Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” is seen as presenting the best possible defense of abortion, particularly with the famous “violinist” thought experiment. Recently, I read someone talking about that experiment as being the ultimate defense of abortion, so much so that if it was posted everyone just had to accept that abortion ought to be permitted and if they didn’t then they were simply anti-woman. Or, at least, that was my interpretation of that comment, which I can’t be bothered to search for right now. At any rate, that experiment, and that paper, are very highly regarded among those who support legal abortions and the right to choose.
The problem is that I’ve read the paper and read the experiment, and don’t find either all that convincing. And that comment that I mentioned gave me the big push to finally sit down, break down the paper, and show why the arguments aren’t all that strong … and to suggest that Thomson herself doesn’t really think the “violinist” experiment is as intuitively obvious as she’d like.
Let’s start at the beginning though:
We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.
The problem is that we do, indeed, have a sensible and natural criteria for determining the difference between an acorn and an oak tree. We do, indeed, pretty much know when it shouldn’t be called an acorn anymore and when it should be called a tree. The argument here as she presents it is that we don’t, in fact, have this sort of criteria at all. If we pick a point, it will be arbitrary, not justified at all by any natural differences. Which is, in fact, actually false, as there are a number of natural distinctions that we can make along that continuous process, and that we in fact do make. A zygote, an embryo, and a foetus are not three different names for the exact same thing, but are in fact names for three distinct developmental “milestones” along the path of that continuous process. So an argument that relies on “We can’t make any natural distinctions” is false. What the argument usually is, though, is asking which of these natural distinctions matter as to whether or not it is a person or not. So we can ask if this is an embryo or foetus in the same way we can ask if it’s an acorn or an oak tree, but the real question is “Is this a person or not a person?”.
And from there, we can get to two stronger arguments that aren’t slippery slope arguments but relate to not being able to draw that distinction. The first is that if we can’t tell exactly when the foetus should be considered a person, then since committing murder is such a terrible thing we must err on the side of caution, and ban abortion from the time we know that it is there in order to avoid committing murder. The second is that if there are no natural distinctions that relate to it being a person, then there really is no reason not to think of the foetus as a person from conception. Thus, the onus would be on the advocate for abortion to demonstrate that we have good reason to think that the foetus is not a person from conception.
The second argument is by far the weakest, as most people think that at least some of the main attributes that matter to personhood aren’t there at conception. But it still would be important for us to figure out just what those are, and the main issue here is that the instant someone suggests one it turns out to exclude people that we think deserve protection right now, making most of the arguments rather sophistic. The first argument is the more reasonable one, but admittedly most people don’t actually make it, because it’s not a particularly flashy moral argument … and, again, most people think there is such an obvious point, even if we can’t decide what that actually is.
At any rate, this is mostly an aside to Thomson’s argument, because she wants to start from the premise that the foetus is a person and then ask if that fact, in and of itself, means that abortion isn’t morally permissible. Her attempts to oppose that argument start with the famous “Violinist Experiment”:
But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
I’m not sure that her conclusion about it being outrageous is as intuitive as she thinks it is … and I think she gives the game away when she talks about how long the violinist has to be attached to you. Note that she starts from the most directly relevant case: you are going to have to be hooked up to the violinist for nine months, precisely the same length of time as a pregnancy. If most people would indeed find that to be utterly outrageous, then she could easily have stopped there, and made her case. But then she adds in it being for nine years, or even for the rest of your life. But other than being a parent to the child, how does that compare to the cases relevant to abortion? Thus, it seems to me that she recognizes that many people will think “Well, if the violinist wasn’t involved in the kidnapping, staying attached to them for nine months to save their life isn’t unreasonable, even though it would be unfortunate”. And if that’s the case, then her thought experiment doesn’t work to demonstrate any problem with the “right to life trumps bodily integrity” argument that she outlined before this.
It gets worse if we try to analyze it philosophically. Starting from my Stoic ethics, I apply two main moral principles here that are not actually uncommon: 1) I am responsible for my own actions, not those of others and 2) I should put being morally right above my own personal desires. So, if we analyze this case, the violinist is hooked up to me through no fault of his own, but through the actions of others. He, then, is innocent of this, and would have done nothing to deserve death over. That the members of the society acted unjustly doesn’t in any way impact my actions; I cannot justify my acting immorally on the basis that they did it first. And at stake is merely the use of my kidneys for nine months;even if there are some health risks, I’m not going to die or at least am not likely to die from it (the “what if it would cause you to die” arguments come up later in the paper), while the violinist will absolutely die if I am unhooked. Therefore, I would indeed be directly killing them if I unhook them, and from the Stoic viewpoint that would be immoral. Yes, the circumstances suck, but as a Stoic I’d have to suck it up and take it in order to act virtuously.
