PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday February 20, 2014



Continuing the notes on Thomson, which began on Thursday Feb.13.


[5.2.3.] Three Lessons from the Violinist Analogy.


Over the course of the article, Thomson draws three lessons from this story:


1.      The right to life is not the right to use someone else’s body to stay alive (“...having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body—even if one needs it for life itself.” RTD 95). Because the violinist is a person, he has a right to life. But this does not imply that he has a right to use your body in order to stay alive. If he did have a right to use your body in order to stay alive, then that right might outweigh your right to determine what happens to your body. But having a right to life does not imply having a right to use someone else’s body to stay alive—so that right does not necessarily trump your right to determine what happens in your body.


She further illustrates this point with the Henry Fonda thought-experiment:


If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow, then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand on my fevered brow. It might be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though no doubt well meant, if my friends flew out to the West Coast and carried Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody that he should do this for me. (RTD 94)


If the violinist required, not nine months of your time, but only a single hour, he still would not have a right to use your body, and so you would not be violating his rights by disconnecting. Thomson concedes that in this situation, it might be immoral in some other way for you to disconnect. You might be “self-centered, callous, indecent” if you refuse to stay connected for an hour; but you would not be behaving unjustly.


Applied to abortion, the lesson is this: even if the fetus has a right to life, this does not automatically give it the right to use your body to stay alive.



2.      The right to life is not the right not to be killed; it is the right not to be killed unjustly. (RTD 95)


Suppose that you have to spend nine years in bed in order to save the life of the violinist. According to Thomson, if you disconnect from him, you are killing him, but you are not killing him unjustly. This is true despite the fact that he has a right to life, just like any other person.


Applied to abortion, the lesson is this: the pro-lifer needs to do more than show that the fetus has a right to life. The pro-lifer needs to show more than that, because from the fact that a fetus has a right to life it does not follow that it has a right not to be killed—it only follows that it has a right not to be killed unjustly. The critic of abortion needs to go beyond this to show that abortion is unjust killing.



3.      While you would be doing something above and beyond the call of moral duty if you were to stay attached to the violinist, you are not doing anything wrong by detaching yourself.


In other words, staying attached to the violinist would be supererogatory, not obligatory.



[] Interlude: Moral Categories.


There five moral categories into which a given action can be sorted


a. immoral (df.): not permitted by morality; morally bad; in performing the action, you are doing something morally wrong.


b. morally permissible (df.): permitted by morality; in performing the action, you are not doing anything immoral. There are three sub-categories of morally permissible action: obligatory, morally neutral, and supererogatory:

c. obligatory (df.): required by morality; if you don’t do it, then you’ve done something immoral

d. morally neutral (df.): neither morally good nor morally bad; no moral value whatsoever

e. supererogatory (df.): going beyond what morality requires in order to do something especially good; you are not obligated to do it, so failing to do it would not be immoral; but if you do it, you’ve done something morally good and deserve praise.



[5.2.4.] The Violinist Story as an Analogy for Rape.


Thomson intends the violinist analogy to show that abortion is morally permissible in the case of pregnancy-by-rape.


But this alone does not show that the majority of abortions are morally permissible, since the majority of abortions do not result from rape.[1]

So it seems like, even if a pro-life person is convinced by the Violinist Analogy that abortion is permissible in the case of rape, he could still maintain that it is otherwise immoral.


However, Thomson offers a challenge to those who say (a) in general, abortion is wrong because a fetus is a person with a right to life and (b) abortion in the case of rape is morally permissible:


Can those who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception for a pregnancy due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn’t come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound. Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you are the product of a rape. (RTD 90)


In summary, Thompson’s challenge is this:

·         If fetuses are persons with a right to life, then fetuses created by way of rape are persons with a right to life.

·         If abortion is immoral because a fetus is a person with a right to life, then abortion is immoral in the case of rape.


But Thomson believes that abortion is morally permissible in the case of rape, so she thinks that it must be permissible in other cases, too.



[5.2.5.] The People Seed Thought-Experiment.


Thomson gives other analogies to support the claim that it is morally permissible for a woman to abort a pregnancy that she had attempted to prevent with contraceptives. One of these is the people seed analogy:


Imagine that “people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen” (RTD 97). If one is blown into your house through an open window and lands on your sofa or in your carpet, it will grow into a person for whom you will have to care. You want your windows open, but you don’t want a person growing on your couch, so you install window screens. Unfortunately, one of these screens fails, and a seed ends up on your couch and grows into a person. Does this person now have the right to use your house?


