Judith Jarvis Thomson and the Good Samaritan

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Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" is sometimes said to be the most-reprinted article in philosophy, and I believe it. It's one of the most influential papers in all of applied ethics, and several of the arguments Thomson makes have become standard moves in completely unrelated discussions.

One of Thomson's claims is that it would be morally indecent to have an abortion in the ninth month for fairly trivial concerns but that we shouldn't expect a young teenager in her first trimester, pregnant by means of rape, to go through with a pregnancy. She thinks it would be a wonderful moral decision to choose to go through with it, but it's more than we should expect. Philosophers regularly speak this way. They find a middle ground between what is wrong and what is morally required. That range includes anything that would be morally excellent to do but not morally required. This does fit with a lot of people's moral intuitions. There are sacrifices that would be morally admirable to make, but no one is really obligated to make them. This class of actions is called supererogatory. Thomson is saying that it's supererogatory to go through with a pregnancy in some conditions, but it's morally obligatory to go through with it in other cases.

What struck me as odd as I was reading the paper again this time around while preparing to teach it was her use of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to express this view. She says the ninth-month abortion in the above paragraph wouldn't even be an example of a Minimally Decent Samaritan. We should expect more morally. But going through a pregnancy in the other case would be an example of a Very Good Samaritan, i.e. well beyond the call of duty. I'm not going to dispute the possibility of distinguishing between a range of cases, with some supererogatory and some morally obligatory. It does seem strange to use the Good Samaritan parable to do so, however, since Jesus' point in that parable is that you ought to love your neighbor as yourself, and your neighbor is anyone in need, which means you ought to go way beyond what you thought you were obligated to do, and this is even in cases involving complete strangers whose social position means you wouldn't normally even rub shoulders with the person. In other words, Jesus is at the very least minimizing the category of supererogatory actions. He doesn't explicitly deny that there are such actions, but it's hard to avoid the impression on reading the parable that he thinks most actions philosophers would classify as supererogatory as actually morally required.

That suggests an interesting response to Thomson's argument. What about those who don't hold to a view like Thomson's about supererogatory actions? What we ought to be as good as we can be? What if we ought to do as much good as we can do? Thomson's intent is to assume for the sake of argument that a fetus has full moral status and a right to life, arguing then that there are still reasons to think abortion is morally permissible under certain conditions (and as she goes it becomes clear that those conditions aren't just extreme ones like rape but include any case of failed contraception, provided that the abortion takes place early enough in the pregnancy). There are lots of places people might question her argument, but one place I hadn't thought about was to question her reliance on there being a wide range of supererogatory acts. If not, then you might concede all her other points and still oppose abortion. If you think it's morally better to go through with a pregnancy, as Thomson concedes (and many pro-choice people have since then), then once you deny supererogation you end up with a moral obligation not to have an abortion, and this has nothing to do with fetal rights (Thomson is no longer assuming for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person when she gets into the Good Samaritan stuff).

So Thomson's argument gets turned on its head. She started with an argument defending abortion even if the fetus is a person with full moral rights, and once you deny the supererogation premise you end up with an argument that abortion is often immoral, without assuming anything about the personhood of the fetus. It does involve a pretty controversial premise, but it's an interesting argument nonetheless, and there are lots of people who deny supererogation (or at least should do so given their other commitments).


Hey Jeremy,

Unrelated to the content of this post, but there's a conversation over at the Gender, Race and Philosophy blog about evidence for the claim that folk theories of race are innate. I thought you might find it interesting RE: your diss work. It's over here.

Hm. The links didn't show up in the preview of the comment. Here they are again just in case:

SGRP blog: http://sgrp.typepad.com/sgrp/
Post on evidence for innate folk theories: http://sgrp.typepad.com/sgrp/2008/02/mallon-essay-on.html

Thanks, Rachel. I did see that post, but the conversation has continued since I looked at it, so thanks for the reminder.

The comment template has problems, but the links are fine, as you can see if you've returned here. I'm hoping my comment problems will be resolved soon.

Jeremy, have you seen Robert Adams' paper "Christian Liberty" (reprinted in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris)? Sect. 4 argues that in terms of internal consistency, Christian ethics not only can but must leave room for supererogation.

I haven't seen it. I think I've got that book, so I'll take a look. I'm not sure how he's going to get around "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

My response to Adams required a whole post.

In ordinary cases, leaving the baby in a woman's body is nothing supererogatory. It is morally required except in rape cases.

Despite appearances to the contrary, if Thomson's argument works, child support laws would be utterly indefensible.

She gives a variety of analogies to try to remove the sexual responsibility aspect. But, there is a problem.

Imagine if the violinist just needed money. The society of Music Lovers hooks the violinist up to the victim just to coerce him/her. The violinist could get welfare, but thinks there is an illegitimate reason that the victim should pay disproportionately. I think most of us would agree that would be wrong.

That is what child support laws would be tantamount to if Thomson's argument works.
The basic point she tries to advance is that engaging in sex does not assume any more responsibility that being attached against your will to a child.

Now, what is the difference? Sex is naturally ordered towards reproduction, not just casually associated with it. It is naturally ordered towards creating dependent beings that naturally move to the womb.

