Nasty, Brutish and Short: Hobbesian Ethics and the Zombie Apocalypse.

I was 19 when I read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Like most of my classmates, I was at first taken aback by the idea that people act out of self-interest, but I came to really appreciate the idea of that, and of social contracts and a strong leadership, which were the elements which saved us from the chaos of man in the state of nature. The state of nature, in which the life of man would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

My friends and I loved that description, ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ We’d throw it into conversations and laugh the laugh of the philosophy geek.  Of course, at 19, I didn’t really consider life in the state of nature, because I was too wrapped up in the hedonism of youth, cheap secondhand books, and coffees in the library cafe. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Hobbes, and he’s one of the few philosophers in which I’ve held an interest, even though it’s been almost twenty years since I studied his work. (As opposed to Locke, whose work went in one ear and out the other. I’m sure it didn’t help that during the only presentation I gave to my tutorial on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, my tutor fell asleep. It probably wasn’t personal–he fell asleep a lot in our tutorials–but Locke has been banished from my memory all the same. Poor Locke. I really should look him up again.)

Hobbes, however, has been on my mind, especially in recent years, when fin de siècle arts and literature seems to have focussed strongly on dystopia and the aftermaths of disasters, I keep thinking about his theory of social contracts, and how indeed we would survive in a world where nothing is certain, where there is no infrastructure, no government, no overarching leadership.

Or, as we know it these days, the Zombie Apocalypse.



Zombies aren’t a new phenomenon in story telling, but there certainly seems to be a recent surge of zombies as the feature ‘baddies’ in popular culture. Zombies can be the slow and shuffling kind, as are seen in Night of the Living Dead, and the comedic Shaun of the Dead, or the terrifyingly speedy variety, as in 28 Days Later and World War Z. There has also been a plethora of games featuring zombies in the last few years with titles such as Left for Dead and Dead Island two of the best-known; the undead have even infiltrated casual gaming with incredible success, as illustrated by the ever popular Plants vs Zombies. Our interest in these stories featuring zombies and some kind of apocalypse lies mostly in how humans react to the kind of environment, where society has crumbled away and the zombies are a constant threat. We marvel at the ways in which some aspects of lost cultural norms appear to stick with us, whereas others seem to dissipate with the first zombie attack. And we also marvel at how humans change, how quickly the fight or flight instinct kicks in, or how quickly everyday life becomes ‘kill or be killed’. In these scenarios, we can easily apply Hobbes’ theories, and by doing so, we can perhaps immerse ourselves more fully into the experience, and also question the judgemental nature of our reactions to these stories.

Take the graphic-novel-turned-TV-series The Walking Dead, for example. I don’t want to give away spoilers for those who’ve not seen it, and I’ll admit I stopped watching a while ago, so I’ll just stick to the beginning where we first meet the main characters. We’re introduced to a number of characters in the first episodes, some of whom are particularly unpleasant, and whom we’d be quite happy to sacrifice to the zombies. Yet their usefulness is obvious to even the audience. In true Hobbesian fashion, the survivors are making social contracts. They are forming a society, and again, following the Hobbesian tradition, choosing a leader–either willingly or due to the simple fact that one person forcefully asserts his* authority and others grudgingly fall into line–who has near absolute power. It’s safer this way.

The trouble comes, then, when these small groups, which members have formed a kind of social contract, come into contact with other groups or individuals. More often than not, such encounters are not going to end well. I mean, I know I said, ‘no spoilers’ but let’s face it, you know it’s coming. Where would the fun in that be, if there were to be trust between strangers? It would diminish the drama, after all. And maintaining the drama is a problem, which is something critics have bemoaned (warning: spoilers in this review). Emily Nussbaum asks how much blood, violence and despair the viewers can take, before it begins to wear them down to the point that they no longer care about the characters. I’m inclined to agree: once a society has been established, and some kind of law implemented, the reality is that daily life becomes routine, even a little boring, which, as Hobbes might have predicted, is ideal for survival in the real apocalypse (but not for the survival of a television series).

However, trust (or lack of it) between strangers and upping the drama is a common theme for most zombie apocalypse games and films. Take two fairly recent game releases, DayZ and Rust (the latter of which no longer has zombies, and the former of which has apparently rather ineffectual ones). Both games are still in development, but their popularity has led some to criticise strongly the way in which the games encourage an ‘anything goes’ approach to the games. Collaboration between players is not prohibited, but players also need to choose their alliances wisely, or they’re likely to find themselves marooned, tortured, or killed. Games journalist Brendan Caldwell has written about both Rust and DayZ, and describes the desperation of being a new player looking for an ally in the first instance, and the heady power of being in a partnership, able to wield mercy or death at their choosing in the second. Caldwell highlights the way in which players use the world to their advantage, and how fluid relationships can leave the player in a state of constant terror and suspicion.

