The Ethics of Terminus
By Bryan Caplan
[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.