Thomson says that it is morally permissible for you to force this person to leave, that he or she does not have a right to stay in your home.


She takes this case to imply that in cases of unwanted pregnancies stemming from sex using (failed) contraception, the fetus does not have a right to the continued use of the mother’s body.


Thomson considers an objection—we can call it the Responsibility Objection: “Someone may argue that you are responsible for its [i.e., the people seed’s] rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors.” (RTD 97)


She offers two responses to this objection:


Response #1:

But this won’t do—for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.  (RTD 97)


·         In other words, the person who makes the Responsibility Objection is assuming the following:


If doing x would have guaranteed that you wouldn’t become pregnant,

and you chose not do x and then became pregnant, then

you are responsible for the pregnancy and so it is immoral to abort it.


·         But this assumption is false: it implies that it is immoral to abort a pregnancy-by-rape that you could have prevented by just staying home, or by not leaving the house without someone to protect you.


Response #2:

Surely we do not have [a] “special responsibility” for a person unless we have assumed it, explicitly or implicitly. If a set of parents do not try to prevent pregnancy, do not obtain an abortion, and then at the time of birth of the child do not put it out for adoption, but rather take it home with them, then they have assumed responsibility for it, they have given it rights, and they cannot now withdraw support from it at the cost of its life because they now find it difficult to go on providing for it. But if they have taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it. They may wish to assume responsibility for it, or they may not wish to. And I am suggesting that if assuming responsibility for it would require large sacrifices, then they may refuse. (102-103)



[5.2.6.] Immorality and Rights.


Thompson believes that some cases of abortion are immoral (e.g., aborting a pregnancy in the seventh month only because you don’t want to postpone a trip overseas; p.103).


But on her view, this does not imply that the fetus has a right to the use of the mother’s body.


She tries to establish this point by arguing that it is possible to do something immoral to someone without violating that person’s rights.


Her view seems to be that, just like there are different ways in which an action can be morally permissible (it can be morally neutral, or obligatory, or supererogatory), there are different ways in which an action can be immoral: it can be mean, or indecent, or callous… or unjust (i.e., violative of someone’s rights. [This is not supposed to be a complete list—there may be other varieties of immorality.]


One way of wronging someone is to fail to do something for that person that you should do.


But the fact that you should do something for a person does not imply that you have violated some right of hers by not doing it.


To support this point, Thomson offers the following thought experiments:


The One-Hour Violinist: Suppose that the violinist only needed an hour of your life, and staying connected to him had no health consequences for you. Thomson says it would then be “morally indecent” to disconnect rather than simply wait an hour.


The Two Brothers: An older brother is given a box of chocolates and refuses to give any to his little brother, who sits pitifully watching his older sibling eat the entire box. Perhaps it is mean, or cruel, or indecent, for the older brother not to share... but this doesn’t imply that the younger brother has a right to any of the chocolates. He does not have a right to them, since those chocolates were given to his older brother and not to him. (Had the box of chocolates been given to them both and the older brother kept them from the younger, then we would have a case of injustice, of a violation of the younger brother’s rights.)


Henry Fonda Across the Hall: If Fonda is not on the West Coast but already in the same hospital as you (visiting a family member of his own, for example), and all that he has to do to save your life is step across the hall into your hospital room and touch you, it would be wrong for him not to... but that does not mean that, if he refuses to do so, he is violating some right that you have. By refusing to touch you, he can wrong you without violating any of your rights.


The point of these examples is this: even if in some cases abortion wrongs the fetus, this will not imply that it violates any of the fetus’s rights. For example …


One-Hour Pregnancy. Suppose that pregnancy lasted only an hour. Now imagine someone who becomes pregnant by rape. Would it be immoral for her to abort rather than simply wait an hour? Perhaps... but this will not mean that the fetus has a right to the mother’s body.


[E]ven supposing a case in which a woman pregnant due to rape ought to allow the unborn person to use her body for the hour he needs, we should not conclude that he has a right to do so; we should conclude that she is self-centered, callous, indecent, but not unjust, if she refuses. The complaints are no less grave; they are just different. (RTD 99)


Thomson’s view seems to be: were pregnancy to take only an hour, then even in the case of rape, the mother would be doing something wrong by aborting the pregnancy. However, she would not be violating the fetus’s rights.


