Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Thomson’s Violinist

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 26, 2009

The following is a fascinating thought experiment proposed by moral philosopher Judith Thomson:

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?

The question then is, are you morally obligated to keep yourself plugged in? It is clear enough that, according to my own moral beliefs, staying plugged in is the morally right thing to do. But are you obligated? This is a question of individual rights: do you have a right to practice autonomy by unplugging yourself, but killing the violinist? Thomson says that the claim that you are obligated is “outrageous”; but why?

Let’s look at this from a more Utilitarian perspective. Will it be better for the world if you are obligated to remain attached? Perhaps there will be some benefit to the world, but there will also be detriment to your personal happiness.

Let’s revisit an old post of mine on assessing blame. This is similar to assessing moral responsibility. I assert that the one who is morally responsible for an event is the one who was most able to change the outcome. This involves some subtleties, but it is a pretty good general idea. In the case of this thought experiment, you are the only one capable of saving or condemning the violinist. I think it is clear enough that you are responsible for whether the violinist lives or dies. But are you therefore obligated to allow the violinist to live?

This dilemma can be looked at as a question of freedom. Are you morally obligated to restrict your own freedom? I would like to think that this is never the case, but it frequently is. Although personal liberty is one of my (and society’s) most important values, it is not unlimited. You do not always have the freedom to restrict the freedom of another. By unplugging yourself, you are killing the violinist and thus causing the ultimate restriction of freedom. The question then becomes, are you obligated to give up your nine months of freedom in exchange for the violinist’s however-many years of freedom? It is the right thing to do, but are you obligated?

So far, it seems as though we keep being led sideways. We are accumulating more and more information, but the information is only raising more questions. Or, perhaps, the same question is just being raised in many different ways.

So what do we do? I open up the question to the comments. I will continue to think about this problem, and will possibly write another post in the future. Until then, what do you think?

Here are some resources that I found useful.

A Defense of Abortion: the essay in which this dilemma was originally proposed. It was meant as an analogy to abortion; I have not yet treated it as such, but I may later on.

Killing and Letting Die: an essay on the difference between killing someone and letting someone die. I did not use this directly, but it gave me something to think about.

Rule Consequentialism: A Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on a branch of Consequentialism.

3 Responses to “Thomson’s Violinist”

  1. Kelly Dickens said

    One obvious difference between this situation and pregnancy is that one “chooses” pregnancy; notwithstanding that some conceptions are accidental, one usually has a choice to avoid it. If one were kidnapped by fanatical musicians and forced to conceive a child, the comparison would be more exact.

    The question of killing versus allowing to die is very interesting to me. I found especially moving the scene at the end of Schindler’s List when Liam Neeson’s character realizes that he could have sold his car or his ring and saved more souls. I think of this periodically while considering buying a new anything.

  2. phynnboi said

    Yep. It wasn’t your choice. Plus, ostensibly, you can’t really do anything for nine months. If you’re a student, you’ll fail all your classes. If you’re a worker, you’ll be fired. And if, Glub forbid, you were also taking care of someone who couldn’t take care of themselves (say, a grandparent), that person could die.

    Personally, I’d unplug. Were their mission so important, they should have asked my permission and offered me attractive compensation. You don’t get to steal my organs and wreck my life just because you want to save some random guy skilled at rubbing two oddly-shaped sticks together. 😛

    The analogy to pregnancy is silly. Women don’t just suddenly wake up with fully grown adults bolted to them. The logistics are totally different.

  3. oneworldnet said

    Unplug. No blame. You were not asked, you had no choice, the violinist was already dying when they did it without your permission, so you are returning him to the state he was in, dying.
    But in today’s world this scenario wouldn’t happen, now you wake in a hotel room in pain and with a note saying, ‘You’ve had your liver removed, ring a doctor as soon as you wake up’ it’s happened, and is doubtless now happening with no note and an organless body dumped.

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