Written by Todd Villeneuve.

[Author’s Note] No special knowledge of The Walking Dead is necessary to understand this lesson. The only thing you need is a vague conception of what a zombie apocalypse would look like. Various bands of survivors roam the land scavenging food and weapons with their biggest threats being starvation, the flesh-eating zombies, and conflict with other bands of survivors. Some larger groups attempt to begin “civilization” anew from scratch. The events described in this article come from from Season 5, Episode 4 “Slabtown” which premiered on 11/3/2014.

A young woman, Beth, awakens from unconsciousness. She does not recognize her surroundings as the ones in which she lost her senses, and no familiar faces await her awakening. Beth has gone from the road (being dirty, hungry, and disheveled with little secure shelter) to lying in a sterile, clean hospital room with working electrical power. Ripping the IV drip out of her arm, she climbs out of bed in only her hospital gown wielding the IV needle as a potential weapon.


Before Beth can even leave the room, the authorities enter: a male doctor and a female police officer. Her first questions are the expected ones, “Where am I?” and “How did I get here?” And then she asks about the last person she remembers, “The man I was with. Is he here too?” Beth is told that she was alone when they found her in grave danger of being eaten by zombies. Dawn, the police officer, then explains her current situation: “If we hadn’t saved you, you’d be one of them right now. You owe us.” “You owe us.” Let that sink in for emphasis. “You owe us.” A person who never asked for anything was given protection and care by a group of people, who then immediately upon her awakening demand payment for services rendered.

Later discussions between Beth and Dawn further clarify Beth’s conundrum. Dawn states, “…we all have to contribute. To compromise. If we take, we give back. It’s only fair. So keep working off what you owe, and you’ll be out of here in no time.” Beth is not free to leave their “care.” She does not have the option to refuse their gift. Beth is being forced into a type of indentured servitude where she must buy every necessary resource from the company store at inflated prices, and the debt will never be able to be repaid. Ethically, we can certainly argue that Beth owes those who saved her some gratitude for saving her life. But the moment they have taken away her freedom, what can she possibly owe them any longer? They have taken away that which they saved. While some may argue that a life in servitude is absolutely superior to death, there is clearly a subjective difference in how much value individuals would place on the life in servitude. Some may find the idea worse, some only slightly better, and still others would gladly take the servitude. However, just because some individuals decide that a form of servitude is justified in return for being saved from death, one cannot extrapolate to the conclusion that this servitude is just for all who are in that circumstance. [1]


To show the absurdity of making this tradeoff a necessity, let’s look at a few other examples from the real world working from the smaller scale to the larger. In grade school, if someone came up to me and kissed me on the lips or cheek unexpectedly and then demanded, “now, you kiss me,” I would not respond out of obligation. I would respond based on my level of attraction toward the person and on my cultural attitudes about affection, relationships, and other related issues. If I did give the affection solely as a result of the demand, what was given would be inauthentic. We would not consider it truly affection. Also, if the kiss was returned solely out of affection with no regard to the command, it could have been received with a request rather than an order. The presence of a demand cannot by itself obligate compliance. Masturbation, homosexuality, miscegenation, and use of various drugs have all been subject to long-term demands for their eradication and have gone largely unheeded despite the hindrances put in place to stop them.

If a grandparent leaves me money in their will upon certain conditions, I am not obligated to take the money and meet their conditions. I have a choice to make. I can have the money if I agree to their conditions because they are neither too onerous nor too offensive to me, or I may refuse the money as not worth the efforts which their conditions would require. This is not exactly the condition which the Walking Dead episode portrays though, so let’s change this slightly. During their lifetime, the grandparent gives me a substantial financial gift. The gift is a surprise. It was never mentioned prior to its being given, and at the time of its giving, no preconditions were laid out as requirements for its acceptance. Of course, I gladly accept the gift. But a year later, this grandparent finds something objectionable in my lifestyle. They demand that I cease from this activity, and bring up the gift as a reason for me to acquiesce to their wishes. They say that I owe it to them. Clearly, I cannot be bound to an agreement onto which I never signed. That is the nature of a gift. It is freely given, and once given the giver has no further claim on either the actual gift or on its recipients. If a magazine retailer sends me a free copy of their magazine I am not obligated to buy a subscription.

If I take food and shelter from a religious organization, I am not obligated to subscribe to their creed. Gifts cannot create obligations. This does not negate all forms of reciprocity, nor mean that all reciprocity should be discouraged, but the reciprocity in the case of a gift cannot be mandated.

A couple of burly men walk into my business and ask me if I am aware of another business down the street having its windows broken and being robbed the previous month. They inform me that it was a very unfortunate incident, but now that the business owner has hired their protection services, she has had no incidents as of late. They suggest that I hire them to provide protection for my store as well. Knowing that in the wider neighborhood there have been many incidents of broken windows and robberies in the past year, I take them up on their offer seeing that the civil authorities have not provided the protection they have promised, yet I feel protection is needed. A few months later they come back to my store. I have been diligent with my payments and have had no incidents so their services have seemed like a good deal. They tell me that the costs of providing protection have gone up and that my rate will be quadrupled.

