Bryan Caplan  

The Ethics of Terminus

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[Warning: Season 4-5 Walking Dead spoilers]


In zombie survival sensation The Walking Dead, the protagonists are captured by a community of hipster cannibals.  The community is called Terminus; its members, Terminants.  Their business model:

1. Lure human survivors to their compound with radio and billboard messages along the lines of: "Sanctuary for all. Community for all. Those who arrive survive."

2. Welcome the survivors, disarm them, then imprison them.

3. Eat them.

The victims naturally regard the Terminants as evil.  Almost everyone who sees the show does the same: Yes, the Terminants are scared and hungry, but that doesn't justify murder.  The Terminants, however, are self-righteous.  They even have an elaborate shrine (pictured above) that honors the dead members of their community and proudly displays their catechism.  They're self-conscious citizenists: "We first, always."  Therefore, cannibalism.

Is it fair to use Terminus as a reductio ad absurdum of citizenism?  Maybe.  The more interesting question to my mind, though, is whether - faced with conditions as dire as The Walking Dead's - most people would adopt the ethics of Terminus. 

Frankly, I suspect they would.  It wouldn't happen the day after the disaster, or even the month after the disaster.  But as the cost of ethical behavior rose people would gradually shed their universalistic scruples.  Would they convert to ethical egoism?  Unlikely.  Human beings are naturally social.  Awful circumstances would quickly build strong new group identities - leading members to embrace new scruples.  Like: "We have a duty to do whatever it takes to protect our group."  Sliding down the slippery slope from "protection" to "getting food" to "stealing food from outsiders" to "making outsiders food" wouldn't take too long. 

This is especially clear if you picture how most people would respond if most people in their group turned to cannibalism.  The initial reaction might be, "That's horrible."  They might even skip a few meals rather than eat people.  But in an extremely dangerous world, few people would leave the tribe.  Once they decide to stay in a group with cannibals, most people would eventually come around to, "Well, it's okay to eat the meat as long as I don't personally murder anyone."  After a few months of eating out of the cannibals' hands, justifying cannibalism with "We have a duty to do whatever it takes to protect our group" would sound pretty good.

To my mind, it doesn't morally matter that most people would ultimately embrace the ethics of Terminus.  Human weakness is all around us.  Murder might be morally permissible when the benefits massively outweigh the costs, but "That innocent man could feed all ten of us for a week" certainly doesn't qualify.  What we learn from Terminus, rather, is not merely that most people are citizenists at heart, but that most people are only one complete disaster away from extreme citizenism.  It's not only fair to ask explicit citizenists, "What's wrong with Terminus?"  It's fair to ask almost anyone.

Question for discussion: How evil are the Terminants, really?  Please show your work.

COMMENTS (22 to date)
Chad writes:

"Murder might be morally permissible when the benefits massively outweigh the costs, but "That innocent man could feed all ten of us for a week" certainly doesn't qualify."

This is the crux of the matter. If you put me and my family in this situation, sucks to be Mr. Edible.

Shane L writes:

Supposing another group held a patch of territory near the Terminus and individual cannibals wanted to move in there, promising to obey their rules and not eat anyone. Should they be allowed in? Or should the group defend itself from possible predation by ex-cannibals?

Handle writes:

So, what is the Caplan-ethics correct answer for the Terminants then? Better to starve to death?

Daublin writes:

The premise is weird, though, from an economic perspective, in much the same way it's weird to use humans as batteries.

Even if you are completely evil and don't care about outsiders' wellbeing at all, ranching tends to be an inefficient way to produce food. You have to feed the cattle, and you put more food into feeding and raising the cattle than you get back out.

I don't know the series at all, but is there really no way to produce food? How did the prisoners stay alive before they got captured?

Seth Green writes:

Three pieces of context from the show (all likely familiar to Bryan):

1) The Terminants are given a backstory in which they only became killers after a group of marauders raped and pillaged their once-loving community.

2) Gareth tells Rick that he would have offered his group the opportunity to join if Rick's group hadn't pulled guns first. So theirs is actually a pretty inclusive citizenship model based on the criteria of competence which Rick's group demonstrates by sneaking in and catching them unguarded.

3) They go after Rick's group later in the show for no purpose other than vengeance which was A) a different category of bad because it has no survival purpose and B) stupid because they'd already learned they were overmatched.

So I think the show's perspective is that they're evil but that they live by consistent principles and that they were driven to evil by circumstances.

I personally am not sure how to pass judgement here.

Brian E. writes:

Adding a little bit to Seth Green's second point:

When you first get to the main entrance of Terminus, you're greeted by a woman with a grill full of steaks. Some people saw this at the end of one of the episodes in season 4 and noticed the distinct lack of cows around Terminus and guessed right away they were cannibals, but maybe the people in the Walking Dead universe aren't quite as astute. The writers/producers have indicated that the Terminants don't immediately cannibalize everyone that shows up; first they offer them meat, then they explain where the meat comes from. If the new arrivals demonstrate useful skills and are willing to go along with the cannibalism, they're allowed to stay.

