The following is an essay I wrote for a philosophy class, fall 2011, in response to philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article, “A Defense of Abortion,” linked here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265091. __
Here were the requirements for the essay:
Write a 7 page paper in which you defend a thesis regarding the soundness of the main argument presented in Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion.” You paper should include:
1) An introduction
2) A charitable reconstruction of the philosopher’s main argument from the text (with citations). Explain what the key premises are and how they fit together to reach the author’s conclusion. You should provide reasons to think that all key premises are true. 2-3 pages.
3) Your primary objection to the philosopher's argument.
4) A response to the objection on the philosopher’s behalf.
5) A rebuttal of the philosopher's response to your objection.
Unfortunately, the endnotes didn't carry over to blog form, so I had to put the citations into a cumbersome (#) form. Please see the bottom of the post for the sources.
Foundations: An Objection to “A Defense of Abortion” by Judith Jarvis Thomson
As of August 2011, 22% of American pregnancies end in abortion (1),meaning that if those pregnancies were carried to term, there would be almost 30% more people in America. At current rates, 10% of women under age 20, 25% of women under age 30, and 30% of women under age 45 will have had an abortion, meaning that in the average supermarket, almost one fourth of the women you see shopping will be very personally connected to the abortion issue (2). Despite the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade case in 1973 that legalized abortion, as of August 2011, the country’s public opinion remains split (3), an indication that although the issue is settled in the courts, it is far from resolved in the minds and hearts of the American population. There have been many voices, but one of particular interest is that of Judith Jarvis Thomson. Her 1971 article, “A Defense of Abortion,” though written 40 years ago, still speaks loudly today. In this essay, I will analyze the soundness of her conclusion that abortion is morally permissible. While Thomson’s argument permitting abortion is logically valid, it is her underlying assumptions, namely that the general human intuition of morality is a sufficient authority for having establishing moral truths, that bar her argument from being sound and trustworthy.
A brief outline of this essay is as follows: (1) a summary of Thomson’s article, (2) an analysis of her argument, particularly her first thought experiment involving a violinist, that shows she relies heavily on humanity’s intuitive morality, (3) an explanation that shows that humanity’s intuitive morality is a poor foundation on which to build objective moral standards, (4) an account of a possible response to my objection, (5) a rebuttal of that response, and (6) a conclusion.
1. A Summary of Thomson’s Article
Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" is a classic piece of the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate. For mental exercise, Thomson concedes that a fetus can be considered a person, implying that a fetus has a right to life and therefore a right not to be killed unjustly. Surprisingly, she then deconstructs the assumption that this right prohibits abortion, and uses clever analogies that prick the conscience to conclude that it is morally permissible to terminate that person via abortion, given that there are sufficient and justifiable reasons for doing so.
Thomson’s article can be roughly divided into different situations that would lead to pregnancy. The first is rape, which she addresses by presenting a thought experiment, which I will call the Unconscious Violinist experiment: imagine you woke up tomorrow with a famous, unconscious violinist attached to your kidneys, who was put there without your consent and without any regard to your rights. Apparently, he needs your body, or else he’ll die. After nine months, the doctors tell you, he’ll be perfectly healthy and you’ll be free to go. Thomson goes on to say, as we would, that it would be ridiculous to require you to wait for the nine months in order to save his life (4). “Sure, he has the right to life,” we say, “but I never gave him the permission to overrule my right to freedom!” No one could blame you for either unplugging him yourself, or having someone else unplug him for you. The analogy is clear — Thomson asserts that a woman is morally permitted to abort a fetus caused by rape.
Thomson then takes up a second case, when the mother’s life is in danger due to the pregnancy, and presents another thought experiment, which I will call the Growing Baby experiment: let’s say that you are with a growing baby in a very tiny house, a house so small that the growing baby will crush you to death in just a few moments. Now, would you be restricted from doing anything to defend yourself? “Of course not!” we say. We feel that we have every right to defend ourselves (5). As Thomson says, “My own view is that if a human being has any just, prior claim to anything at all, he has a just, prior claim to his own body” (6). To Thomson, it is evident that abortion is permissible when the mother’s life is in danger.
Lastly, Thomson addresses pregnancies as the result of consensual sex with another thought experiment, which I will call the People Seeds experiment: suppose that people seeds floated like pollen in the air. Wanting to enjoy the summer breeze, but not wanting the people seeds to come in, you install the best mesh screens, and open the windows. Yet, the screens were defective, and a people seed got in and planted itself in your carpet (7). Do you have the right to remove that seed? Does opening the window make you responsible for the people seed? The analogy to contraceptives and sex is clear, and we would intuitively say that the woman does indeed have a right to uproot that plant if she desires. As such, Thomson concludes that even when pregnancy is caused by ordinary circumstances, a woman is morally permitted to have an abortion.
