Violinist (thought experiment)

The Violinist is a famous thought experiment first posed by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971.

The "famous violinist" thought experiment

"The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy" describes her thought experiment as follows::Judith Jarvis Thomson provided one of the most striking and effective thought experiments in the moral realm. Her example is aimed at a popular anti-abortion argument that goes something like this: The fetus is an innocent person with a right to life. Abortion results in the death of a fetus. Therefore, [even in the case of abortion resulting from rape] abortion is morally wrong. In her thought experiment we are asked to imagine a famous violinist falling into a coma. The society of music lovers determines from medical records that you and you alone can save the violinist's life by being hooked up to him for nine months. The music lovers break into your home while you are asleep and hook the unconscious (and unknowing, hence innocent) violinist to you. You may want to unhook him, but you are then faced with this argument put forward by the music lovers: The violinist is an innocent person with a right to life. Unhooking him will result in his death. Therefore, unhooking him is morally wrong.:However, the argument does not seem convincing in this case. You would be very generous to remain attached and in bed for nine months, but you are not morally obliged to do so. The parallel with the abortion case [in the case of rape] is evident. The thought experiment is effective in distinguishing [three] concepts that had previously been run together: “right to life, [...] “right to what is needed to sustain life,” [and "actions establishing responsibility to provide what is needed to sustain life"] . The fetus and the violinist may each have the [first] , but it is not evident that either has the [second] , [while it is clear that the neither the "you" of the thought experiment nor the woman pregnant as a result of rape has taken the third] . The upshot is that even if the fetus has a right to life (which Thompson does not believe but allows for the sake of the argument), it may still be morally permissible to abort [if the pregnancy is a result of rape] . [Taken from Brown (2006). [] ]

Relation to abortion debate

In her introduction to her "Famous Violinist Problem", Thomson notes that much of the inadequate debate on abortion was getting lost within the issue of whether the fetus is a person or a mass of tissue.

Having identified this question, Thomson attempted to circumvent this issue by " [immediately granting] that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception"; which then allowed her to address what she felt was the only issue involved: that of whether the mother, or the fetus, had the "stronger and more stringent… right to life". [Thomson (1971/1986), p.2.]

Foot’s Response – Killing vs. Letting Die

In Philippa Foot’s “Killing and Letting Die”, Thomson’s thought experiment is directly criticized. Foot discredits the suggested mirror-situation between the violinist and abortion by applying and weighing negative and positive rights.

First, Foot derives the moral difference between killing and letting die::…There are rights to noninterference, which form one class of rights; and there are also rights to goods or services, which are different. And corresponding to these two types of rights are, on the one hand, the duty not to interfere, called a ‘negative duty’, and on the other the duty to provide the goods or services, called a ‘positive duty’. [Foot 1984: 785]

The rights to noninterference constitute ‘negative rights’ and the rights to goods or services constitute ‘positive rights’.

Important to note is Foot’s claim that, “Typically, it takes more to justify an interference than to justify the withholding of goods or services…” [Foot 1984: 786] . In other words, "ceteris paribus", a negative right holds greater moral weight than a positive right, and so it is harder to morally justify overriding a negative right than a positive right. Foot builds on this by specifying, “So if, in any circumstances, the right to noninterference is the only right that exists, or if it is the only right special circumstances have not overridden, then it may not be permissible to initiate a fatal sequence, but it may be permissible to withhold aid” [Foot 1984: 786] . Notably, Foot classifies initiating a fatal sequence as a morally objectionable act, while legitimizing the morality of not aiding.

This holds substantial implications for Thomson’s violinist experiment. Whereas Thomson requests the reader to draw a moral parallel between unhooking oneself from the violinist and a woman aborting her fetus, Foot seeks a deeper explanation of why this should be the case. But, in Foot’s opinion, under her framework, things are not as Thomson would like. Foot notes, “According to my thesis, the two cases must be treated quite differently because one involves the initiation of a fatal sequence and the other the refusal to save a life” [Foot 1984: 788] .

The distinction arises from the rights due to the violinist and fetus, and the duty one holds not to violate them. In the case of Thomson’s experiment, the violinist holds only a positive right to be saved: he requires the service of being hooked up to another’s body. Now, as the argument will go, if you find yourself hooked up to the dying violinist, you have an obligation to not ‘kill him’ by separating yourself from him. However, it is important not to allocate rights to which the violinist is not entitled. You, the person to whom he is attached, did not bring about the sequence of his death, and so cannot be burdened with, say, the negative duty ‘not to kill the violinist’ – since, ultimately, it is the ailment that is killing the violinist. Consequently, the only right to which the violinist has a claim is a positive right. And, Foot explains, “…although charity or duties of care could have dictated that the help be given, it seems perfectly reasonable to treat this as a case in which such presumptions are overridden by other rights—those belonging to the person whose body would be used.” [Foot 1984: 788] Thus, in this case one may unhook from the violinist, since his positive right does not hold enough weight to justify disregarding another’s right to his or her own body.

