Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Unconscious Violinist and More Realistic Hypotheticals

One argument—once very common, but perhaps less so today—in favor of an wide-ranging right to abortion was put forth by Prof. Judith Jarvis Thomson in A Defense of Abortion, said to be the most widely reprinted paper in the history of philosophy:

[L]et me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him. I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with [arguments against abortion based on the foetus's right to life].

There are several points to note about this hypothetical:

First, it actually is a pretty good analogy for the situation in which a woman carrying an unwanted pregnancy finds herself, if the unborn child is conceded to be a person. One could quibble about whether the physical impositions of a typical pregnancy are quite as great as being confined to a hospital bed connected to another person via tubes for nine months. But such a defect can be remedied by slight adjustment of the hypothetical's requirements.

Second, it is also a pretty good analogy for the situation in which a single woman with a small child finds herself. If this hypothetical establishes a right to abortion, because a woman is under no moral obligation to provide nourishment and shelter to an unborn child, it establishes the same for the born child. So if the hypothetical proves a right to abortion, it also proves a single mother's right to go out partying while her infant dies in the crib of starvation and dehydration. Absent the child she would undisputedly have had that right and surely the child's mere vital dependence on the mother's generosity cannot create a moral obligation.

Third, what an outlandish hypothetical! What cost in machinery, yet what poverty of effect! This author takes the view that a correct and fully reasoned system of beliefs must be able to answer any hypothetical—and will gleefully use any outlandish hypothetical if there is nothing better at hand—so this is not a disqualification per se.

Yet, why use an outlandish hypothetical when there is an obvious alternative so much more realistic that it doubtlessly occurs on a daily basis: A beggar asks you for some food and will starve if you do not grant his request; assuming your larder to be well-stocked, are you under an obligation to supply your bread? You are in the same position with respect to the beggar as you were with respect to the violinist and the question is the same Does the other party's vital dependence on your generosity make it obligatory?

One suspects that Thomson deliberately choose the outlandish over the realistic hypothetical because she knew that many in her audience had already answered the question in the affirmative for the realistic hypothetical and perhaps even been in that situation. Picking the outlandish hypothetical never before considered by any of the audience allows her to draw on a blank canvas without needing to convince the audience to abandon any of their previous moral commitments.

In any form, hypothetical, realistic, or real, the question reduces to a simple one: Are there any unchosen moral obligation? In particular, can one person's need create a moral obligation in another?

To most people, the answer to this question is so obviously in the affirmative that one wonders how Thomson's hypothetical ever came to fame. Most people will assert as uncontroversial that everybody has such obligations: paying taxes, regardless of whether one ever agreed to do so; for young men to offer their bodies to the state as draftees; to aid those in need, if one can; and many, many more.

The only people to whom the Thomson hypothetical poses any challenge are those few eccentrics (like Philosopher A and, one might as well admit, this author) who—while much in favor of benevolence and generosity—contend that there is no such thing as an unchosen moral obligation. And the only way the Thomason hypothetical changed this author's mind is to convince him that there are some rare, unchosen moral obligation even as he concedes that forcing a woman to carry some pregnancies to term—and that is what any effective legal restriction on abortion requires—has a very unpleasant stench of coercion about it.1

1 Even beyond the issue of coercion, there is also the obvious fact that imposing such a moral obligation on women, but not men, seems unfair, even if it is biology, rather than the ever-present patriarchal conspiracy, that leads to this disparity. But then, after birth, our laws also impose the obligation of child support on equally unwilling fathers, while generally permitting unwed mothers to legally sever their obligation to the child at any time for any reason. And the only people who seem to take any issue with that are small bands of men's rights activists who all the Great and the Good in culture and all stripes of politics, when they deign to take notice, unanimously inform us are despicable, pathetic, loser-nothings. So that is hardly the sort of people with whom, or whose arguments, one would want to be associated, lest their lowly status lead one's peers to doubt one's own elevated status.