Now then, what does Thomson say about woman who choose not to have an abortion? Thomson explains by contrasting those who are Minimally Decent Samaritans with Good Samaritans, taking the latter phrase from Jesus’ parable recorded in Luke 10:30-35 (8). The Minimally Decent Samaritans are those that do the bare minimum, seeking to lend a helping hand when required and trying to avoid hurting others as much as possible. The Good Samaritans are those who “make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments” in order to help another person (9). Applying this distinction to the analogies that have been explained above, Thomson shows, as we would agree, that while being a Good Samaritan is commendable and good, in no way can we ever require it from someone. The Unconscious Violinist does not have a right to your body, but it would be kind of you to help him recover. The Growing Baby might be crushing you, but you could selflessly choose to not defend yourself. A People Seed might have come in unwanted, but you could sacrifice your comforts and nurture it until it was born as a people plant. So then, the vast majority of women who have children willingly allow the child to violate their right to their own bodies, not because the babies have a right over their mothers, but because the mothers are Good Samaritans.
In sum, through provocative thought experiments, Thomson challenges her reader’s assumptions about abortion and motivates him to share in her conclusion: although a fetus may have a right to life, this does not give him a right to use a woman’s body, and as such, the termination of that life via abortion is morally permissible.
2. Analysis of Thomson’s Argument
Why are Thomson’s thought experiments, especially the Unconscious Violinist, so effective? Perhaps because we oversimplify value judgements about abortion when we distance ourselves from the situation. We think, “I’m not the one getting pregnant,” or “It’s not really that important.” But Thomson eliminates any personal distance by saying, “But now let me ask you to imagine this. You...” (10)
By asking you to be the pregnant one, decisions suddenly become much more real, and subsequently more impulsive. Who would want to be tied to this violinist? You’re the victim! Our reflex is indignation; we feel as if our rights were violated. “No,” we easily conclude, “I’m not obligated to let this guy use my kidneys for nine months. I don’t care if he’s famous. I mean, sure, he’ll die, and I’m sorry for him and his family, but his life is not my responsibility.” And then, Thomson applies our own thoughts and logic to the case of pregnancy due to rape. Later in the article, she then applies this argument, which we have created and she has helped along, to pregnancy in general. Thomson then asks, ‘Would it really be too far of a stretch to apply the logic in the case of the violinist to that of real pregnancy? Is abortion of someone with the right to life truly morally impermissible?’ The argument is convincing and clever.
But let’s take a closer look not only at what her argument is saying, but also the assumptions that it rests upon. Her premises lead to logical conclusions, yet logic is only as good as the foundations upon which it rests. Consider an example. If I believe that all pigs can fly, and I know that my pet Pink is a pig, then I can conclude that Pink can fly. My statement is logical, yet my conclusion is absurd. The problem? My assumption that pigs can fly contradicts reality. In the same way, Thomson makes this error; her fundamental assumption contradicts reality. Throughout all of her thought experiments she appeals to the reader’s intuition of morality and justice, to his conscience and experience. She employs our own reactions, our own instinctive emotions, to helping her argument. But in doing this, she assumes that humanity’s intuition of morality and justice, his feelings and thoughts about what is right and what is wrong, his impulses and instincts, are trustworthy for establishing objective moral truths and prescriptions for what is permissible and impermissible. This contradicts reality.
3. An Explanation of Humanity’s Untrustworthiness
I object to Thomson’s assumption that humanity is trustworthy. To prove my point, instead of conducting hypothetical thought experiments, which have at best limited applicability and relevancy and are by definition imaginary, let’s look at reality. We don’t have to look in the textbooks for examples; just look at yourself — the uncertain direction, the unknown circumstances, the uncontrollable outcomes, the unanswered questions. Or, to be more personal, look at your life — the relationship issues, the frailty, the irrationality of your decisions, the mistakes, the forgetfulness, the irresolvable problems. Read those last two sentences again, and think hard. I’m sure you remember the times when you froze in despondency, unsure of what to think or act. I’m sure you’ve cried and cursed out of frustration and lack of understanding. I’m sure you’ve overreacted and had to apologize for it later. I’m sure you’ve made judgements about people and things and come to learn that you were wrong. I’m sure you’ve tried to avoid thinking about things because it seems too hard to find the answer. Don’t feel alone; I have too. Everyday our experiences show us that our intuition, our reactions, our feelings, our judgements, are not trustworthy. Sure, we might get some things right, and some of us more than others, but the ratio of failure to success is more than sufficient to doubt the trustworthiness of establishing sound, stable truths of any kind, especially moral, upon human thinking. If I am unable to manage life without a dependable measure of success, why would I expect my intuitive morality to have any higher chance of being trustworthy?