Now, we don’t have to take the Stoic line here. But we have to accept that any moral view that says that it is morally permissible to unhook yourself from the violinist here has to effectively argue that it is okay to end the life of someone who is innocent just because it inconveniences you, even if the inconvenience is a great inconvenience, which may include health risks to you. At a minimum, this isn’t as intuitive, and so will depend greatly on what those inconveniences will be. But even then, it seems reasonable to me for people to take the line that for anything short of your own death it isn’t morally permissible … which is, of course, not the conclusion Thomson wants us to draw.
The next real substance in the article relates to what Thomson calls “the extreme view”, the idea that abortion is not permissible even when the mother’s life is in danger. She outlines four “hidden” premises used to justify that:
The most familiar argument here is the following. We are told that performing the abortion would he directly killings the child, whereas doing nothing would not be killing the mother, but only letting her die. Moreover, in killing the child, one would be killing an innocent person, for the child has committed no crime, and is not aiming at his mother’s death. And then there are a variety of ways in which this might be continued. (1) But as directly killing an innocent person is always and absolutely impermissible, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (2) as directly killing an innocent person is murder, and murder is always and absolutely impermissible, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (3) as one’s duty to refrain from directly killing an innocent person is more stringent than one’s duty to keep a person from dying, an abortion may not be performed. Or, (4) if one’s only options are directly killing an innocent person or letting a person die, one must prefer letting the person die, and thus an abortion may not be performed.
Thomson tries to argue that not only are these hidden premises that need to be considered, but that they are all false:
Some people seem to have thought that these are not further premises which must be added if the conclusion is to be reached, but that they follow from the very fact that an innocent person has a right to life. But this seems to me to be a mistake, and perhaps the simplest way to show this is to bring out that while we must certainly grant that innocent persons have a right to life, the theses in (1) through (4) are all false. Take (2), for example. If directly killing an innocent person is murder, and thus is impermissible, then the mother’s directly killing the innocent person inside her is murder, and thus is impermissible. But it cannot seriously be thought to be murder if the mother performs an abortion on herself to save her life. It cannot seriously be said that she must refrain, that she must sit passively by and wait for her death. Let us look again at the case of you and the violinist There you are, in bed with the violinist, and the director of the hospital says to you, “It’s all most distressing, and I deeply sympathize, but you see this is putting an additional strain on your kidneys, and you’ll be dead within the month. But you have to stay where you are all the same. because unplugging you would be directly killing an innocent violinist, and that’s murder, and that’s impermissible.” If anything in the world is true, it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life.
The problem here is that she only tries to show that one of them is false — the second one — and, in fact, tries to prove that premise false by simply assuming that it is false, as opposed to demonstrating that it is false. Essentially, she says that it can’t be considered murder if you unhook yourself from the violinist, and so it isn’t the case that it is always murder to directly kill an innocent person. But that’s what she’s supposed to demonstrate, and I can muster all of my Stoic morality and argue that, no, it really is the case that if you directly kill an innocent person then it’s murder. If she wanted to argue that we can reasonably question the truth of the premises, her argument would still be circular but we could apply the intuitions from the thought experiment itself to suggest that, hey, maybe they aren’t true, and then note that the people who rely on them need to demonstrate them true before we need accept their conclusion that abortion is impermissible even when the mother’s life is at risk. As it stands, though, she doesn’t even do that.
