On Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A defence of abortion"

Dagmar Wilhelm

This is Part 2 (Part 1 is here ) of a specially written essay by Dagmar Wilhelm  who lectures in philosophy at Keele University.

Part 2: Why Violinists, People Seeds and Chocolate?

Thomson’s thought experiments have met with a lot of criticism. Some objections are concerned with the scope of the argument. Others focus on the methodology itself.

One kind of criticism essentially holds that the analogy between a famous violinist, people seeds, chocolate sharing and pregnancy and abortion are weak. Violinists are different from foetuses. A stranger is different from a genetically related being. Having to lie in bed attached to some random stranger for nine months does not compare to normal pregnancies. Using houses is different from using bodies. Sharing chocolate is different from an unwanted pregnancy.

To some extend these are problems thought experiments which aim to elicit intuitions about what is right or wrong generally have. In such a thought experiment the experimenter tries to transpose all morally relevant features of a situation into an imaginary scenario to achieve greater transparency and focus.

Thomson wants to avoid getting involved in a debate about the moral status of foetuses. The point she wants to drive home is that even if foetuses have a right to life this does not necessarily outweigh a woman’s right to control over her body. So, with the famous violinist she chooses a being which has a right to life (unless we think fatal kidney conditions negate that right) . To Thomson there are three other morally relevant factors involved in abortion in certain cases: the foetus depends on the mother’s body for survival, the mother has not consented to the use of her body and pregnancies are demanding on the body and limit what mothers can do. Hence the violinist has a kidney condition which he can only survive if he is attached to our body, we are kidnapped and attached to the violinist without consent and we have to lie in bed for nine months.

Similarly in the people seeds experiment: What is morally relevant in the case of consensual sex with faulty contraceptives is that consent to the pregnancy has not been given (contraceptives were used) and pregnancy involves using the mother’s body. So, there are screens in front of our windows but the people seeds find holes in screens and ultimately require usage of our house for nine months.

In deciding what the morally relevant features of a situation are, the experimenter relies on some believes or explicit or tacit theories. Hence the choice of features is biased. What becomes transparent in the thought experiment might not be what is morally relevant but what the experimenter’s moral allegiances are. Thomson is guided by some beliefs that deny moral relevance of several factors: the differences between having to lie in bed for nine months and experiencing a normal pregnancy, the difference between using a house or using a body etc. But Thomson might be mistaken, these differences could be morally relevant. If they are, then our intuitive judgments about the imaginary scenarios can no longer be simply applied also to abortion. [1]

Another line of criticism affects especially the “people seeds”. Flying and nesting people seeds are quite far removed from reality as we experience it. But thought experiments aim to elicit intuitions and intuitions – to some degree – rely on our experience. It seems justified to point out that the world we are asked to imagine is so bizarre and different from ours that we actually can’t say whether or not these seeds have rights and whether or not these rights outweigh our property rights. We have no intuitive judgements about something so far beyond our realm of experience. [2]

Having said all this, thought experiments manage to bring relevant issues to light with a clarity and transparency often not achieved by other means. They help to bring to light individual’s own underlying beliefs. If I do judge that I have a moral duty to allow people seeds the use of my house but don’t equally feel morally obliged to refrain from terminating a pregnancy then maybe I become clear about what I think about my relationship to my body vis-a-vis my relationship to my house. They also help to uncover intrapersonal inconsistency. The online test and analysis manages to do the very well. Interactivity allows for new possibilities. The online set-up can collect data that goes beyond the immediate experiment but would or should be relevant to our judgments about the cases. Whereas reading Thomson herself we might be confronted with inconsistency between our response to the scenarios and our response to terminating pregnancies, the online set-up can uncover inconsistency between our declared moral principles, and our responses.

In much the same way as thought experiments shed light on intrapersonal inconsistency and personal beliefs and principles they are also a good heuristic for locating the source of disagreements between people. Moreover, arguably, considering relatively unlikely scenarios allows for a degree of emotional detachment which can be helpful in reasoned debate (this is not to say that emotions are morally irrelevant).

Thomson’s experiments specifically achieve something else, at the time quite remarkable in the context of the abortion debate. She uses the second person pronoun: you are attached to the famous violinist and you have people seeds nesting in your carpets. This allows her - to some degree - to bridge the gap between the sexes within the debate. It is no longer the woman’s right to control over her body that is at issue; it is yours, whatever you are.


1. Jonathan Dancy (1985) makes this point, for example, in 'The Role of Imaginary Cases in Ethics', Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 66, pp. 141-153.

2. Kathleen Wilkes (1988) discusses this problem in some detail in Real People (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Really Deep Thought

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity - designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.
   --Ernest Becker.

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