Sunday, May 10, 2009

25 Judith Jarvis Thomson

Judith Jarvis Thomson, born in 1929 taught at M.I.T. for the majority of her career, remaining there as professor emeritus. Her subjects were moral philosopy and metaphysics.

In the 80s abortion was a heavily debated and political issue. And when you do research on the name Judith Jarvis Thomson it is inevitable, that you run into her famous article "A Defense of Abortion" (1986).

Abortion is really one of the most difficult moral decisions a woman (and her partner) has to face. It is easily associated with murder. I guess many of us have seen the demonstrations against abortion. In the US is even came to extreme violance.

That philosophy has a meaning and can make a difference is proven by Judith Jarvis Thomson. The artice she wrote in 1986 is still all over the internet.

On her Wikipedia page there is a link to the Boston Review (1995) and still she is involved in the debate on abortion.

What I am not interested in here is a discussion on the morallity or immorality of abortion. We all know how difficult and complex this discussion is. I want to pay attention to the philosophical questions which are related to this issue.

Judith Thomson begins her article with : "Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. (...)

We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development

and say "before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person" is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given.

It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception."

Here we are on top of the problem: the concept of 'person'. When do you become a person. The opponents of abortion say: at the very moment of conception.

But Thomson points at the fact that an acorn can become an oaktree, but then the conclusion doesnt follow that an acorn is in fact a oaktree.

"(...) the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree." she writes.

Her article is a good example of philosophical analysis of a problem, which begins with her statement : "I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. "

Then you get a step by step analysis in eight paragraphs of this premise: we are dealing here with a person and the question whether this premise holds or not.

One interesting philosophical questions she digs in then is the question of rights. How often dont we say: it is my right to .....I have the right to.... You are ignoring my rights...

To give you an example; in 1608 the English captian, Henry Hudson, working for a Dutch company landed on Manhatttan Island. The Dutch occupied the area and claimed it as their property.

Did they have the RIGHT to do that? What kind of right is that? Later they even sold the land for 24 gildens to the English. Ditd they have the right to do that?

Judith Thomson also investigates the concept of right in relation the pregnant woman and the fetus. In a way she puts the question: in what sense has the fetus the 'right' to live in the mother.

I leave it to you to read the article and to study her argumentation. You will find the article at :,Fall02/ m

She ends her article with the statement: "At this place, however, it should be remembered that we have only been pretending throughout that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception.

A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person, and so is not dealt with by anything I have said here."

