Judith Jarvis Thomson and her Dying Violinist
For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Thomson, she is the author of the very popular and influential work “A Defense of Abortion” in which she argues, quite effectively for many, in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Lately, I have found that many non-academics and philosopher types are becoming aware of Thomson’s argument, which has been dubbed the violinist argument, and incorporating it into their own canon of pro-choice literary reserves. Unfortunately, of all such people I have encountered, very few have actually read Thomson’s work or taken the time to understand the argument, let alone logic in general. Rather, they have heard a summarized version of the argument. In reality, Thomson’s argument should not be convincing to anyone who can think critically or analyze arguments. My recent irritation has led me to write this post detailing precisely why the argument is not even really an argument. This is not to say that a woman should not have the right choose, but rather that I feel it is necessary to clear up the uninformed discourse which pervades this issue.
In “A Defense of Abortion” (the full text of which is linked below) Thomson attempts to eliminate the problem with calling the fetus a life. In short, her argument contends that it is possible to have the right to violate somebody’s right to life. The pro-life argument follows as such:
1. It is wrong to take an innocent human’s life.
2. The fetus is an innocent human.
3. Therefore, it is wrong to take the fetus’s life.
Most people find contention with the second step, arguing that the fetus is not a human life. Most everyone will agree that it is wrong to take an innocent human’s life for obvious reasons (social contract, value of human life, respecting human dignity, whatever philosophical justification you choose to adopt). Thomson, however, gives her analogy of a violinist and argues that it would be OK to let the violinist die in this case. The trouble, though, is that she never argues it would be OK, she just says it would, without providing any justification for it and hoping people will agree with her on emotional appeal, which a good number of people do. Her argument is as follows.
1. You wake up, and the Society of Music Lovers has kidnapped you. You have been hooked up to a violinist with a deadly kidney disease so that your kidneys can filter poison from him because you are the only person in the world who can save the violinist.
2. You are informed that the violinist’s right to life outweighs your rights, and therefore, you cannot disconnect the violinist until his ailment is cured, however long that may take.
3. Your reaction to this command is that it is absurd.
4. Therefore, there is a problem with the pro life argument which says that the baby’s right to life outweighs the mother’s right to her own body.
Well, this may sound like a convincing train of thought. However, a very brief examination will reveal that it is really not an argument at all. Thomson has simply provided an analogy which makes pregnancy look like a ridiculous burden. I’m surprised she needed an analogy to do that in the first place. The problem with her argument lies primarily in part 3 and the link between 3 and 4. First, the reaction may not necessarily be one of visceral opposition. I, for one, would recognize the situation I have been placed in and accept that, regardless of my suffering, killing an innocent person would be a far more egregious moral crime, and I would not disconnect the violinist. Continually, Thomson never provides a link which merits the “Therefore” in part 4 of her argument. Just because your reaction to the situation is a negative one, why does that entail that the moral obligation to keep the violinist alive does not exist? This logic would mean that peoples’ emotional reactions to moral questions determine the right thing to do. In this case, we would have to legitimize terrorist actions. It is further surprising to me that a philosopher would so blatantly use emotional appeal to support an argument and that the academic community would so readily hop on the bandwagon.
In short, the argument is not an argument. Thomson’s article is weak and should not have been published. Most importantly, people should stop trying to convince me to be pro-choice using Thomson’s argument without actually having read her work, let alone having understood the argument. There are far better arguments for a woman’s right to choose, and it is tragic and severely irritating to see people clinging to the violinist to vehemently.
For the full text of “A Defense of Abortion”