I know, I’m really selling The Walking Dead and these games to you, aren’t I? Well, it is the apocalypse!  So how do we expect people to act, really?

When Hobbes was writing back in the 17th century about society, personal and political obligations, and how humans should behave in order to have the most fulfilling life, and feel safe and have their needs taken care of, I can’t be certain that he was considering how we’d fare in a zombie apocalypse, and whether all the tenets of his thesis would be useful in aiding our survival. But reviewing the way we judge the behaviour of players and characters in these media is in fact, an excellent lesson in ethics. Not only are we forced to confront our fears and what strengths and weaknesses we would bring to a zombie apocalypse, but if we’re so inclined to look deeper, it’s obvious that when it comes to humans trying to eke our an existence in a hostile world, unless we form some kind of social contract, then the real monsters from whom we need protection are, of course, ourselves. Whether we are prepared to settle for a life that’s nasty, brutish and short is therefore completely up to us, regardless of the zombies.


* Let’s face it, it’s going to be a him, which is one of the reasons I stopped watching the series. NOT ENOUGH STRONG WOMEN.


66 thoughts on “Nasty, Brutish and Short: Hobbesian Ethics and the Zombie Apocalypse.

  1. Pingback: Nasty, Brutish and Short: Hobbesian Ethics and the Zombie Apocalypse. | ugiridharaprasad

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    • Why Reblogged, I saw myself a nasty picture of some of the few exact description , on the effect of the social contract and those effect could either personal or inabilities to have the required capacities to move one way into such society.But in all is’s a piece that open-up for a new begin where the former end. Look into oneself and the future will same then move one way with minding those little obstacles. Yes! it make sense and a lot of senses, plucking out desperation out the way, wearing a new hope, courage and love whichever situation be not hold dawn.

      • Thank you for the reblog and for taking the time to comment! It’s certainly true that we have the power to choose what kind of person we are, and in some ways, an apocalypse (or at least those represented in films or literature or games) allows us to have a new beginning, to choose a different path in a different world. Then again, it’s also a much more hostile world in many ways, so some choices are taken away from us.

  3. OMG, this is brilliant! I don’t watch the Walking Dead. Nor am I into zombies of any sort. I just can’t handle the violence. However, I know smart writing when I read it, and THIS IS IT!

    I’m going to send this link to the folks at Freshly Pressed, as this post deserves that distinction like few I have seen recently. If anyone else reads this comment and will do the same, I think we can see this essay get the attention it deserves!

    Note: However, I think you may have a formatting issue with your last paragraph, as there is a huge space between it and the previous, and it does not start with a capital letter. Hope you will edit this comment to remove this part. The problem may be on WordPress’ end. I don’t know.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • Aw, you are a sweetie, thank you so much for your kind words! I had fun with this 🙂 Also it gave me reason to look up Hobbes and re-read some of his work, and reminded me how much I enjoyed Philosophy at uni!

      I’ve checked out the paragraph you mention, I think the problem is it’s an asterisk referring to a point in the main body. But I have edited it to make that a little clearer, so it doesn’t look quite so disjointed. Thanks for pointing it out.

      • I just got an email from Cheri, the WordPress editor. They are going to take my recommendation and Freshly Press this post this week. I suspect you will get an email, as well. I usually have when I’ve been FPed. Congratulations.

        Hugs from Ecuador,

      • I woke up to the email in my inbox 😀 Quite honestly, I was very touched when you put the post forward, but I imagine they have so many suggestions and posts to read through, I didn’t think anything would come of it. But it did! Thank you so much! Yay 😀 😀 😀

      • I knew they would Freshly Press this post, if only they read it. And, to be honest, I doubt that many folks email recommendations. Cheri was grateful for it, and asked me to keep my eye out for others that deserved the recognition. Otherwise editors are just reading stuff blind, looking for good material. You should have more confidence, my friend. This post is FABULOUS! I’m so happy for you. Congratulations. YOU deserve this honor!!!!!!

        Hugs from Ecuador,

      • I’m really glad Cheri was keen to get more suggestions. That is an interesting point about their just hoping to connect with good pieces, when there are so many written everyday.
        Thank you ❤

  4. If you wanted more strong women on The Walking Dead, you should have kept watching and waited for Michonne. With her weapon of choice being a samurai sword, I’d say she’s got a pretty good thing going. However, you still make a great point. Rick (a white, cis-gendered, straight, male) is still the leader, no matter what situation the group finds themselves in and everyone blindly follows him. No questions asked.

