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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Abortion and the case of the desperate violinist

A second interesting "thought experiment" from Cohen's book. The idea was proposed by Judith Jarvis Thompson, and it consists of imagining that you are kidnapped by a group which calls itself the Society for Music Lovers (SML). A great violinist's life is in danger, and SML members are going to connect your internal organs to the violinist to save him. All you have to do is to stay that way for about nine months, until the violinist will be able to survive on its own.

The question, obviously, is how you consider this situation from a moral perspective. Does the SML have the right to do this to you? Suppose that, once hooked up to the violinist, you have the choice to disconnect yourself (of course, the grat musician will die as a result): what would you do?

The idea is to put in sharp relief some of the ethical issues surrounding abortion, where you play the part of the mother (say, in the case of a pregnancy induced by rape), the violinist is the baby, and the SML is the government. Pretty though, eh? That's the hallmark of a good thought experiment!

Of course unborn fetuses are not fully conscious human beings, as the hypotethical violinist, but that -- according to Cohen -- is one of the advantages of the thought experiment, it takes our attention away from one issue (awareness or lack thereof) and focuses it on the issue of the degree to which we are morally responsible for someone else's life. To say the least, Thompson's experiment clearly makes the point that the responsibility for the decision ought to rest with you (the mother), not with the SML (the government). Wow.

26 comments:

  1. This seems to lead to another question: In what case should a government control a person? If no case exists, then in what sense can a government govern?

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  2. Ah, that's a great question to discuss, and I'd like to hear your and others' opinion. On my part, I would certainly not go as far as saying that the government has no business interfering with people's lives at all, I ain't no libertarian! But the case of abortion seems one where the government's intervention ought to be limited to a bare minimum.

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  3. I'm a woman who has had an abortion and who is pro-choice. Even so, I've read various rebuttals of the Jarvis argument, and some of them I have to say are very thought-provoking.

    The best refutation of the argument I've read is that in 98-99% of cases, the "violinist"'s (fetus's) situation doesn't happen by accident -- the violinist's peril, if you will, is the direct result of the woman's actions.

    Extending the metaphor, if a woman does something willingly that results in the violinist's injuries, is she then responsible for helping him to get better, even if this requires the temporary use of her organs? Let's say that the woman in question willingly drinks to the point of being drunk, then drives drunk and subsequently runs the violinist over with her car. Thus, she puts the violinist into a situation where being hooked up to her organs is the only way for him to survive being run over. Does she then owe him the use of her body to help him survive a life-and-death situation that she herself caused?

    So if a woman willingly has sex (and thus risks pregnancy) and a pregnancy results, does she have the right to endanger or kill the fetus that came into existence as a result of her freely chosen acts? This doesn't address the rape situation, obviously, but pregnancy resulting from rape accounts for only a very small percent of abortions. In this country, anyway.

    Personally, I think the best defense of legal abortion is that pregnancy is always a health risk to the woman, even in the best circumstances. It can be quite a serious risk to the mother, especially when something like 30% of deliveries in the US now are by C-section. A C-section is major surgery, with all the attendant risks of any surgical procedure. Not to mention other possible complications. Remember when Madonna had to be rushed to a hospital when in labor with her second baby, when placenta previa occurred and caused her to lose a huge amount of blood? Nobody -- male or female --should be forced to take on such health risks for the sake of anyone else, born or unborn.

    Sorry if this post is too long!

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  4. Adrienne, no reason to apologize for the length of your posting, which made several excellent points. Indeed, Cohen (the author of the book on thought experiments I quoted) does address the objection you bring up.

    The idea is that the woman may in fact have a moral obligation to the violinist, if she was in some way responsible (even partially) for his condition. However, the "experiment" still clearly makes the point that it is the woman, not the Society for Music Lovers (the government) who has to make the decision.

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  5. From your original post:

    "To say the least, Thompson's experiment clearly makes the point that the responsibility for the decision ought to rest with you (the mother), not with the SML (the government). Wow."

    And your comment:

    "However, the 'experiment' still clearly makes the point that it is the woman, not the Society for Music Lovers (the government) who has to make the decision."

    Forgive me, but how does Cohen's experiment clearly make this point? To us it may seem that way. But obviously, there are people out there who think that the gov't ought to be able to force the woman to live up to her "moral obligation" of carrying the fetus to term. A pro-lifer's reasoning would be that since the woman caused the fetus's situation, she ought to be morally *and* legally responsible for supporting that fetus until it can live outside her body. And, of course, that the gov't ought to protect the fetus's interests over that of the woman's precisely because of her moral obligation.

