On Friday November 1st, the Emory Center for Ethics hosted the second annual Zombies and Zombethics symposium. The event consisted of a series of panels where specialists in medicine, science, and the humanities engaged in the hypothetical: what would happen if a zombie apocalypse were to occur? This theme was carried out at the intersection of neuroethics, public health ethics, religion, and bioethics.
Cory Labrecque, one of the event’s main coordinators, introduced zombies as animated beings that challenge our definitions of life and death. Looking at them pedagogically, we can explore the concept of zombies through different academic disciplines. Some of the questions asked of the panel included: What is death and how does this genre help us thinking about defining death; Do zombies have free will and how do they compare with an normal person’s will; and under what circumstances, if any, do “standards” of ethical conduct become obsolete. The first panel addressed some of these questions with a professor of history and a professor of biology who looked at the lessons learned from a Zombie Apocalypse. They turned to the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization and explored community formation and grouping as a result of a disaster.
After a short interruption with dancers from The Garden Collective who gifted the audience with a captivating performance of zombie dancers, attention turned back to the speakers. The next panel discussed zombies through the lens of film and media. This lead into the ethical challenges posed by the modern zombie genre, a cultural phenomenon hyped by movies and television shows. Applying this genre to their field, A Harvard University Professor of Psychiatry and an Emory University Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery spoke on the challenges of defining death. The difficulties arise in not just defining the physical state of death, but also what it means to be brain dead.
The symposium closed with a talk from a senior administrator from the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response at Emory University and an assistant medical director of emergency medicine. Here they discussed survival strategies should a disaster, such as a Zombie Apocalypse, occur. This survival simulation encompassed the topic through yet another frame of reference.
While the issues explored in the Zombie Apocalypse are real and applicable to today, zombies are an abstract and non-threatening concept that serve as a starting point for difficult conversations. Through this genre, we can engage in the ethical questions that occupy medicine, science, and government. This event posed as an outlet for these discussions, turning a controversial and sometimes alienating debate into an exciting and engaging dialogue focused around a fictional marvel found in many media of entertainment.