The Walking Dead and the State of Nature

November 15, 2011

Dirty Hands, Honor


In a zombie-apocalyptic world, a legitimized state seizes to exist, and society returns to the State of Nature. In one of the latest episodes of The Walking Dead, one of the characters is confronted with the concept of justified harm in the State of Nature.

On a mission through the woods, the group of survivors follows a large buck into the trees. Standing and staring at the beautiful creature, main characters Rick and Shane, witnesses a bullet pass through the large animal and into the torso of Rick’s child, Carl. The hunter, Otis, rushes out of the trees and realizes what he has done. He informs Rick and Shane of his family’s home nearby. Rick runs through the woods as Carl is slowly bleeding to death (maybe he did not – I will abstain from giving away the plot).  Rick, carrying Carl, Shane, and Otis make it back to the house where a veterinarian informs the men that the child will need a respirator to survive the surgery. Rick must stay behind and give blood to Carl. Shane and Otis are sent on an epic mission to a high school where they search the abandoned emergency medical trailers for a respirator. As they are making a break for the escape vehicle, both men are suffering injuries and it is clear neither of them will make it. Shane, decides to shoot Otis in the leg, allowing himself a safe escape (watch the video to see how this pans out).

John Locke’s view on the State of Nature describes natural society as being equal. All men are born equal to one another and cannot act in ways that may harm others living in the state of nature. This does not restrict man’s free will or actions from trying to overpower and dominate others.

“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection” (John Locke, Second Treatise of Government: Ch. II, para. §4)

If an individual harms another, the individual harmed is (by social contract) allowed to reciprocate the amount of harm experienced at his or her own discretion.  If one person is stronger than another, this system does not work because individuals who can exert more power will always have control of society. Individuals living in the State of Nature may give up power and grant consent to a legitimized state for protection, but when a legitimized state fails to exist, there is no other option but to live in the State of Nature.  In the State of Nature, Shane’s actions, though immoral, would be justified because of the harm Otis inflicted on Carl.  Because Carl is not strong enough to inflict harm on Otis, Shane acted as the leader (to whom Shane consented his authority) and brought justice to the offender at his own discretion.

Do you believe a legitimized state can exist in a post-apocalyptic/zombie-apocalyptic society? Do you believe an individual can give up their own consent at the discretion of others if they cannot make decisions for themselves (think power of attorney and our little friend Carl lying a bed bleeding out, unable to speak or move)? Should Shane feel guilty for committing this act of justice?

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About Michael Zanger

Student at the University of Michigan studying political science and philosophy.

View all posts by Michael Zanger


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2 Comments on “The Walking Dead and the State of Nature”

  1. ksaukas Says:

    As an avid watcher of this show I have to admit my jaw dropped when I saw Shane commit this act of treachery upon Otis. What is not seen in this video is that Otis willingly put himself in danger by leading the zombies away from Shane so that he would have a chance to make it back to Carl earlier on in the episode. He later returns to save Shane when he is surrounded by zombies later on. Otis was willing to die to, and risked his life to save Shane to only be betrayed by him at the end of the episode.

    Now there is argument that by shooting Otis, Shane now has a chance to get back to Carl and save his life. But this is done without the knowledge of whether or not Carl is even still alive. So was Shane justified to kill a man who had put his life on the line for him in order to save Carl who may not even be alive at the time?

    In a strict logical sense if Carl’s life is considered more valuable to Shane because he is a child, and he has know him and his family for years then yes unfortunately it can be argued that Otis’ death was justified. But no human is a run completely by logic which is why the scene at the end where Shane is shaving his hair speaks volumes. By shaving he is trying to wash his dirty hands, but from the face he sees in the mirror it is easy to see that as a person he can never forgive himself.

  2. schoemad Says:

    I haven’t watched this show before, but it definitely seems to me that the State of Nature on this show deals more with the views of Hobbes. Locke’s views don’t really apply to this situation. The Hobessian State of Nature is more about a constant struggle and a fear of death that involves quarreling which I feel like a zombie apocalypse would most mirror. A zombie apocalypse is all about the fear of death, that’s what keeps the people on the run and survival is what’s most important.

    There was no contract that was written down and said I will help you no matter what, therefore besides friendship there was nothing really holding Shane back from killing Otis. There was an unwritten covenant, but betrayal was bound to occur. I think Shane should not feel too bad for killing Otis. This is a world where the strongest survive and Otis in this case just wasn’t strong enough in the end.

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