She takes this view with regard to one-hour pregnancy because such a pregnancy would not necessarily require any “large sacrifices.” But an actual, nine-month pregnancy does entail large sacrifices, especially if it is unwanted.


So she draws the following conclusion: “Except in such cases as the unborn person has a right to demand it ... nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments, for nine years, or even for nine months, in order to keep another person alive.” (RTD 99-100)




The following notes will be covered in the quiz that we will have at the start of class on Tuesday February 25.



[6.] Utilitarianism.


[6.1.] Branches of Ethics.


We’ve seen that ethics is a branch of the area of inquiry called philosophy.


Ethics itself consists of three different sub-branches. From most to least abstract, they are:

·         meta-ethics

·         normative ethics

·         applied ethics



[6.1.1.] Meta-Ethics.


meta-ethics (df.): the branch of ethics that tries to answer questions about the nature of morality itself.  It does not ask questions about, or make judgments about, what types of action are moral and immoral. Rather, it asks questions like:

·         is morality subjective or objective, i.e., does it depend on what we believe about it, or is it independent of our beliefs about it?

·         does morality depend on what God commands?

·         are moral judgments (statements attributing morality or immorality to a given act, e.g., “Murder is immoral” and “Charity is supererogatory”) capable of being true or false?

·         is it possible to prove a moral judgment to be true or to be false?


We have already studied a handful of meta-ethical theories:

·         moral skepticism

·         moral-cultural relativism (a form of moral skepticism)

·         moral realism

·         divine command theory (a form of moral realism)


You can think of meta-ethics as trying to take a position above normative ethics, looking down on it and trying to explain where it comes from. (The word “meta” means above or about.)



[6.1.2.] Applied Ethics.


applied ethics (df.): the branch of ethics that asks relatively concrete questions about the morality of specific controversial actions and policies; examples of issues within applied ethics include:

·         abortion

·         euthanasia

·         drug use, including marijuana

·         our treatment of non-human animals

·         capital punishment

·         using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terror suspects

·         human cloning

·         homosexuality and same-sex marriage

[Most of the readings in RTD beginning with chapter 11 deal with issues in applied ethics.]



[6.1.3.] Normative Ethics.


normative ethics (df.): the branch of ethics that asks general questions about the morality of behavior; it attempts to provide broad moral norms/standards of behavior.


By itself, the word “normative” is defined as follows:


normative (a.k.a. prescriptive) (df): a normative statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things should be, how they ought to be, rather than how they actually are.


[The opposite of “normative” is: descriptive (df.): a descriptive statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things actually are, not how they ought to be.]


So normative ethics is the branch of ethics that tries to answer general questions about how we should behave, i.e., about how we ought to act. In other words, it attempts to discover general rules or principles of moral behavior.


In this area of ethics, you will find claims like the following:

·         If doing x will benefit someone without harming anyone else, then it is morally permissible for you to do x.

·         If doing x will not violate anyone’s moral rights, then it is morally permissible for you to do x.

These are claims about what sort of behavior is morally permissible in general. They are also rules you can use to help you decide what the right thing to do is in any given situation.


For the remainder of the course, we will be moving back and forth between normative ethics and applied ethics.



[] Consequentialism vs. Deontology.


There are two main traditions within normative ethics:


consequentialism (df.): the tradition of normative ethics that judges whether an action is moral or immoral based only its consequences (i.e., its effects); nothing else about the action is morally relevant.


deontology (df.): the tradition of normative ethics according to which there are some actions that you have a duty to perform and some you have a duty not to perform, regardless of the consequences (from Greek “deon”, meaning duty or obligation). [We will discuss deontology at length when we study the ethical theory of Immanuel Kant.]


A stark illustration of the different answers these traditions might give to the same moral question is found in Bernard Williams’ “Utilitarianism and Integrity” (see the story of Jim in Bernard Williams’ “Utilitarianism and Integrity,” RTD p.40).



[] Classical vs. Modern Utilitarianism.


The theory called utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. It is one way of taking the basic idea of consequentialism (that actions are right or wrong only because of their consequences) and making it more specific.


A rough definition of utilitarianism is this:


The right thing to do in any situation is whatever will increase the overall amount of happiness in the world and decrease the overall amount of suffering.


This is how Utilitarians in the 19th century stated the theory; I will call it “classical Utilitarianism.”