She then moves on to distinguishing between what a third person can do and what the actual person can do, adding in another thought experiment:
Suppose you filed yourself trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. I mean a very tiny house, and a rapidly growing child–you are already up against the wall of the house and in a few minutes you’ll be crushed to death. The child on the other hand won’t be crushed to death; if nothing is done to stop him from growing he’ll be hurt, but in the end he’ll simply burst open the house and walk out a free man. Now I could well understand it if a bystander were to say. “There’s nothing we can do for you. We cannot choose between your life and his, we cannot be the ones to decide who is to live, we cannot intervene.” But it cannot be concluded that you too can do nothing, that you cannot attack it to save your life. However innocent the child may be, you do not have to wait passively while it crushes you to death
Why not? Again, Thomson assumes her conclusion here, or assumes that the intuitions are clearer than they are. The question that arises here is this: if someone, unintentionally and simply due to circumstances, is in a situation where you will die unless you kill them, is it morally permissible for you to kill them? From the Stoic view, the answer is clear: you are not allowed to kill an innocent person, as your life is an indifferent and taking the life of an innocent is always immoral. But even putting aside that view, it really isn’t clear that you are allowed to kill an innocent person just because the circumstances say that it is your life or theirs. The self-defense exception only applies to people who are taking direct actions to take your life, not someone who is only circumstantially taking an action to take your life, so it doesn’t apply here. This is what Thomson misses as she attaches this to the right of self-defense: that only applies when the person is actively seeking your life. When they aren’t, it’s a completely different and much more controversial matter.
In sum, a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death. And this shows not merely that the theses in (1) through (4) are false; it shows also that the extreme view of abortion is false, and so we need not canvass any other possible ways of arriving at it from the argument I mentioned at the outset.
She started from the premise that a woman can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, examined arguments against that — the four premises — and then uses her original contention to show that those arguments are false without actually refuting the arguments in any way. So she shows nothing of the sort.
She then moves on to talk about ownership:
The extreme view could of course be weakened to say that while abortion is permissible to save the mother’s life, it may not be performed by a third party, but only by the mother herself. But this cannot be right either. For what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by an unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house. The fact that she does adds to the offensiveness of deducing that the mother can do nothing from the supposition that third parties can do nothing. But it does more than this: it casts a bright light on the supposition that third parties can do nothing. Certainly it lets us see that a third party who says “I cannot choose between you” is fooling himself if he thinks this is impartiality. If Jones has found and fastened on a certain coat, which he needs to keep him from freezing, but which Smith also needs to keep him from freezing, then it is not impartiality that says “I cannot choose between you” when Smith owns the coat. Women have said again and again “This body is my body!” and they have reason to feel angry, reason to feel that it has been like shouting into the wind. Smith, after all, is hardly likely to bless us if we say to him, “Of course it’s your coat, anybody would grant that it is. But no one may choose between you and Jones who is to have it.”
So let’s examine the thought experiment in detail. Jones has found a coat somewhere. Presumably, he has good reason to think that it has been abandoned; there cannot be any thought that he has actually stolen the coat. Smith, later, comes upon him and says that this is his coat, and he needs that to keep from freezing, and that because it is his coat he ought to have right to it. What would Jones respond? Jones would likely respond that the coat was abandoned when Jones came across it, and so the coat is actually his now!. At which point, the whole thought experiment breaks down, because in the abortion case we can see who owns the “body”, and so this debate won’t have any merit. So, actually, this thought experiment won’t settle anything because our intuitions about it will either be driven by assuming that Jones really “stole” it and so has no reason to think that he owns it, or instead that he actually has reason to claim that he owns it, meaning that the third party really isn’t going to have a good way to choose which of them is the real owner.
And it’s all pointless anyway, because the driving force here is the idea of directly killing someone, and in this case if it was the actions of the one person that puts the other person in that dependent situation. So, to alter the thought experiment, let’s imagine that Smith loans Jones that coat, knowing that he has another, newer one to keep him from freezing. And then Smith loses that coat or has that coat stolen or destroyed. Can Smith go back to Jones and demand that he give him back his coat, and thus freeze to death himself? On the one hand, if we assume that Smith was being generous when he loans Jones that coat, then it would seem that Jones really ought to give it back to him and not let that generosity cost Smith his life. I think the Stoic view would lean this way. But, on the other hand, it isn’t Jones’ fault that Smith lost his own coat, and so he might be justified in insisting on maintaining the original agreement. If that’s the case, is Smith justified in simply taking the coat back by force if he can? If he is, could Jones also be justified in taking it from Smith in the first place, if right to life means that you can directly cause someone to die? These are not simple questions. I lean towards the idea that in all of these cases the moral thing to do is not to take direct action to take an innocent life, but I admit that that isn’t always emotionally satisfying and that it is also controversial. So, no, it isn’t as clear as Thomson suggests, especially given her muddled thought experiment. Those who say that it is reasonable to make it morally impermissible to ever take an innocent life are definitely still in the game here, no matter how much Thomson asserts that they aren’t.