    In other words, I'm asking you why you think Cohen makes an airtight argument that the government couldn't or shouldn't interfere in this issue. After all, the government forces men to financially support their children with child support, even if those children were unwanted, right?

    I see this argument as being more compelling, personally: in this country, there is no precedent in law (that I know of, anyway) to force someone to donate either their organs or the use of them to someone else. Even if that person caused severe injury (including organ failure) to the other party. The woman who runs over the violinist can be legally arrested, imprisoned, and fined, but not legally compelled to fork over a kidney to him. And legally, someone cannot be forced to take the risk of severe personal injury to save someone else's life.

    I sincerely hope that this never changes in American law. But events like the Melissa Rowland case, where she was arrested for not having a C-section in time to save a fetus she was carrying, make me wonder about that, though...

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  6. Adrienne, you answer your own question beautifully! The point of Thompson's experiment is precisely that, by seeing the analogy with being forced to provide one's internal organs for the welfare of another, people will see that that sort of choice ought to rest with the person providing the organs, not with the government. However, I am worried too about cases such as Rowland's.

    Incidentally, thought experiments aren't meant to provide "air tight" arguments, just to alter the normal perception of things and situations so that it may be easier to understand a point or appreciate a different perspective.

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  7. "Adrienne, you answer your own question beautifully!"

    Well, I was looking at it from a *legal* perspective, esp from legal precedent.

    I thought that Cohen was arguing it solely from a moral perspective.

    That's why I thought the two were different approaches.

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  8. "Incidentally, thought experiments aren't meant to provide "air tight" arguments, just to alter the normal perception of things and situations so that it may be easier to understand a point or appreciate a different perspective.<<

    As such, 'appreciation' is also kind of subjective, isn't it.

    Thought experiments admittedly exist to re-adjust a person's morals. Nonetheless, I'd suggest then that one consider the plight an individual who was actually willing to associate all that was good about himself to a man (or humanity) that was on death row. Raises the question that, if we might not give ourselves up for a virtuous, intelligent person, why ever for a less deserving, unfamiliar one?

    It's counterintuitive, I understand. But that's the entire message of the biblical gospels. And that's why we consistently fail miserably to see the intent of out hearts without a higher standard than our own.

    cal

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  9. Cal, the discussion so far has been about one's RIGHTS to make CHOICES, specifically regarding the use of one's own organs. Why you turned it into some thinly veiled promotion of accepting Jesus & the Bible is beyond me.

    "Nonetheless, I'd suggest then that one consider the plight an individual who was actually willing to associate all that was good about himself to a man (or humanity) that was on death row. Raises the question that, if we might not give ourselves up for a virtuous, intelligent person, why ever for a less deserving, unfamiliar one?"

    Atheists, freethinkers, humanists and others who don't believe in a deity or deities have indeed put themselves at risk to help downtrodden strangers. The anti-slavery movement comes to mind as an example. But those people chose to risk injury or death for others and to help a cause they believed in. They weren't FORCED to do so.

    "It's counterintuitive, I understand."

    Hardly. See above.

    "But that's the entire message of the biblical gospels."

    As if people couldn't come to this conclusion on their own, without ever reading the gospels. Please.

    "And that's why we consistently fail miserably to see the intent of out hearts without a higher standard than our own."

    This sounds like a version of the "you can't be a good or moral person without believing in God" canard.

    Cal, you need to really spend some time reading on this website: http://www.infidels.org/library/

    Then at least you'll have a clue as to what you're talking about when you speak of non-biblical and atheist moral standards.

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  10. Adrienne,

    You are correct that the "moral" questions around the feture are very hazy at best and there is no 100% argument either way. I like to reframe the question slightly.

    "The best refutation of the argument I've read is that in 98-99% of cases, the "violinist"'s (fetus's) situation doesn't happen by accident -- the violinist's peril, if you will, is the direct result of the woman's actions."

    Not quite..... Where is the man? A woman cannot get pregnant by herself, but she bears all of the physical burden of pregnancy along with all of the associated physical, emptional, and buisness risks. Two poeple are involved in creating the fetus, but one bears the responsibility for the risks?

    As a matter of equal opportunity for women, we must allow early term abortions ( late term are hazy because of issues of intent and wards of the state ). But legal early term abortions are a necessity for equal rights for women to be as sexually liberated as men. To do otherwise is a double standard that is directly meant to keep women down.

    Massimo,

    Your arguments tend down the slippery slope of what can be regulated. People's actions can, will, and should be regulated by the state. The level of that control should be bounded by the constitution and the necessity to improve society's condition as a whole. Pro-Lifers are working from a premisis that a fertilized egg is a person deserving the same constitutional rights as any other person. From that, illogical, presumption the right to an on demand abortion should be illegal since it tramples on the rights of the fetus. We need to attack this battle from a different perspective or they will never listen.

