Professor Dien Ho on Zombies and the Meaning of Life

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Zombies can't choose to want a brain, although they crave to eat human brains. Image by Gareth Cameron

Zombies can’t choose to want a brain, although they crave to eat human brains. Image courtesy of Gareth Cameron. Used with permission; all rights reserved.

Dien Ho is passionate about zombies; in his article in Philosophy Now, he attempts to argue in their defence. He goes so far as to suggest it might be in our interests to join them in the event of a zombie invasion. This could be seen as something of a contradiction. Zombies exist, if they can be said to “exist,” in a repugnant, decomposed state, without any intelligent plan or activity, and are driven entirely by their own impulses to consume the brains and flesh of living humans like you and me.

Dien Ho is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Health Care Ethics at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science.  His research focuses on philosophical issues related to science and health care ethics. So ethical issues relating to zombies is, understandably, a subject of considerable fascination.

So, What’s Good About Being a Zombie?

There are certain fringe benefits to zombie-ism. They don’t suffer or feel pain and, providing their heads aren’t bashed in by a human with an ax, they are immortal. After all, since time immemorial, humans have been pursuing the concept of immortality.

Dien Ho says, “They are not concerned about the threat of terrorism, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. And they certainly do not become jealous, depressed, worrisome, or suffer the other anxieties that regularly plague our waking moments.

They can be compared to “…a Zen Buddhist monk who has managed to let go of earthly concerns,” says Dien Ho. However, it’s doubtful that the average Zen Buddhist monk would concur.

Imagine a World Taken Over by Zombies

It would be grim for human survivors in a zombie invasion. It might be better to join the zombies in their insatiable quest for rotting flesh. “If one can be better off dead – as many advocates of euthanasia have suggested – surely one can be better off undead?” asks this radical philosopher.

One could ask what would happen if everyone opted to join the undead? There would be no living flesh left to eat, or humans to reproduce in order to maintain the food supply. Would the zombies start eating each other?  Dien Ho doesn’t enlighten us about this urgent question.

The Meaning of Meaninglessness

The key question posed by Dien Ho is that once a human being became a zombie, life would be meaningless. He quotes the philosopher, Richard Taylor, who, in his book In Good and Evil, A New Direction (1984) considers the question of what actually constitutes meaning.

In the myth of Sisyphus: “…the Greek gods punish crafty King Sisyphus by making him push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as it reaches the top. Sisyphus must then roll the boulder back up, only to have it roll back down, ad infinitum.”  This, according to Richard Taylor, describes “…the eternal cycle of objective futility and psychological frustration.”

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was punished by the gods, being forced to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it come crashing back down onto him once it reached the top. Image by Schaukel-Maler.

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was punished by the gods, being forced to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it go rolling back down once it reached the top. Image by Schaukel-Maler.

Objective Futility and Psychological Frustration

Is it possible to address these issues?

“To counter objective pointlessness… Sisyphus rolls his boulders to the top of the hill, in order to create a beautiful and enduring temple.”  This, explains Dien Ho, “amounts to something” and, therefore, makes Sisphus’s task meaningful. To counter psychological frustration, “…the gods implant in Sisyphus an impulse to roll boulders that also grants him great satisfaction and joy from doing so.”

The King’s life is filled with both mission and meaning because he has been reconciled to his fate and has learned to embrace it.

Richard Taylor develops his theory by pointing out that nothing lasts forever and, in the end, “We must recognize the ultimate pointlessness of our work.”  In other words, everything amounts to nothing due to “our inability to fight against the laws of thermodynamics.”  So, how can there be meaning if nothing endures?

With regard to creating meaning through accomplishments, Richard Taylor describes Sisyphus contemplating his work for eternity, but being unable to add to it. Taylor says: “Now in this picture we have a meaning for Sisyphus’s existence, a point for his prodigious labour, because we have put it there, yet, at the same time, that which is really worthwhile seems to have slipped away entirely.”

What About Abstract Ideas?

Dien Ho does not entirely agree with Taylor. He agrees that no work can endure indefinitely but that “abstract ideas, the products of intellectual achievement are immune to thermodynamic laws.”  Time and wear might undo the work, but cannot cast aside the fact that it was done. “Time might destroy Mount Everest, but it cannot destroy the fact that Sir Edmund Hillary climbed to the top of it.”  As for the eternal boredom that worried Richard Taylor, Dien Ho asks, “Why not start a new project?”

Zombies Do Not Reflect

Zombies are not motivated by value or the worthwhile pursuit of a project. They have no conception of meaningfulness that we are aware of. Human beings value pleasure and comfort, and if we found ourselves the survivors of a zombie invasion and succumbed to joining them, we would “lose the complex cognition necessary for a meaningful life.”

Dien Ho suggests that “How ever wondrous a project might be, if the person undertakes it unwillingly and lacks any commitment to it, it seems implausible to say that his existence was meaningful to him. So the pursuit of a great project cannot be a sufficient condition of meaningfulness.”

Maybe it would be better to be dead than live “a zombie-esque existence – an existence devoid of reflection and thus meaning.”

Halloween Philosophy

Maybe better to stay indoors on 31 October, lest the dead awaken and claw themselves out of their gloomy tombs, their stinking, festering, flesh drooling from their bones, to plunder our living brains.

Happy Hallowe’en all.


Ho, Dien. What’s So Bad About Being A Zombie. Philosophy Now. (2013). Accessed October 20, 2013.

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© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. Darla DollmanDarla Dollman says

    Acts of compassion and love are meaningful simply because they take place. Zombies cannot feel emotions. There would be no point in existing without emotions, and zombies have no emotions. The argument discusses negative emotions, such as fear, pain, loss, but not the positive emotions one also experiences in life. The question is worded as a statement, but if I understand it correctly the answer is no, it would not be “better” to be a zombie. That would be the equivalent to comparing a chemical weapon to a human. I could choose to be a chemical weapon, kill many people, cause tremendous pain and suffering for survivors, and have no remorse because I have nor feelings, or I could be a human who suffers at times, but also has opportunities to show compassion, kindness, and to show love and receive love in return.

    • Guest says

      Hi Darla,
      Of course you are right. But, I think Dien Ho was having a little fun with his subject. He’s a brllliant philosopher with a wicked sense of humour. He says he favourite things are bicyrcles and zombies. Or was it zombies and bicycles? I think, though, that he did manage to make some subtle philosophical conclusions. :)

    • Janet Cameron says

      Hi Darla,
      I think Dien Ho was having a little fun with his subject. He’s a popular and brilliant professor with an offbeat sense of humour. He says his favourite things are zombies and bicycles! Still, I think he managed to make a few subtle philosophical points. :)

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