Thomson’s violinist: what is the point of thought experiments in moral philosophy?

by Harry on January 23, 2010

A sociologist friend told me a few months ago that she had finally read my book Justice, and that it was the first time that she had encountered Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist case (which she thought was pretty neat). The full text of the article is here; the wikipedia entry is here. The discussion reminded me that I keep intending to post something about thought experiments in general, and Thomson’s article in particular, partly to defend thought experiments against JQ’s scepticism. I haven’t read a great deal of the secondary literature about the violinist, but I have taught it numerous times, and discussed it extensively with colleagues and students; what follows is just my take, in the light of those discussions.

First of all, it should be obvious that the violinist case does not establish the permissibility of abortion even in the case of rape. In fact, I would say that the focus on the permissibility of abortion (which Thomson encourages, not least by her title) is a bit misleading. Every semester a very small number of my students say that they do not think it is permissible to unplug oneself from the violinist. Not a single sentence in the article speaks to them: they can get off before even getting on (interestingly, every now and then a student (usually they turn out to be some sort of lefty) who thinks there is a right to abortion thinks it is impermissible to unplug oneself, because one has extensive and stringent duties to aid stranger in need). So what does the example establish?

It seems to me that it establishes two things. First consider a combination of views that is widespread among American conservatives (and that Thomson must have encountered a thousand times): that there is no right to abortion, and that we do not have extensive and demanding enforceable obligations to strangers. People who hold that combination of views ought to be deeply discomforted by the violinist example (and by the people seeds example that follows). Neither example PROVES that this combination is inconsistent, but both examples press the person who adheres to it to give us more explanation of the differences between the cases. The second thing that the example establishes is that for many opponents of abortion (all those who say it is ok to unplug oneself from the violinist) the right to life of the fetus plays only a small background role in their justification of abortion’s impermissibility; of course, if the fetus did not have a right to life then abortion would be permissible, but these people believe that it is permissible to kill innocent beings which have a right to life in circumstances very like the circumstances of the fetus growing inside the pregnant mother. They need to offer an explanation of the difference.

One thing students come up with to deal with both problems is that the fetus is genetically descended from the mother: but it is far from clear why this makes a difference. Imagine a world in which fetuses are not genetically descended from the people in which they are lodged. Would this really make a difference to the permissibility of abortion?

Suppose that the reader decides that the combination of views is inconsistent. As I say, the paper says nothing to them about which of the views they should reject. Thomson clearly thinks we should reject the idea that we have extensive and demanding enforceable obligations to strangers, but she provides no argument to that effect, except to show that, in general, people do not believe that we have such obligations.

So what does this tell us about what thought experiments do in moral philosophy? They never tell us how to act, even in the highly stylised and unrealistic cases that they describe. Nor do they tell us whether to be consequentialists, deontologists, or whatever (I think that distinction is trivially exhaustive because deontologist means something like “not consequentialist”). What they do is to trigger our awareness of conflicts between judgments that we previously held in combination. They alert us, in other words, to inconsistency, and prompt further argument and search for principles that do more substantive work. My sense of JQ’s scepticism about thought experiments is that he sees them as intended to be conversation stoppers. Far from it: they are intended to (or should be intended to) open up new conversations.

JQ makes one other objection, which I’ve puzzled about for the several months since I showed him the draft of this: that these examples tend to be unnecessarily blood-thirsty. I think there are two reasons for this. The first may not be so good: I think it is thought that in cases where the stakes are high it is easier for respondents to see that there is a real need to make a judgment and judgment is, somehow, sharpened. As I say, this may not be so good a reason: it might, as I think critics of the method suspect, entrench intuitive (in the sense of gut, not in the standard philosophical sense) reactions. The second, though, is that historically, thought experiments in ethics were designed to scrutinize principles in ethics that were designed precisely to justify killing of various kinds; so the bloodthirstiness was really a property of the principles of interest.

{ 162 comments }

1

Tom 01.23.10 at 9:20 pm

This is a very powerful argument and I was shocked the first time I read it. However, despite being a supporter of abortion I don’t think *this* thought experiment has much to say about reality. A foetus growing inside a woman is not a stranger, either to the woman herself or her intercourse partner.

If you replace an unrelated “famous violinist” with “your own five year old son” then I think the argument has far less persuasive power.

2

hix 01.23.10 at 9:42 pm

“Every semester a very small number of my students say that they do not think it is permissible to unplug oneself from the violinist.”

So most interesting. think one should be allowed to let the person die because of 9 month inconvinience? Interesting. Students in which country?

3

harry b 01.23.10 at 9:51 pm

hix: Which do you think?

Tom – but then she has established something, viz that the right to life is a marginal issue here, and it is not the right to life per se, but the moral force of some connection, that requires one not to abort. An account of what that connection is and why it has such strong moral force is what’s needed (and rarely provided by opponents of abortion, except by saying things like “but it’s her flesh and blood” or the like).

(I actually disagree that it is not a stranger, by the way — neither their mother nor I felt that we knew our children until several weeks after their birth. Loved them from the start, sure, but as strangers).

4

Turgut 01.23.10 at 9:53 pm

I’m one of those ‘lefty students’ who doesn’t find this argument convincing: a fetus is not a famous violinist.

The term ‘thought experiment’ is itself misleading. They’re not experiments at all, and we can’t expect experimental sorts of results from them. I much prefer the use of “intuition pump”, which, even if pejorative, more accurately describes the function of these sorts of hypotheticals.

5

hix 01.23.10 at 10:26 pm

US. Id expect the biggest approval numbers there for the it should be permisable to unplug yourself position there in the developed world. Just that i would have expected those to be a minority everywhere.

6

Matthias Wasser 01.23.10 at 11:03 pm

I remember being the only one in my Giant Lecture Hall Philosophy Class who raised his hand to assert it was wrong to unplug oneself. Since I support abortion and rather on the left I suppose I’m one of Those Guys.

I suppose this betrays some sort of deep moral commitment, but I don’t know what it is, because it just seems so… obvious to me. Violinists are people and fetuses aren’t. Duh.

7

John Quiggin 01.23.10 at 11:05 pm

A small point on the gratuitously violent nature of philosophical examples. I first raised the point here where a character in the examples is killed off for no reason I could see. Brian Weatherson gives some more here.

It would be silly to make this objection as regards examples involving abortion. In this case, the gratuitous feature is the “famous violinist” part of the example. Presumably, almost no-one is likely to agree[1] that we have an individual duty to save famous violinists but not others. So, including this irrelevant distraction seems to me, at best to complicate things to no purpose, and at worst, to stack the deck in favor of the view that it is OK to unplug.

fn1. Although in practice, things might be different. In The Pianist, lots of people were willing to do things to save a famous pianist that they didn’t do for others, and this didn’t strike me as unrealistic.

8

Jeff 01.23.10 at 11:06 pm

Perhaps this is a derail, and I am wording it unrigorously — but: if one maintains there’s a general “right to life” (and that collectively we should be doing all we can do to protect that right) then shouldn’t one also, to be consistent, maintain there’s a right to health care? An equal claim, regardless of ability to pay, on basic reasonable social effort to maintain and promote health and life?

9

Tom Hurka 01.23.10 at 11:17 pm

The main argument of the Thomson article (not at all made explicit, and in fact obscured by her talk of “killing”), is that a woman who has an abortion is in effect allowing the foetus to die rather than actively killing it, as, when you unplug the violinist, you’re allowing him to die.

But the people who Harry thinks have inconsistent beliefs don’t believe abortion is allowing to die — they think it’s killing, and that’s certainly a key part of anti-abortion rhetoric (abortion = murder, not abortion = failing to save.)

So I don’t think that what Thomson does is point out an inconsistency in people’s beliefs. Instead, she raises a challenge to one of those beliefs, inviting people to see abortion as involving not a killing but a defensible decision not to take extraordinary measures to save another.

A major contribution but not, in my view, the one Harry describes.

10

Geoffrey 01.23.10 at 11:30 pm

Let me be blunt. Most of the opponents of abortion I have encountered would reject as irrelevant the thought experiment at issue. Furthermore, they would wonder about the relevance of any thought experiment. Finally – and this is based on several years of refusing to deal with the subject precisely because it is a source of far too much passion – most of those opposed to abortion hold the fetus in higher regard than living human beings. When this is pointed out, in explicit detail, even using their own words, they deny it.

Especially religiously-based abortion opponents hold the fetus as an idol, a fetish, and their stance on abortion has very little to do with anything approaching reality.

While I realize the question at hand is more about thought experiments in general rather than abortion per se, my experience has been that even among young people, moral reasoning is not something to be focused and tampered with. Since most people hold all sorts of ethical and moral precepts that contradict each other, at best this thought experiment offers students and others an opportunity to see how this operates.

In other words, I believe it fails even on the level of pedagogy.

11

Darius Jedburgh 01.23.10 at 11:31 pm

“Violinists are people and fetuses aren’t. Duh” (Matthias Wasser at 5).

There’s a problem with making the category of a person (as opposed to eg human being) central to one’s thinking about issues like this: namely, that it is itself a highly plastic and contested category, and the way people draw their boundaries around it tend to reflect their prior ethical commitments. Someone who expresses the conviction that a fetus is not a person is usually partly covertly expressing a prior conviction that abortion under the relevant circumstances is permissible. So the non-personhood of the fetus can’t function as a ground for the permissibility of abortion, on pain of lightly-disguised circularity.

With regard to thought-experiments in ethics, it seems silly to say that they are generally not OK, since some such experiments depict situations (eg lifeboat cases, the trapped potholer, even the trolley problem) that can occur and in many cases presumably have occurred; not to consider them would be to cut oneself off arbitrarily from bits of ethical thought and life. But some thought-experiments do seem to me to be not OK, namely the fantastical ones that ask us to imagine that the very general facts about human life are very different from what they actually are (eg your own fetus is not a blood relation — however that is supposed to work). The basic concepts of ethics (centrally, virtue- and vice-concepts) derive essential parts of their content from their roles in human ethical life and thought: to ask whether we would apply them or withold them in imagined circumstances in which some of the basic presuppositions of that life and thought no longer apply, is often to ask a simply unintelligible question. Thomson’s “people-seeds” thought-experiment is of this kind.

12

engels 01.23.10 at 11:31 pm

Hrm I often see people here complaining that that there isn’t _enough_ detail in these examples and this makes them too abstract. But John’s objection (#6) is the opposite — unnecessary detail is a fault (and suspect, of being there as a McGuffin). I don’t think it’s going to be possible to satisfy everybody.

13

John Quiggin 01.23.10 at 11:44 pm

@Darius: I agree with much of this. I have no objection to thought experiments where the appeal to intuition is supported by the fact that the assumptions of the experiment are themselves reasonable and intuitive. But, I strongly object to cases where you are suppose to rely on your intuition in problems where the assumptions are either wildly outlandish or directly contrary to normal intution.

Take the trolley problem. It’s certainly useful to ask whether there’s a difference between
(a) You have to choose right or left, and right will kill more people than left
(b) You can choose not to act, in which case the train will go right and kill more people or go left

But once you bring in the fat man you’ve lost me. No one has good intuitions about absurd cases like this. (But make him a fat violinist from Twin Earth who will go on to father both Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler, and I can tell you instantly what to do:-)).

Similarly @engels, I at least don’t object to abstraction as long as there is enough left to represent an important part of a real problem. My objections are to counterintuitive assumptions and, as you say, McGuffins.

14

Mrs Tilton 01.24.10 at 12:01 am

Matthias @6,

I remember being the only one in my Giant Lecture Hall Philosophy Class who raised his hand to assert it was wrong to unplug oneself

Interesting. Tell me, though; do you mean “wrong” as in “morally reprehensible to unplug and/or morally laudable to choose not to unplug”, or as in “the state should enact a law to forbid unplugging, and punish those who unplug anyway”?

I would be surprised if you tell me it is the latter. But if you really do mean the latter, would you also assert that the state should require all citizens, under penalty of imprisonment (or, possibly, death), to donate their entire assets to Haitian relief (to use a current example), even at a small but not negligible risk of their own insolvency or starvation?

15

Harry 01.24.10 at 12:18 am

The point of the fat man is to warn you not to trust your intuitions (or at least your gut reactions). Most students in my experience recoil from pushing the fat man onto the tracks, but cannot defend a principled difference between that and switching the trolley. (He’s fat to make it plausible that he can derail the trolley).

Either Tom’s wrong or I’ve misread Thomson. I’m not going to check now, but Monday I have to read through it again and will check.

16

Harry 01.24.10 at 12:23 am

Mrs Tilton — Dick Miller has a lovely paper about Singer called “Beneficence, Duty and Distance” which is the best attempt I’ve seen to show why distance matters (so one might have a very stringent duty to save someone near to hand but a less stringent duty to save someone more distant). I’m not endorsing it, just saying that it is possible to make a reasonable case for the difference.

