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?

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