Foot gives an account of the other case, abortion::The case of abortion is of course completely different. The fetus is not in jeopardy because it is in its mother’s womb; it is merely dependent on her in the way children are dependent on their parents for food. An abortion, therefore, originates the sequence which ends in the death of the fetus, and the destruction comes about “through the agency” of the mother who seeks the abortion. [Foot 1984: 788] Abortion is uniquely different from the violinist case, since the fetus holds a negative right not to be killed (since it holds a full right to life, as granted to it by Thomson). The mother, by having an abortion administered, directly initiates the event which takes the fetus’s life, completely violating its negative right. For this reason, in any normal circumstances a mother cannot morally legitimize having an abortion.

This position is typically criticized by pointing out that (a) in the original thought experiment, the violinist is to only have a long lingering death should he never have been hooked up to you, but an immediate death if disconnected after hookup, such that that the disconnection itself and not the illness is the immediate cause of his death, and (b) some positive action is necessary to unhook from the violinist, the default state of affairs after the forced hookup is to remain hooked up, and human agency interfering with the otherwise natural flow of events after the forced hookup is the only thing that can lead to him being disconnected.

The violinist, equally to the fetus resulting from rape, is "dependent on [the host] in the way children are dependent on their parents for food"; in both cases the attached person's state is a result of abduction and not any initiatory action on her part, while parents have made a series of choices, beginning with the choice to have sex without contraception and continuing through the choice to keep their children rather than have them adopted, which result in their responsibility to their dependents.

Thus, even assuming a framework of negative and positive rights, both disconnecting the violinist and disconnecting the fetus resulting from rape violates their respective "positive rights" to that which is necessary to sustain life, resulting incidentally but necessarily and immediately in the lost of that to which they have a "negative right," their lives. To the extent that Foot refrains from acknowledging the role of rape in Thomson's argument, her argument suffers from the "strawman" fallacy. The thought experiment is intentionally constructed so that the state of the host is entered into non-voluntarily, as an infringement of her negative rights, and the only way in which the forced 9 months of perpetual negative-rights infringement can be halted is by taking a positive action to escape from this involuntarily entered state, a positive action which incidentally but necessarily ends a life via severing the forced connection. [Philosophy Course in Human Rights, U. Chicago, course materials / further citation needed]


In the opinion of some critics, Thomson failed to note a key difference between the thought experiment and the realities to which she applied it. In the case of the violinist, you are not involved in the decision-making process that caused you to become attached.

However, certain other critics offer that the same woman who is considering the abortion of her fetus is supposed to have been intentionally involved in an activity with a high degree of probability of becoming pregnant ("attached") (namely engaging in the sex act that produced the fetus).

From this, some have argued that Thomson's thought experiment only closely analogizes abortion in the case of rape and suggest that the issue is purely a question of how the arguments apply in instances where the mother is raped, and they then examine whether or not it is morally justifiable to abort the fetus in such case.

However, this presumes that outside of rape, women are privy to full autonomy regarding such decision-making processes towards pregnancy, which is by no means guaranteed under numerous and varied cultural, religious, and political decrees globally.

Others have noted that Thomson's thought experiment overlooks both the legal obligation (should she choose not to offer the child for adoption) of a mother to provide for a child she brings to term until the age of majority, and the lifelong moral obligation to insure that the child she gives birth to will grow up to be a happy and productive person. In addition, the scenario discounts the possibly catastrophic financial and social prices an unplanned pregnancy can burden unprepared parents with, as compared with a famous violinist who will have no negative impact upon either the individual or society as a whole if allowed to live.

ee also

* Philippa Foot
* Judith Jarvis Thomson
* Thought experiment
* Trolley problem



* Brown, James Robert, "Thought Experiments", in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2006 Edition)", 2006. [] .
* Foot, Philippa. (1984). Killing and Letting Die. In Steven M. Cahn, & Peter Markie (Eds.), Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (pp 783-788). New York, NY: Oxford.
* Foot, P., "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect", reprinted at pp.19-32 in Foot, P., "Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy", Basil Blackwell, (Oxford), 1978 (originally published in 1967).
* Thomson, J.J., "A Defense of Abortion", reprinted at pp.1-19 in Thomson, J.J. (Parent, W., ed.), "Rights, Restitution, and Risks: Essays in Moral Theory", Harvard University Press, (Cambridge), 1986 (originally published in 1971).
* Thomson, J.J., "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem", reprinted in pp.78-93 in Thomson, J.J., (Parent, W., ed.), "Rights, Restitution, and Risks: Essays in Moral Theory", Harvard University Press, (Cambridge), 1986 (originally published in 1976).
* Thomson, J.J., "The Trolley Problem", reprinted at pp.94-116 in Thomson, J.J. (Parent, W., ed.), "Rights, Restitution, and Risks: Essays in Moral Theory", Harvard University Press, (Cambridge), 1986 (originally published in 1985).

External links

* [] "Thought Experiments", "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy".

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