    I just love my friends responce to abortion "Sometime it is the least bad option".

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  11. Eric, you may be right that my argument about the balance between State and individual rights hinge perilously on a slippery slope.

    However, it seems to me that this is one of (many) cases in which a clear line cannot be drawn, so that we need to make hazy decisions in intermediate cases. This doesn't mean, however, that the extremes (no government intervention at all, or no individual rights) aren't both clearly misguided.

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  12. Honestly, is there any law or moral principle that doesn't have the potential for being a "slippery slope" in the wrong hands?

    Scientific discoveries and new technologies come to mind too, in terms of possible misuse. Nuclear fission has been used to make enough nuclear bombs to blow humanity off the earth, and the theory of evolution has historically been (mis)used to justify social Darwinism.

    But just because something can be misused doesn't mean we shouldn't ever use it at all! Or that it's inherently wrong, either.

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  13. "However, it seems to me that this is one of (many) cases in which a clear line cannot be drawn"

    But Pro-Life'ers believe their is a bright line. The bright line is humanity at the moment of conception. Although illogical this belief is one that is very easy for people to comprehend and to rally behind. Once you have that premis abortion should be illegal.

    The problem with the argument is that most "pro-lifers" don't actually believe it. If they truly beleive it then there should be 0 abortions, that includes rape and incest because those pregnancies do not place the woman in danger. The next logical step is regulating what women of child bearing age can and cannot do ( they might harm the fetus! ).

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  14. "The bright line is humanity at the moment of conception."

    There is no moment of conception. Conception is a process. Pro-lifers don't seem to understand this.

    Massimo asked, "would you mind contacting me directly via email?"

    No offense, but could you please give me the general reason as to why you want me to contact you?

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  15. adrienne,

    You must at least admit that the pro-life argument is simple and compelling, even if it is wrong. I think the mindset is just different between those that see things as human ( physical sense ) and those that view humanity ( holistic sense, community based ).

    It's a complex issue, and we need to both point out the failures of the pro-life argument as well as re-frame the question to show the real harm that a society without legal abortion brings.

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  16. "This sounds like a version of the "you can't be a good or moral person without believing in God" canard.

    Cal, you need to really spend some time reading on this website: http://www.infidels.org/library/"

    Social doctrines of what really will make a society workable rise and fail. What we probably don't ever want to have to do tho, is to look back a realize that we sacrificed our sustainable future for a mere ten seconds of a transient experience with another human being.

    Social theories, to be useable, must see beyond the moment.
    c

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  17. Cal wrote:

    "What we probably don't ever want to have to do tho, is to look back a realize that we sacrificed our sustainable future for a mere ten seconds of a transient experience with another human being."

    But abortion does not sacrifice any sustainable future. In fact, Stephen Levitt of the Univ. of Chicago has made a convincing argument that legal abortion has helped to greatly reduce levels of violent crime. A future with less violent crime is a more sustainable one than the opposite situation.

    And some of us greatly value those "transient experiences" you mentioned, especially in the context of a committed relationship. Yes, even women too.

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  18. "Stephen Levitt of the Univ. of Chicago has made a convincing argument that legal abortion has helped to greatly reduce levels of violent crime. A future with less violent crime is a more sustainable one than the opposite situation."

    In short, what is his best evidence? And why is the actual factor that reduced crime happen to be abortion and not something else?

    I do hope that the crime reduction doesn't rely on the near elimination of particular races. That was the social doctrine of Margret Sanger, btw.

    "And some of us greatly value those "transient experiences" you mentioned, especially in the context of a committed relationship. Yes, even women too."

    Have no problem with that. Committed relationships are clearly not the issue.
    c

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  19. For info on Stephen Levitt's thesis, buy and read a copy of _Freakonomics_.

    For a more thorough understanding of Margaret Sanger's beliefs re: racism, eugenics, etc., try reading http://www.ppacca.org/site/
    pp.asp?c=kuJYJeO4F&b=139590

    (obviously, take the line out of the URL first.)

    BTW, Christianity has absolutely *nothing* to be proud of historically in matters concerning racism. Heck, the NT Jesus never even condemned slavery.

    And white Christians in the south vociferously quoted the letters of Paul in defense of black slavery.

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  20. C., why aren't committed relationships an issue? You don't think that people in those relationships have abortions, under some circumstances?

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  21. "You don't think that people in those relationships have abortions, under some circumstances?"

    That was my situation, actually.

    Someone on another message board that I follow quoted the statistic that married women have 40% of the abortions in this country. I don't remember the source she quoted it from, however, so I can't back it up.

