Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Violinist Argument

This argument seems a successful defeater to me (not that there haven't been other ones) of Thompson's violinist argument for abortion:

One of the most sophisticated case for pro-choice comes in the form of what Dr. Judith Jarvis Thompson called the violinist argument. Briefly, this argument goes like this: Say a world-famous violinist developed a fatal kidney ailment and the Society of Music Lovers found that only you had the right blood-type to help. So, they therefore have you kidnapped and then attach you to the violinist’s circulatory system so that your kidneys can be used to extract the poison from his. To unplug yourself from the violinist would be to kill him; therefore, pro-lifers would say a person has to stay attached against her will to the violinist for 9 months. Thompson says that it would be morally virtuous to stay plugged-in. But she asks, “Do you have to?” She appeals to our intuitions and answers, “No.”

The strength of this argument is that it grants the full humanity of the fetus and therefore sidesteps the rather poor arguments we saw above. The weakness of this argument is that it is an argument from analogy. Arguments from analogy destruct if they rest on fatal disanalogies.

Besides many of the other problemspro-lifers have pointed out, here's a big one. Thompson seems to make a distinction between consent to pregnancy and consent to sex (as Beckwith and others point out). But it seems that pregnancy is the designed result of sex, even though it may not be the desired result. It would seem that our sex organs have the purpose of being ordered towards procreation. Applying this to the violinist then: What if I engaged in an activity, say, spelunking, that regularly created rare kidney diseases in violinists? Say that every time I dropped 50 ft into the cave, a violinist was almost sure to develop the disease that only I had the blood type to correct or fix. If I did so, should I not be hooked up to him, voluntarily or not? Say that there was protection, some kind of spelunking helmet. Say that it was not 100% effective. If my helmet ripped, should I be attached to the violinist? Or say I tried to "pull up" before I hit 50 ft. Unfortunately, it felt so good to decend that I pulled up a little too late and my right foot passed the 50 ft mark. Should I be attached to the violinist? I don’t see why not. Indeed, say that the statistical evidence was that the first two people that ever spelunked together would eventually cause 6 billion violinists to come down with rare kidney diseases, I dare say the Society of Music Lovers, and almost everyone else for that matter, would call for abstaining from spelunking unless you agreed to take care of the violinists until they got better. This seems fatal to Thompson’s argument.


  1. What the f***?
    Kill the violinist?
    What is this - "Saw"?

  2. I supplemented your post with a post containing a brief outline of the pro-life position and some links, just in case anyone here is interested in some additional resources.


  3. Not a bad argument to counter the violinist analogy!! However, I'd like to see you flesh it out more.

    What's your position on rape/incest?
    Suppose you are thrown fifty feet into a cave against your will. Are you now obligated to host the violinist who became ill as a result?

    Suppose you enjoy coffee, and there is a starbucks near the mouth of a cave. You frequently visit the starbucks despite the possibility that someone will find you there and throw you down the cave against your will. Eventually someone does, though they might not have if you hadn't indulged your coffee fetish. Are you obligated to the violinist?

    Here's a big one. Suppose you are the surgeon who attaches the violinist to the spelunker. A spelunker objects, saying that he was thrown down the cave. Do you require him to undergo an intrusive and public medical exam to prove this? Failing that and a proved result, do you go forward with the surgery?

    Here's another one... and this is pretty abstract, not relating to the rape analogy - we can discuss later how it extends the analogy if necessary: You are very hungry. You feel you are starving to death. You are being given IV fluids that will keep you alive without eating, but you still feel hunger pangs constantly. You do not want a violinist, but the only food you can find is down in the bottom of a cave. Should you be allowed to strap on a helmet and retrieve the food from the cave, without obligating yourself to the violinist?

  4. Smijer,

    It does need to be fleshed out more, but I think the basics refutes her basics.

    In the intrest of time, the rape point is besides the point since Thompson intended the violinist argument to prove abortion as permissible in *all* cases.

    Though the spelunker point might fail in some other areas, it doesn't fail where it was intended to work.

    My position on rape/incest is that abortion is not permissible. I do not think killing other people for the crimes of others is normally acceptible,

    If we want a story, how about this: I hit you in the face, you then go hit someone else in the face. Not okay.

    Yes, that needs more fleshing out too, but I think the my spelunker point remains intact and the rape stuff requires other arguments since it is a different argument.