She then moves to the less extreme cases, where the mother’s life is not in danger:
For we should now, at long last, ask what it comes to, to have a right to life. In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact IS the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given? If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. It would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though no doubt well meant, if my friends flew out to the West coast and brought Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody that he should do this for me.
Remember, a human life is at stake here. Henry Fonda is in the unique position of being the only person who can save it. The cost to him is at most a plane ticket and some of his time. Why on Earth can’t we say that he is morally responsible for doing so, and so if once he is made aware of the issue he must do it or else he’s acting immorally? It’d be different if what could cure her was either the cool touch of Henry Fonda or intense and unpleasant chemotherapy; then, we might be more willing to say that it would be nice of him to relive her suffering but not morally demanded (I think the Stoics would be more on the side of “He still has to go”). But if he really is the only option, and it won’t cost his own life or anything more than a plane ticket and some time, we’d consider him to be an exceptionally cold, callous, and yes, even immoral person if he refused.
This leads into a critical distinction here, which leads into the common modern thought experiment of “Ought we force people to donate organs or blood when it will save the life of others?”. Generally, we don’t force that, and don’t consider it morally obligatory, but in most of those cases the person isn’t the only person who can save that person’s life. If someone was the only person who could donate that organ or that blood, or even the only person who could do that before the other person died, I think it entirely reasonable to say that they’d be morally obliged to do so. We excuse the other cases because of the argument, I think, that others can do it just as well as them, and so they incur no special moral obligation. Thus, it would be nice if we did, but not required as others can and will do it as well. This, in fact, is controversial — as it runs into issues if no one chooses to do it, for starters — and this gets even more controversial if you are the only person who can provide that support. In the abortion case, the mother really is the only one who can give that support if the fetus cannot survive outside of the womb.
Some people are rather stricter about the right to life. In their view, it does not include the right to be given anything, but amounts to, and only to, the right not to be killed by anybody. But here a related difficulty arises. If everybody is to refrain from killing that violinist, then everybody must refrain from doing a great many different sorts of things. Everybody must refrain from slitting his throat, everybody must refrain from shooting him–and everybody must refrain from unplugging you from him. But does he have a right against everybody that they shall refrain from unplugging you frolic him? To refrain from doing this is to allow him to continue to use your kidneys. It could be argued that he has a right against us that we should allow him to continue to use your kidneys. That is, while he had no right against us that we should give him the use of your kidneys, it might be argued that he anyway has a right against us that we shall not now intervene and deprive him Of the use of your kidneys. I shall come back to third-party interventions later. But certainly the violinist has no right against you that you shall allow him to continue to use your kidneys. As I said, if you do allow him to use them, it is a kindness on your part, and not something you owe him.
Again, why not? That you deliberately deprive someone of the means of life knowing that they have no way to sustain themselves otherwise definitely seems to be a case of you killing them, which she never actually refutes. If Jones grabs Smith’s coat from him and leaves him to freeze to death, he definitely killed him and it seems definitely committed murder, so the general principle that deliberately depriving someone of the means to life violates their right to life. In the abortion case, we’d have to argue that the fetus doesn’t have the right to demand the use of her body to sustain it … but this is what Thomson is supposed to prove, not merely assert. Again, taking the parallel to the violinist, the violinist hasn’t in any way created the situation; that was done by others. Thus, it is not acting unjustly here, and so it is not clear that it does not have the moral right to maintain its existence given the situation that it was forced into. To go back to the coat example, if someone stole Smith’s coat and gave it to Jones without letting them know that it was stolen, is Smith justified in using force to take it from Jones and thus leaving Jones to freeze to death? At a minimum, the answer is not a clear “Yes”, which is what Thomson needs it to be to justify her argument here.
There is another way to bring out the difficulty. In the most ordinary sort of case, to deprive someone of what he has a right to is to treat him unjustly. Suppose a boy and his small brother are jointly given a box of chocolates for Christmas. If the older boy takes the box and refuses to give his brother any of the chocolates, he is unjust to him, for the brother has been given a right to half of them. But suppose that, having learned that otherwise it means nine years in bed with that violinist, you unplug yourself from him. You surely are not being unjust to him, for you gave him no right to use your kidneys, and no one else can have given him any such right. But we have to notice that in unplugging yourself, you are killing him; and violinists, like everybody else, have a right to life, and thus in the view we were considering just now, the right not to be killed. So here you do what he supposedly has a right you shall not do, but you do not act unjustly to him in doing it.
