Abortion is one of the most controversial topics in America today, but among philosophers what is not controversial is that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” is one of the most important and influential articles on the topic. Anthologized countless times, whichever position you take in the abortion debate you cannot claim to have an informed opinion without considering Thomson. Principally driven by her creative and memorable ‘violinist thought experiment,’ Thomson changed the game by granting the central pro-life assumption—namely that the fetus is a person with full moral status—and then arguing that abortion is permissible anyway.
For the uninitiated, Thomson asks us to imagine ourselves kidnapped by the ‘society for music lovers’ and hooked up the titular (innocent, unconscious) ‘violinist’ who is using our kidneys to stay alive. If you unhook yourself the violinist will die. Does the violinist’s ‘right to life’ oblige you to stay hooked up to him for 9 months? Thomson says no: even if the violinist/fetus is a person, no person has the right to use another person’s body against their will.
My concern here is not the conclusion itself as much as it is the methodology Thomson employs. My skepticism towards thought experiments has been a theme for my posts here at The Dance of Reason (see here and here) and Thomson’s are no exception. The violinist was the first of several thought experiments Thomson employed in her article, and part of what makes it such an instructive example of philosophical methodology gone wrong is how seamlessly Thomson crafts each new experiment to counter a successive series of objections. Thomson asks us to imagine diseases that can be cured by the touch of a stranger’s hand; a baby expanding like a balloon and crushing a person to death; humans procreating via ‘people seeds’ that implant in unsuspecting stranger’s carpets. Each thought experiment has a rationally comprehensible connection to the objection that comes before it, yet a common response to this whirlwind of imaginative scenarios is that we’ve lost sight of something crucially important: the biological realities of sex, pregnancy, gestation and birth.
Thomson’s experiments are an excellent example of what happens when philosophers find themselves accountable to nothing other than their imaginations. The relationship between philosophy and science fiction is so strong in no small part because both thrive on imagining what happens when we push past our current limitations. But just as bad science fiction is often born out of concepts that outstrip their connect to the world in which we live, bad philosophy is often born out of imagination untethered to the subject attempting to be illuminated.
To be blunt: I have no idea at all what morality demands of people in a world in which human beings procreate via people seeds that gestate in carpets. Moreover, I’m not sure anyone else does, either. What kind of moral values would be most important if babies could expand rapidly enough to crush a person in a house? How much stock should we put in our intuitions about whether or not it is permissible to unhook ourselves from a stranger using our kidneys to filter his blood? That’s not how biology works, that’s not how ethics works, that’s not how any of this works.
Our moral intuitions are delicate things. They are rooted in our evolutionary history, honed by our cultural upbringing and exist to help us navigate moral decisions in the actual world. When you strip the biological and cultural context out and throw those intuitions into fantastical scenarios they quickly loose perspective. Such ‘intuition pumps’ are easily abused in the hands of a creative philosopher who wants to lead their audience by the nose to their preordained conclusion.
None of this is to say that Thomson’s position is incorrect. To the contrary, I think her basic conclusion is true: regardless of their moral status, fetuses have no right to use a woman’s body against her will. And I understand the impulse to invoke a thought experiment, as pregnancy is such a biologically unique phenomena that it’s hard to find ways to triangulate our intuitions about it. But we don’t need to appeal to fantastic, intuition-pumping hypotheticals to establish Thomson’s point. There are a set of rare, but real-world cases that suffice, namely the phenomena of ‘sleepwalking rape.’
The broader phenomena of ‘sexsomnia’ (people initiating sex while neurologically asleep) is well documented by psychologists. There are several cases in which men accused of rape have, with the help of expert clinical testimony, successfully exonerated themselves in court by arguing they were asleep at the time of the attack.
So let’s ask the following question: would a person being raped by a sleepwalking rapist be justified in killing their rapist in self defense? Like both Thomson’s violinist and a fetus the sleepwalking rapist is both a person with full moral status and innocent of any crime. If a woman killed her sleepwalking rapist would we call that an unjustified killing? I think people could have an honest disagreement here, but I suspect that most people (even pro-life people) will say that it would be justified.
The exact implications this has for abortion is, of course, open ended. There are all sorts of ripostes that a pro-life person could give in an attempt to allow killing a sleepwalking rapist while still maintaining that abortion is wrong. I don’t imagine any single argument can settle this highly controversial issue once and for all. My point here is simply to say that philosophers would be well advised to avoid highly unrealistic thought experiments when actual cases from the real world work just as well, if not better.
 Like Thomson I am assuming for the sake of argument here that the fetus is a person in the moral sense with full moral status, even though also like Thomson I do not believe this to be the case.