17

Mrs Tilton 01.24.10 at 12:33 am

Harry, thanks for the tip (and I shall look into it). I can see how one might assert a duty, the stringency of which varies inversely with distance (however one define “distance”). From my perspective, though, the really interesting question is finding the point at which “you should do X” elides into “other people may legitimately compel you to do X”.

18

Ted 01.24.10 at 12:43 am

In a society where the death penalty is an industry and a national support, obsessing over the “right to life” of bits of near invisible mucus is as narcissistic as it is obscene.

19

Ted 01.24.10 at 12:56 am

JQ@7 summed up my response to the “famous violinist” distraction. Even though I share Thomson’s general aim, my response to the violinist was to punch him for ruining him my outfit, pull the plugs out, hunt down the kidnappers, call the cops, sue for wrongful imprisonment, and my dry cleaning bill.

Thomson could have avoided all these camp distractions by combining two of her [not] experiments. “Imagine you wake up one morning, and there is a famous violinist living in your uterus”. Now, THAT would start a lively discussion.

20

Ted 01.24.10 at 1:01 am

The problem with these methods when applied to the peculiarly US scene is that while they are trying to tease out ethical and moral reasoning, the US abortion situation is about law and the power of the state.

21

John Quiggin 01.24.10 at 1:03 am

@harry “The point of the fat man is to warn you not to trust your intuitions” That’s a good point, and I don’t trust my intuitions except in situations where they have had plenty of practice in reaching reasonably good answers.

So, why can’t I respond to the violinist example, or other similarly strange ones, by saying “My intuition is that it’s OK (or maybe not OK) to unplug, but I’ve learned (maybe from the fat man example) that I shouldn’t trust my intuitions in odd hypothetical situations, so I’ll disregard this example”

22

ice9 01.24.10 at 1:23 am

I appreciate that this thread is about the viability of the thought experiment, but choosing abortion as your growth medium is disqualifying; I can’t apply it. Even the writers on the most intellectual front of the anti-abortion movement are intractably ideological. Propose a moment’s mutual reflection over a thought experiment and they are likely to club you over the head with a sign bearing a photo of an aborted fetus. Or, to put it in thought experiment form: Imagine for a moment, if you will: while revising and polishing a thought experiment on the zombie problem, zombies stormed your home, overpowered you, and ate your brain.

ice9

23

mds 01.24.10 at 1:37 am

while revising and polishing a thought experiment on the zombie problem, zombies stormed your home, overpowered you, and ate your brain.

If they then took up residence in your husband’s uterus, abortion would become a sacrament.

24

jim 01.24.10 at 1:40 am

I have no objection to thought experiments as long as they aren’t believed to prove anything. After all, you can prove anything if you’re allowed to make up the evidence.

25

vivian 01.24.10 at 1:51 am

I think part of the promise of the violinist model is that there is a clear alternative to the coercion – the violinist gets to take some ownership of the dilemma, the two of you have opportunities to talk and be persuaded, to offer compensation, to learn to care for one another or not. You’re hooked up in a hospital where food, shelter, etc. are provided, and once awake have the chance to demand the violinist and friends look after your existing family, ensure that your job is available nine or twelve months later, etc.

The points in my first sentence are the internal arguments for seeking either prenatal care or termination. The points in the second sentence ought to be the first line of action for people who believe both in the sanctity of human life and liberty of contract, enlightened self-interest, etc. But the main value is (what I think of as GA Cohen’s argument b/c he put it so well) is in turning the issue into one requiring interersubjective justification, face to face. De-“Milgram”-izing the moral issue. Something not true for the trolley problems, which is why I don’t like those, but am fond of Thomson’s.

26

Martin 01.24.10 at 1:55 am

Just to clarify, Thomson grants, for the purposes of the argument, that the fetus is a person (and thus, if being a person is sufficient to have a right to life, then the fetus has the right to life).

In addition, it’s hard to accept that the difference between the fetus and violinist cases is that the former would involve killing, while the latter would involve letting die. The violinist, once attached, *isn’t* dying.

A perhaps morally relevant distinction here would be the alleged relevant difference between intended vs. foreseen-but-unintended effects. This is often appealed to in Trolley cases, but it is not clear that it applies to the cases that Thomson is talking about. There is a difficulty, of course, in characterizing the relevant intentions–is the woman intending that the fetus die; that the violinist die? The woman may say (and not in an obviously insincere fashion) that her intention is to remove the fetus from her body (recognizing that death is all but certain). But it’s not as if she’s trying (she must be trying) to kill the fetus. If the fetus somehow survived the removal, would she/we say that she failed to do what she intended to do? It is not clear to me that, in most cases, we would say this.

I think a more interesting challenge to Thomson’s thought experiment concerns whether the analogy she draws between the fetus and the violinist fully captures what we, intuitively, think is morally relevant in the two cases. Eric Wiland (“Unconscious violinists and the use of analogies in moral argument”) presents a different analogy, which goes, roughly, as follows (I think I am remembering it correctly–if not, please correct me):

Suppose there are conjoined twins, one of which is in a coma (she will come out in 9 months). The twin in the coma could not survive a separation operation, while the twin not in a coma could. Would it be permissible for the twin not in a coma to have the separation operation? (Imagine that each has it’s own set of organs; it’s just that the twin in the coma draws some life-sustaining resources from her sister, and without them, the sister in the coma will die).

Now, I am going to predict that (1) lots of people will see this case as a lot more like the abortion case than the violinist case, and (2) fewer people will judge that it is permissible for the non-coma twin to have the operation than they will judge that it is permissible for the person to detach herself from the violinist.

Is my prediction bunk? If not, what might this show (either about the permissibility of abortion or the use of thought experiments)?

27

Bloix 01.24.10 at 1:58 am

What ethical philosophy teaches me – as in the violinist and trolley car thought experiments, and also in Peter Singer’s thinking on poverty – is that logical analysis has little or nothing to do with the way that people’s beliefs about moral obligations to others are actually formed.

28

engels 01.24.10 at 2:03 am

“My intuition is that it’s OK (or maybe not OK) to unplug, but I’ve learned (maybe from the fat man example) that I shouldn’t trust my intuitions in odd hypothetical situations, so I’ll disregard this example”

But doesn’t this in fact point in the opposite direction to what you were saying abov?. Ie. it is possible to make many of these examples ‘realistic’ (rather than ‘odd, hypothetical’) situations by filling in lots of detail. (For example, see the realistic versions of ‘ticking bomb’ scenarios given by Seamas Miller here. I think given a few paragraphs someone could write a convincing enough narrative about an obese bystander who was pushed in front of a tram car that was about to crash by other citizens — although this would have been easier perhaps if it wasn’t already a cliche.) It is when all the detail is stripped out then the examples are going to seem difficult to visualise, contrived and ‘odd’ (like the economics chestnuts about countries that only manufacture hotdogs and buns, etc.) So it seems like you should either complain that the examples are unnecessarily complicated, or that they are too implausible, but probably not both at the same time. Because the real world is complicated and so we tend to find stories that reflect this more believable, don’t we?

29

engels 01.24.10 at 2:12 am

Then again, maybe I misunderstood, but then what is it exactly that you find ‘odd’ about the fat man example? You mean that you find it implausible, right?

30

Clay Shirky 01.24.10 at 2:17 am

Re: @Geoffrey at 10: The fetus idol is the object of such devotion precisely because such idolization masks the fact that the fate of the fetus is not in general the core concern for most anti-abortionists. The violinist example thus fails for me not because it isn’t persuasive but because it isn’t relevant to the actual beliefs of the people it is meant to reach.

Much has been made of the seeming hypocrisy of abortion foes who evince concern for the fetus, but who also indicate a willingness to tolerate abortion for, variously, cases of rape, congenital deformity, or to save the life of the mother. In the US, while the debate is conducted by absolutists, a majority of abortion foes (and a majority of the country) prefers a model that might be called “restrictions with special conditions of availability” over the current model of “availability with special conditions of restriction.”

This seems to be because, for most US adults, the animating belief isn’t about the fetus per se but about society; female (but not male) reproductive capability is regarded, by this group, as being a social and not personal capability, and seems to believe that having socially approved babies is better than not having them.

So construed, the hypocrisy goes away, because the cases where the “restrictions with special conditions of availability” camp indicate a willingness to tolerate abortion are all about either women not having the kind of babies of which society approves, or involve society’s loss of that woman’s future reproductive capability.

That, for me, is the failure of the violinist experiment. It’s not that violinists are people and fetuses aren’t, its that uteruses are reproductive and kidneys merely life-sustaining. As someone on the far end of the “abortion on demand and without apology” camp, I’m horrified by the social intrusion of the anti-abortionists, but I also don’t think that thought experiments that make parallels with non-reproductive choices actually engage the kind of issues needed to move the debate.

31

hix 01.24.10 at 2:25 am

Activly killing people is something most people dont do in hypothetical examples, because it is just so unlikely to be the best course of action in real life and the huge emotional appeal throws you out of the let me think just within that theoretical model mode.

32

Ted 01.24.10 at 2:43 am

hix

Hmmm…have you ever monitored your kids’ online games activity?

33

John Quiggin 01.24.10 at 2:59 am

@engels “You mean that you find it (fat man example) implausible, right?”

Exactly right. It seems to me highly unlikely that, in the situation described, pushing the fat man onto the tracks could be guaranteed to work. Either he might be killed/injured but fail to stop the trolley or, if I didn’t push, some other event might occur that would prevent the disaster. But I’m supposed to believe with probability 1 that the trolley will be stopped if and only if I push the fat man. Then having adopted such counterintuitive beliefs, I’m supposed to consult my intuition.

To the extent that I have relevant intuitions derived from actual cases I have thought about, they relate to preventive war. There, experience tells us that you can be presented with a ginned-up, but hard-to-refute, case that war is the only way to prevent disaster. If you concede the hypothetical “Assuming that preventive war is the only way prevent disaster, do you support it”, you get stuck with the problem of trying to argue against dodgy dossiers, SOTUs and the like. A bright line rule against preventive war is highly desirable as a way to stop this.

Note that the problems with simplified economics examples aren’t quite the same, because there isn’t the same reliance on intuition. The Stolper-Samuelson theorem, for example, is a theorem, whether or not you find the result intuitive. There is, of course, still the general problem of abstraction: is the case of two goods, two factors and two countries close enough to reality to be relevant?

34

Bill Gardner 01.24.10 at 3:25 am

I find the thought experiments concerned with obligations to future generations (e.g., the later chapters of Parfit) much more compelling. Perhaps because we have no experience of the future?

35

hix 01.24.10 at 4:19 am

I am more in the play myself age, just stoped playing one actually. About as relevant as the question if you ever played chess.

36

Aulus Gellius 01.24.10 at 4:31 am

Two points: First, in support of John Quiggin’s worries, it is certainly true that thought-experiments where implausibly absolute certainty is assumed are, in fact, used as a way of tricking people into acting as if there was a lot more certainty in real life. Remember all those ticking time bombs which could definitely be prevented if and only if we tortured someone? The line between “thought-experiment” and “manipulative story” can be blurred.

But second, I think Harry’s initial point was that thought-experiments are good for something other than (though maybe not totally separable from) testing intuitions: they can be used to separate different aspects of a problem. I think a lot of people, if you asked, “do you think abortion is wrong because the fetus has a right to life, or because the pregnant woman has a responsibility to keep it alive?” would say “there’s no difference.” But there is a difference, as can be seen by telling a story where only one of those reasons applies.

37

Logern 01.24.10 at 5:41 am

The less abstraction the better. That is why I propose to ask how many times Cheney would have to waterboard his wife until he would admit it’s torture.

38

Hungover Guy 01.24.10 at 6:45 am

As much as I can understand right now, I think you’re right!

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Dan Simon 01.24.10 at 7:11 am

Following up on Aulus Gellius’ point, the main problem with thought experiments is the term, “thought experiment”. Thought experiments are simply hypotheticals held up as analogies, and we all know how to deal with those: we probe both the hypothetical and the analogy, to see what we can conclude from the former, and then whether it still applies to the original case. But calling something a “thought experiment” has the effect (intentional in most cases, I would surmise) of downplaying, and hence obscuring, the analogical aspect of the argument. Instead, one treats the hypothetical as an abstract, free-floating question–as one would, say, a physics problem–and then claims to extract a general principle from the outcome–again, as one would in physics–which can supposedly then be applied to the original question.

This roundabout way of reasoning by analogy–“solve” the hypothetical, extract a general principle, apply it to the original question–offers loads of opportunities to stretch analogies well past the breaking point, hiding the cracks in the awkward steps from hypothetical answer to general principle, and then from general principle to its application to the original question. For a polemicist, of course, such analogy-stretchers are a goldmine: if I want to convince people of my position on a controversial question, I first construct a convenient analogy that removes all my opponent’s arguments and retains all of my own, plus maybe a few new ones, and call it a “thought experiment”. Then I painstakingly lead my audience along the carefully constructed reasoning path by which, from my carefully rigged analogy, a “universal principle” is extracted that can be applied with full force to demonstrate my correctness on the original issue.

