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Dawn of the (Ethically) Dead: A Short Story

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Dave looked out the one-inch peephole of the cement bunker. Sure enough, the view was the same as it had been for weeks: zombies, zombies, and more zombies, doing what they do, just milling around, bumping into themselves, occasionally taking a bite out of each other.

“Hey, how come they don’t have to eat, you suppose?” Dave asked.

Jim, the only other person Dave knew who was still alive, maybe the only other person who was still alive, answered from the opposite corner of their 10’x10′ bunker: “What makes you say they don’t have to eat?”

“Well, they seem to be doing fine out there, and none of them have had a bite to eat in weeks, except what they get from each other, and that doesn’t really hold up. I mean, conservation of energy, right? If they keep just eating each other, eventually the system’s gotta wind down, right? But it isn’t, they’re still going out there.”

“Let’s hope they eat each other up.”

“Nah, because here”s the deal: they’re not snacking on each other cause they’re hungry, or at least, it doesn’t seem like that. It seems like they just sometimes bite what’s in front of them. Maybe cause they all look human. I’ve never seen one take more than a bite out of their neighbor.” He turned back to look at Jim. “Nothing like what they do to each other.”

When Dave turned and put his eyes back on the peephole, Jim stole a glance at their food reserves. A couple dozen pounds of dried meet, various canned goods, not much more. Thank God they had the water filtration device, or they would have died months ago. But maybe that would have been better, Jim thought. Dehydration is quick and moves swiftly from lightheadedness and confusion to coma. Starvation is a different story. Starvation is a protracted experience, and painful beyond belief. A man will do almost anything for food when he’s starving to death.

“They’ve gotta be hungry by now, right?” Dave continued, his eyes still out the peep hole. “It’s been weeks.”

“I don’t think they get hungry.”

“Really?”

“I don’t think they get anything. I don’t think they are anything. They just are.”

“Huh?”

“I mean I don’t think they have thoughts. I don’t think they have a mind. They don’t suffer pain or experience pleasure, don’t have hunger or thirst. They don’t plan where they’re getting their next meal or worry about it not coming. Inside, there’s nothing there. That’s why their eyes look so…”

But Dave didn’t need him to finish. He knew what Jim was talking about. How their eyes looked empty, hollow. It wasn’t like the movies, where people mistook the reanimated corpses of their friends and family for their actual loved ones. No, there could be no mistaking that look.

Jim continued: “That’s why it’s not wrong to kill them.”

“Course it ain’t wrong, they’re trying to eat us. It’s us or them.”

“It wasn’t us or them when you started taking pot shots from the peephole, was it? You knew you weren’t going to kill them all, but you shot a few of them anyway. That wasn’t self-defense.”

“Nah, but it was fun.”

“And the reason it was fun and not mentally deranged is because they don’t have subjective experiences. They don’t have personal, interior lives. Our minds, our ability to suffer or to experience pleasure is what makes us morally worthwhile. That’s why it’s wrong to torture a puppy dog, because the dog can suffer, because it’s an entity that desires things.”

Dave asked, “You think there are any dogs out there anymore?”

Jim thought about it for a moment. “No, probably not.”

“Doesn’t really seem like much of a world to live in anymore,” Dave said, “if there ain’t any dogs left in it. Just us and them.”

“But you see what I’m saying?” Jim said. “They are us! They have the same bodies, the same brains, the same everything! The only difference is that they don’t have minds. So they don’t have morality or conscience. They don’t even see things, because they have no mind to see with. Their brains operate entirely unconsciously, in the same way that ours control our heart beats. That’s the only difference.”

“What about not needing to eat? Or not having no reservations against cannibalism? Or being able to walk around with your leg broken and not complain about it.”

“Those are trivial. Philosophically speaking, that is.”

Dave rolled his eyes and went back to the peephole. Jim glanced over at their automatic rifle and the few rounds they had remaining. They had used the vast majority of their ammunition getting to the bunker, and Dave had used most of what was left making revenge kills through the peephole. “But you know what the funny thing is about minds, Dave?”

“Nuh-huh, what?” Dave asked, without turning back around.

“The only mind you really know exists is your own. With regards to anyone else’s, you’re just assuming.”

Dave turned around, seemingly interested. “How do you figure?”