    On the point of having a conflict and not being able to trust strangers, that, especially in the world of zombies, is one that drove the plot of this last season. It wasn’t so much about the zombies being a threat but that humanity is still just as gruesome, if not even more so. Rick proved that in the season 4 finale this Sunday (*spoiler*) by ripping a guys throat out with his teeth. (This also makes me think of the point of how much violence the viewers can take before they stop caring. This is definitely the furthest this show has gone with the violence. Especially since it involved both people being alive and one not being a decaying monster just waiting to get it’s head smashed in. I still care about Rick Grimes and I think that by that action I’ve come to understand him better than I had before. But that’s for another time) *Sorry, I have a lot to say about TWD. It’s one of my favorite shows. lol.

    All of that aside, life is really is up to us. Whether we want it to be “Nasty, Brutish, and Short” or not, we need to take responsibility for that.

    Great post! 😀

    • I did see Michonne, and while I thought she was a refreshingly independent woman and loved that she was also a woman of colour, I did find her a bit one-dimensional… it’s like they just threw her in and I didn’t feel as if she was really given a lot of character development. But obviously that may have changed later on in that series. A friend of mine tells me it’s improved and she loves it too 🙂 Perhaps I should start up with it again, although I have to admit, the violence was starting to get to me. (I’m probably too soft and need a zombie apocalypse to harden me up 😀 )

      I feel like the writers were trying to show the monster within/without dichotomy from very early on, in fact, but perhaps it has become more apparent with the pitting of humans against humans in a more violent sense.

      And yes, it is up to us. Even in an apocalypse! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  5. I like your application of Hobbes philosophy to zombies, but I’ve always been a bigger fan of Locke over Hobbes. Locke allowed people to be both reasonable and greedy whereas Hobbes was more Machiavellian in his world view. I find the idea of reason and order overcoming chaos a more compelling story.

    I suppose I should put my typewriter where my mouth is and write the story “Democracy and Zombies.”

    • It’s interesting you say that, because while looking back over Hobbes’ writing, I did think about Locke (hence his mention) and realise that I’m probably more in tune with what he had to say, as well. Hobbes’ idea that the way of a civilised society was to have a strong, infallible leader removes some of the responsibility of the citizen, I think. The individual still has the ability to make his or her own decisions, obviously, but there is a strictness in Hobbes’ society which I also find a little… as you say, Machiavellian.

      I would like to read that post 🙂

  6. ……….the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    • This is such a beautiful poem. I had never come across it before, but now have read the whole thing (what a wonderful tool is the internet!) and it’s just lovely. I especially like the ‘darkling plain’. Thank you for sharing it, and how appropriate!

  7. Not enough strong women, you say? Mind if I ask how far into the series did you got? Sure, Lori’s pretty annoying but Maggie, Michonne, Andrea (although I can’t stand her) and even Carol are no pushovers. Anyway, the Hobbes connection is an appropriate one. How indeed do we start defining society after it gets ripped apart. Any decent zombie series or story has to address that.

    • Yeah, I wasn’t so keen on Maggie, and while I loved the strong independence of Michonne, I was disappointed at the lack of character development for her character. I just thought she was put in to try and balance it out a bit, but the mystery of her past was more annoying than anything, especially since we got hints about the past of the other major new player (the Governor). Out of all of them, Carol was my favourite, because she had the most growing to do. She went from a downtrodden housewife, to losing her daughter, to realising her own strength and desires. She had been through so much and she kind of just kept finding it in herself to keep going. I have a feeling things don’t end well for her, from what I’ve read (nobody has told me outright, but it can’t be good). I guess, it’s not that there are NO strong women, it’s just that I think gender roles in a zombie apocalypse might be less ‘traditional’ than the series likes to portray.

      Thank you 🙂 And despite the women issue 😉 I think TWD does address that very problem.

  8. Well what I’ve learn watching TWD is everytime there’s a black man (not being a racist) they always die 😦 I feel kinda disappointed and a little frustrated which makes me stop following the series. Anyway, awesome post an learn alot! 🙂

    • I have to agree 😦 I already thought that T Dog was kind of a token black character, and when he died, I wondered if he would be ‘replaced’… I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to representations of race in this series (and TV in particular).

      Thank you, and thank you for reading and commenting!

  9. I totally agree with you that there aren’t enough strong women in The Walking Dead. I thought we had finally found one in Michonne but she too has now become soft and I no longer find her such a bass ass actress wielding a samurai sword.

