Philosophy 160
Introduction to Ethics

Handout 12 - Thomson


The Killing-the-Innocent Principle  (from Handout 11)

It is morally wrong to kill an innocent person unless it is done to save a life.

The Famous Violinist Argument against The Killing-the-Innocent Principle

"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." (Thomson, fourth paragraph)

1. If the Killing-the-Innocent Principle is true, then it is morally wrong for you to unplug yourself from the famous violinist.
2. It is not morally wrong for you to unplug yourself from the famous violinist.
3. Therefore, the Killing-the-Innocent Principle is not true.

Apparent Moderate Anti-Abortionism

Abortion is morally wrong except in the following circumstances:
      (i) if it is necessary to save the life of the mother, or
      (ii) if the mother has not granted the fetus the right to use her body.

The People Seeds

" ... suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not--despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective."  (Thomson, section 4).

What the People Seeds is supposed to show: that if a woman has taken all reasonable precautions against getting pregnant, she has not granted the use of her body to any fetus that might result from intercourse.

To deny this, Thomson claims, would commit you the claim that the homeowner in the case above has granted the use of her home to any people-seed that might result from having carpets and upholstery.

Therefore, Apparent Moderate Anti-Abortionism is only apparently anti-abortionist because it allows abortion in cases of failed contraception.

Thomson's Position on Abortion:

Abortion is permissible when, and only when
      (i) all reasonable precautions against having a child have been taken; and
      (ii) not aborting would require large sacrifices (“of health, of other interests and concerns, of other duties and commitments”) for an extended period of time.

Thomson's Theory in the Normative Ethics of Behavior:

"Minimally Decent Samaritanism" or (MDS)

MDS: an act is morally right if and only if it is what a Minimally Decent Samaritan (or better) would do.

MDS is a version of an approach to the Normative Ethics of Behavior called "Virtue Theory."  A typical version of Virtue Theory says the following:

an act is morally right if and only if it is what a virtuous person would do.

A defender of this Virtue Theory would still have to explain what a virtuous person is (just as Thomson still has to explain what a Minimally Decent Samaritan is) in order for the theory to be complete.