As I’ve argued before, trolley problems are a good example of this–they stack the deck in favor of pure consequentialism, by abstracting away any messy details of life that might argue against pure consequentialist ethics. Likewise, Thomson’s Violinist abstracts away all moral obligations that one might owe another by virtue of history and circumstances. One could easily construct an alternative “thought experiment”–and many anti-abortion polemicists no doubt already have–that similarly stacks the deck, but in the direction of, say, a “general obligation to maintain offspring”. Fortunately, anti-abortion polemicists–at least those whose arguments I’ve heard–typically aren’t so intellectually snobbish as to dress up their rigged analogies as “thought experiments”.

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John Quiggin 01.24.10 at 8:10 am

Coming back to the substantive question, I’ll start with the premise that parents are not, in contemporary societies, recognised as having a general right to abandon/neglect their dependent children. That’s true even though it is possible for others to look after abandoned children – if I can look after my children, I’m obliged to do so, or ensure that others do so.

In this context, if the violinist example (with the ‘unplug’ intuition) proves anything it’s that our recognised obligations to our dependent children are much stronger than those to others who might happen to depend on us. An obvious reason is that our children are predictably dependent on us in particular, in a way that famous violinists are not.

The obligation to look after your dependent children seems to imply that, if a fetus is a dependent child (which many would reject), there is no general right to abortion. If as I take it, Thomson accepts this, then she has either proved much less than is typically supposed, or (if the violinist example is taken to refute the obligation to look after your dependent children) much less.

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bad Jim 01.24.10 at 10:12 am

I have to wonder to what extent the discussion would change were the hypothetical parasite a violist instead. If not, how about an oboist? A bagpiper? Seriously? Even a banjo player?

Midway through a Sunday afternoon performance by the Tokyo String Quartet there was a fire alarm. We evacuated nonchalantly; the hall was new, still under construction, it was generally assumed that it was a glitch of some sort, as indeed it proved to be. There was a certain amount of concern about the instruments, a set collected by Paganini all made by Stradivarius. It’s likely that many of us, in appropriately contrived circumstances, would prefer one of a few fine fiddles from Cremona to any of an apparently inexhaustible supply of virtuosos.

We need to remind ourselves that an abortion doesn’t necessarily mean one less child, since the mother can usually, if she so chooses, bear another. It certainly wouldn’t be precisely the same, but if the loss of any possible human instance is an issue then menstruation is an occasion for a funeral and any male sexual expression is a holocaust.

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anon/portly 01.24.10 at 10:26 am

….there is no right to abortion, and that we do not have extensive and demanding enforceable obligations to strangers. People who hold that combination of views ought to be deeply discomforted by the violinist example….

Abortion and the social norms and ideas that surround it are familiar. We don’t just have views about abortion itself but views about the social norms and views about the views of others and so on.

The Violinist thing – person x having to sacrifice bodily freedom for a certain time to save person y, a stranger – is unfamiliar. (I’m not sure I understand what the kidnapping aspect is supposed to add). We don’t have a long familiarity with the social norms or arguments surrounding this situation.

Someone who takes the view that we don’t have “extensive and demanding enforceable obligations to strangers” when presented with this situation in a philosophy class might well take the opposite view if they were living in a society having an “plugging” debate that parallels our abortion one. I don’t think anyone should be discomforted by their views about a thought experiment because they should understand that their views about thought experiments aren’t really as concrete or fathomable as their views about things that really happen, views that have developed over the course of their life.

When thought experiment-like things happen in real life, people just grope in the dark. Then again many of us just grope in the dark about normally occurring things too. I think everyone’s view about abortion should discomfort or discomfit them. But thought experiments no.

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Martin Wisse 01.24.10 at 10:50 am

The problem with philosophical thought experiments in general is that they aren’t experiments, but stories contrived to force you to reach a certain conclusion, but because of this it is so easy to object to the fantastical situations depicted in these “experiments” that derailment is as likely as serious moral thought.

The violinist experiment discussed here for example. If it hapened to me I’d just call the excellent dialysis/kidney treatment centre at the local academic hospital and get them to hook him up to a dialysis machine while he is put on a transplantation waiting list.

I know the argument Thomson is trying to make me think about, but it’s only because I’m already primed for it, just as I suspect the usual public for these sort of thought experiments knows more or less what’s expected of them and is of good will to play along with these games.

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bad Jim 01.24.10 at 11:23 am

As to the general question of moral dilemmas as teaching techniques, and as one who has never been in a position to employ them, I’ll concede their value as a way to stimulate arguments and to force students out of their comfort zones, sort of like an annealing process which stirs them up enough to move from their initial tentative resting point to something more defensible or stable.

However, as someone who has lived through moral quandaries (I threw my father out of my brother’s wedding, I tended him through his dying, I’m stuck with his once brilliant but now senile bride, my mother) the puzzles posed never struck me as serious. Perhaps most students will not have had as interesting a time as I did (did anyone else have a helicopter spewing tear gas through the middle of campus?) but it might be worthwhile, if the point is to disturb the comfortable, to find some way to shock them into realizing that they are total assholes exactly like us, greedy, lazy, self-indulgent, thoughtless and careless, no matter how good they try to be.

The other half need to learn they really ought to try to be good. It’s not just for wimps.

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Chris Bertram 01.24.10 at 11:26 am

John Q:

_In this case, the gratuitous feature is the “famous violinist” part of the example. Presumably, almost no-one is likely to agree[1] that we have an individual duty to save famous violinists but not others. So, including this irrelevant distraction seems to me, at best to complicate things to no purpose, and at worst, to stack the deck in favor of the view that it is OK to unplug._

I think the dialectical purpose of the violinist’s eminence is fairly clear, actually. It it just to underline the intuition that we don’t have a duty to rescue strangers at significant cost to ourselves, _even when the stranger is specially admirable in some way_. If you think that’s true in the specially admirable case, then you’re bound to accept it in all the ordinary ones too.

#3 Harry B. I don’t think what you say in parentheses can be right as a response to those who say that the fetus isn’t a stranger. A particular relationship between parent and child might permanently be, or might become, one of being a stranger in your sense (i.e. be one where you find the other psychologically opaque). That doesn’t make the opaque child a stranger in the sense meant by someone like Tom.

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Tim Worstall 01.24.10 at 11:29 am

“The problem with these methods when applied to the peculiarly US scene is that while they are trying to tease out ethical and moral reasoning, the US abortion situation is about law and the power of the state.”

Apologies but I think that’s exactly the wrong way around.

In most countries it is indeed about the law. The UK has a law that says you can abort under these circumstances (up to 24 weeks as a matter of choice, after that only for deformity or danger to the mother) and not under these others.

The US situation is about rights: that right to privacy found in the penumbra of the Constitution. The State (or even States) has no right to make a law which violates this right.

So the US situation is much more about ethics and morality, the competition between certain rights, than is the situation in other countries.

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novakant 01.24.10 at 1:40 pm

You generally simply don’t need thought experiments at all and they are often very silly and terribly misleading. Instead, taking a close look reality is often preferable and sufficient to bring out the important aspects of an issue.

Case in point here:

There is no significant, clear-cut difference between the pre-natal and early post-natal state as far as personhood is concerned – yet, we are much more inclined to allow the killing of a developing human being during varying pre-natal stages, while most of us would be intuitively dead set against any such killing during the post-natal stage, even if it would permissible from or even mandated from, say, a utilitarian or hmuanistic point of view.

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Tom 01.24.10 at 1:44 pm

@John Quiggin, 38, and to everyone:

Does it help to set the violinist example in more familiar terms and make the situation more realistic and closer to the case of abortion, in the following way:

You wake up in the morning and find your womb having been impregnated with a foetus[1]. Its natural mother was unable to carry it any longer, so she kidnapped you and transplanted the foetus to your womb[2]. [Perhaps insert: “you alone have the right blood type to help”] Within nine months you will give birth and no longer have to carry the foetus.

An answer to this question would, I think, be much more interesting.

[1] of whatever age, or an embryo conceived via IVF
[2] With current medical technology this is impossible, but it’s not implausible that it may be possible in the near future.

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Tom 01.24.10 at 1:48 pm

… and for what it’s worth, I think the foetus does not have a right to life in either the case of natural conception or my example of “forced pregnancy”. But I think the “mother’s” right to termination is much stronger in the case of forced pregnancy, *especially because* she is not the natural mother, and less because she had no choice in the matter.

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Ben Alpers 01.24.10 at 4:00 pm

@John Quiggan, 13:

Take the trolley problem. It’s certainly useful to ask whether there’s a difference between
(a) You have to choose right or left, and right will kill more people than left
(b) You can choose not to act, in which case the train will go right and kill more people or go left

But is this useful? My problem with the trolley problem has always been that it really isn’t like any real-world ethical dilemma…even before the fat man shows up. How do you know that the trolley will kill more people going one direction than the other? Like the ticking-time bomb problem, the trolley problem seems to be based on a hypothetical knowledge of the future results of our actions that we do not, in fact, have. And the heat-of-the-moment aspects of the scenario also ring false: in such circumstances we don’t get to stop the clock and make reasoned ethical judgments.

As for Thomson’s violinist: when I first heard of this thought experiment from philosopher friends of mine in grad school, my immediate thought was JQ’s: annoyance at the detail that the plugged-in person was a famous violinist. I think Chris Betram @43 identifies the role that the person’s fame as a violinist is supposed to play in the thought experiment: it is supposed to make the stranger specially admirable. And I think I understood that when I first heard the problem. But of all the ways to make someone admirable, why make him or her a famous violinist? What if one hates violin music?

Of course part of the weight of “famous violinist” is that, even if one hates violin music, one is presumably supposed to feel that being a famous violinist is of some absolute social value (think of how the problem would sound different if it were a famous rapper, or a famous pop-country diva, or a famous producer of multimillion dollar action movies disliked by the critics). To me the problem is unnecessarily freighted by a kind of cultural prejudice (and I should say I happen to like classical music) that it would not have if it simply said that the person with whom one is plugged was someone whose career one admired.

But I also think that the problem fails to get at a lot of what drives actual abortion opponents (some of which has already been mentioned upthread): the fetus as fetish object, an obsession with women’s sexual choices (which has a lot to do with the acceptability of the rape/incest exception for many abortion foes), and even the assumption that fetuses are uniquely innocent compared to all other (presumedly human) beings combined with a notion of social obligation built around a very particular understanding of personal responsibility and justice.

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Aulus Gellius 01.24.10 at 4:02 pm

I think Tom raises another useful thing about the violinist analogy. By making it such a bizarre and unpredictable situation, it highlights an aspect of opposition to abortion that is, I think, often present but rarely explicit: the sense that pregnant women are responsible for their condition (here one either makes an exception for victims of rape or just carefully avoids thinking about them). The violinist situation (in part, again, because it’s so bizarrely unlikely) utterly eliminates that aspect: so it forces abortion opponents either to explicitly say “pregnancy is different because women have a choice in the matter (except when they don’t)” or to really scrub that sense out of their arguments.

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Billikin 01.24.10 at 4:02 pm

Does life begin at conception?

Of course not. You can’t make a human from a dead egg and a dead sperm. What conception does is to produce a cell that is genetically distinct from the mother.

Which leads to this thought experiment. What if it wasn’t? What if it had the same genes?

I do not think that we have parthenogenetic mammals, but there are such species. Also, I recall that, even in sexually reproducing species, sperm may not be necessary to produce an embryo. You can start the process by pricking the egg with a needle. Is that possible with human eggs? Could it be done in vitro, as with in vitro fertilization?

What rights would the woman have if the embryo were genetically the same? In a sense, they would be her cells.

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Ginger Yellow 01.24.10 at 4:18 pm

(interestingly, every now and then a student (usually they turn out to be some sort of lefty) who thinks there is a right to abortion thinks it is impermissible to unplug oneself, because one has extensive and stringent duties to aid stranger in need)

I’m one of these people. Interestingly enough, I’m also one of those people who would throw the fat man in front of the train (or jump myself) , if it were certain to prevent more deaths. I wonder if those two positions are related.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.24.10 at 4:30 pm

I’d like to second Clay Shirky’s (30) suggestion that the anti-abortion sentiment can probably be best explained as a socio-economic phenomenon. There were times when every birth was important for the survival of the tribe, and any kind of avoidance of procreation was a gross violation of morality. Not anymore, but the residual attitude remains, and especially, perhaps, in rural areas where steady population decline (due to “rural flight”) creates, perhaps, the false impression that the low birth rate is to blame. Killing a fetus becomes a genocidal act; the violinist – big deal, who cares…

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Bill Benzon 01.24.10 at 4:33 pm

I realize this is about thought experiments, not abortion, but still:

Clay Shirky @30: This seems to be because, for most US adults, the animating belief isn’t about the fetus per se but about society; female (but not male) reproductive capability is regarded, by this group, as being a social and not personal capability, and seems to believe that having socially approved babies is better than not having them.

A VERY interesting insight. Which implies, as you say, that this particular thought experiment simply fails to highlight the issue that’s most important in anti-abortion folks in the US.