We all agree that in our conduct we are far from perfect, and yet for some peculiar reason we fail to remember that this imperfection taints not only our behavior, but also our very minds. We are not perfectly rational, we are not dependable, we are poor judges of intentions, we are wayward at best in our understandings. Our assumed, generally-unchallenged confidence in ourselves is our most blinding virtue, which keeps us from seeing ourselves clearly. If both our conduct and our minds are clouded and imperfect, how can we use our intuition to establish truths within the moral world?
4. Possible Responses to My Objection
Some undoubtably may disagree with me, and will say that I employ the same tactic as Thomson, appealing to the readers’ conscience to help me draw my own conclusions. Yet review my logic — do I ever appeal to what you think or feel? Do I ever ask, “What would you do in this situation?” No, morality ought not be based upon something so subjective. I cite reality as my authority, and ask you to do an albeit imperfect but ideally objective evaluation of your own trustworthiness. All, if honest, will come to the same conclusion — humanity’s trustworthiness, in all matters but especially moral, is doubtful.
Although Thomson doesn’t address my objection directly in her article, I can imagine her response: ‘Human intuition is the best we have. Although it may not be ideal, we must make due, and work our way towards the truth. This is the foundation of science, of philosophy, of how the way we operate in the world. We are forced to take some things for granted, and as we come to understand more of the world and ourselves, we challenge those assumptions and change our thinking accordingly.’ Her view is attractive, no doubt. In some sense, humanity has made progress. Our understanding of the natural world is much grander and deeper, our understanding of the human mind more specific and careful, our technology more complex and powerful, our knowledge of times past broader and more researched. Man, it seems, has great potential and, given enough time, will come to realize the truth, in all things, and finally in morality.
5. Rebuttal of Possible Responses
Although I doubt that humanity is working towards the truth, I can concede that premise and still refute the above response. If indeed Thomson, or anyone, would say that things like science, philosophy, psychology, technology, and knowledge are improving, it therefore implies that these things are not yet at the truth, and as such are still influencing human intuition, which is also not yet at the truth. Is it not then logical to question the stability of other things based upon human efforts/intuition, namely this intuitive morality that Thomson appeals to as an authority? The very premises of the response imply that humanity has not arrived to the point of truth, and I find no good reason to make judgements about life or death based upon an imperfect intuition of justice and morality. My objection is, in this sense, not weakened, but strengthened by her possible response.
The above response also implies that human intuition is the fallback authority because we have failed to find a better one. While my objection stands without any further rhetoric, I also challenge this, and appeal to the God of the Bible as the only trustworthy and perfect authority. Regrettably I do not have time to discuss this topic, nor contend for the Christian faith. However, I have disproved the trustworthiness of man. I leave it to you to attempt to refute the historicity, authenticity, and authority of the God of the Christian Bible. It is your turn to do the work.
Thomson’s article is clever, engaging, and personal. Yet, by urging the reader to trust his own intuitions and impulses about thought experiments, she builds her argument upon an unstable foundation. I showed from your life and my life that humanity’s intuition is not sufficiently trustworthy to make judgements about morality, and as such shed doubt on Thomson’s conclusion that abortion is morally permissible. Her conclusion becomes then a mere assertion rather than a proof, an opinion of men (or in this case a woman) rather than a moral truth.
My intentions for this paper were not for you to come away with another perspective on abortion. My intentions were not for you to adopt an entirely new way of interpreting and viewing the world. Rather, my intention was to challenge that which is often not challenged: philosophy exalts human reason and human logic and human wisdom, and assumes them sufficient for making moral conclusions. I do not assume as such. In short, I challenge you, and hope that you come to doubt not only humanity, but yourself.
1 "Guttmacher Institute." In Brief: Fact Sheet. Guttmacher Institute, Aug 2011. Web. 29 Sep 2011. <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html>.
