Maggie’s ethical dilemma about keeping prisoners on The Walking Dead

Gregory (Xander Berkeley), Enid (Katelyn Nacon), Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan) and Paul "Jesus" Monroe (Tom Payne) in The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 6Photo by Gene Page/AMC
Gregory (Xander Berkeley), Enid (Katelyn Nacon), Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan) and Paul "Jesus" Monroe (Tom Payne) in The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 6Photo by Gene Page/AMC /

On The Walking Dead, Jesus put Maggie in a tough spot by bringing prisoners back to The Hilltop. Did Maggie make the right call letting them live?

There are always ethical dilemmas on The Walking Dead. In that world, it’s difficult to navigate ethical waters because there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to ethics. As Jesus said in episode 806 “The King, The Widow, and Rick” no one in that world is innocent. No one’s hands are clean.

But Jesus insisted that bringing the captured Saviors from the outpost back to The Hilltop was the right thing to do. He told Maggie that if they killed The Saviors they’d be just like Negan and they are fighting for something better than that. He doesn’t want them to become cold-blooded killers.

However, that creates some serious security and logistics problems for Maggie and the people at The Hilltop. The Hilltop isn’t really equipped to hold prisoners, especially not the number of prisoners that are now residing there. Killing them is the right thing to do logistically because keeping them means extra time spent guarding them and using a considerable amount of their limited food and water keeping them alive.

Ultimately Maggie decided to build a barbed wire pen for the prisoners hoping to trade them to Negan to get back any of the alliance members who are taken as prisoners, like Gabriel. But after the war is over the problem of what to do with The Saviors will still be there. Was Maggie right to keep the prisoners alive?

The Utilitarian View

Ethical philosophers have pondered this same situation for centuries. Utilitarian philosophers argue that ethically what is best for the group is the right choice. Sacrificing a few lives to save many more lives, like executing the prisoners in order to save the lives of the people at The Hilltop, is morally right to Utilitarians.

Kerry Cahill as Dianne, Joshua Mikel as Jared - The Walking Dead _ Season 8, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Kerry Cahill as Dianne, Joshua Mikel as Jared – The Walking Dead _ Season 8, Episode 6 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC /

There’s a famous philosophical puzzle that anyone who has ever taken Ethics 101 has come across: The Trolley Problem. The Trolley Problem sets up a scenario where there is a train barreling down the tracks towards five people who are tied to the tracks. There is no way to free them.

But you can pull a lever and switch the train to another track. On that track, one person is tied up and unable to move. Do you pull the lever and divert the train knowing it will kill one person instead of five people? If someone has to die is it better to kill one and save five? Or let the five die?

Utilitarians say that you should pull the lever and divert the train because you’d be killing one to save five. And maybe that is the right call. Because in The Walking Dead world someone has to die. Someone is always going to die.

The Deontological View

Another branch of ethical philosophers, Deontologists, would say that killing one to save five was unethical. According to their philosophy morality is tied to hard and fast rules that are unbreakable.

So if a group decides that their moral position is that they don’t kill then they can’t kill people, for any reason. Deontologists would side with Jesus in this dilemma and say that it’s unethical to kill The Savior prisoners. Even if those prisoners break free and kill members of The Hilltop or get free and go back to fighting against the alliance morally they cannot be killed.

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The Walking Dead World

Ethics in The Walking Dead world are very tricky. But in this case, it seems clear that the Utilitarian philosophy is more appropriate to the world that Maggie and the others live in. They are trying to build a world with hard and fast ethical rules, but that world doesn’t exist yet.

In the future, once Negan and The Saviors are beaten and All Out War is over the communities can come together to create a Deontological ethical code that all the communities agree to follow. But until that happens Maggie needs to take the Utilitarian view. As unsavory and unpleasant as it is the prisoners should have been killed.

The Risks

Now that The Saviors are prisoners Maggie has to allocate a lot of additional resources to keep them alive and to keep the people from The Hilltop safe. That pen doesn’t look too sturdy, and it may not hold prisoners like The Saviors who are skilled and determined to get out. There will have to be people assigned to guard them around the clock. And they will need food and water, which are resources that are already spread thin.

If the prisoners escape they could get back to The Sanctuary and free Negan and the other Saviors. Or they could kill every living person at The Hilltop. Maggie’s taking a big risk by keeping them inside The Hilltop. Hopefully, her decision won’t backfire on her and put The Hilltop in an even worse situation. All Out War continues on The Walking Dead this Sunday.