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harry b 01.24.10 at 5:10 pm

Ginger Yellow: I think they probably are related, yes. I bet there is survey data on this by now!

The violinst case is supposed to be analogous with the case of abortion when the conception occurs as a result of rape. Anyone who thinks that it is ok to abort in the case of rape does not think that the right to life of the fetus is such that we should override a woman’s right to control her body. If someone thinks it is ok to unhook from the violinist, but not to abort in the rape case, they, too, think the right to life is not sufficient to command someone else to give sustenance, and they cannot, contra what AG says, say that the woman is responsible for her condition and therefore has to gestate to term (because she is not — Thomson has a nice passage showing how absurd it would be to think that she is). Another thought-experiment in the paper, the people seeds case, is supposed to show that even when the pregnancy arises from consensual sex when contraceptionhas been used and failed, there is a right to abort (though part of what she is doing in that example is trying to show that even in that case the woman is not responsible). The people seeds case is dodgier than the violinst case, and I find that by tweaking it (eg by emphasizing features which, though present, Thomson does not emphasize in her description) I can get students to respond differently to the case.

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Walt 01.24.10 at 5:39 pm

But mds, fetuses can’t take up residence in my husband’s uterus, at least until gay marriage is legalized.

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Doctor Science 01.24.10 at 5:54 pm

I agree with Clay Shirky and with Bill Benzon @53: this particular thought experiment simply fails to highlight the issue that’s most important in anti-abortion folks in the US.

IMHO, Thomson’s purpose in creating this thought experiment is to have students think about abortion in a way that does *not* make it all about one’s attitudes towards women. She is trying to remove the woman from the case, in the hopes that the reader/student will see that abortion can be an ethically reasonable choice. She’s hoping that the parallelism between “it’s ethical for a person to disconnect the violinist” and “it’s ethical for a woman to have an abortion” will be obvious.

What the thought experiment crucial overlooks, though, is that for most abortion opponents “woman” is not the same category as “normal human being.” For instance, the statement that we do not have extensive and demanding enforceable obligations to strangers. Traditionalists clearly believe that women *do* have obligations to strangers. There’s the obligation to be chaste, the obligation to be pretty, the obligation to “Smile!” when you’re walking down the street, the obligation to justify one’s purchase of certain medications, the obligation to be “nice”.

Basically, I think she’s trying to lead her readers/students into feminism by the back door, without them noticing it — and that trick *never* works.

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piglet 01.24.10 at 6:21 pm

I actually think that the violinist example is valuable and relevant in a way in which the trolley example is not. The trolley example in my view is unrealistic and nothing else. It doesn’t illuminate anything. It is a moral dilemma so abstract that we all know we will never face it in reality. Trying to base moral reasoning on impossible or at least highly unusual or marginal cases is bound to be misleading because moral reasoning should work in real life, not in exceptional circumstances.

Why do I think the violinist example is not in that category? Because the situation of a person’s body being vitally connected to another being is not that unusual. It is in fact what every pregnant woman experiences. My take on the violinist example is that it is an attempt at explaining to men – the meaning of pregnancy. Unwanted pregnancy is a moral dilemma that men never have faced and yet they have historically been making the rules, telling women how immoral it was to refuse sharing their body with a fetus for nine months. The example is an apt illustration of what it means “sharing one’s body with another human being for nine months”.

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Tom 01.24.10 at 6:31 pm

@piglet 57:

If it’s an example of what it means to share one’s body, isn’t it a massive overstatement of the case? The average violinist weighs considerably more than 10 times what the average foetus does at term.

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piglet 01.24.10 at 6:32 pm

“Basically, I think she’s trying to lead her readers/students into feminism by the back door, without them noticing it—and that trick never works.”

Dr. Science: your point is similar to mine but the proposition that women are “normal human beings” doesn’t sound like radical feminism to me although historically it may have been.

Henry Vieuxtemps: “There were times when every birth was important for the survival of the tribe, and any kind of avoidance of procreation was a gross violation of morality.”

There also were times when it was imperative for the tribe to avoid population growth, either by contraception, abortion, or infanticide. The attitude you are describing arose in specific historic circumstances.

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piglet 01.24.10 at 6:37 pm

“If it’s an example of what it means to share one’s body, isn’t it a massive overstatement of the case?” Tom, my point is precisely that men are in no position to judge the intensity of the pregnancy experience.

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Sam C 01.24.10 at 6:47 pm

‘this particular thought experiment simply fails to highlight the issue that’s most important in anti-abortion folks in the US.’

Suppose this is true, which it might be. But why would that be a criticism of the thought-experiment? Why think that its purpose is to intervene in US politics? As a (UK-based) academic philosopher, I use this and other thought experiments as teaching tools: they’re stories which I use (in general) to elicit passionate and reasoned responses on which my students and I can do further analytic and argumentative work; and (in particular) to distinguish between different kinds of reason for judgements. I also use true stories (e.g. Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan), more-or-less realist fiction (e.g. Melville’s Billy Budd), and science fiction (e.g. Charles Stross’s Glasshouse) for the same purposes. Which kind of story – thought experiment, history, realist or science fiction – works best depends both on the problem and on the students.

Thought-experiments certainly have some problems. For instance, the examples tend to develop ever-more-baroque detail, and obscure the original point; or they’re used to try to force certain conclusions (I’ve seen more than one seminar where someone has tried to use Bernard Williams’s Jim and the Indians case as ‘evidence’ for roughly-Kantian ethics, for instance). But other kinds of stories have their own problems: debating the Hiroshima story can devolve all too easily into an argument about contemporary American foreign policy (not that there’s anything wrong with such argument in general; it’s just not much use when you’ve got a fifty-minute hour to discuss Elizabeth Anscombe on absolute moral duty).

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bianca steele 01.24.10 at 7:04 pm

Harry,
Oddly, I had little problem with thought experiments like these until I had occasion to discuss them on the Internet, and to view the discussions of others, and to realize that my thoughts about how they are interpreted put me in the minority. Not willing to accept that I am wrong, without further evidence, I do wonder how many of your first-year students had encountered problems like these before. It seems there is a very narrow range of things one is permitted to consider, and a very narrow range of conclusions one is permitted to draw (for example, wondering about how the situation arose, in a science fiction kind of way, is not permitted, nor is proposing new examples–on the other hand, it is permitted to change the subject to abortion or foreign aid–yet not every change of subject will be allowed). This appears to me to be very telling concerning what philosophical thinking is all about, yet for some students it may appear more important that they are asked to think at all, and as a result they may fail to learn the intended lesson.

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Aulus Gellius 01.24.10 at 7:12 pm

‘this particular thought experiment simply fails to highlight the issue that’s most important in anti-abortion folks in the US.’

But I think this can be an advantage, not a disadvantage of the thought-experiment. Because in fact, if you ask anti-abortion folks, “what issue about abortion is most important to you?” they will probably say something like “the individual fetus’s right to life,” not “the apparent similarity of the shrinking population of my town to historical circumstances where a high birth rate has been needed.”

So the violinist-example, precisely by leaving out some of the important-but-unacknowledged aspects of anti-abortion opinion, forces people to make those aspects explicit (“the situation is different because…”), and thus to examine their own beliefs.

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Sam C 01.24.10 at 7:41 pm

bianca steele: that’s a very good point. There is a certain, troubling process of socialisation involved in endorsing some responses to a thought-experiment, and rejecting other ones as off-topic. I wonder, though, if it’s just the general process of disciplinary socialisation somehow showing itself more nakedly here than elsewhere, or whether it’s something specific about thought-experiments.

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Sam C 01.24.10 at 7:43 pm

[double post because previous version is in moderation, probably because it contained the word ‘so@ia!isation’]

bianca steele: that’s a very good point. There is a certain, troubling process of so@ia!isation involved in endorsing some responses to a thought-experiment, and rejecting other ones as off-topic. I wonder, though, if it’s just the general process of disciplinary so@ia!isation somehow showing itself more nakedly here than elsewhere, or whether it’s something specific about thought-experiments.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.24.10 at 7:59 pm

Because in fact, if you ask anti-abortion folks, “what issue about abortion is most important to you?” they will probably say something like “the individual fetus’s right to life,”

Not necessarily. If you google ‘abortion genocide’ you get 8.5 million hits; see this for example:

We call this endeavor the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) because Webster’s New World Encyclopedia, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1992, defines “genocide” as “The deliberate and systematic destruction of a national, racial, religious, political, cultural, ethnic, or other group defined by the exterminators as undesirable.” That definition readily applies to abortion. The “national group” is American “unwanted” unborn children and they are now being destroyed at the rate of nearly 1 out of every 3 conceived. They are being terminated in an elaborate network of killing centers.

Notice the word American there. Their concern is of a nationalist nature; sometimes it’s racial. The violinist situation doesn’t address this angle at all. If I was one of them, I would say that unplugging one violinist would be acceptable, but unplugging a million violinists every year is a completely different story: soon there’s nobody left to play violin.

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piglet 01.24.10 at 8:20 pm

“If I was one of them, I would say that unplugging one violinist would be acceptable, but unplugging a million violinists every year is a completely different story: soon there’s nobody left to play violin.”

But you aren’t one of them and to my knowledge nobody has ever used this argument. Besides, most anti-abortion groups are explicit about opposing abortion in other countries as well and even opposing family planning services in poor countries if abortion is even mentioned (random example: http://www.onenewsnow.com/Culture/Default.aspx?id=823854).

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eudoxis 01.24.10 at 9:42 pm

If a woman walks into an empty room, spontaneously conceives, then aborts her conception, and comes back out of the room, is there an ethical problem at all?

Thought experiments attempt to isolate parts of complex questions to make them answerable in simple ways but it’s a huge leap to generalize them to the larger problems.

In this scenario, the use of the “famous violinist” rather than, say, the “infamous serial rapist and killer”, focuses the reader’s attention solely on the victim and beneficiary of her kidneys rather than the crime of kidnapping and assault. The conflation of pregnancy in general with pregnancy as a result of rape is an artificial one. What does it mean, then, if one thinks they should unplug or not? I don’t think there is a real ethical problem here.

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Witt 01.25.10 at 12:54 am

Right on, Doctor Science.

And to piglet’s comment: the proposition that women are “normal human beings” doesn’t sound like radical feminism to me although historically it may have been.

I don’t think you need to go back to history. There are plenty of people today who — although they might pay lip service to the ideas of equal pay for equal work, the right to vote, etc. — often behave in ways that are counter to this belief.

And bianca makes a good point too:
It seems there is a very narrow range of things one is permitted to consider, and a very narrow range of conclusions one is permitted to draw (for example, wondering about how the situation arose, in a science fiction kind of way, is not permitted, nor is proposing new examples—on the other hand, it is permitted to change the subject to abortion or foreign aid—yet not every change of subject will be allowed).

The very artificiality of the thinking is what put me off these kinds of thought experiments when I first encountered them as a teenager, although I didn’t start to loathe them until online discussions years later.

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Ted 01.25.10 at 1:25 am

It is the class presumptions in the violin hypothetical that rankle. The social utility of a famous violinist would vary across classes, and not be just assumed universally. Given this is from 1970, substitute Paul McCartney, Joan Baez, Davey Jones, Keith Richards, or more provocatively Martin Luther King, Jimmy Hendrix, Malcolm X, or Aretha Franklin, and see how differently the discussion flows. ;)

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hix 01.25.10 at 1:32 am

“But you aren’t one of them and to my knowledge nobody has ever used this argument. “

I remember a German catholic bishop argueing that a ban on abortion would be great to push the fertility rate upwards.

“if it were certain to prevent more deaths. I wonder if those two positions are related.”

But in real life you are not. In fact in modern western world real life any active violence is always bad due to the degree of uncertainity. The risk that if one think one has found an expectation one is simply wrong is just to high. That was my point a bit above. My theory is that on a sub conscious level, many people might just not buy the model premises, which is good. The abuse done with those torture excuse models is just shocking.

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Matthias Wasser 01.25.10 at 1:41 am

Interesting. Tell me, though; do you mean “wrong” as in “morally reprehensible to unplug and/or morally laudable to choose not to unplug”, or as in “the state should enact a law to forbid unplugging, and punish those who unplug anyway”?

I meant the former. One wouldn’t construct a law around this sort of thing unless it happened fairly often, which obviously it doesn’t – my guess is that the optimal law would state that people would be hired for such a position and compensated by the beneficiary’s health insurance (which would, in a optimally-legislated world, be provided from the general purse.)

If it were the case that random forces of nature put one person to sleep for nine months and bound another to them, such that the first would die unless they remained immobile, I think a law mandating that one stay would be in almost everybody’s interests, on the grounds that 1) one is as likely to be the violinist as the non-violinist, 2) most people would suffer bedriddenness for 9 months in order to save their lives, and 3) You Are Not Special.

I would be surprised if you tell me it is the latter. But if you really do mean the latter, would you also assert that the state should require all citizens, under penalty of imprisonment (or, possibly, death), to donate their entire assets to Haitian relief (to use a current example), even at a small but not negligible risk of their own insolvency or starvation?