These days, utilitarians are likely to emphasize well-being or making people better off rather than happiness. A rough definition of this modern form of utilitarianism:


The right thing to do in any situation is whatever will increase the overall amount of well-being in the world. I will call this “modern Utilitarianism.”


(Soon we will examine reasons why modern utilitarians tend to focus on well-being rather than on happiness.)



[6.3.] Utility and Value.


A reminder: in general, utilitarianism is the view that the right thing to do in any situation is whatever will have the best consequences for anyone who could be affected.


But what consequences are best? Every utilitarian has to answer this question.


In other words, every form of utilitarianism must identify something that has intrinsic value—


·         intrinsic value (df.): something has intrinsic value when it is valuable for its own sake rather than because it can help you attain something else of value. The opposite is extrinsic value...


·         extrinsic value (df.):  something has extrinsic value when it is valuable as a means to an end—a way of helping you achieve something else that you value—rather than as an end in itself.


So, in other words, every form of utilitarianism must identify something worth having for its own sake, something that is intrinsically valuable.


Utilitarians use the word “utility” to refer to whatever it is that is worth having for its own sake.


They will then explain what a morally right action is by saying that it is an action that increases the overall amount of utility. According to utilitarianism, the moral status of an action will depend upon whether it increases the amount of that intrinsically valuable thing.


According to modern utilitarianism, that which has value for its own sake is well-being.


But according to classical utilitarianism, that which has value for its own sake is happiness.



[6.4.] Classical Utilitarianism.


Utilitarianism was given its classical statement in the 19th century by three English philosophers:


·         Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

·         John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the author of Utilitarianism

·         Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)


The lives of Bentham and Mill are discussed by Rachels in his introduction to RTD ch.3 (pp.29-30).


According to Mill’s classical utilitarianism, utility amounts to happiness. He even called utilitarianism “the Greatest Happiness Principle.” (See RTD p.29)



[6.3.2.] Classical Utilitarianism’s Three Components.


Mill referred to his fundamental moral principle as the “Greatest Happiness Principle”: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (RTD 29)


The Greatest Happiness Principle is Mill’s statement of his version of utilitarianism, which is sometimes called classical utilitarianism.  It consists of three independent claims:


1.consequentialism: what makes an action right or wrong are nothing but its effects.

2.impartiality: the interests of any being are just as important as the same interests of any other being.[2]

3.hedonism: pleasure and the absence of pain are the only things with intrinsic value


[Recall that Rachels is committed to impartiality... it is one-half of what he calls the Minimum Conception of Morality:


1.      “moral judgments must be backed up by good reasons”;

2.      “morality requires the impartial consideration of each individual’s interests.” (EMP 10)



Stopping point for Thursday February 20. For next time, read RTD ch.5 (“The Experience Machine” by Nozick) and EMP ch.8  pp.110-117 only (“The Debate Over Utilitarianism”), and study today’s lecture notes.





[1] In 2012, “the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) released a statement [according to which] ‘[e]ach year in the U.S., 10,000-15,000 abortions occur among women whose pregnancies are a result of reported rape or incest.’” “Todd Akin Challenged by Doctors on Rape and Pregnancy,” ABC News, August 21, 2012, URL = < >, accessed May 3, 2013. What percentage of the total number of abortions is this? The latest government statistics on abortion are from 2009. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), during that year 784,507 legal abortions were performed in the United States, Presumably, this figure is lower than the actual number, since states aren’t required to report these numbers to the CDC, and the figure cited does not include numbers from four states (California, Delaware, Maryland, and New Hampshire). (“Abortion Surveillance: United States, 2009,” Centers for Disease Control, URL = < >, accessed May 3, 2013.)  Combining the two figures yields the result that legal abortions due to rape account for no more than 1-1.5% of legal abortions in the US each year. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, in 2008 (the most recent year for which the Institute provides statistics), 1.21 million legal abortions were performed in the United States. Combining that statistic with the estimate that 10-15,000 US abortions are due to rape or incest each year yields the estimate that no more than 1% of legal abortions are of pregnancies due to rape or incest. Of course, it is possible that this figure is too low because not all women who abort pregnancies that are in fact due to rape or incest report that this is the case.


[2] Bentham: "Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one." [Bentham may never have written this; J. S. Mill attributes the saying to Bentham in ch.V of Utilitarianism; it is cited by Peter Singer in his defense of animal rights, RTD 124]


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