    I read the book that World War Z was based on and I must admit I prefered the book. It is nasty, brutish and short to the point that the world as we know it completely collapses and we are shown as being way down at the bottom of the food chain. There are no high rise buildings, fancy cars or technology to protect us and hide behind. A true wake up call if we stop to realise that without these things we are defenseless to nature and the sheer power of it all.

    What books or literature would you recommend for a beginner?

    • I didn’t watch the third series until the end (it just became a bit too violent and the birth scene bugged me so much. Not so much for the gore as the lack of realism. But I digress!) but what I saw of Michonne made me feel as if she were put in to show that ‘women can be tough, too!’ and that was really all her character was. Not really explored in any way, and very one-dimensional.

      World War Z was a class text when I was at high school, but my class didn’t do it. I’ve been told the book is really very good, and very different to the movie, which is apparently one reason many people didn’t enjoy the movie if they’d read the book. But yes, so many of us would be really screwed if we lost all our modern conveniences, wouldn’t we? In that sense, I wonder if those people who are used to living in a much more basic environment would be better suited than we softies in the developed world?

      Is it Hobbes you’d like to read more about, or moral philosophy in general? The link in the post (first link, to page on ‘Thomas Hobbes’) goes to a pretty good rundown of what he wrote and his ideas, and they tend to explain things quite well without overcomplicating them (a common problem in philosophy texts, I’ve found). That page is part of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and it’s probably one of the better sites around in terms of giving a good basic knowledge. Have fun!

      • Now that you mentioned it that is a good way of seeing Michonne’s character. There aren’t much in terms of strong female characters. Beth is nuts, Lorrie was aggravating and the blonde one was such a bimbo that I wasn’t upset to see her go.

        I had good expectations for the movie seen as the novel did bring out some strong emotions in me. The only texts I did in school was Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mocking Bird and some other short stories and poems. All snooze worthy if you ask me.

        It would definitely be a culture shock for even people of my class and generation. We can hardly live without the most basic of technology on a day to day basis can you imagine surviving months without running water, daily food consumption and other small luxuries.

        Thank you for the link and advice. It’s time to get culturized as my manager at work says. Since finishing college my brain power seems to be wanning more and more.

      • Haha, culturized 🙂 I like it! It’s actually a bit of an effort to try and read and learn about new things once you’re out of school, I think. Often there’s work and family and friends that take up all your time, and because there are no deadlines or assignments, extending your mind can fall by the wayside.

        Oh, something that just occurred to me while writing that: have you checked out Coursera? ( They offer all sorts of university courses for free; often the courses are quite short, and the range of different subjects is amazing. They certainly do several different philosophy ones, if that’s something you want to pursue.

      • You have that right! Just trying to stay awake once I get home is a mission in itself. I will definitely check out Coursera. I have never heard of it before you mentioned it. My brain is in dire need of a boost.

  10. It is like reading some well known critic’s review.
    Intelligent, researched writing.
    I think the reason that zombies and apocalyptic stories is popular is that people are fascinated by extreme situations. They want to know how strong will does a human can have to endure.
    And obviously people enjoy violence.
    Haha the end, not enough strong women.

    • Wow, thank you for such high praise (and I’m so sorry I didn’t respond to your comment before, I usually reply and approve at the same time).

      I agree. People do want to see how characters react to an extreme situation, and one which we don’t ever have to experience in reality. What is it about violence, I wonder? A fascination but also a repulsion. Perhaps fodder for another post!

      People have told me that it’s getting better and has improved for the womenfolk. I guess I stopped watching at the wrong time!

  11. You’re probably right about the the absence of strong women (in terms of numbers), but Carol has become the epitome of strength in the past few seasons.

    I think the Walking Dead comes under a lot of unfair criticism. It doesn’t fit as neatly into a TV drama framework as many people would like, but I don’t view this show as entertainment, I view it as a lesson in the flexibility of morality.

    Watching the show has helped me to understand that morality is entirely context dependent. By presenting us with an extreme hypothetical situation, the show forces the viewer to acknowledge that there are situations where acts we would normally consider abhorrent become more than justifiable: they become necessary.

    *Season 2 Spoiler Alert*
    There was a moment in season 2 which I feel perfectly embodies the disconcerting ease with which the viewer can shirk the morals which we had assumed were hard wired, inalienable truths. There was a scene where Shane and Otis were struggling to escape a herd of walkers while trying to return to the rest of the group with life saving supplies for Carl. It was clear that operating within the constraints of a contemporary social contract was going to get both characters killed and I found myself screaming at Shane to shoot Otis. When we finally learn that Shane did, it was revealed as a sinister plot point that signified Shane’s descent into madness but I couldn’t help but think he did the right thing, and I’m willing to bet I wasn’t alone.