It would be an inefficient use of the world’s resources, I think, to concentrate that many trillion dollars in the tiny republic of Haiti. Do I think it would be morally admirable, if rather as materially likely as brains in vats and other thought experiments, for someone to expropriate the First World’s assets and distribute them among the peoples of the Third? Sure – I suppose the point here is to catch me in the act of not donating all my assets to such worthy causes – I make no claims to morally admire myself. I am a monster.

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piglet 01.25.10 at 2:31 am

“One wouldn’t construct a law around this sort of thing unless it happened fairly often, which obviously it doesn’t.”

It is amazing how one can so completely miss the point. Unwanted pregnancy is an uncommon condition if one happens to be male. Otherwise, not so uncommon.

“It would be an inefficient use of the world’s resources, I think, to concentrate that many trillion dollars in the tiny republic of Haiti.” Sorry Mathias but you flunked the test. You just argued there is a moral obligation, and it could even be codified in law, to help a stranger in need even if it involves making an unusual sacrifice. If that is your belief, why aren’t you obliged to help Haitians.

hix: “I remember a German catholic bishop arguing that a ban on abortion would be great to push the fertility rate upwards.” No doubt. Otoh I can guarantee that that same bishop would also assert that every single abortion is wrong wherever it happens. Historically

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piglet 01.25.10 at 2:51 am

“And bianca makes a good point too:
It seems there is a very narrow range of things one is permitted to consider, and a very narrow range of conclusions one is permitted to draw

I am not familiar with these things. Whose permission exactly is needed to consider certain things and to draw conclusions? Are you alluding to the Academic Thought Police ™?

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Witt 01.25.10 at 3:01 am

Whose permission exactly is needed to consider certain things and to draw conclusions?

Well, here’s an example. As a teenage student, I was given the hypothetical situation of a child growing up alone on a desert island, and asked: Would it develop its own moral code? Would it be completely amoral?

I thought this was a somewhat ridiculous example, but I doggedly attempted to play along in good faith. I wanted to know how old the child had been when it was abandoned there (there is a big difference between a 15-month-old and a 3-year-old), and under what circumstances. I wanted to know what kind of animals were on the island, and what kind of weather. But the class was not encouraged (read: actively discouraged) from discussing these issues.

So it got farther and farther from anything I could recognize as reality, and more and more untenable (or, to my 19-year-old brain, “stupid”) as a thought experiment. I was already at a loss as to the goal of the exercise (which I freely admit was likely my fault and not the instructor’s), and the artificial constraints being imposed on this already weirdly arbitrary hypothetical just frustrated and exasperated me.

In the same class, I remember citing Wisconsin v. Yoder (the Supreme Court case allowing Amish children to leave school after the 8th grade) to support my contention that the artificial extremes we were arguing on some issue or other could in fact be brought to a workable compromise in the real world.

Does that answer your question?

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Ted 01.25.10 at 3:12 am

Witt

I think that is an excellent answer. Also, tarting these things up as “experiments” is itself a sign of their true intent, which is ideological. In fact, they are merely analogies, and extremely badly drawn ones at that.

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Matthias Wasser 01.25.10 at 5:59 am

“It would be an inefficient use of the world’s resources, I think, to concentrate that many trillion dollars in the tiny republic of Haiti.” Sorry Mathias but you flunked the test. You just argued there is a moral obligation, and it could even be codified in law, to help a stranger in need even if it involves making an unusual sacrifice. If that is your belief, why aren’t you obliged to help Haitians.

Uh, where did I say one isn’t obliged to help Haitians? This is a non sequitur.

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Matthias Wasser 01.25.10 at 6:08 am

It is amazing how one can so completely miss the point. Unwanted pregnancy is an uncommon condition if one happens to be male. Otherwise, not so uncommon.

I think you may have a stronger idea of the analogy here than is justified.

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piglet 01.25.10 at 6:13 am

Are you saying one is obliged? How far does that obligation go? And should that obligation be enforced by law? That question was put to you before and you seemed to reject such an obligation.

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piglet 01.25.10 at 6:24 am

“I think you may have a stronger idea of the analogy here than is justified.”

The analogy is obviously not perfect. I think (as explained in 58) it is a useful one as it conveys how pregnancy differs from other relationships. However if you reject that analogy outright, if you think that the violinist bears no resemblance with any real world moral dilemma, then there is no point in discussing it.

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Matthias Wasser 01.25.10 at 11:56 am

Are you saying one is obliged? How far does that obligation go? And should that obligation be enforced by law? That question was put to you before and you seemed to reject such an obligation.

I rejected that it would be a good law for all private US assets be directed towards the very specific end of Haitian relief. This is is not the same as saying one is not obliged to help Haitians, just as, say, a player of string instruments is not a blastocyst.

The analogy is obviously not perfect. I think (as explained in 58) it is a useful one as it conveys how pregnancy differs from other relationships. However if you reject that analogy outright, if you think that the violinist bears no resemblance with any real world moral dilemma, then there is no point in discussing it.

The violinist case is in some ways like pregnancy. It is also like seeing a man drowning, like being stuck in an elevator with someone, like coming down with a terrible illness, and like being infected with vampirism and requiring the blood of the living to remain mobile. Most things are imperfect analogies for a great number of things, not all of which are even imperfect analogies for each other.

Like, okay, here: you’re trapped in an elevator with a little old lady. Between the two of you you have a nanoreplicator which can make you food and magic diapers which avoid any waste management problems, but the rescue crew is going to take 9 months so you’d better get comfortable. Now, it happens that you have just enough telekinetic power that you could sever the elevator from its cord, sending you both to the ground and allowing your escape. You would survive the fall unmolested but the senior citizen would, regretfully, perish in the fall. What do you doooOOOOooooOOO?

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ogmb 01.25.10 at 12:09 pm

The violinist analogy suffers from the most American of philosophical diseases*, the penchant to argue in — almost always false — dichotomies. Quite obviously we recognize (individually and collectively) an obligation to aid others, and we codify this obligation in many social and legal norms. Also quite obviously most everyone recognizes that this obligation is not unlimited, and two very common dimensions used to draw those limits are 1. how helping the recipient inconveniences, incapacitates or imperils the helper, and 2. how close of a kin the recipient is to the helper. Roughly speaking, the closer of kin the recipient is, the more we demand from the helper, but the relationship isn’t strictly linear. For instance, compulsory military service creates a significant level of inconvenience and sometimes imperilment while the benefit (defense of the community) is not restricted to close relations. So unless you try to dichotimize the possibilities, any potentially valid analogy that forces abortion opponents to acknowledge the inconsistency of their viewpoints would require that in the analogy the cost to the helper is (generally acknowledged to be) lower and the relation between helper and helped stronger than in the case of abortion. The violinist fails quite miserably on both counts.

*Falsedichotomyitis is neither exlusively nor exhaustively an American disease, it’s just very common among Americans in moral arguments. I blame multiple choice tests.

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JoB 01.25.10 at 12:35 pm

83, Right on!*

*LOL

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Witt 01.25.10 at 1:56 pm

Falsedichotomyitis is neither exlusively nor exhaustively an American disease, it’s just very common among Americans in moral arguments. I blame multiple choice tests.

Amen.

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harry b 01.25.10 at 2:32 pm

bianca — you’re raising a rather rich and complicated issue about pedagogy (and my post was restricted to the issue of how these examples function as tools in moral theorising). I don’t feel up to responding right now, partly because there’s a lot to say, and partly because I’ve only thought through some of what there is to say! One thing: I mainly teach students who are not, and are not going to be, philosophy majors, and my aim is NOT to enculturate them into Philosophy (not sure I want to do that to anyone, and not sure that I could if I wanted to), but to provide them with intellectual resources not otherwise readily available to think about the kinds of issue that will confront them as citizens and as moral agents in the society they inhabit. I do try to put thought-experiments etc on the table, but also to put them in their place, showing what they can and can’t do.

But your question is worth a long post (not promising one) and some more reflection than I’ve given it (which I do promise, but I may not write it up in a timely manner…)

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ajay 01.25.10 at 2:38 pm

High concept! A consequentialist philosopher kidnaps the entire cast of Gray’s Anatomy and straps them down on a railway line. He then puts Keanu Reeves on a booby-trapped trolley which will blow up if it stops moving. Scarlett Johanssen, as the villain’s former PhD supervisor (wearing glasses), has to decide whether to divert Keanu and his trolley into a dead-end siding (in which he will be stopped by the buffers, and, shortly thereafter, explode) or to allow him to run over the cast of Gray’s Anatomy, saving his own life but killing them. Starting with the blonde one.

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bianca steele 01.25.10 at 3:21 pm

Harry,
No problem. My concern, though, is whether the effect of these discussions is ever to remove from consideration resources that previously had seemed available. Another has to do with the kind of situation Witt described: surely Witt’s way of approaching the problem is a valid one, and important for scientific progress, yet even beyond questions about socialization, it seems possible that Witt’s classmates concluded that their naive approaches were academically superior to Witt’s in every respect.

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bianca steele 01.25.10 at 3:21 pm

Clicked too soon:
(I’m assuming Witt is describing a high school class, which may not be the case.)

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Harry 01.25.10 at 3:41 pm

Well, very brief, but from Witt’s report I think the instructor failed to put the thought experiment in its place. I’ve no idea what the point of it was (its not a standard example in moral Philosophy), but one thing the instructor needs to do is to explain what the point of it is; another is to explain why certain kinds of thing are worth thinking about and others are not (as they come up). Generally the point of these thought experiments is to help identify, quite precisely, specific moral considerations. Witt went beyond this to try and think about what should actually be done, in practice, when specific moral considerations are in conflict in practice. A course aimed at people who are not going to be philosophy majors would include a substantial component in which people are provided with resources on how to think about practice in the face of moral conflict (my course does this); in a particular lesson, this needn’t be done.

I’m going to start teaching Thomson on abortion in the first “real” session of the class in which I teach it, so if you have further thoughts about the above in the next hour or so that would help me contextualise things better, I could use them…

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piglet 01.25.10 at 4:18 pm

“The violinist case is in some ways like pregnancy. It is also like seeing a man drowning”

It definitely is not since saving a drowning person does not commit you for nine months. However I see that we disagree and we perhaps see why we disagree.

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Phil 01.25.10 at 4:30 pm

The violinist case is in some ways like pregnancy. It is also like seeing a man drowning

Is it very much like making love to a beautiful woman?

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Darius Jedburgh 01.25.10 at 4:43 pm

Piglet at 91: “The violinist case is in some ways like pregnancy. It is also like seeing a man drowning”

It definitely is not since saving a drowning person does not commit you for nine months.

I think the key expression here is “in some ways,” piglet. If the violinist case were like seeing a man drowning in every way, it wouldn’t be the violinist case. It would be seeing a man drowning.

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Aulus Gellius 01.25.10 at 4:46 pm

I still think people are missing the point of the violinist analogy. The point is not that unplugging a violinist is exactly like abortion (if it were, you might as well just discuss abortion directly), nor that it’s not at all like abortion (in which case it would be irrelevant). The point is that it’s like abortion in some specific ways (you’re being asked to give up your independence to preserve a life; you’re intimately connected to someone you’ve never met; etc.), but unlike it in others (you’re not related to the violinist, unless you are; “you” can be either a man or a woman; it’s a less “natural” situation, in some sense; the violinist is a fully developed person; etc.). So the point isn’t to say “Ha! You wanted to unplug the violinist, so you MUST support the right to abortion!” It’s to make people explain why they would unplug a violinist but not a fetus, or vice versa. Is kinship the important factor? Or the difference between a fetus and an adult? Or a greater willingness to deny women control over their bodies?

And it’s hard to get to those issues without the thought-experiment, because if you just ask people whether they think abortion is wrong (or should be legal), many will explain their answer strictly in terms of right to life/ woman’s right to choose. But the pro-lifer who wants to unplug the violinist has to say “well, I guess kinship is the way I really support my opinions here; do I really think kinship is so important?” or “Hmm, maybe I’m just being unsympathetic because, being male, I’m not at risk of getting pregnant,” or something. Or, I suppose, the pro-choicer who wants the violinist to stay plugged in has to say “Hmm, I guess my opinion really depends on the fetus’ not being a real person, so the biological differences are important,” or something.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.25.10 at 5:28 pm

I don’t see how kinship is relevant here. Sure, one might decide not to unplug or abort because of the kinship, and that’s fine, but it seems silly to say: you mustn’t unplug or abort because you feel kinship.

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Witt 01.25.10 at 5:36 pm

1. It was a college Intro to Philosophy class.

2. Part of the problem may well have been that the the instructor failed to “put the thought experiment in its place” — I assume by that Harry means that he should have told the class what we were doing and why. It may also have been that he tried, and I failed to grasp it.

