Deception and War in Walking Dead


Always interested in philosophical discourse oozing from The Walking Dead, I can’t resist taking up these thoughts expressed by Jonah Goldberg (broad, but not too shocking, spoiler alert):

Anyway, in the second-to-most recent episode (“Bury Me Here”), Richard (a “knight” of the Kingdom) basically creates an elaborate ruse to convince Ezekiel to go to war. It involves, among other things, stealing a cantaloupe — turning a melon into the equivalent of the Ems Telegram. Until recently, Morgan had been the conscience of the show, or at least the champion of pacifism. Now, he’s not only in on the deception, he murders someone to see that Richard’s plan comes to fruition (people who’ve seen the episode will nod to my spoiler-avoidance on this plot point).

It seems to me that Richard is right. The Saviors must be defeated. Negan must be killed. Those are worthy and necessary ends. he question, therefore, becomes “What means are justified to achieve them?”

I’d suggest that Jonah actually oversimplifies the interesting moral question, here, which isn’t “what means are justified.”  Rather, the key question is: How does one’s assessment of inevitability affect objective moral judgment?

In the world of Walking Dead, one could reasonably conclude that the Kingdom would inevitably go to war against the Saviors.  At some point, not only the Saviors’ extortion, but their tolerance for unbalanced, dangerous people interacting with their victims would ensure that a line would be crossed.

If that’s the case, then perhaps the state of war already exists.  Negan’s method of beginning his relationship with each new community he pulls under his boot with a gratuitous show of brutality strengthens that conclusion.  So, arguably, a state of war exists perpetually, merely awaiting a spark for violence. (That is, if it’s truly inevitable.)

Whether the state of war already exists or is inevitable, the moral question becomes what means the people have of avoiding war, defined as active fighting.  Morgan’s central flaw, as a character, has been the passivity of his pacifism.  If you’re not going to initiate the fighting, you have to actively work to build the conditions under which it can be avoided.

Especially among religious believers who conceive of history with a “God’s eye view” — with the whole of every act seen from start to finish — moral proscriptions against war can’t require one to sit around waiting for inevitable war while potential allies are killed off.  Indeed, with Alexandria (the home of our main protagonists) clearly in a state of war, the Kingdom’s alliance would bring them in for moral purposes.

So, yes, the show’s writers have left no conclusion other than that war is inevitable and, I’d argue, already extant, in the plot.  Facilitating the end of that conflict is therefore not Richard’s failing.  Richard’s actual transgression is the deception of his own people.  After his plan goes partially wrong and Morgan catches on, he offers Morgan a monologue attempting to justify himself by saying that he’s learned that doing nothing does not avoid calamity.  He therefore must do something in this case.

That something should have been challenging Ezekiel’s stubbornness, not striving to deceive him.  If the matter was so important as to justify killing others or sacrificing his own life, Richard should have seen it as important enough even to go so far as to challenge Ezekiel’s leadership.