    Anyway, this was a really well written post and I’ll certainly be tracking down a copy of Leviathan. You have me intrigued. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you enjoy Leviathan!

      I absolutely agree with you about Carol. I think she was my favourite out of all of them, and as I was saying in a reply to someone else, she is a much more interesting and complex person, because she’s been through such a lot, and she’s really come out stronger, more resourceful. I like that she is somehow more realistic.

      And yes, I think the characters are judged a bit too harshly, and that was one of the things I wanted to highlight as well: we can’t use the ethical framework of our present-day/non-apocalypse world and apply it to that which we’d use in the zombie apocalypse. They’re different worlds. They do what they can to survive and that means making difficult choices (which we’re inclined to judge harshly because we like people to do the ‘right’ thing, not imagining that ‘right’ is very much dependent on so many other factors). Shane chose the right path in order to save himself and the rest of his group… in that way, he’d made a contract with them, and had to shoot Otis in order to fulfill his obligations. So it was a no-brainer, even though we’re supposed to believe that Shane was a worse person, because of it.

  12. Surely this is what happens in nature too. I mean, at the base of things, our survival instinct will overrule what we think, unless your altruistic nature overrides that. You have support in numbers, roles you cannot fill. There are people in this world who merely use others and befriend others purely to get ahead. Think of these people as sharks: ruthless, but top of the chain. However the more we evolve, the more social we seem to get, and rely on these de facto social contracts. I live in a bedsit. I tried being friends with most of the people there, but it wasn’t worth my time, and ended up costing me money with constant ‘borrowing’ of things. In the end, I locked my stuff away, made friends with those we kept the place tidy and seemed like nice people, and essentially ignored the rest. I sound like a bit of a prick, but they just weren’t worth the hassle. If we apply this to a whole word situation, sometimes the threat of something isn’t worth the hassle, so you remove it. Of course, over time the relationships may not be purely to survive, as we develop bonds and what not. Even childbirth bonds start with the need to survive, then develop.

    • Well, Hobbes’ view of the natural state was that it would be an unpleasant environment to be in, because there would never be any trust between people without their forming contracts. I guess he might have seen some of the ways in which wild animals can attack each other, even though they’re in the same tribe, and extrapolated that to humans living in a similar situation and not having the guarantee that relationships could change in a moment. However, what he may not have really considered is that even other animals form some kind of social contract. At first glance, it might seem as if they were brutal or ruthless, but in fact, there are rules, and there are signals between animals as to how those rules should be obeyed.

      But your point with regards to the bedsit is the social contract in action… Hobbes doesn’t say that you need to get along with everyone, but he is pointing out that if you’re going to get along with others, you form certain contracts even with those whom you don’t necessarily like, because the alternative (aggression and uncertainty as to how they are going to respond to you) makes for a much more difficult life. I’m glad you’ve found others with whom you can be friends. Plus, the fact that we live in a society means that there is at least a very basic level of civility between people (usually) even if we’re not forming close bonds. Or at least, that’s what Hobbes would say 🙂

      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment!

  13. Anyone who can link Hobbes’ dilemma of personal security to zombies and anarchy is a great philosopher. I can respect this. I agree on Locke. Hobbes is much more interesting and really gets down to the heart of human (and state) interactions. Sad to say, but its part of being human I guess.

    • Aw, thank you! It is part of being human. While looking over Hobbes and Locke again to remind myself of their respective positions, I found myself a little more sympathetic towards Locke… perhaps my 20-year-old self was less critical of Hobbes than my current self?!

    • Well, it’s always been a him so far. Perhaps Carol will rise to the occasion? I’ll admit I’ve not been keeping up with it for the past season. I might wait until it’s all done and over with and watch them all at once!

      • I realize I’m getting back to you 6 months too late, but for some reason I haven’t been getting replies to replies. It’s funny to find this thread after Sunday’s episode. I think Carol is becoming a heroic figure. What do you think?

      • You know, I’ve not been watching lately, but I’ve read in three different places about the most recent episode and it’s really piqued my interest! I’m going to have to find a way of getting hold of it to see 🙂 I don’t even know if it’s showing on our TV right now.

      • If you do get around to being able to write one, please point me to it – given the multitude of things I need to get done every day, I’m sure it will take far too long for me to get around to watching it, and I’d like to hear some detailed analysis of it.

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