Some may object that abortion is fine, since mothers are not forced to donate organs to needy children. However, there are morally relevant differences.

There is the natural/artificial distinction I already described. The woman's body is naturally ordered towards the pregnancy that the sex act is naturally ordered towards. It is not naturally ordered towards ejecting kidneys.

Also, imagine if a scientists falls madly in love with test tube babies. However, the only eggs and sperm he has to work with contain genes for a heart disorder that upon birth will require the infants to be hooked up to him for nine months upon birth. My moral intuitions say that he would be morally obliged to accept being plugged to the infants.

What is the difference? He could have reasonably foreseen and expected the requirement, unlike ordinary parents. Pregnacy definitely falls in that category.

The Reasonable foreseeability standard is what all laws base responsibility on. So, I did not make that up.

Herea are a couple useful links.

http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/downloads.htm Look for the article that reviews David Boonin's defense of abortion (he employs Thomson's argument). I think he is right about personhood as well, but he bludgeons Thomson's argument totally thoroughly.
http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com/2008/01/peter-kreeft-v-david-boonin-cu-boulder.html Here, find the term breastfeeding. Boonin tries to evade the real question. He just refers to the burden level. But, his distinction has to be either/or to be real. He would have to favor mandatory bone marrow donation to be consistent (nine months of breastfeeding would be at least comparable in burden). But, opposition to mandatory bone marrow donation is what he uses to justify abortion.

I've never been able to figure out why rape cases are supposed to be any different on a pro-life view. It isn't any different on the three main views in the literature. It doesn't affect the moral status of the fetus, so if the fetus has moral status then rape is irrelevant. This is so for the traditional view and for the future-like-ours view that Don Marquis defends. (I've reflected on this issue and the issue of other proposed exceptions here.)

I used Beckwith's argument about child support in my class the last time I taught this, so I'm very familiar with that article. The one group this argument won't work against is libertarians, who think welfare and child support are immoral while insisting on pro-choice views with abortion. A Thomson-like position would be consistent in that political framework.

I personally oppose rape exceptions. I just do not feel as confident about my arguments in those cases. I once read an essay titled something like "the Bodyright Argument: A Pro-Life Response" by Brian D. Parks which I cannot find, but I will approximately borrow the main analogy from the essay (some details may be different).

Since you referred to the separation of conjoined twins and its application to life of the mother exceptions (which may be right), you may be familiar with the analogy or some variant. The analogy involves a hypothetical pair of conjoined twins (I will call them Andromeda and Decembra) who have contemplated separating. Decembra develops heart-lung damage that will only last nine months. If the two are separated before the nine-months has elapsed, Decembra will die. However, Andromeda is incredibly selfish and demands to be separated now, even though it will kill Decembra.

As Andromeda did nothing to bring on her condition, the situation resembles pregnancy by rape. If that were to occur, I would think the state should halt the separation. I think most would see a difference between this case and the violinist case. The connection is natural, meaning that to separate means to kill Decembra instead of letting her die.

I personally do not care whether they have always been connected or not. The natural/artificial distinction is the main point. My intuitions certainly would not change if Andromeda had been in a coma since birth (so no personal relationship distinction would exist).

However, if one would allow the separation, one accepts all the logical implications of his/her position. There is no point in further debate.

I hadn't heard of this sort of case as an analogy. I can't see how anyone could possibly think it's morally ok for Andromeda to insist on the separation when all it will take to save her sister's life is to wait for nine months continuing something that's really all she's ever known. I don't see how it's anything short of murder even if she has to stay connected for the rest of her life if that's what preserving her sister's life requires.

Maybe there's more wiggle room on the legal issue, but it still seems like such a clear case of murder, and I'm pretty sure it would legally count as murder in most countries unless both parties consented to the operation.

I know it has been awhile, but I found the essay with the conjoined twinning analogy.


And I can answer a possible objection to the analogy.

"For example, the analogy between typical pregnancy and conjoined twins has been challenged on the basis that the pregnant woman, having existed for many years before the fetus came into existence, has a prior claim to the use of her own body, whereas conjoined twins come into existence at the same time and thus do not have a prior claim to the use of their shared body parts"

Another way it might be phrased is that "conjoined twins are like two people who came to a plot of land at the same time."

Well, look at this article.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjoined_twins (If you want scholarly information, you can research further, but it is not necessary for my purposes).

One theory is the fusion theory, where the fertilized egg split completely before joining back together. That would mean that the Andromeda's body was originally solely her own.

Also notice how the organs are not shared.

Would our intuitive response really change if the fusion theory turned out to be true? Would they change if it turned own that Decembra's blood always had flown exclusively through her heart and lungs before her illness?

I cannot imagine so. The fact that the connection is natural makes the separation killing and not letting die, which disconnecting the artificial connection with the violinist is letting die.

I accept the concept of supererogatory acts vs. morally required ones. Yet, Thomson grossly misapplies those concepts to abortion.

I'm not even confident that it's morally acceptable to unplug oneself from the violinist. I don't know why people so easily grant that to Thomson. But I think you're right that these are good ways to pull apart the acceptability of unplugging from the acceptability of abortion. The latter doesn't really follow from the former.

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