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.

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 may show is this: that if a woman has taken all reasonable precautions against getting pregnant, she is not responsible for the presence of any fetus that might result from intercourse.  This is true, Thomson would say, even when the woman voluntarily indulges in intercourse, knowing of the chance that it will issue in pregnancy

The People Seeds may show this because, in the example, the homeowner is arguably not responsible for the presence of the people-seeds growing in her carpet.  This is because she has taken all reasonable precautions against this happening.

To claim that abortion is wrong in cases of failed contraception, Thomson maintains, would commit you the claim that it is wrong for the homeowner to dispose of the people-seeds growing in her carpet.