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History Of The Violinist Analogy Philosophy Essay

In 1971 Judith Jarvis Thompson published her moral philosophy paper, A defence of Abortion. In her article she argues about why killing the unborn is moral. She does this by providing her famous analogy about the violinist. In my essay I will argue about why this is an unrealistic comparison to abortion due to the fact that her appeal to a scriptural parable is unreliable and taken out of context, it does not represent the majority of abortions, one cannot be consistent, she confuses intention and foresight and that her argument relies on false intuition.

Most pro-lifers argue that it is immoral to kill an innocent human being. The unborn is an innocent human being, thus killing the unborn is immoral. Those who argue in favour of abortion generally attack the notion that the unborn is human. However, in defence of abortion Judith Jarvis Thomson denies the first premise and argues that it is not always immoral to kill an innocent human being. She does this by providing an analogy about a violinist. Thomson asks us to imagine ourselves in a situation where we are kidnapped and awake to find ourselves attached to a violinist who is lying in bed next to us. This man has a kidney ailment and will certainly die without your circulatory system. Only you have the blood type that he needs and you must stay plugged into him for nine months. The director of the society of music lovers apologises that the procedure was done without your consent, but says that after nine months the violinist can be safely unplugged from you. (Kaczor, 2011). Now a “Good Samaritan,” says Thomson, might go out of their way to save the life of the violinist. So a Good Samaritan is a person who not only performs expected moral acts, but also superfluous ones too. A person who is not a Good Samaritan is not necessarily a bad person, even if they do not deserve our admiration either. Therefore one may refuse to be plugged into the violinist and still be called (by Thomson) a “Minimally Decent Samaritan”. (Pierce, 2008) A Good Samaritan may stay plugged, but unplugging oneself from the musician is still compatible with being a minimally decent Samaritan who does not avoid moral duty even if they do not go above and beyond the call of duty.

This analogy fails for several reasons. Firstly, Thomson appeals to the parable of the Good Samaritan to justify the unplugging from the violinist, but she has drastically misunderstood the point that Jesus was making. In Luke chapter 10 when an expert in the Law is testing Jesus he asks him: “who is my neighbour?” (Biblica, 2011). Then Jesus tells him a story about a man who helped a stranger when he was not required to without any promise of reward. Jesus then tells the expert to go and do likewise. The main purpose of the parable is that being a “Good Samaritan” is not optional, but rather is something that is required of us as human beings. Thomson responds to this objection and retorts that the law does not require us to perform supererogatory acts. By this, Thomson is committing the fallacy of confusing morality with legality. Even though it is true that the law does not require us to be moral, the strength of Thomson’s analogy relies on a story which compels people to preform superfluous moral acts, which, ironically is the very idea she is arguing against.

The analogy also fails because it applies to rape victims and not cases of pregnancy where the man and woman have had consensual sex. Due to the fact that rape cases only make up about 1% of abortions the violinist analogy is not a very suitable one for the majority of pregnancies. In fairness, Thomson provides a burglar analogy, but critiquing this is not the purpose of this essay.

Perhaps the most forceful objection is that of bodily integrity. In the analogy one must only unplug themselves in order to be free from the violinist whereas, in the case of abortion, one is causing (or allowing) bodily harm to the unborn. If we consider the analogy again but replace unplugging with cutting up, poisoning or beheading him then our moral intuition leads us to a different conclusion. Now instead of simply unplugging ourselves we are causing bodily harm to this unfortunate violinist. In this case the death is due to deliberate harm rather than his own illness. The strength of the violinist analogy rests on the manner of which the musician dies. Abortion is a poor comparison to unplugging oneself. For instance one type of abortion is a suction curettage which is common first trimester. The mum’s cervix is dilated, and then a cannula (a hollow plastic tube connected to a pump) is inserted. The unborn is then “dislodged and sucked into the tube- either whole or in pieces.” (Life, 1999). It appears Thomson quite grossly fails to compare abortion to “unplugging”. The regular abortion procedures plainly involve a direct attack on the body of the unborn. (Kaczor, 2011).

The fourth problem with this analogy is that it implies that the violinist’s death is a result of his disease, with you, by being hooked up to him, are preventing, as opposed to him being killed by your direct actions. The difference is that in the analogy you have the foresight to know that the unplugging will result in the musician’s death, but it is not an intended result of your actions. However, in the case of abortion the unborn is (usually) healthy and their death is a planned and intended result of the Mother. There is a very important difference between intention and foresight. For instance, a soccer player knows that they probably will injure another player in a match. On other hand, it would be immoral for a player to intentionally slide tackle the opposition, in order to intentionally break their leg. The majority of people will agree that it is worse to intend harm, than to simply acknowledge that harm will occur as a result of an action.

Perhaps one is unconvinced by the objections raised above and still clings to the idea that the unplugging is regrettable but moral. If we reconsider the analogy but imagine that violinist has gotten tired of you and would rather be plugged into a machine instead. He acknowledges that your death is unfortunate, but necessary to ensure his freedom. If unplugging oneself is moral, then one must be consistent and claim that it would be entirely moral for the violinist to unplug himself to. However, when faced with this realisation, ones intuitions seem to switch. (Kaczor, 2011).

To conclude, Thomson’s violinist analogy is a very poor comparison to abortion. Her appeal to a scriptural parable is unreliable and taken out of context, it does not represent the majority of abortions, one cannot be consistent, and she confuses intention and foresight. Her argument hinges on the manner of which the musician dies, which is not an honest comparison to the abortion procedures.


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