3. One of the great downsides of these artificial hypotheses* is that they are difficult to teach well. By the thoughtfulness and depth of Harry’s CT posts I can make a reasonable assumption that he is equally careful in how he presents these exercises to students. But in the context in which many of us encounter them — such as my own experience in the class above — they are being presented by inexperienced or even incompetent teachers who may themselves have only a limited grasp of the idea behind the exercise.

*I think “artificial hypothesis” is a more accurate term than “thought experiment,” as experiment implies that the answer is not known in advance and that there is not a “right” answer. It has been abundantly clear to me every time I’ve seen the violinist example cited (NOT covered in my class, just to be clear) that at least some of the participants do indeed believe there is a right answer to the scenario.

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bianca steele 01.25.10 at 5:44 pm

Harry@90
It’s been a very long time since I was in high school, and to be honest my memory of it isn’t clear enough for me to be certain of what was going on. But it seems to me some teachers like to present these kinds of problems as a kind of critical thinking exercises: they would say that there’s no such thing as a right answer (though it did not feel as if they accepted all answers). Later I have run into explanations of these exercises (and of similar exercises) as involving something important about the process: either knowledge would emerge from the process, or the exercise would teach us how knowledge emerges from that kind of process (with no particular type of knowledge presumed). I guess this could be subsumed under Sam C’s “socialization.”

In the context of the debate over college preparation–and given how quickly in a discussion people often are to introduce issues of class or background, as a substitute for “quality of earlier education” or sometimes “familiarity with the culture”–I think the question does arise whether these problems are ever used to determine aptitude, or the level of prior preparation (beyond, somehow, if this makes sense, the ordinary practice of grading coursework), with a view to selecting students who might profitably become majors. And if so, whether high school or earlier is an appropriate place to introduce these problems. Different high school teachers than the ones I had, with different ideas about their roles and about the world they were sending their pupils into, might have handled them quite differently.

(The Sunday school ethics textbook I was assigned when I was twelve or so, on the other hand, was situation based but left no room for guesswork about what principle was illustrated by the true, if seemingly outdated stories it contained.)

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Ginger Yellow 01.25.10 at 6:07 pm

Or, I suppose, the pro-choicer who wants the violinist to stay plugged in has to say “Hmm, I guess my opinion really depends on the fetus’ not being a real person, so the biological differences are important,” or something.

That’s pretty much how it is for me, although I probably wouldn’t use the phrase “real person”. Someone else put it well, namely that a foetus (especially at an early stage of development) doesn’t have all the trappings of personhood. Until it acquires those trappings, it doesn’t have the same rights as an adult person, as we see in other spheres (eg children). Now, this makes it very difficult to draw a line, morally speaking – my position on the law here is only loosely tied to my moral position.

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Alison P 01.25.10 at 6:37 pm

I think the point of the violinist story is to encourage male students to empathise a little with what pregnancy entails. It is a shame that it takes such ludicrous contortions to do this. How much simpler to say ‘Image you had a uterus, imagine it had a foetus inside it’. But from other discussions we see this leap of empathy can be very difficult for some people. I remember last time this came up on Crooked Timber a young man posted to say ‘I should not be forced to support the violinist, because unlike the pregnant woman, I am innocent’. I wanted – and to some extent this comment is a years-late chance to say what I wanted to say then – I wanted to say to him ‘What is she guilty of, that you are innocent of?’

I think the violinist story is useful because it produces responses like this, which are thus externalised, forced to light. But to my mind the analogy leaves out many of the most important considerations for a woman deciding whether to continue a pregnancy, of which providing life support for nine months is probably the least onerous.

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gavin 01.25.10 at 8:00 pm

and if you had prior knowledge that there was a desparate violinist in the neighborhood in the pickle described and you were warned to lock your doors and didnt… either by choice or neglegence ? It would see then you would have more than a “accedental” realtionship to the violinist..

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piglet 01.25.10 at 8:16 pm

“I think the key expression here is “in some ways,” piglet.”

Look Darius, we are all that clever here. Given suitable definitions, the statement “X is in some ways similar to Y” is probably true whatever you chose for X and Y. (How about “both can be expressed in words”). Wouldn’t this thread be a lot more fun if everybody followed your example and posted vacuous banalities?

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piglet 01.25.10 at 8:26 pm

“But the pro-lifer who wants to unplug the violinist has to say “well, I guess kinship is the way I really support my opinions here; do I really think kinship is so important?””

AFAICT pro-lifers regard abortion of an unrelated fetus by a surrogate mother as equally wrong. That doesn’t exclude that kinship plays a role, perhaps on an unconscious level, as concern about fertility also may play a role, but this would not be how the moral principle is explicitly rationalized.

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Darius Jedburgh 01.25.10 at 10:26 pm

Calm down piglet. My point was that to say that “saving a drowning person does not commit you for nine months” takes you precisely no distance toward showing that Matthias was wrong to say that “the violinist case is in some [morally relevant] ways like seeing a man drowning.” This is not a vacuous banality, as it rules some things out. Such as your claim.

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roac 01.25.10 at 10:31 pm

I’ll see ajay at 87 and raise him one: Suppose the person you find plugged into you is . . . John Connor!

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Substance McGravitas 01.25.10 at 11:02 pm

How far are we going here? Stories: good for entertainment only?

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Salient 01.25.10 at 11:28 pm

As always, I second Doctor Science. Also:

AFAICT pro-lifers regard abortion of an unrelated fetus by a surrogate mother as equally wrong.

That does not surprise me and accords with what I’ve experienced, as they (not all pro-lifers, but a nontrivial percentage of fundamentalist male pro-lifers with whom I’ve talked) hold the doctor morally accountable, in part because they conceptualize the mother as this pitiable hapless thing who somehow got duped out of the greatest thing God has ever given her.

They usually blame the doctor or Planned Parenthood “agents” or etc. for doing the duping — these are the folks they want jailed or executed.

And if a given woman protests this conceptual framework, they say it’s because she’s brainwashed or deluded (ok, they use the word “confused” but what they intend by it is deluded). How could a woman possibly want to choose to not be a mother, given that holy gift of life? An abortionist must have scared her out of motherhood, for profit and to advance the cause of Satan.

Profit, no kidding. Phrases like “murder for money” get bandied about, and a lot of focus in right-wing news coverage of abortionists is on the amount of money a given abortionist charges for the procedure. Like, “so-and-so will murder your child for five thousand dollars.” Charging a lot of money equates to being an extortionist-brainwasher, and charging less money is worse: that equates to being a luring-seductive-brainwasher, a sinister fellow who is in it for the sheer evil of it (profit is secondary), someone who makes you afraid of motherhood and then, silver-tongued, offers the opportunity to back out of it for a modest fee.^1^ I went to a speech in which the person kept saying “Mammon stole this child” and “Mammon is to blame for this genocide — greed is to blame” and folks in the crowd mostly nodded along.

^1^That entire line & other phrases used above are basically stolen, with minimal rephrasing, from different pro-life rallies on campus here — one offered the chance to talk with women who had had abortions and now regretted it; they all talked about how “confused and scared” they were when they went to get an abortion, as if people get an abortion because they are scared and trapped and it’s offered as a way out (explicitly as an alternative to turning to Jesus, which is the appropriate way out).

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piglet 01.25.10 at 11:59 pm

Darius: “showing that Matthias was wrong to say that “the violinist case is in some [morally relevant] ways like seeing a man drowning.””

Mathias didn’t say that but even if he had, the term “in some morally relevant way similar” can be defined to encompass pretty much everything (and that is how he uses it). I didn’t show that Mathias was wrong because on these terms, nothing can be shown wrong. I tried to engage in a good faith argument but I see that this is leading nowhere and that’s where I’ll leave it.

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Salient 01.26.10 at 12:07 am

[trigger warning]

I think the point of the violinist story is to encourage male students to empathise a little with what pregnancy entails. It is a shame that it takes such ludicrous contortions to do this.

Agreed.

…I wanted to say to him ‘What is she guilty of, that you are innocent of?’

Unfortunately, we both know he’d say something horrible like “guilty of fornication without intent to reproduce” and then you and I would end up exasperated and frustrated as he dodged around the question of rape (even though focusing on rape would be giving in to the horrible assertion that sex without intent to reproduce is in any way inherently reprehensible). We’d hear all about how women ask for it with their behavior and their wiles, or we’d hear how rape victims just have to suck it up and accept that life’s unfair sometimes, etc. And, ultimately, he’d be dodging the issue because his worldview just can’t accommodate the existence of rape.

That’s what exasperates me most about this issue: I feel like there’s a 50-50 chance I’ll run into someone who conceptualizes women who have sex wtihout intent to reproduce as agents of evil exploiting the weaknesses of mankind for their own nefarious ends, and a 50-50 chance that I’ll run into someone who cannot possibly see women as moral agents except insofar as they are submissives… and somehow these folks all agree with each other.^2^ Heck, the groups overlap substantially.

^1^Maybe the reason Thomson chose “violinist” is eponymy: it’s a memorably irrelevant word, so everybody who has heard of the thought experiment knows which thought experiment you’re referring to when you refer to the violinist. Same with “fat man” — why does fatness matter? — the word/phrase sticks in memory for being irrelevant and out of place, and ultimately becomes a convenient eponym.

^2^My rather vicious and unfair interpretation of this is: it’s like both camps want to throw women under the bus, but agree to disagree over whether the woman is supposed to like it.

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roac 01.26.10 at 12:24 am

I do not think that the mass absolution extended by the anti-abortion movement to women who have abortions says anything about their deepest motivation; it’s strictly tactical. These people are not stupid — say rather, so as not to get sidetracked into discussing the meaning of “stupid,” that their political instincts are acute. They are well aware that the logical consequence of their position is that women who have abortions ought to be executed or locked up for long periods. But to say that would instantly and irrecoverably put an end to the debate.

Nor do I believe that racism is at the core, as was suggested upthread. No doubt there are Mark Steyn types out there who have reasoned themselves into the view that abortion of white babies is a threat to The Race and is to be opposed for that reason. But I bet their position on abortion is strictly contingent — show them that black babies are being aborted at a substantially higher rate, and they’ll become the biggest fans of Roe v. Wade.

No, it’s about sex, and the necessity to maintain the penalties for having it with the wrong people.

Or rather, that’s what I used to think, until I thought about the study linked to lately by (I think) Andrew Sullivan, about how the girls who go through the abstinence-pledge ceremonies actually have higher rates of sex and pregnancy than others. The revelation is that the fundie leaders aren’t really surprised, and don’t really mind about the sex, as long as the girls react in the prescribed way (confess, repent, have the baby). It’s about acknowledging the authority of religious figures.

Here’s a thought experiment: Take two 17-year-olds, call them Ann and Bobbie. Ann says; Bless me Father/Preacher, for I have sinned, I got it on with the entire first string, offense and defense, plus the equipment manager, I feel so sinful, help me get right with Jesus. Bobbie says: I do not believe in your God nor in you, but I have chosen to remain perfectly chaste for reasons of my own which are none of your business. Guess which is the real Whore of Babylon?

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Salient 01.26.10 at 12:33 am

It’s about acknowledging the authority of religious figures.

And of males generally.

And of course, it’s about submitting to that authority (which I guess is what “acknowledging” means in this context). But I agree, and the Ann/Bobbie example encapsulates it perfectly.

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roac 01.26.10 at 1:10 am

Well, maybe, but it’s not hard to find an example of the same phenomenon as between two males: Namely, the Christian Right’s preference, in 1968, for the pious but divorced Ronald Reagan over the reticently monogamous George McGovern.

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Ted 01.26.10 at 1:14 am

Well one great victory this thread has achieved is to dethrone the violin thingy from the status of “experiment” down to mere “analogy” and a poor one at that.

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Logern 01.26.10 at 2:27 am

It’s not a perfect solution, but one can posit a real life example as an analogy in a classroom. Taken from more ancient history perhaps to avoid a more emotional responses.

For instance the pregnant woman court ordered to bedrest recently.

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/florida-court-orders-pregnant-woman-bed-rest-medical/story?id=9561460

You have the whole Internets to search for examples, if you have the time.

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Brandon Watson 01.26.10 at 4:51 am

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the ultimate summation of philosophical thought experiments:

http://saintgasoline.com/2007/03/04/the-allegory-of-the-trolley-problem-paradox/

It’s remarkable how many different interpretations of the violinist there are in this thread. For instance, I would have denied that the violinist has anything directly to do with abortion at all; the point of the violinist case is simply to argue that the right to life is consistent with killing someone, if certain requirements of justice are already met. This conclusion then, as a further application, has relevance to the matter of abortion insofar as the fetus is thought to have a right to life.

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alex 01.26.10 at 8:49 am

I always thought it was a fat man because the trolley would roll right over a skinny one. Serve me right for thinking there was a logic to it…

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hix 01.26.10 at 10:12 am

“No doubt. Otoh I can guarantee that that same bishop would also assert that every single abortion is wrong wherever it happens. Historically”

Why does someone that thinks abortion is murder use such minor issues as birthrate as argument against abortions in the first place. That is fishy to me. Maybe there is some strain of cultural imperialism or outright racism along the we have to keep breading white christian babies so that those Muslim immigrants dont outnumber us within the group of abortion opponents. Not dominant, just a part.