3 Saad, Lydia. Plenty of Common Ground Found in Abortion Debate. Gallup, 08 Aug 2011. Web. 29 Sep 2011. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/148880/Plenty-Common-Ground-Found-Abortion-Debate.asp&xgt;.a
4 Thomson, Judith Jarvis, A Defense of Abortion, Philosophy & Public Affiars, Vol 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971), pp. 47-66, Blackwell Publishing, www.jstor.org/stable/2265091, Accessed 25/08/2011 17:14; pp. 48-49
5 Thomson, pp. 52-53
6 Thomson, pp. 54
7 Thomson, pp. 59
8 Thomson, pp. 62
9 Thomson, pp. 62
10 Thomson, pp. 48
God's View of Abortion
Given the constraints of the essay, I, quite regrettably, didn't have the pages to say what my mind was screaming. Below is part of my initial response to the article:
I will directly challenge Thomson's assumptions, and therefore indirectly attack her conclusions about abortion. First, I will scrutinize specifics of the article: Why would it be indecent for a mother to abort an unwanted fetus, even if pregnancy were only an hour? After all, if we go with Thomson's argument, the mother has a right to decide what to house in her body; she certainly did not invite this fetus to live in her, and it would cause quite a nuisance. Why not allow a mother to abort a fetus in the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th month, because she's tired and wants to go have a holiday at the beach? Convenience, to some, is not just a privilege but a right. Why do women have authority over their own bodies? It is supposed that someone gave it to them, or that they were naturally born with it, but who did it come from, and when was it imputed? Thomson has a habit of assuming that the reader has the same moral framework as she, and fails to prove that this moral framework is good and useful for the common man.
In fact, we could ask Thomson a myriad of questions: Why is murder impermissible (except, according to her, in the case of abortion)? Why is it wrong to murder an innocent life? Why do all people have the right to life? Why must there be limits in self-defense? Why do individuals have a right to freedom? Why are we not obligated to do everything we can, at whatever lengths, for the sake of another's life or well-being? Why is kindness morally commendable? Why not be selfish, callous, indecent? Why is it commendable to save a life? Why is it good to be moral?
While, to be fair, it is not Thomson’s purpose to explain the assumptions of her worldview, I must conclude that if there is no convincing answer to these questions, then I must assume that her assumptions are incorrect Logic does not test the foundation upon which it is built. If she has no solid, trustworthy foundation upon which to build the assertion that abortion is morally permissible, then why trust the building? In fact, if her view is merely an opinion, why is my opinion any less valid? The credibility, and the truth, must be decided by the authority, the foundation, to which we appeal. She appeals to humanity’s emotional response (how would you feel?) to extreme cases (the rape of a 14 year old), exaggerated analogies (unborn humans as chocolates, oak trees, parasites, robbers, weeds), and to speculation and persuasive speech.
I appeal to the God of the Bible as my authority. He declared that murder is impermissible (Exodus 20:13) and that even hatred is worthy of condemnation (Matthew 5:21-22). He said that the innocent shall not be sinned against (1 Samuel 19:4-6) nor put to death (Psalm 94:20-21). He made man in His own image (Gen 1:27), meaning that man has inherent value and worth and should not be unjustly killed (Gen 9:6). He commanded all people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them because it reflects His character as One who pardons those who hate Him (Matthew 5:43-48). He exhorts that Christians be empty of selfishness and conceit, and be full of humility and service towards others, even at the cost of themselves (Philippians 2:3-5), following after the example of the Savior, Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:6-8). He implores Christians to be kind (2 Peter 2:1:7), remembering that the kindness of God leads to their salvation (1 Peter 2:3, Titus 3:4-7). And He urges that Christians walk in a manner worthy of the gospel that has saved them (Ephesians 4:1), doing good deeds (Ephesians 2:10) that bring Him glory. These are the tenants of founding a basic moral framework, built upon the only trustworthy authority. Unwittingly, Thomson incorporates these morals into worldview and moral framework.
But Thomson picks and chooses what she likes instead of taking what the God and King of all Creation has decreed, refusing to acknowledge the doctrine regarding life. The Bible is clear: God forms every child before birth (Psalm 139:13). He is intimately involved from conception (Genesis 17:15-22), and forms the child in the womb (Job 31:15; Psalm 119:73). He demands justice for any harm done to an unborn child (Exodus 21:22-25). He enables women to conceive (Ruth 4:13), gives children as blessings (Psalm 127:3-5) and blesses them (Mark 10:13-16). Adamantly so, He loves His creations.
As such, Thomson’s argument is not a significant weight. She appeals to nothing more than herself as the authority. To God, I can submit, because He is perfect and trustworthy and good. Her, a created being? Not so much.
To the great Giver and Sustainer be all glory and honor from every mouth and tongue and life,