Dick had made a mistake, but surely the price he was paying was too high. He of course knew that level six of the hospital was a restricted area. But after he had drunk one too many glasses of wine with his colleagues at the finance department Christmas party, he had inadvertently staggered out of the elevator on the sixth floor and passed out on one of the empty beds.
When he woke up, he discovered to his horror that he had been mistaken for a volunteer in a new life-saving procedure. Patients who required vital organ transplants to survive were being hooked up to volunteers, whose own vital organs kept both alive. This would continue until a donor organ could be found, which was usually around nine months later.
Dick quickly called over a nurse to explain the mistake, who in turn brought over a worried-looking doctor.
"I understand your anger," explained the doctor, "but you did behave irresponsibly, and now you are in this position, the brutal truth is that if we disconnect you, the world-renowned violinist who depends on you will die. You would in fact be murdering him."
"But you have no right!" protested Dick. "Even if he dies without me, how can you force me to give up nine months of my life to save him?"
"I think the question you should be asking," said the doctor sternly, "is how you could choose to end the violinist's life."
Source: 'A defence of abortion' by Judith Jarvis Thomson, in Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971), and widely anthologised.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 85.
"Just swap me out for someone else," I can hear you say, but that's not the way these philosophy thought experiments work. You must take them at face value, so when Baggini says, "the truth is that if we disconnect you, the world-renowned violinist who depends on you will die," we must accept those conditions.
But before we make any rash decisions, we should explore those conditions imposed on us and make them a little more vivid. Take a 5-minute break to watch this video with amazing footage of the #5 violinist of all time playing the most famous piece ever written by the #1 violinist of all time. (Paganini's Caprice No. 24, performed by Jascha Heifetz.)
I kid of course, but just to show that this thought experiment isn't very analogous to an unintended pregnancy that may or may not be aborted, as is clearly the intended comparison. The expected commitment isn't the same—9 months vs. a lifetime of responsibility (or wonder in the case of adoption)—and neither is the personal bond you can expect to develop. The answer to this thought experiment also seems highly dependent on the known quality of the person you are being hooked up to, rather than the (somewhat) unknown future of a child. The burden of costs are completely different, the support from family and society wouldn't be the same, the question of when life begins has been thrown out, the infringement on your own freedom is different by type and degree, etc., etc.
All of those problems aside, the thought experiment wants to bring up abortion, so let's discuss that quickly. I've no doubt that you've already heard all or most of the ethical question regarding abortion, which usually include:
- Are embryos, zygotes and fetuses "persons" worthy of legal protections?
- Should the potential to be a person give embryos, zygotes and fetuses a right to life?
- Does a fetus gain rights as it gets closer to birth?
- Does a woman have an absolute right to determine what happens in and to her body?
- Is abortion acceptable in cases of rape, incest, or contraception failure?
- If abortion is acceptable only under these circumstances, does it subject the rights of a fetus to circumstances of its conception?
- Is abortion acceptable in cases where the fetus is deformed?
- If abortion is acceptable only if the fetus is deformed, does it subject the rights of a fetus to its physical health?
- Is abortion acceptable in cases where if the pregnancy were to continue, it would pose a direct threat to the life of the mother?
I don't want to go down the long path of giving answers for each of these questions by rigorously exploring the evidence and circumstances surrounding each issue, but in my FAQs for my journal article, I wrote about applied ethics and how my theory of morality would be applied to the abortion debate in order to keep it open and frame the discussions. Here's what I said:
Although the question of the morality of abortion is often framed within religious arguments, let’s prove that this issue is also, in the end, a question about the survival of life. The easiest way to hem in this debate is to look at the two extremes of rampant abortions and no abortions. If it were suddenly considered a moral imperative for everyone to have abortions, the continuation of the species would come to a crashing halt. Abortions for all cannot possibly be the moral rule. If no one ever had abortions, or practiced any form of birth control, overcrowding, social inequality, and resource constraints could eventually lead to a dystopia that hinders the cooperative progress of mankind—another way for our species to eventually grind to an extinct halt. At some point in the future, if the planet was completely full and we knew that adding any more children to the mix could crash the system, then having abortions would become the moral thing to do. So once again, at base, survival is the ultimate arbiter of what is or is not moral. Religious proclamations do not enter into it. Now, in the case of our current world, we are clearly somewhere in between these two extreme cases. Abortions neither threaten nor ensure our survival as a species. In this world, it is unclear what the right actions are, and so, quite understandably, we argue and fight over the choices. There are competing values at work here and it is very difficult to choose between these values. One is the general value of life. By permitting abortions, do we cheapen our value for life and does that leak into other debates about war, capital punishment, health care, poverty, etc.? (The varied arguments between the political Left and Right on the value of life in each of these matters would suggest the leak in values is not very high.) Other values to consider are the ones we give to self-determination, correcting mistakes, and seeking to control our biological impulses. If no abortions are permitted, are we saying that entire lifetimes of obligation must be the penalty for momentary lapses? And surely the penalty's disproportionate cost on one gender of the species (and weighing more heavily on some social strata than others) based on rule-making decisions that generally come from the other gender of the species (and generally from another social strata as well) is incredibly costly in terms of sacrificing the cooperative spirit in society. In these moral gray areas, as in others like them, judgment, wisdom, individual consideration, and options are needed. The place that the majority of society has come to is probably the right one: fewer abortions are better; prevention by education, contraception, and abstinence is best (about 40% of pregnancies in the US are unplanned); adoptions should be viable options; early abortions, if chosen, must be made safe; exceptions for late-term abortions should be allowed for medical reasons. This seems about the right mix of moral choices, but a rational debate about each point can still be had. What is hurting much of humanity is the belief that there is a black and white answer to this question. Recognizing that morals aren't handed down in stone from a god, but instead are just rules we are trying to discover about how to survive, would go a long way towards calming this overheated debate and many others like it.
What do you think? Would debates about this issue go better if we were all forced to listen to beautiful music while having those discussions?