and more primal that the busy lives and conflicting priorities we have to deal with today. There was film that attempted to portray the idea of zombiftion from the zombies point of view. In the 2007 film “wasting away”, the whole story is told from the point of view of characters that are slowly undergoing zombification and they struggle with why everybody is getting faster and why they have this new hunger.
This is an introduction to some of the concepts found when you confront questions of personal identity. You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask.
It seems being a zombie raises a number of questions. Are they who they used to be? If they are what do we owe them if anything? Could being a zombie be preferable
Let me know what you think.