Ep. 9: Thomson’s Violinist

thomson violinist

Hey everyone!

New episode on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist analogy is up and going!
Click here to listen to it in a new window.
The links I discussed during the show can be found after the analysis of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous Violinist analogy. You can find a link to the podcast as a YouTube video at the bottom of this post.

The Violinist

In the general category of bodily autonomy arguments, there are at least two sub-categories: the “Sovereign Zone” and the “Right to Refuse” arguments. In Episode 8, I discussed the arguments that fall under the Sovereign Zone umbrella, which can also be referred to as the “my body, my choice” arguments. This post/episode is going to be on the latter category—the ‘Right to Refuse’ arguments.

The bodily autonomy arguments essentially say that a woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her body, all throughout pregnancy. If the woman wants to expel the pregnancy before viability, that’s fine. The termination of pregnancy is the goal—the killing of her unborn offspring is simply a consequence of her acting on her right to bodily autonomy.

As I side note, this seems to be one of the primary reasons that some pro-choice people draw the line at viability. Because if a woman no longer wants to be pregnant and the child cannot survive outside of the womb…no harm, no foul (from their perspective). However, if the child can survive outside of the womb, then an abortion would be an act of active killing. This seems strange to me because it is essentially saying that when the child is completely helpless, you can kill him. But when he is almost completely helpless, you can’t.

Not all pro-choice advocates believe this way, and it seems to point towards a bit of an internal struggle within the pro-choice belief structure. If the woman really is entitled to her own body, then why can’t she kill the child before or after viability? Like I said, this was covered in much more depth during my episode titled Episode 8, Bodily Autonomy.

Without further ado, let’s jump into Thomson’s Violinist.

Thomson’s Violinist

I’d encourage you to read her paper, which includes more than just the violinist analogy. You can find that right here! The paper really isn’t that long, and anyone interested in defending the pro-life case ought to read it.

It is important to note that Thomson isn’t technically making an argument, she’s just giving a counter example by using an analogy. Her purpose in this analogy is to show that if you do not consent to the violinist using your body, you have a right to unplug. In the same way, if you do not consent to the child using your body, you have the right to abort.

I would encourage you to not respond to this analogy by saying “this would never happen” or “this is so unrealistic.” The entire point of a thought experiment is to suspend whether or not it is a realistic situation and to analyze the morality and the ethics of the situation. A consistent ethical approach will be revealed by its answers to important questions brought up by thought experiments.

The Good Samaritan Argument

There are some people who say that they simply would not unplug. These same people often say that they would not unplug (because they have a moral obligation to keep the violinist alive if they’re able), but they would not force anyone else to make the same decision. Staying connected is considered a supererogatory act, but it is not something that should be compelled by law.

This is likely where I would fall. I don’t think I would be comfortable disconnecting, knowing that the violinist would die. However, I would never suggest that this should be required by force of government. I touched on this in Episode 7 when it comes to forced kidney donations. I think we have a moral obligation to do it, but we ought not to have a legal obligation.

If you think about it, saying that you would stay connected to the violinist but wouldn’t force others to do the same is a fairly common pro-choice argument. They say, “I would never get an abortion myself, but I simply cannot imagine telling someone that she has to stay pregnant.”

The people making this statement see pregnancy as a supererogatory act—an action that is not required, but would really show off someone’s moral fortitude and selflessness. This, however, is precisely where the violinist analogy falls apart when comparing it to pregnancy. This is because the morally relevant parallels are not actually parallel.

What is the difference between the violinist analogy and actual pregnancy?

  1. In the analogy, you are bedridden.
    Statistically speaking, a woman is very rarely bedridden during pregnancy, let alone bedridden for her the entire length of pregnancy. There are certain situations in which a woman will find herself on bed rest (problems with her cervix, preeclampsia, etc), but this doesn’t happen until later in the pregnancy for most. If it does occur earlier in pregnancy, that is due to a preexisting medical condition that is very rare within our society.So, in order for this analogy to be applicable, the pregnant woman must be unable to remove herself from her bed during the entire ten months of pregnancy.
  1. In the analogy, the person connected to the violinist is not responsible for being connected. 