    I can give you some anecdotal evidence, though. On Saturday mornings, I do patient escorting for a women's clinic that does abortions. Those of us who do the escorting give the clinic patients moral and logistical suport as they attempt to navigate past yelling protesters.

    I'd say that about 25% of the patients, especially the Hispanic ones, come to the clinic with their husbands and children. Often they have two, three, or four children already. And almost always, one of those children is still a baby or toddler. These families just can't afford to support another baby at the current time.

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  22. "C., why aren't committed relationships an issue? You don't think that people in those relationships have abortions, under some circumstances?"

    Of course.

    I note also that third-world counties are not too big on preventative-maintenance either. (along with the preference for male infants and whatnot) And that supposedly qualifies as an enlightened method of thinking?

    I'm surprised you'd think that.

    cal

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  23. "You don't think that people in those relationships have abortions, under some circumstances?"

    "That was my situation, actually."

    Sorry to hear that. Hopefully things will go better for you in the future.

    My parents families couldn't (still can't) stand each other, and yet, I'm very grateful to be alive 30 some odd years down the road. Maybe a bit disturbed about the whole thing on occasion, but glad to be alive.

    "Someone on another message board that I follow quoted the statistic that married women have 40% of the abortions in this country."

    In Russia, women have an average of seven prenancy terminations. And education alone hasn't seemed to affect that ratio like it should have.

    c

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  24. "[That was my situation, actually.]

    Sorry to hear that."

    Why? Would you have preferred I gotten pregnant during a one night stand?

    I count myself very lucky to have had the support from my SO that I did. And btw, it was a fully joint decision, contrary to the propaganda you've been spouting on here. And we are still together today.

    "Hopefully things will go better for you in the future."

    Well, it's been about a year and a half since my abortion. It wasn't a great experience and certainly I'd have preferred not to have gotten pregnant in the first place. But it was hardly the soul and life-destroying event that the anti-abortion propaganda machine likes to claim.

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  25. "Why? Would you have preferred I gotten pregnant during a one night stand?"

    That's up to you to decide. I'm just certain that there are more than a handful of us that were born to anything but convenient situations. But mere convenience should not be the sole indicator of a person's worth.

    "I count myself very lucky to have had the support from my SO that I did. And btw, it was a fully joint decision, contrary to the propaganda you've been spouting on here. And we are still together today."

    In the 'food chain' so to speak, of of more or less vulnerable citizens, I fear that women will become less and less valued and subject to an increase in violent killings during pregnancy.

    "Well, it's been about a year and a half since my abortion. It wasn't a great experience and certainly I'd have preferred not to have gotten pregnant in the first place. But it was hardly the soul and life-destroying event that the anti-abortion propaganda machine likes to claim."

    Not all pro-life people are identical in philosophy. The people we know engaged in these endevors are extremely supportive of women no matter what their choice is or has been. If they choose to keep an infant, the org. offers six months of assistance (more if need be) clothing, formula, emotional support, etc.

    So it may not be exactly like you've heard either. I have a number( half a dozen or so) of friends and family that have had abortions. And I love and appreciate them just the same as anyone else that I'm close to.

    cal
    (guess i should sign my name every time)

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  26. Adrienne correctly represents the pro-life refutation of Thompson's thought experiment.

    There is also a refutation of the health of the mother pro-choice argument. These situations in which one person's well-being is opposed by another's have been studies by philosophers since at least the days of Thomas Aquinas. It is called double-effect: good for you, bad for me. Philosophers have long ago figured out the way to approach double effect situations and they rule against abortion. I think you will agree that the philsophical argument is sound.

    One of the tenants of handling double effects is that you still cannot commit a bad act. Even if one of the two of us must die, we are not allowed to be the judge and commit murder. So if doing nothing means that I die and you live, then so be it.

    That doesn't meant that inaction is the only option. Good acts are allowed to be taken. They are further allowed to be taken even if the result of that act is harm to the other person. So while a woman could not abort her child because of health issues, she should undergo a necessary medical treatment. Even if that medical treatment has a 100% chance of killing the unborn baby, that medical treatment is still morally permissible. But one final caveat: the motivation for the medical treatment must be honest. For example, if a pregnant woman had cancer and needed chemotheraphy immediately even though it would kill her baby she is morally entitled to do so. But she cannot undergo chemotherapy as a way to kill her baby. A semantic difference perhaps, but an important one.

    Finally, there is a case where the health of a woman does not fall under double effect, namely tubal pregnancies. This is not a double effect because with current levels of medical technology the baby will die no matter what. The only question is whether the mother will die too. In these cases, and only these cases, abortion should be permitted.

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