At that price-point, I feel it is a better option to drop my coverage with them and take my chances, relying on insurance to fix things after the fact rather than taking the now very expensive precautionary measure. The burly men now inform me that I cannot cancel my coverage. I am a permanent member of the program. The fees will be collected every month with or without my compliance. The “choice” was still mine as to which way they would be collected. An obligation which is permanent and has no opt-out clause is not a valid obligation, but a form of slavery. I am forced to work to pay for services I deem unnecessary. Does the fact that I am able to choose what work I do negate the fact that I am being forced to work?

Going back to Beth and her relationship with Dawn and the group that saved her. Let’s apply the common-sense rules regarding obligation that have been outlined above and lay out the ethical implications.

1) The presence of a demand cannot by itself obligate compliance. Dawn demands that Beth stay and work off her debt for having saved her from zombies and providing medical care and food for her afterward. If Dawn had merely requested that Beth stay and help, Beth would have been given an actual choice. The grammatical construction of a request would allow her to say either “Yes, I would like to stay and help” possibly specifying for how long she would like to do so, or “No, I want to leave.” If yes, Beth and Dawn could haggle about the details of staying and work out something mutually beneficial. At any point where they are at an impasse Beth could decide to leave instead. At whatever point she did say “No,” a different negotiation might take place.


Perhaps Beth would like a bag, a weapon, and some food and water when she leaves. Dawn replies that they are very short on supplies and cannot risk giving them to someone who is leaving the group, at least not in exchange for nothing. If Beth feels the risk of leaving without food and water is too great she may work out a short-term stay in which she works for the items she has the most need for. If Beth demanded she be given food and water to leave, then Dawn would also not be under any obligation to give her any. They may choose to give it to her because they feel it is the right thing to do, but they are under a condition of scarce resources and feel they cannot do so. Beth’s demand created no obligation on Dawn and her group just as Dawn’s demand created no obligation on Beth.

2) Gifts cannot create obligations. Dawn did not make her demands in a vacuum. She had indeed provided many things of value to Beth: safety from the zombies, sustenance, and basic medical care. These things did not come at zero cost to the group. They put work and effort into them, most likely risked their lives against zombies in gathering the supplies they needed to keep themselves going, and of course there would be less for themselves after having given of their resources to Beth. Still, these sacrifices cannot hold Beth to stay where she does not want to be when they were never asked, bargained, or contracted for in advance. They were gifts. Once she is forced to reciprocate for something given to her without her knowledge or consent, an injustice exists. Forcing her to stay would be a form of imprisonment or kidnapping, and forcing her to work during that stay is a form of slavery.

3) An obligation which is permanent and has no opt-out clause is not a valid obligation, but a form of slavery. Initially, Dawn tells Beth that if she keeps “working off what you owe, …you’ll be out of here in no time.” Subsequently, she finds out that is not the case. When she asks a “worker” in Dawn’s group who has been there for a year if they are allowed to leave after working off their debt, he replies, “I haven’t seen it work like that yet.” Knowing there is no escape from her obligation to work for the group shatters Beth’s desire to go along with the group’s false front. She intuitively understands that she has no more rights than a slave and immediately begins to plot her escape. We might be able to come up with scenarios where temporary imprisonment or forced work are considered just with full knowledge of all possible consequences. This is a far cry though from justifying any permanent situation of the same sort, and is still further from justifying that when a contract is not voluntarily entered into.


Here is the kicker. How does Beth’s situation differ from our own? [2] When we become full citizens at the age of 18 we are awakened into the larger group around us. We are presented with demands for compliance. Register for the draft. Pay your taxes. Support our troops. You owe us. We have given you the gifts of peace (at least at home, while our wars are waged abroad, and you do not resist our police officers, and you do not protest our policies) and liberty (you can vote for your rulers, you can keep everything we have not taken in taxes, and you can go wherever you wish if you have the proper papers, ID, passport, and licensing). You owe us. You entered into the contract knowingly by being born. Your consent has been obtained by your acceptance of life within these imaginary boundaries. You have volunteered by enjoying the fruits of the labor of your fellow citizen-slaves. Your membership cannot be cancelled though we may revoke it. There is no opt-out clause. You owe us.

Zombies exist. Only they are called Al-Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL, Ebola, communists, socialists, capitalists, terrorists, etc. And they are things that we should fear, rationally, in the correct proportion to the threat which they pose. But we should be far more afraid of the rulers, who are the ones that insist that we owe them.


[1] The episode goes on to show the abuses within this system of which Dawn is in charge. I will not go into those here as I am interested in the justifications for and the inherent justice of the system itself.

[2] I am referring here to the situation of those born in the United States specifically, though most of these points should translate generally to those born in any nation-state.


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