    In the vast majority of cases, the pregnant woman has consented to sex. One of the possible consequences of engaging in sexual intercourse is the creation of a dependent human being.
    We’ll talk more about the ‘responsibility objection’ later, but I’d like to point out that we, as a society, recognize the responsibility objection as legitimate. If you are responsible for causing someone to be in a dependent state, you have an obligation to them that goes beyond the obligation you have to someone else. Even if the other person is in a dependent state, but placed into dependency by someone else. The person responsible has a unique obligation. We expect fathers to provide for their children, either by going to work and putting food on the table or by paying child support. Avoiding that responsibility is socially unacceptable because we recognize the responsibility objection as legitimate.So, in order for the analogy to be parallel, the pregnant woman would have to be a rape victim who subsequently became pregnant, and she must immediately go on bed rest for the entirety of her pregnancy.

  1. In the analogy, the relationship between the violinist and the connected person is that of a stranger.
    In the overwhelming majority of cases, the pregnant woman is carrying her own child. This is even the case when it comes to rape victims. As awful as rape is (and I’m not denying that rape is a horrendous evil), the child being carried by the rape victim is her child, biologically. The only time where a woman bears no biological relationship to the child in her womb is when a woman volunteers her body to be a surrogate for another couple.This is getting a bit strange, don’t you think?In order to create a real-life, morally parallel situation to the violinist analogy, we need to have an immediately bedridden woman who was used as a surrogate for someone else’s baby, against her will.
    I don’t know of a single instance where this has happened. But perhaps my knowledge is limited. Or perhaps we can change the violinist analogy so that it becomes more parallel to pregnancy.

Though experiments can be modified in order to focus on the morally relevant issues at hand, and, for your viewing pleasure, I’d like to introduce…

[Elijiah] Thompson’s violinist:
(Get it cuz Judith doesn’t have a p in her name, and I do? Ha!)
(This analogy is not in the podcast, btw.)

Let’s imagine that you’re a stinking jerk and poisoned your violinist cousin, Junrey Balawing. Balawing is the smallest man in the world at under 24 inches tall. He was going to die of a kidney ailment, but your kidneys are able to keep him alive. All you have to do is stay connected to him for 10 months, and then you can both go on your merry way. You can carry him around in a backpack. He doesn’t mind.

…now that we’ve changed it, doesn’t it seem as though you have a moral obligation to stay connected to the little dude that you caused to be in his current situation? He is related to you, his existence doesn’t cause you to be bedridden, and you are the jerk who caused him to be dependent. You certainly have an obligation to stay connected so that he doesn’t die.

With that fun little thing out of the way, let’s dive into the more philosophically robust analysis of the violinist analogy.

The Responsibility Objection

In Thomson’s violinist analogy, the reason the violinist is dependent upon someone else is because of the devious actions of the society of music lovers. Unfortunately, the person chosen to connect to the violinist had nothing to do with the connection. I alluded to this above, but this ‘responsibility objection’ is one of the stronger arguments against the analogy, and gives us a pretty good idea about why the analogy is not morally parallel.

Let’s imagine a slightly modified version of the violinist where I am directly responsible for the violinist to be dependent upon me. Due to the fact that I have a very strange sense of humor or have an insatiable desire to be desperately needed, I do some research and find a famous violinist who has the exact same weird blood type as me (in this analogy, we both share the Bombay blood type). I poison him, and then find a hospital and connect myself to him. I am now directly responsible for his dependent state. The same is true of nearly all pregnancies. So why, if you are responsible for another person’s dependency upon you, are you allowed to kill him/her?

Sex Makes Babies. Duh.

Most people know that sex creates dependent people. If you cause someone to need you, you have an obligation to take care of them. This seems like a rather obvious thing. If you consent to something, you have to take responsibility for the consequences of the decision.

To use an analogy, let’s imagine there is a room. In the room, there is a button with a sign above it saying, “Press here for 25–40 minutes of pleasure. Warning: There is an 8% chance of this machine creating an infant.”

Now if someone walks in, reads the sign, presses the button for pleasure, and a baby is sent down a slide and ends up sitting right next to him, he may argue and say, “No, I only consented to having 40 minutes of pleasure! I didn’t consent to this infant!”


You are the one who knew the risks. You are the one who hit the button. You are the one who caused the child to come into existence, so you have a moral obligation to take care of the child. You cannot just leave the child there to die, or kill the child. It is absurd to suggest that you consent to a particular behavior but do not consent to the actions of that behavior.