“I think the point of the violinist story is to encourage male students to empathise a little with what pregnancy entails.”

Definitily does not work with this male student. I would say one should stay with the violinist and also implement a law that made this manadatory if such things things could happen in real life. The abortion issue is for me is a debate about at which point a fetus become a full human being. Is there really a mainstream debate out there that thinks it should be ok to abort under the premise that the fetus is a full human being (Lawyers bending existing laws dont count, Singer but the fetus doesnt feel pain trolling doesnt count either).

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dbk 01.26.10 at 11:03 am

I think there may be a quasi-utilitarian bias lurking in the choice of a famous violinist, i.e. that the universal happiness will be increased more by the violinist’s remaining alive (to delight audiences in Carnegie Hall another day) than it will be decreased by the personal unhappiness (discomfort/pain/loss of 9 months of work) caused the individual who is “plugged” to the violinist. Generally speaking, the violinist case is marginally relevant to the case of a pregnant woman who carries an (unwanted) child to term, but fails to consider the following 18 or 20 years when she assumes the responsibility for raising said child to adulthood.

Bentham, who did not accept the concept of “natural” rights – in a state of nature, everyone has the right to everything, which is to say that no one has the right to anything – was in favor of a polity’s legislating rights rather than taking them as givens. Along Benthamite lines, there are various possibilities, e.g. a law proclaiming that “Every human life is inviolable [and worth exactly as much as every other human life]” (with appropriate riders concerning the definition of when precisely “human life” begins, depending on the current state of science), or alternatively, one proclaiming that “Women may determine their reproductive fate”. A law proclaiming that “every human life is inviolable” seems to conflict with a society’s use of the death penalty, or with its waging of preventive wars, so a society that legislated such a law might find itself in a logical quandary. On the other hand, a law proclaiming that “women may determine their reproductive fate” would leave half the population of the polity (viz., males) out of an important social decision-taking arena – another logical quandary.

What about the following “thought experiment”?
“A society has the ability, through simple pre-natal testing, to determine how many children of each sex are born. It accordingly decides to abort 1/2 of all female fetuses, resulting in an analogy of 2:1 males per females in its population. Within a generation, population growth has slowed to half its previous rate, with the result that the standard of living (overall happiness) increases by a comparable percentage.”

I find this “experiment” a particularly interesting one for liberals, because abortion proponents (especially women, I imagine) may tend to feel moral outrage at the death of so many future women; on the other hand, such an alteration in the gender balance could over time effect a significant decrease in overall suffering for the society in question, which is something which liberals also typically favor.

For conservatives, the issues are rather different, but I am not entirely clear about what they would be. Surely they would oppose any use of this sort of abortion (a case where abortion proponents and opponents would find their views coinciding, though for different reasons?) and perhaps (?) feel that the ensuing increased universal suffering was inevitable. Does this in turn suggest that conservatives feel increased universal suffering acceptable (because inevitable)? Hmm, “universal suffering – coming soon to a county near you.”

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Zamfir 01.26.10 at 11:06 am

I always thought it was a fat man because the trolley would roll right over a skinny one. Serve me right for thinking there was a logic to it…

Just as with the violinist, there might have been logic behind their inclusion in the story, but the reason they are always in the story is that they became useful handles, not because the logic of their inclusion was so strong.

Why does someone that thinks abortion is murder use such minor issues as birthrate as argument against abortions in the first place. That is fishy to me.

Birthrates are not minor issues at all to important religious figures, especially Catholic ones. “Breed more votes” used to be pretty much the official Catholic political strategy in my country (with the Protestants matching the birthrates every step along the way).

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Alison P 01.26.10 at 11:19 am

Is there really a mainstream debate out there that thinks it should be ok to abort under the premise that the fetus is a full human being?

Of course there is. Mrs Tilton alluded to something along these lines in #14, if I’m not mistaken. People are not generally required by law to make extraordinary sacrifices to save the lives of full human beings – for instance those affected by disasters. And this exemplifies how I think the analogy continues to bring something useful to light.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.26.10 at 11:27 am

It’s not necessarily the birth rates as such; they conceptualize a group (whites, blacks, Christians, Americans) and then apply their victimization logic to the group. At that point men, women, violinists become irrelevant, it’s the group itself that suffers. Isn’t it quite a common and obvious move?

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Salient 01.26.10 at 11:45 am

But but but Brandon, you linked to the wrong thing!

There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys.

:-)

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Salient 01.26.10 at 11:48 am

the point of the violinist case is simply to argue that the right to life is consistent with killing someone, if certain requirements of justice are already met.

I don’t agree, because it’s quite possible to say (as hix does!) something like, “no you do not have the right to exit the situation, you are morally bound to accept your position alongside the violinist” — at which point the case is silent. There’s no argument per se in the thought experiment.

I see the violinist case as a possible way to clarify to someone who is hammering on about “right to life” that maybe they don’t believe in a “right to life” in the way they are claiming — except I’ve never successfully convinced someone of that.

The overarching problem is that “right to life” is a slippery term with no clear concrete meaning, just a charge of emotive content, and (I think) Thomson is attempting to engage with the phrase as if it has a well-defined meaning. (Or maybe she’s trying to help clarify, in a roundabout way, that the concrete meaning is not agreed-upon or well-understood, even by users of that phrase.)

The phrase “right to life” sounds good and feels good to say in an argumentative context, but in that context, it’s just sound and fury. Lots of people who assert “right to life” are OK with the death penalty, and I know this inconsistency gets talked to death all the time, but maintaining both positions strikes me as sufficiently incoherent to clarify that asserting “right to life” is just emoting.

Is there really a mainstream debate out there that thinks it should be ok to abort under the premise that the fetus is a full human being

Yes. That is the mainstream debate, if you want to engage with anti-abortion advocates: one can’t just assert the premise that “full human being”-ness begins at birth or thereabouts, because that’s disputed. (And it’s not a trivial dispute.) The principal difference between baby and fetus that can be asserted in this context is the dependence of that life on the mother: basically, a baby can be raised and sustained by someone else, but a fetus cannot.

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ogmb 01.26.10 at 12:38 pm

Lots of people who assert “right to life” are OK with the death penalty, and I know this inconsistency gets talked to death all the time, but maintaining both positions strikes me as sufficiently incoherent to clarify that asserting “right to life” is just emoting.

There is no inconsistency in this position if you accept that the relationship between the commonwealth and the individual is a contractual one: the commonwealth provides protection in return for good conduct. Once the individual violates this agreement the commonwealth is no longer under any obligation to uphold its end of the contract and can put the individual to death. It’s not a reading I subscribe to, but it’s a perfectly self-consistent one.

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Brandon Watson 01.26.10 at 12:55 pm

I had forgotten about the Patton one. :)

I don’t agree, because it’s quite possible to say (as hix does!) something like, “no you do not have the right to exit the situation, you are morally bound to accept your position alongside the violinist”—at which point the case is silent.

Whatever may be the problem with it, and even if you are right that there is no argument per se in it, I don’t think this can be the problem. The same trouble will arise in things that are obviously arguments as well; if you reject the premises, which is almost always quite possible, at that point the argument is silent. The fact that the whole line of thought can be simply avoided is not a strike against ‘thought experiments’, nor is it enough for us to draw the conclusion that they are not really arguments; arguments constantly have this problem. I’m inclined to think it an argument in the sense that any counterexample is an argument. The violinist is put forward as a counterexample to a claim about the relation between the right to life and killing — one can simply deny that it is really a counterexample, but this is no more and no less than one can do with pretty much any counterexample to any claim on any subject.

I take it that you’re right that Thomson is assuming that there is a (more or less) definite sense to “right to life”; but I’m not sure I understand how it can simultaneously be so indefinite as to be “just a charge of emotive content” and “just sound and fury” and so definite that it can make two positions inconsistent with each other. Purely emotive markers don’t mire anyone in incoherence; so, unless the very idea itself is self-contradictory, if people can hold inconsistent positions on right to life, it would seem to follow that Thomson is right that there is indeed a (more or less) definite sense to the phrase, which can be considered on its own.

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JoB 01.26.10 at 12:55 pm

ogmb, And what about opposition to the right to die (euthanasia) and the support for the death penalty? If the theory is that of a contract, then an adult should be able to terminate it from her or his side at least as well as the commonwealth.

This still allows asymmetry in the case of abortion (and no, I don’t subscribe to “right to life”)

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alex 01.26.10 at 1:06 pm

@125: that’s ‘cos it’s actually reasoning from the fact of divine dominion. The state, in locum dominis, has the right to strike you dead just like God Himself does. You don’t have the right to do it yourself, because you’re just God’s property, as of course is every fertilised embryo He chooses to give you, which you will dam’ well carry to term unless He chooses to abort it Himself. Hope that helped.

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JoB 01.26.10 at 1:22 pm

alex, it helped you I hope but I know the insanity behind pro life. No need for reminders. What I wanted to know is whether it is possible in ogmb’s framework to be consistently pro the death sentence & contra the right to die. The reason I ask is because I don’t know.

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ogmb 01.26.10 at 1:30 pm

JoB, if you strip the contempt off alex’s response then you probably find the answer. As long as you don’t consider attempted suicide a grave enough infraction to warrant the death penalty, the obligation to the commonwealth to protect the individual — even against their own impulses — is still in place.

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JoB 01.26.10 at 1:50 pm

So (in theory – I know neither one subscribes to it) we have a contract where one party can say: you’re out but where the other party cannot lawfully get out? Worse even, trying to get out is an infraction. That seems not to be like a contract at all. It seems to be rather like what Alex said, & if it is then you were wrong in 124. Because it is inconsistent to talk of a contract where there is only one party (that is at the same time the judge). Is it not?

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Harry 01.26.10 at 2:05 pm

I disagree about what Thomson is doing with the phrase “the right to life”. She does think there is a determinate meaning to it, and that people have it, but in this essay she is trying to show (and succeeding admirably in my experience) that most people who invoke it have no idea what they are talking about (the Henry Fonda case, among others in the paper, shows this admirably).

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alex 01.26.10 at 2:06 pm

What contempt? We’re still living under the shadow of divine-right monarchy. That’s just a fact. Why do you think even republics have to have a ‘head of state’?

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ogmb 01.26.10 at 2:08 pm

It’s not inconsistent, it is simply a conception of a contract that doesn’t gel with our modern conception of a voluntary agreement entered by mutual consent. As an individual you’re born into the contract just like the commonwealth has to accept you into the contract by being born (conceived actually, since we’re discussing abortion). If that’s what you’re stumbling over you can call it “bond” or “social obligation” instead.

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JoB 01.26.10 at 2:21 pm

ogmb, fair enough but the whole consistency is then relegated to the fact that people just have to accept that it is consistent. That normally is not sufficient to establish consistency, afaik. It is just a fiat.

But your initial treatment opens perspectives. It would allow the death penalty (which I oppose but consider discussable) insofar as it acknowledges the right to die of non-coerced adults.

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ogmb 01.26.10 at 2:41 pm

That normally is not sufficient to establish consistency, afaik. It is just a fiat.

Why? And in addition, why would one even have to attack the “pro-life, pro-death penalty” position on internal inconsistency grounds? In my experience, 99% of attempts to show up the inconsistency of opposing moral viewpoints are simply the result of an inability to step outside one’s own biases.

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roac 01.26.10 at 2:56 pm

we have to keep breading white christian babies

As a general matter it is rude to draw attention to typos, but the urge to highlight the Swift reference is irresistible.

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JoB 01.26.10 at 3:07 pm

ogmb, I took it from 124 – I agree that the argument from internal inconsistency is not a life or death-one, so to speak. But if a certain point of view is in fact internally inconsistent then it’s in my view quite beyond reasonable belief. ‘Being beyond reasonable belief’ doesn’t constrain nut cases, I know. But it does constrain non-nut cases.

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ogmb 01.26.10 at 3:27 pm

JoB, those “nut cases” on the other hand characterize the opposing viewpoint as “willing to kill unborn babies while protecting convicted murderers”. This is also at least an implicit assertion of internal inconsistency. But in the end it is simply ideology — the need to link quite unrelated social situations. I can perfectly well consider the abortion question and the capital punishment question separately and come up with seemingly opposing conclusions as to their moral acceptability without my underlying beliefs getting damaged beyond repair in the process.

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Salient 01.26.10 at 4:29 pm

I disagree about what Thomson is doing with the phrase “the right to life”. She does think there is a determinate meaning to it, and that people have it, but in this essay she is trying to show (and succeeding admirably in my experience) that most people who invoke it have no idea what they are talking about (the Henry Fonda case, among others in the paper, shows this admirably).

Okay, that sounds more correct than what I said, I agree it is true that we can assign a well-defined, sensible meaning to the phrase “right to life” and that I’ve never seen any relationship between such a definition and right-to-life-based anti-abortion arguments. But I still have some kind of mild technical reservation.