By the time we meet the Terminants in the show, the process has become a routine and the food is handled the same as any modern slaughterhouse.

Ben writes:

I guess I'm unusual in this, but I can't imagine why people would want to live in a world like that of the Walking Dead in the first place. I would have killed myself at the beginning of season 1. Ethical problems with cannibalism neatly avoided. :-> I don't get why people attach so much value to survival that they would be willing to resort to things like cannibalism.

Dangerman writes:

Shane L hits the nail on the head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

chedolf writes:

Is it fair to use The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a reductio ad absurdum of familyism? Maybe.

Jeffrey S. writes:

"How evil are the Terminants, really? Please show your work."

Is this some kind of joke? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very evil, the Terminants are at 11; because it is wrong to kill another human being (not to mention eat him) for any instrumental reason! Are you some kind of utilitarian? It is never O.K. to do evil so that good may come of it -- basic morality 101. There are plenty of examples, even in the post-apocalyptic world of the "Walking Dead" of people living by a real moral code and succeeding. Not always, but that's true of our world as well. Which is fine, because we aren't guaranteed 'success' in this vale of tears.

Hazel Meade writes:

I disagree.

This gets to a major problem with The Walking Dead, as well as other zombie or post-apocalyptic movies in general.

In a real survival situation, other people are usually better employed as allies than as adversaries. They can be put to productive use such as farming or building defences or protecting the tribe against zombies/wild animals etc. You can trade with them and help eachother survive.

But in the land of zombie/post-apocalypse films, everyone is inexplicably intent on killing eachother off in a scramble of what are presumably scarce resources - even though resources aren't that scarce or wouldn't be if you employed those people to gather and produce them. There's also almost always one idiot who leaves the gate open and lets in a horde of zombies who inevitably suceed in killing a large number of people.

Now, there are some legitimate dilemmas such as individuals who are a danger to the tribe due to their behavior, and these shows usually do a good job of handling that. But they always fall down on the issue of what to do with abstract others - the answer is usually distrust and kill them instead of making them allies.

To be fair The Walking Dead is better at this than most because the ethos of the protagonists is to trust and take people in rather than make enemies of them, and that works to their advantage. But the group is still set in a landscape of other irrationally antagonistic enemies who are more interested in eating people than in seeing what they have to offer.

Realistically, the environment that the characters of The Walking Dead inhabit is not too different from the environment that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in. Yes, there were dangerous animals in the woods, so you lived in walled encampments. But you weren't constantly living in fear of every neighboring tribe. Most of the time, even in primitive society, the neighboring tribe are people you trade with, not people you try to eat before they eat you.

IVV writes:

Hazel Meade has it right. In your standard tribal survivalist situation, it makes sense to (on occasion, even possibly regularly) make war with the neighboring tribe. In the case you're already making war on that tribe, eating members you kill makes sense - it's a food source that's otherwise going to waste.

However, this isn't your standard tribal survival. There's another big tribe out there - the zombies. Any other human tribe can feel morally justified at making war with the zombies (if not eating them). As a result, any other human tribe is best employed as an ally against the majority zombies. Once the zombies die off enough, then we'll see far more intertribal conflict. But until then, it's easy to unite against the greater, non-negotiable threat.

Emily writes:

Starvation isn't exactly a novel situation in the history of humanity. And yet cannibalism (at all, or specifically as a way of getting sufficient calories) has not been a common cultural practice. Cultures with writing have certainly suffered from dire food shortages, but as far as I know, even when cannibalism has been practiced by some members, it hasn't been lauded or even defended. Not even the eating of other people who have starved to death.

Hazel Meade writes:

Even in your standard tribal survivalist situation, you don't necessarily try to wipe out the other tribe completely either.
Most wars, historically, have been disputes over territory and resources. There's also really no point in wiping the other tribe out if you can subjugate them. And why would you eat something as valuable as an adult human, when you can use them as a slave?

Morality is a result of biological and cultural evolution. Evolution operates on continuous or nearly continuous variables. From where I stand, slippery slopes rise or fall away in all directions. Perhaps "cultures with writing" have not defended or celebrated cannibalism only because cannibalism and the wealth necessary for literacy do not long abide together.

Human predation upon other humans nearly as severe as cannibalism occurs today; read Ethan Gutmann's __The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China's Secret Solution to its Dissident Problem__, or consider the US pre-college "public" school system, in which children work 180 days a year for 12 years, unpaid, as window-dressing in a massive make-work program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel.

IVV writes:

Hazel Meade,

You're absolutely right in general--keeping people as cattle is a complete waste of resource potential. I can't imagine cannibalism in any situation more than eating the casualties of war.

Seth writes:

Evil begets evil. The citizens of Terminus experienced evil and became more evil to protect themselves from it.

Rick's group has also experienced evil and have also evolved some rules of engagement to protect themselves and, on the principle of 'better safe than sorry,' have occasionally shot first and asked questions later as they trial-and-error their way along the evil/not-evil fine line.

