PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday February 27, 2015



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


Because the person in the Violinist Thought Experiment is kidnapped and connected to the violinist against her will, the story might be said to be most similar to pregnancies resulting from rape.[1]


This suggests that, 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.


But Thomson offers a challenge to those who say (a) in general, the Right to Life Argument works to show that abortion is wrong, but (b) abortion is permissible in the case of rape:


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, Thomson’s challenge is this:

          If all fetuses are persons with a right to life, then fetuses conceived in rape are persons with a right to life.

          So if abortion is wrong because a fetus is a person whose right to life always outweighs the right to bodily control, then abortion is wrong even in the case of rape.


But Thomson’s view is that abortion is permissible (not wrong) in the case of rape, and so even if fetuses are persons with the right to life, that fact alone does not establish that abortion is wrong.



[6.4.] Staying Attached is Supererogatory.


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.



[6.4.1.] Interlude: Moral Categories.


There are two main moral categories and three sub-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.



[6.5.] Lessons about the Right to Life.


Over the course of the article, Thomson draws two 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 violating any rights the violinist has to your body—because he has no such rights.


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 show not just that abortion is killing, but that it is unjust killing. 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. So the critic of abortion needs to show that abortion is unjust killing… that in depriving it of the use of the mother’s body, we are depriving it of something to which it has been given a right.



In the case of pregnancy due to rape, the mother has not extended the right to use her body to the fetus. She is not responsible for the fetus’s presence in her body; she did not “invite” it in. And so in depriving it of the use of her body, she is not depriving it of anything to which it has a right. Therefore, abortion in the case of pregnancy-due-to-rape is not unjust killing.



[6.6.] 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)


Thomson offers two responses to the Responsibility 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 Responsibility Objection assumes 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)


Stopping point for Wednesday February 25. For next time, study today’s lecture notes, and read all of EMP ch.7




[1] The majority of abortions performed in the U.S. are not abortions of pregnancies resulting from rape. 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 = < >, retrieved May 3, 2013. (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.) What percentage of the total number of abortions is this? The latest government statistics on abortion are from 2011. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), during that year 730,322 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, Maryland, and New Hampshire). (“Abortion Surveillance: United States, 2011,” Centers for Disease Control, URL = < >, retrieved February 27, 2015.)  Combining the two figures yields the result that legal abortions due to rape account for no more than 1.3-2% of legal abortions in the US each year.


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