“Well, the reason we know that our own minds exist is because we actively experience them all the time. Like Descartes said, cogito ergo sum, or roughly, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ But we can’t ever experience someone else’s mind.”

“But you can talk to someone, and they can tell you, ‘Hey, I have a mind!'”

“Ah, yes, but maybe that’s just their brain unconsciously responding to language, stimulus and response. That’s not direct evidence. You can’t measure a mind.”

“But you could measure a brain, right, do some of them brain scans, figure out what matches up with what and then you’d know.”

“But you wouldn’t, you see, because, here’s the kicker, nobody knows how consciousness is created. Some philosophers and scientists think we’ll never know. The ones with more faith say that we’ll know someday, that we’ll discover something and it’ll reveal to us this deep mystery, but none of them have a clue what this something might be.”

Dave said nothing to this, and Jim was worried he’d lost him. Never mind, though, this wasn’t for Dave. This was a justification for Jim and Jim alone.

He continued: “Nobody knows why it’s like something to be a person. We think that this is a rare phenomenon, but maybe if you’re feeling generous, you’ll become a panpsychic and say that everything is conscious. Like trees and rifles and dust.”

“Well, that seems a bit ridiculous.”

“Or maybe,” Jim continued, “if you’re feeling skeptical, if you’re feeling a bit miserly, you’ll go the skeptic’s route, and say that you’ll only believe what you can see, what you can measure, and without evidence otherwise, you’ll just go on and assume that you’re the only person who actually has a mind. This is called solipsism.”

Dave was back staring through the peephole, and while he wasn’t looking, Jim reached over and picked up the rifle. They kept it loaded with the safety on, and Jim slowly switched it off, softly, so that Dave couldn’t hear.

“And the skeptic solipsist, you see, is freed from the moral bounds that otherwise would constrain his behavior, because, as you must see, if you don’t believe in other minds, if you don’t believe that it’s like something to be someone else, then you’d have no problem killing another person if it benefitted you, if you were hungry, for example, or knew you soon would be.”

He raised the rifle and pointed it at the back of Dave’s head. And, like that odd feeling you sometimes get when you’re being watched, Dave seemed to know something was up, too.

“So, Dave, it’s not that I’m a monster. I’m just a skeptic.”

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4 Responses

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  1. Please feel free to make any comments, criticisms, etc. I’d love to hear some feedback on this!

    Greg Karber

    September 3, 2009 at 6:17 pm

  2. It’s a good thing for you that I’m really bored at work.

    So strange, another friend sent me a story to read that he had written, and that was also a zombie story. Zombies are hot right now. Is “zombie-chic” a phrase? If not, can I make money from it?

    I like that the story isn’t about brains and running and screaming, that it takes a more philosophical angle.
    I enjoyed it…

    If I were in a writing workshop class, I’d advise you to cut a few of the last lines. I think (IMHO) this would be a better ending:

    **********************

    “And the skeptic solipsist, you see, is freed from the moral bounds that otherwise would constrain his behavior, because, if you don’t believe in other minds, if you don’t believe that it’s like something to be someone else, then you’d have no problem killing another person if it benefited you. If you were hungry, for example, or knew you soon would be.”

    He raised the rifle and pointed it at the back of Dave’s head.

    “So, Dave, it’s not that I’m a monster. I’m just a skeptic.”

    **********************

    What do you think of that edit?

    Mike Kirchhoff

    September 3, 2009 at 9:38 pm

  3. Hmmmmmm,

    Interesting read. Great narrative. Story can be related to a lot of real-life applications. Good job.

    From an engineer’s standpoint, it’s the age-old question of being able to “model” or “simulate” a phenomenon. When science can’t predict or explain it, the feeling can be hard to cope with. You say, “does another have a mind?” I say, “who defined physics or thermodynamics?” Seems we don’t have an answer to everything and maybe the skepticism is answered by faith in a higher power giving all the ability to decide…

    …or maybe I’m reading too much into the zombie story.

    kale

    Kale Wallace

    September 3, 2009 at 9:40 pm

  4. Mike, I like your edit so much, I’ve changed it and your post now reads like the crazed ramblings of a psychotic.

    Greg Karber

    September 3, 2009 at 10:08 pm


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