What made Terminus more evil is the simple fact that they went through great effort to lure people to their camp under extremely false pretenses to satisfy their acquired taste for human flesh.

Sure, you can say they at least gave them a choice to join, but it really wasn't much of a choice. I believe the Terminus group was offered in the series as a strong contrast to Rick's group to remind them that they haven't gone that far off the map of morality.

On a side note, the what really bugged me about Terminus in that world is that people actually fell for it.

Keith K. writes:

Hazel Meade

There is actually a much bigger problem with The Walking Dead from a plausibility standpoint. Namely, that there is no way so many zombies would have been able to survive more than several months.

I get that we're primarily looking at it from a standpoint of economics here, but from a strictly scientific standpoint it suffers worse. Let us assume for the sake of argument the basic premises of the show about a big virus killing most of the population and rendering them zombies. Based off what is observed in the show, there is no conceivable reason why Rick and his crew should STILL be seeing them this far into the shows timeline.

The timeline in the show is roughly 1 year from the start of the infection. It is atleast 9 months given that Lori conceives and brings a baby to term in that much time. Over a 9 month period they would have experienced 1 winter season. Given what we know biologically about prolonged cold exposure, close to every zombie in the continental US should have succumbed to cold exposure. Especially when you take into consideration their slower metabolism (which should translate into lower overall body temperatures). At the first frost all of the zombies should have fallen apart at the cellular level from frostbite. This should have occurred even as far south as Georgia, which does experience frost level temperatures in the winter during the evenings. Not every evening, but often enough and long enough for the cellular integrity of the zombies to degrade to the point of disintegration.

And as far north as Virginia? There should not be a single zombie still in existence.

Now admittedly you can argue that people dying all the time would replenish zombie numbers, but that should almost entirely dissipate once they establish cohesive groups that can successfully put down any members who should happen to die.

Adriana writes:

Morally, I think you might be able to make a case for treating people you care about and trust better than strangers. As in, you're more likely to give or lend money to your family members and close friends than strangers. If your family and friends need shelter, you're more likely to provide it than for strangers. You're emotionally invested in their well-being and so you are perhaps more inclined to sacrifice for them. I will say, though, that this is a difficult argument to make if helping strangers costs you very little.

What's far less justifiable is treating strangers badly. Unwillingness to provide aid to strangers isn't the same as going out of your way to harm people outside the group.

We could possibly justify treating strangers badly in favor of our group's survival interests, but morally we'd need to make the case that there's no reasonable alternative path to survival. If it's literally you versus my child, I'm probably going to pick my child's survival over yours. But in just this zombie apocalypse scenario, at least, that's rarely the situation. While there's incredible hardship, clearly there are numerous reasonable alternatives to luring people into your camp under false pretenses, bashing in the back of their heads, and slitting their throats in order to feed off them.

What's also challenging are the in-groups themselves. Families are fairly clear, as are friendships. In hunter-gatherer societies, you would've known everyone in your group and probably would have trusted them implicitly over strangers. Citizenism is less clear in a country of over 300 million individuals - most of whom you haven't met. What's the pull economically, emotionally or even psychologically, to not only treat your fellow your citizens better, but actually prioritize their rights over the rights of foreigners? In this situation, as an American, most of your group are strangers to you. The in-group is defined so broadly as to mean very little.

The reason I mention this is that Terminus basically has a citizenship policy of "join or die" (as determined by them, not by you). The people who have joined may not have been especially enthusiastic. In fact, there's a good chance that some of the newer citizens are very scared and don't know if they can safely leave, and just count themselves fortunate that they weren't exterminated. For them, there's probably very little trust in or concern for their fellow citizens. Why should they be expected to feel loyalty or prioritize the needs/wants of Terminants over strangers' needs/wants?

James writes:

Shane L's comment is interesting because it seems to create an analogy between admitting people from a cannibalistic group and admitting people corn outside of the United States. Whether these two populations are analogous makes an interesting empirical question. I suspect people born outside of the US have more in common with US citizens than they with cannibals.

Concerning the policy implications, well, I'm willing to change my mind. I was an open borders guy before I read Shane's comment. I'm now leaning to see a case for restrictions on people who have practiced repeat cannibalism before. It's a valid concern, sufficient to outweigh the benefits that a cannibal might get from immigrating to the US.

Henri Hein writes:

Keith K.:

Did you see this article: 7 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Outbreak Would Fail (Quickly)?
It's heavier on entertainment than science, but goes to some of the main reasons the Zombie apocalypse would be less calamitous than usually depicted.

That said, I find myself easily suspending my disbelief when it comes to zombies.

Henri Hein writes:

I'm with Hazel Meade and IVV. People tend to cooperate in disasters, not fight. See for instance (if you can ignore the political slant, which, for the record, I do not endorse).

Hazel does not mention it, but this also answers Caplan's question. If cooperation is both likely and valuable, how can the Terminants justify killing and eating instead?

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