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The Violinist is a famous thought experiment first posed by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971.


The "famous violinist" thought experiment

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes her thought experiment as follows:

Judith Jarvis Thomson provided one of the most striking and effective thought experiments in the moral realm. Her example is aimed at a popular anti-abortion argument that goes something like this: The fetus is an innocent person with a right to life. Abortion results in the death of a fetus. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.
In her thought experiment we are asked to imagine a famous violinist falling into a coma. The society of music lovers determines from medical records that you and you alone can save the violinist's life by being hooked up to him for nine months. The music lovers break into your home while you are asleep and hook the unconscious (and unknowing, hence innocent) violinist to you. You may want to unhook him, but you are then faced with this argument put forward by the music lovers: The violinist is an innocent person with a right to life. Unhooking him will result in his death. Therefore, unhooking him is morally wrong.
However, the argument does not seem convincing in this case. You would be very generous to remain attached and in bed for nine months, but you are not morally obliged to do so. The parallel with the abortion case is evident. The thought experiment is effective in distinguishing two concepts that had previously been run together: “right to life” and “right to what is needed to sustain life.” The fetus and the violinist may each have the former, but it is not evident that either has the latter. The upshot is that even if the fetus has a right to life (which Thomson does not believe but allows for the sake of the argument), it may still be morally permissible to abort.[1]

Relation to abortion debate

In her introduction to her "Famous Violinist Problem", Thomson notes that much of the inadequate debate on abortion was getting lost within the issue of whether the fetus is a person or a mass of tissue.

Having identified this question, Thomson attempted to circumvent this issue by "[immediately granting] that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception"; which then allowed her to address what she felt was the only issue involved: that of whether the pregnant woman, or the fetus, had the "stronger and more stringent… right to life".[2]

Foot’s Response – Killing vs. Letting Die

In Philippa Foot’s “Killing and Letting Die”, Thomson’s thought experiment is directly criticized. Foot discredits the suggested mirror-situation between the violinist and abortion by applying and weighing negative and positive rights.

First, Foot derives the moral difference between killing and letting die:

…There are rights to noninterference, which form one class of rights; and there are also rights to goods or services, which are different. And corresponding to these two types of rights are, on the one hand, the duty not to interfere, called a ‘negative duty’, and on the other the duty to provide the goods or services, called a ‘positive duty’.[3]

The rights to noninterference constitute ‘negative rights’ and the rights to goods or services constitute ‘positive rights’.

Important to note is Foot’s claim that, “Typically, it takes more to justify an interference than to justify the withholding of goods or services…”[4]. In other words, ceteris paribus, a negative right holds greater moral weight than a positive right, and so it is harder to morally justify overriding a negative right than a positive right. Foot builds on this by specifying, “So if, in any circumstances, the right to noninterference is the only right that exists, or if it is the only right special circumstances have not overridden, then it may not be permissible to initiate a fatal sequence, but it may be permissible to withhold aid”[4]. Notably, Foot classifies initiating a fatal sequence as a morally objectionable act, while legitimizing the morality of not aiding.

This holds substantial implications for Thomson’s violinist experiment. Whereas Thomson requests the reader to draw a moral parallel between unhooking oneself from the violinist and a woman aborting her fetus, Foot seeks a deeper explanation of why this should be the case. But, in Foot’s opinion, under her framework, things are not as Thomson would like. Foot notes, “According to my thesis, the two cases must be treated quite differently because one involves the initiation of a fatal sequence and the other the refusal to save a life”[5].

The distinction arises from the rights due to the violinist and fetus, and the duty one holds not to violate them. In the case of Thomson’s experiment, the violinist holds only a positive right to be saved: he requires the service of being hooked up to another’s body. Now, as the argument will go, if you find yourself hooked up to the dying violinist, you have an obligation to not ‘kill him’ by separating yourself from him. However, it is important not to allocate rights to which the violinist is not entitled. You, the person to whom he is attached, did not bring about the sequence of his death, and so cannot be burdened with, say, the negative duty ‘not to kill the violinist’ – since, ultimately, it is the ailment that is killing the violinist. Consequently, the only right to which the violinist has a claim is a positive right. And, Foot explains, “…although charity or duties of care could have dictated that the help be given, it seems perfectly reasonable to treat this as a case in which such presumptions are overridden by other rights—those belonging to the person whose body would be used.”[5] Thus, in this case one may unhook from the violinist, since his positive right does not hold enough weight to justify disregarding another’s right to his or her own body.

Foot gives an account of the other case, abortion:

The case of abortion is of course completely different. The fetus is not in jeopardy because it is in its mother’s womb; it is merely dependent on her in the way children are dependent on their parents for food. An abortion, therefore, originates the sequence which ends in the death of the fetus, and the destruction comes about “through the agency” of the mother who seeks the abortion.[5]

According to Foot, abortion is uniquely different from the violinist case, since the fetus holds a negative right not to be killed (since it holds a full right to life, as granted to it by Thomson). The woman, by having an abortion administered, directly initiates the event which takes the fetus’s life, completely violating its negative right. For this reason, in any normal circumstances a woman cannot morally legitimize having an abortion.

See also


  1. ^ Taken from Brown (2006). [1]
  2. ^ Thomson (1971/1986), p.2.
  3. ^ Foot 1984: 785
  4. ^ a b Foot 1984: 786
  5. ^ a b c Foot 1984: 788


  • Brown, James Robert, "Thought Experiments", in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2006 Edition), 2006. [2].
  • Foot, Philippa. (1984). Killing and Letting Die. In Steven M. Cahn, & Peter Markie (Eds.), Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (pp 783-788). New York, NY: Oxford.
  • Foot, P., "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect", reprinted at pp.19-32 in Foot, P., Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Basil Blackwell, (Oxford), 1978 (originally published in 1967).
  • Thomson, J.J., "A Defense of Abortion", reprinted at pp.1-19 in Thomson, J.J. (Parent, W., ed.), Rights, Restitution, and Risks: Essays in Moral Theory, Harvard University Press, (Cambridge), 1986 (originally published in 1971).
  • Thomson, J.J., "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem", reprinted in pp.78-93 in Thomson, J.J., (Parent, W., ed.), Rights, Restitution, and Risks: Essays in Moral Theory, Harvard University Press, (Cambridge), 1986 (originally published in 1976).
  • Thomson, J.J., "The Trolley Problem", reprinted at pp.94-116 in Thomson, J.J. (Parent, W., ed.), Rights, Restitution, and Risks: Essays in Moral Theory, Harvard University Press, (Cambridge), 1986 (originally published in 1985).

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