Again, if you are directly responsible for another person’s dependency upon you, what justification is there for you to kill him/her?

A Child is Not an Intruder

As I stated earlier, pro-choice advocates see staying connected as supererogatory. They also see pregnancy as supererogatory. But are the two examples parallel in the relevant ways? I don’t think so. And that’s because the unborn child is not an intruder, whereas the violinist is an intruder.

In the violinist example, we are using our kidneys to keep the violinist alive. This is an unnatural function of our kidneys; they are not designed to keep another person alive. However, the womb is designed (whether by evolution or by God, whichever) to keep a child alive. The womb, when it is performing its natural function, is preparing for a child or keeping a child alive.

The womb provides food, shelter, medicine,safety, etc.

For whom are the kidneys designed?

The fact that we are using our bodies in an unnatural way shows that this analogy is not properly analogous to pregnancy.

Killing and Letting Die

The fatal series of events began before you were connected to the violinist in the analogy. But in abortion, you start the fatal series of events. There may be a moral obligation to someone who is dying, but initiating the fatal series of events on an innocent human being is wrong.

Thomson seems to be ignoring the fact that in abortion, you have a healthy child who is being actively killed. In the analogy, you have someone who is already dying. And this is even more relevant when we’re referring to abortions that are past the point of viability. Partial birth abortions are clear examples of active killing rather than letting die.

As Frank Beckwith says, “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen.”

Fighting Analogies with Analogies

The way that people construct analogies gives the listener a particular perspective on a situation. In the violinist analogy, you are the pregnant woman. In the reverse violinist analogy, you are in the situation of the unborn child.

Imagine you wake up in a hospital and you’re connected to Thomson’s violinist. You decide, “You know what? I think it would be nice to stay plugged in, but I can’t stay here for nine months.” So you unplug, walk out of the hospital, and you start to feel really nauseous and lightheaded. The director of the hospital runs out to you and says, “Oh my goodness, plug back in or you’ll die!” So you run back into the room, plug back in, and you start feeling better. The director says, “I’m terribly sorry, but last night you were kidnapped by the society of musical pranksters. This group of pranksters, of which the violinist is a member, they have a lot of fun together. But they’re pranksters. And because they’re pranksters, every now and then they end up plugged into an innocent person. And when this happens, it destroys the innocent person’s kidneys. But don’t worry. If you stay plugged into the violinist, in nine months your kidneys will heal and you can go on your way.”  And you pass out because this is crazy.

The violinist wakes up, looks at you, and says, “Hey! This dude doesn’t have the right to use my body without my consent. I’m not going to let him use my kidneys without my permission.” He unplugs from you, walks out of the hospital, and you die of kidney failure. And they toss your body into the hospital incinerator.

Does the violinist, in this case, have the right to unplug from you? Not at all.


The responsibility objection.

The last analogy I want to use is one used by Anthony George called, “The Good Samaritan on Life Support.” I read the analogy in the podcast (around 49 minutes in), but you can read that here.

To summarize it, Chris and Kyle are conjoined twins that want to be separated. Kyle’s body is dependent upon Chris’ body for survival because of the way their bodies are intertwined, but Chris is able to be separated from Kyle without dying.

They go to see some doctors, and they recommend that Chris and Kyle stay connected for nine months, because in order to separate the two, they need to grow some vital organs for Kyle (and it takes nine months to grow the organs). But Chris is impatient and wants to be free of Kyle immediately. So, he goes to a separatist who does it immediately, and Kyle passes away and his body is thrown into the dumpster.

Has Chris done anything wrong? Of course he has!

He only had to wait 9 months in order to be separated.

However, if the bodily autonomy arguments (as promoted by the pro-choicers and the violinist analogy) are correct, then Chris has done nothing wrong. After all, it was his body, his choice, right? And Kyle had no right to invade upon Chris’ body without his permission.

It is valuable to fight analogies with analogies because it forces us to take a look at the differences, and to see which viewpoint can answer the analogies adequately.

Thanks for reading and listening!

I hope both episode 8 & 9 helped to defang the bodily autonomy arguments and the violinist analogy.

Please share with both pro-choice and pro-life friends!

Photo by Stephen Wolfe via Flickr

Elijah Thompson
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