The ill violinist

It’s Friday evening and you’re looking forward to the weekend ahead. You’re meeting friends tomorrow so you decide to get an early night. The following morning, your alarm goes off but, instead of feeling refreshed, you get a fright: There is someone else in the bed – someone that wasn’t there when you went to sleep.

You’re lying back-to-back to this person. You try to move but you’re tied to them somehow. You call out but the person doesn’t respond, continuing to breath heavily. The bedroom door creaks open and you jerk your neck to catch a glimpse.

A middle-aged man with a kind face walks in. He’s wearing a lab coat. “Good morning,” he starts, “I’m sure you have some questions.”

He explains that in your bed lies an unconscious violinist. “He’s very famous actually, he does a wonderful rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons…” he digresses. The violinist was found to have a fatal kidney ailment and the Society of Music Lovers were determined to help. They trawled through every medical record in the country and found that you, and you alone, correctly match his blood type. The Society of Music Lovers took it upon themselves to invade your home during the night and then they had the violinist’s circulatory system linked to yours. Your kidneys are now being used to extract poisons from both his blood and your own.

“The good news is”, the doctor adds, “he will have fully recovered from his illness in about nine months. He can then be safely unplugged from you. However, we can’t let you unplug him before then, as he will die.”

Should you have the right to unplug the violinist?

This thought experiment features in an essay published by philosopher Judith Thomson. In the essay, titled A Defense of Abortion, Thomson argues that you can permissibly unplug the violinist from yourself, even though this will cause his death. One does not have the right to use another person’s body in order survive. By unplugging the violinist, you do not violate his right to life – which is granted – but you merely deprive him of the right to use your body. Abortion, then, is not a violation of the fetus’s right to life. The woman is just denying the fetus the non-consensual use her body and life-support functions – to which it has no right. Thomson concludes,

“If you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due.”

A few things strike me about this thought experiment. Firstly, it logically justifies abortion without appealing to the debate centred on when life starts. Hence, it is irrelevant if Pope Francis argues that life begins at conception as we’re on different terrain – it’s a moot point. Secondly, it is a pretty apt metaphor and one that is easy to visualise. Further, this was published in 1971, at a time when I would guess no more than 10% of philosophers were women, and it has gone on to be one of the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy.

This article justifies abortion on moral grounds. Critics have responded that this is an analogy of abortion in the case of rape only, given that the violinist was hooked up to you against your will and with you having taken no action to cause it – so that is a given, at minimum. On this point though, Thomson retaliated with the people-seeds example:

“Imagine people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen. If you open your windows, one could drift in and take root in your carpets. You don’t want children, so you cover your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. However, on very, very rare occasions one of the screens is defective; a seed drifts in and takes root.”

In the event that a people-seed found its way through your window screens, unwelcome as it may be, does the simple fact that the you knowingly risked such an occurrence when opening your window deny you the ability to rid your house of the intruder?

Irish citizens are heading to the polls this year to vote on repealing the 8th constitutional amendment which would legalise abortion to some extent. Things will no doubt get heated as the public discussion ramps up. In the age of alternative facts, it’s imperative that people base their opinions on the latest science and the soundest logic, rather than an appeal to emotion.

You can find Thomson’s essay online in its entirety here.


2 thoughts on “The ill violinist

  1. I find the people-seed argument more convincing due to the criticism you mention in the blog – i.e. the recipient of the violinist-attachment surgery didn’t take any action that resulted in his being the recipient. Regarding whether or not you would remove the people seed – a key question for many would be that one must consider how this would affect the seed – e.g. does the seed have the capability to ‘feel’ pain (or any stimulus). In my opinion, this is why it is so important to consider the timing of neuron development with regards to abortion legislation.


    1. Hey Anon,

      Yeah, true. A discussion about neuron development, and until when during pregnancy abortion would be ethical (where the 12-week mark seems to be the status quo) is useful. But when the pro-life side fail to grant abortion even at the level of a single cell in theory, the conversation breaks down. At least the violinist argument still holds if “ensoulment” were to occur on day 0.

      The conversation which aims to establish the date up until which abortion should be legal is the more interesting and relevant question, but it’s buried beneath the “yes/no” debate, even though there is no logical basis for the “no” camp.


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