Purely emotive markers don’t mire anyone in incoherence

Here, I guess, is where I technically disagree. For example, it’s perfectly possible to say:

* The violinist has a right to life.

* Regardless of point 1, it’s perfectly moral to detach oneself from the violinist.

* A fetus has a right to life.

* Solely because point 3 is true, it is categorically immoral to abort a fetus.

A purely emotive marker, passing for a meaningful marker when no-one’s looking too closely, does mire someone in incoherence (or at least in logical inconsistency). To assert all four points above, with a well-defined and sensible notion of what “right to life” means, would not be coherent, but you could (and many people do) just choose to be incoherent about it. Consistency is not universally valued, neither is clarity, etc.

That could be taken to say, Thomson’s thought experiment successfully exposes that incoherence/inconsistency: it exposes exactly what Harry said it does about people who invoke the phrase in anti-abortion arguments. I’d agree (and I agree with the OP point about the purpose of thought experiments in general).

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bianca steele 01.26.10 at 4:44 pm

What if, instead: The violinist’s name is John. The music lover’s society has made a list of everyone whose name is John (the example already establishes that they have all personal information about everyone and are willing to use it without regard to privacy rights). They believe that everyone whose name is John benefits from the admiration and so forth the violinist gets. Therefore, they decide that everyone whose name is John has a moral obligation to help support the violinist. They therefore hire thugs to “tax” everyone named John. The police (as the hospital staff in the example) say, sorry, you’re right, what the society and their thugs did was unethical–no, it’s not the case that everyone named John, by virtue of what the society believes to be true, has an obligation to be connected to every other–and illegal, and violent–but you have to live with it now because they had the power to do what they did and you don’t have the power to do it back to them.

What is the difference between this example and the original one? I’ve replaced randomness with a principle, physical/medical attachment with a tax extorted by thugs, and medical staff with police.

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roac 01.26.10 at 5:01 pm

I went back just now and reread the Wiki article at the link. I was struck by the specification that the violinist is unconscious. Nobody so far in this thread seems to have focused on this. Does it make a difference? I find, much to my surprise, that it makes a difference to me, as I know very well that I would be unable to look the person in the eye and tell him I have chosen to kill him; whereas I might be capable of getting up and walking away if he will never wake up and know it..

Evidently my aversion to inflicting pain is more deeply rooted than my aversion to killing. Which explains why I can accept abortion but not capital punishment. Can I really be unique? If not, why doesn’t this come up in the debates? (Maybe it does, I am not a student of moral philosophy).

(I think, BTW, that I have just refuted by counterexample the thesis that this particular thought experiment is never useful.)

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bianca steele 01.26.10 at 5:46 pm

Does it make a difference if John is instead a noted patron of the arts with excellent taste?

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bianca steele 01.26.10 at 5:47 pm

Would it make a difference to you if the thugs were really nice and didn’t beat you up?

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JoB 01.26.10 at 5:54 pm

138- that’s a bit to relativist for my taste but no time to press the point. Only this, yes it is quite possible you run around with two inconsistent beliefs in your head. Probably it is more than two (although possible quite a bit less than I am running around with). But if you consider two inconsistent beliefs consciously you normally give one up or you’ll try to find a framework that removes the inconsistency. Otherwise you’re, hmm, nuts?

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alex 01.26.10 at 6:16 pm

I think, all things considered, I might have to stay plugged in. OTOH, when it was over, boy, those mo-fos better have a good lawyer…

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alex 01.26.10 at 6:17 pm

JoB, have you watched Fox News lately?

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bianca steele 01.26.10 at 8:04 pm

Or, um, … Being John Malkovich.

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JoB 01.26.10 at 9:15 pm

146- luckily they don’t carry that o’er here.

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ogmb 01.27.10 at 12:28 pm

JoB @ 144: But if you consider two inconsistent beliefs consciously you normally give one up

In that case the only two remaining self-consistent positions are (pro-abortion rights, pro-death penalty) and (anti-abortion rights, anti-death penalty). I’m interested in, but fail to see, a criterion that makes one self-inconsistency (pro-abortion rights, anti-death penalty) an acceptable inconsistency but the other one (anti-abortion rights, pro-death penalty) unacceptable. Nevermind that likely a sizable majority of the population hold one of those two positions.

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LizardBreath 01.27.10 at 12:38 pm

It’s a pretty easy resolution on the pro-abortion rights, anti-death penalty side if you step away from the violinist first — all you need is a belief that people convicted of crimes are the sort of thing that have rights, including a right not to be killed, but that fetuses are not the sort of thing that have rights, and the inconsistency drops right out.

Of course, the resolution on the other side isn’t much harder — if you believe that fetuses and people convicted of crimes both start out with a right to life, but that someone who commits bad acts forfeits that right, you’re done, without any glaring inconsistency.

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Salient 01.27.10 at 12:50 pm

I was struck by the specification that the violinist is unconscious.

I’d forgotten that (or rather, assumed it implicitly without thinking about it), but it does make sense to assert. It’s not like, analogously, the fetus is communicative. As you said, whole different story if it were possible to hold a conversation…

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JoB 01.27.10 at 1:03 pm

ogmb- I don’t see where you make that jump. It depends whether you can discriminate between a foetus and a person. I don’t think that sort of discrimination is a problem (although obviously it is a matter of debate). You might say that that still makes it a tie with anti-abortion/pro-death penalty. Strictly speaking as far as consistency goes maybe. But if you involve other beliefs it is quite clear the latter position becomes rapidly problematic. Awarding a foetus the same type of protection as an adult person is simply not something we do. That’s why the emotion of pro-life is to ‘personify’ foetuses: to turn people’s attention away from the discriminations they make in matters outside of the abortion debate. If you consider all the different sets of belief, I do think that pro-abortion and anti-death penalty at least wins on points*.

By the way, my interest was in an inconsistency between anti-euthanasia and pro-death penalty beliefs. If those are inconsistent that would be helpful. Not to convince me of the death penalty, but to convince some others either pro ‘the right to die’ or anti ‘the death penalty’, both of which be helpful turn-arounds.

* and part of it is what you remarked higher: false dichotomysis. Not a lot of people will be daft enough to be 100% pro abortion and 100% anti death penalty in any super-strict way.

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ogmb 01.27.10 at 1:22 pm

JoB — It depends whether you can discriminate between a foetus and a person.

It actually depends on whether one considers “Is a foetus a person?” and “Is retributive justice justified?” (and, to go back to your own interest, “Is self-harm sinful?”) questions that are morally linked so that if one answers one question in a certain way one must also answer the others in corresponding ways, or else one falls into the dreaded self-inconsistency trap.

Not a lot of people will be daft enough to be 100% pro abortion and 100% anti death penalty in any super-strict way.

Certainly not, but how would this change our discussion? We seem to be discussing the correlation between commonly held beliefs on two or three moral questions with an unclear linkage. If you add the possibility that beliefs differ in intensity, how would that affect the (in)consistencies between them?

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JoB 01.27.10 at 1:46 pm

153- Yes – and I didn’t want to imply that there was a consistency test you could get in the drug store and if the smiley lighted up you were OK.

But, to get at least the questions clear, I don’t think of euthanasia as self-harm. Far from it – it is a choice (and just like in abortion one needs some procedures and checks in order to qualify for it). I certainly don’t think in terms of sin.

(I also don’t think the death penalty is necessarily a question of retributive justice but I have no wish to press you into prolonging this debate by continuously responding with something more detailed)

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ogmb 01.27.10 at 2:07 pm

JoB — Obviously, everybody will ask themselves those kinds of questions in slightly different ways, but unless you point me to it I don’t see how different phrasing will affect the underlying question we’re trying to answer — how are those questions linked so that one combination of held beliefs (pro, anti) can be self-consistent while the other (anti, pro) cannot?

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JoB 01.27.10 at 2:50 pm

ogmb, I would point to 150 if it is an example you seek.

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ogmb 01.27.10 at 3:46 pm

LB clearly offers self-consistent explanations for both positions, that’s not what I was asking for.

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JoB 01.27.10 at 8:12 pm

ogmb, yes except that if you take it with my 152 you can see that the idea of starting out with a right to life that gets forfeited en course de route is not consistent with the other beliefs. These other beliefs are consistent with fetuses not having rights & with other individuals having a right to live that can be compromised only in the extremest of circumstances. Certainly not something that gradually deteriorates. If you would press a pro-lifer on the rights that the unborn fetus has he will only be able to repeat life over and over again. Even the rights of a one-day-old & known sex offender can’t be so neatly summarized; they have more rights than the mere right to live.

But if you are looking for a knock-down argument; not from me.

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Ray Davis 01.27.10 at 8:47 pm

Prior art notification: Social psychologists Coyle and Sharpe researched an earlier version of this thought experiment in a case they called The Human Leach.

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Brandon Watson 01.28.10 at 3:01 pm

Salient said (at 139): A purely emotive marker, passing for a meaningful marker when no-one’s looking too closely, does mire someone in incoherence (or at least in logical inconsistency). To assert all four points above, with a well-defined and sensible notion of what “right to life” means, would not be coherent, but you could (and many people do) just choose to be incoherent about it.

I think putting the point the way you do is very helpful, but I still don’t see this, even with this qualification; because even if there really is a well-defined meaning it wouldn’t necessarily be inconsistent. For instance, let’s take a different sort of right:

(1) Murderers have a right to liberty.
(2) Despite (1), it is not wrong to lock murderers up in prison.
(3) I have a right to liberty.
(4) Purely because of (3) it is completely wrong to lock me up in your basement.

Whatever the limitations of this argument, it is not logically inconsistent, because the sorts of actions we take to be forbidden by rights do depend on circumstances, and combining the same right with very different circumstances yields very different result. The conclusion that would have to be drawn from these four statements is not that the person saying them is inconsistent but that they are committed to saying that my being locked up in your basement is really a very different case than a murderer being locked up in prison, despite the superficially similar descriptions. Only if the circumstances here are held to be closely analogous do we actually have an inconsistency; if someone denies they are sufficiently analogous, they may be wrong but they are not inconsistent.

So too with the violinist case: it doesn’t show that the position in question is inconsistent in itself, but that (if the violinist case is sufficiently analogous to pregnancy) then it follows that one could kill a fetus even if it is a person with a right to life just like a violinist is a person with a right to life. That is, it’s not an argument that a certain common pro-life position is inconsistent; it is an argument that the position the pro-lifer is criticizing is, contrary to his claims, consistent even if the pro-lifer is right about the right to life. It is not set up to be a very good argument for the inconsistency of the right-to-life argument Thomson explicitly mentions, because the inconsistency arises not directly from the four claims you mention but from those four claims combined with the fifth claim that the two cases are so similar that for moral purposes they are not significantly different. But nothing about the argument Thomson is criticizing commits the pro-lifer to this fifth claim. What Thomson’s argument is better set up to do is to show that the right-to-life argument is not the open-and-shut case he thinks it is, because anyone who regards the cases as sufficiently analogous can concede that the fetus has a right to life and still hold that it can be aborted, without being at all inconsistent. In other words, the violinist case, if successful, gives us no categorical conclusion but instead the disjunctive conclusion that either the two cases are not sufficiently similar to transfer conclusions from one to another or we should not disconnect the violinist or abortion is consistent with the fetus having a right to life. (It does not merely do this; in giving the argument as a thought experiment Thomson gives no conclusive reasons for eliminating the disjuncts but simply tries to persuade us that we all really reject the second disjunct already and by the same token tries to make the cases as similar as possible to rule out any obvious reason to accept the first disjunct.)

Or so I would say. As I said before, it’s curious that there are so many differing interpretations of the violinist case in this one thread.

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Martin Bento 01.29.10 at 7:26 pm

I made a comment on the Violinist in the new thread. However, on some specific points here:

Is the anti-death penalty position premised on a right to life consistent with support for incarceration? After all, I believe most death penalty opponents believe that people normally have the right not to be involuntarily confined, but only the anarchists among them believe that people cannot forfeit this right by their actions. So why is freedom a right subject to forfeit but life not? The anti-abortion position is that the right to life is subject to forfeit on the basis of one’s own actions, and this seems consistent with how rights are treated generally, including by abortion advocates.

Clay Shirky, while the majority favors abortion only in special circumstances, it does not favor *mandatory* abortion in those situations. It is therefore not asserting the claim of society over the individual. Furthermore, the most common cited special case, and the one relevant to the violinist example, is rape, which does not produce children distinguishable from others. The cases where abortion would be permitted seem to be those: 1) where the mother has no moral responsibility for the pregnancy, i.e., rape 2) where the burden on the mother is greater than usual. In the latter case, she has a choice to abort. And the most commonly cited and widely supported case here is where there is a threat to the life of the mother, not where the child is physically impaired. Abortion in the latter case has bare majority support, as opposed to almost 90% support where the mother’s life is threatened (source).

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Martin Bento 01.29.10 at 9:08 pm

“anti-abortion position is that the right to life is subject to forfeit on the basis of one’s own actions”

should have said the pro-death penalty position, of course.

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