An Unconcious Violinist

Here's a thought provoking analogy written by Judith Jarvis Thomson from Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971).

"You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you,

"Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you."

Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says,

"Tough luck. I agree. But now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him."



Anonymous said…
An interesting analogy, but it only really seems to apply in rape cases. The 'unwilling' element of the arrangement, which is to say the part where you are kidnapped and plugged in, represent a forcible violation of your person in a fashion that you had neither reason to expect nor guard against.

The difference, and it seems to me like a key difference, between this example and a typical abortion scenario is that the night prior to waking up next to this violinist, you weren't wandering the halls of a hospital connecting your circulatory system into random people.

There's a principle in law called nonfeasance, which states, in short, that you don't have to help anyone. You see a guy dying of a wound, then you don't need to run over and help him.

An exception to this rule (universally) is that if you caused the situation, then you have a duty to deal with it. If you agreed to jack your kidney into the violinists, then you're legally responsible for his life (for the next nine months, anyway). You want to disconnect, then you are deemed to have killed the poor man, because he relied on you fulfilling the duty you started.

So essentially the analogy you've created seems to only apply to rape victims. People who willingly engage in intercourse that could reasonably produce a pregnancy are assuming the responsibility of the unborn child.

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