The emendation which may be made at this point is this: the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly. This runs a risk of circularity, but never mind: it would enable us to square the fact that the violinist has a right to life with the fact that you do not act unjustly toward him in unplugging yourself, thereby killing him. For if you do not kill him unjustly, you do not violate his right to life, and so it is no wonder you do him no injustice.
Again, why not? Again, Thomson starts from that which she was supposed to prove — and is still supposed to be proving — to insist that unhooking yourself from the violinist isn’t an unjust act because they don’t have any right to the use of your kidneys in that situation. But why not? Again, they aren’t there out of their own actions, and so are not acting unjustly towards you, and you are uniquely positioned to maintain their life. It is in no way obvious that deciding to kill them when your own life is not at stake isn’t killing them unjustly. Again, Thomson merely assumes her conclusion here.
Thomson then addresses the idea of a woman who engages in consensual sexual intercourse knowing that it might lead to a pregnancy, and so has accepted some responsibility for that action. Since she concludes that in some cases it might and some cases it might not and then abandons it, we don’t really need to address that in this post.
There is room for yet another argument here, however. We surely must all grant that there may be cases in which it would be morally indecent to detach a person from your body at the cost of his life. Suppose you learn that what the violinist needs is not nine years of your life, but only one hour: all you need do to save his life is to spend one hour in that bed with him. Suppose also that letting him use your kidneys for that one hour would not affect your health in the slightest. Admittedly you were kidnapped. Admittedly you did not give anyone permission to plug him into you. Nevertheless it seems to me plain you ought to allow him to use your kidneys for that hour–it would be indecent to refuse.
Again, suppose pregnancy lasted only an hour, and constituted no threat to life or health. And suppose that a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Admittedly she did not voluntarily do anything to bring about the existence of a child. Admittedly she did nothing at all which would give the unborn person a right to the use of her body. All the same it might well be said, as in the newly amended violinist story, that she ought to allow it to remain for that hour–that it would be indecent of her to refuse.
At this point, Thomson seems to be backed into a “We’re only negotiating price” argument; if it would be “indecent” to not allow them to use it for an hour, then we’re just looking for the point where it stops being indecent and starts being decent again. Thomson does, in fact, see this corner coming and tries to evade it:
So my own view is that even though you ought to let the violinist use your kidneys for the one hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so–we should say that if you refuse, you are, like the boy who owns all the chocolates and will give none away, self-centered and callous, indecent in fact, but not unjust. And similarly, that even supposing a case in which a woman pregnant due to rape ought to allow the unborn person to use her body for the hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so; we should say that she is self-centered, callous, indecent, but not unjust, if she refuses. The complaints are no less grave; they are just different. However, there is no need to insist on this point. If anyone does wish to deduce “he has a right” from “you ought,” then all the same he must surely grant that there are cases in which it is not morally required of you that you allow that violinist to use your kidneys, and in which he does not have a right to use them, and in which you do not do him an injustice if you refuse. And so also for mother and unborn child. Except in such cases as the unborn person has a right to demand it–and we were leaving open the possibility that there may be such cases–nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments, for nine years, or even for nine months, in order to keep another person alive.
Which ends up being weaseling to the point where she both assumes that she made her case and that she hasn’t; someone is free to elevate her specific oughts to rights, but is supposed to then concede that some of those rights aren’t really rights, supposedly based on her argument … and then, at the end, she says that, again, abortion ought to be morally permissible only in those cases where it’s morally permissible. Huh.
Anyway, the last real part of interest is where she distinguishes the Very Good Samaritans from Minimally Decent Samaritans. The issue, though, is that she ends up distinguishing the two based on the arguments from the previous parts of the paper that are not actually established, so the interesting idea ends up being her, again, merely assuming her conclusion.
Ultimately, it seems to me that the main take-away from the paper should be that as a philosophical paper, it relies very heavily on assuming its conclusion … and that the premises Thomson starts from are no where near as uncontroversial as she thinks they are. As a Stoic, I reject her conclusion to the violinist thought experiment outright, and note that it isn’t even uncontroversial when it comes to intuitions. With her most famous thought experiment discredited, the rest of her arguments lack support, and so can’t do their jobs in making her case. At the end of the day, it’s clear that her arguments aren’t properly supported, and so fail to establish her conclusion. As a paper and set of arguments justifying abortion, I’ve definitely seen better.