The Discussion

[13:24] herman Bergson: So much on Judith Thomson
[13:24] herman Bergson: this is the youTube URL:
[13:25] herman Bergson: If you have any questions or remarks... feel free
[13:25] Alarice Beaumont: i find it interesting that she pretendes that the fetus is a person... and not vice verca
[13:26] herman Bergson: Well....she tests the premise which is hold by opponents of abortion and shows that this premise isnt that strong
[13:27] herman Bergson: what is a more interesting questions she touches upon is the question: where do personal rights come from
[13:27] Alarice Beaumont: i think she thought differently.. not sure tho
[13:27] Samuel Okelly: i disagree that she shows the premise isnt that strong herman
[13:28] Samuel Okelly: she makes a value judgment that indicates it as such nothing more
[13:28] herman Bergson: I understand Samuel
[13:28] herman Bergson: in what way a value-judgement Samuel?
[13:28] Samuel Okelly: (btw as a strong defender of life from conception I am familiar with Thomson and her article. It will come as little surprise therefore that I view her arguments as failing. the violinist is an artificial construct and unusable as an analogy for so many reasons least of all the question of intent)
[13:29] AristotleVon Doobie: her analogy of the acorn seems to be unsound since an acorn will never be an oaktree unless it combines with the earth and then the question would arise whether the offshooted sprout is an oaktree or not
[13:30] herman Bergson: It is a peculiar analogy indeed Samuel
[13:30] Alarice Beaumont: good point you have there Ari
[13:30] Samuel Okelly: i would prefer to say that she "devalues" the fetus
[13:30] Peri Roux: But even with the all the right ingredients, earth, light, water etc, it's not a given that the acorn *will* grow into a tree.
[13:30] AristotleVon Doobie: the philosophical question is the same in eihter case
[13:30] Peri Roux nods in agreement
[13:31] herman Bergson: I find this a very difficult discussion
[13:31] AristotleVon Doobie: it is
[13:31] herman Bergson: rationality and emotions are so intertwined here
[13:31] Samuel Okelly: her claim that the acorn is not a tree overlooks the process of "being" and what it means "to be"
[13:32] herman Bergson: a way it is the Aristotelian idea of in potentia and in actu...
[13:32] AristotleVon Doobie: yes, herman one can feel the turmoil the questeiong evokes between subjuctive and objective parts of us
[13:32] herman Bergson: which means that the full form of the oaktree is already a property of the acorn
[13:33] Samuel Okelly: precisely and she overlooks this
[13:33] herman Bergson: Yes, I understand quite well Samual.....if find it pretty difficult
[13:33] herman Bergson: because this is just a philosophical concept
[13:33] herman Bergson: not a matter of fact
[13:34] Samuel Okelly: i would argue that it should begin with fact
[13:34] AristotleVon Doobie: and then one could take it could go further back to the original thought of a child...the proverbial gleam in the parents it a human then?
[13:35] herman Bergson: Yes....we first have to answer questions like: what makes an individual a person with rights
[13:35] Peri Roux: Is the argument really about whether the fetus is a person or when is it OK to kill a person?
[13:35] Alarice Beaumont: well the law tries to do that
[13:36] herman Bergson: Good question Peri :-)
[13:36] AristotleVon Doobie: and really who is qualified to make that distinction
[13:36] Samuel Okelly: we have inherited a christian view that all are equal
[13:36] Alarice Beaumont: i think a fetus is able to inherit
[13:36] herman Bergson: Yes.. she points at drawing that line....
[13:37] Samuel Okelly: as a point of fact , it can be said that biological life is an ageing process that starts and ends
[13:37] herman Bergson: The Evangelium Vitae of Pope John Paul II is very strict on that
[13:38] AristotleVon Doobie: it becomes a issue of collective morality when rightfully it is and individual moral dicision
[13:38] Peri Roux: But we humans interrupt that process in ourselves, other humans and other life on Earth all the time.
[13:39] Samuel Okelly: to say it is an individual moral choice assumes a subjective view of morality
[13:39] AristotleVon Doobie: no !
[13:39] herman Bergson: is not just only an aging process that we arent alowed to interupt
[13:39] AristotleVon Doobie: is assume a cerebral responsibility
[13:40] AristotleVon Doobie: philosophically we must attempt to remove the subjective
[13:40] herman Bergson: There is nothing wrong with a subjective view on morality
[13:41] herman Bergson: with the last three of four women philosophers we have seen how difficult it is to find a rocksolid ground for ehtics
[13:41] Samuel Okelly: a subjective view or a subjective understanding herman?
[13:41] AristotleVon Doobie: as long as subjective morality is not imposed on the individual by a collective decision
[13:41] herman Bergson: no...a subjective view
[13:42] Samuel Okelly: morality is objective
[13:42] AristotleVon Doobie: I agree, we all have the right to believe as we choose
[13:42] herman Bergson: this doesnt mean a solipsitic view, but a view embedded in our social context
[13:42] herman Bergson: I can not agree on that Samuel
[13:42] AristotleVon Doobie: subjective decisions will always be tainted
[13:43] Samuel Okelly: just as the world was always spherical regardless of how many ppl thought it was flat so why should morality be different?
[13:43] herman Bergson: Even science is based on postulates and believes
[13:43] herman Bergson: Because the world is a physical, empirical object and morality isnt
[13:43] Peri Roux: What is morality though, it's not the same as the physical.
[13:44] Samuel Okelly: have you been into space to see it is spherical?
[13:44] AristotleVon Doobie: Ms. Thomson seems to be a very objective person.
[13:44] herman Bergson: Others have been there
[13:44] Peri Roux: No, but other people have.
[13:44] Peri Roux: hehe
[13:44] Samuel Okelly: or do you know it is spherical because of what you have read or been told?
[13:45] herman Bergson: No..I even know it because I traveled around the globe
[13:45] Peri Roux: I know many things that I haven
[13:45] Peri Roux: 't seen personally
[13:45] Samuel Okelly: so peri, you believ those who have seen?
[13:45] AristotleVon Doobie: you are right Sam, some of the information is from a 'trusted'source
[13:45] Peri Roux: Yes, I do, there is enough scientific evidence to prove it.
[13:45] Samuel Okelly: you have not seen and yet you believe?
[13:46] AristotleVon Doobie: but it all could be bogus....there are those who belive the moon lanidng was filming in the desert
[13:46] herman Bergson: I am sorry, but you cant hold an analogy between a physical object and the theoretical product of our mind
[13:46] Peri Roux: Just like I know (generally) what my brain looks like, though I've never seen it, and hopefully never will :P
[13:46] herman Bergson: makes no sense to discuss that
[13:46] herman Bergson: Ethics is the theory of our morality
[13:46] Samuel Okelly: then we are forced to assume a subjective view and that closes the door on any debate
[13:47] herman Bergson: the empirical part of morality is observed in our behavior
[13:47] Peri Roux: If I were to believe only that which I witness first hand, my world would be very very limited.
[13:47] herman Bergson: no Samuel.....
[13:47] herman Bergson: We as human beings arent just subjective stand alone objects...
[13:47] herman Bergson: we are a social being...that defines us as well
[13:48] herman Bergson: so we cant do just as we like
[13:48] AristotleVon Doobie: the issue of prior knowledge becomes part of the the analysis of when life begins also
[13:48] AristotleVon Doobie: surely Plato would be an abortion opponent
[13:48] herman Bergson: and what about IN VITRO ferilasation...
[13:48] Samuel Okelly: the point I wish to make is that with the subjective becomes permitted and moral virtue can be multiplied by 6 billion
[13:49] herman Bergson: I dont agree with that Samuel...
[13:49] herman Bergson: Apart from any religion mankind was able to formulate The Human Rights
[13:49] Samuel Okelly: how does simply being social oblige us?
[13:50] AristotleVon Doobie: human rights were legislated because of religion
[13:50] herman Bergson: to give a simple example..if you dont you end up in jail
[13:50] Peri Roux: (I am "pro choice" though I hate the term) and accept the concept that "life" probably begins at conception, my concern is when is it OK to kill someone and who makes that desicion.
[13:50] Samuel Okelly: if i construct my own morality then it must surely apply to all 6 billion?
[13:51] Peri Roux: Why?
[13:51] Peri Roux: It's your morality, not everyone elses isn't it?
[13:51] herman Bergson: You never construct your own always are part of a culture
[13:51] Samuel Okelly: if not then it would be double standards
[13:51] Peri Roux: You're right Herman.
[13:51] Samuel Okelly: so might is right?
[13:52] herman Bergson: consensus is right and that empowers the group
[13:52] Peri Roux: It all comes back to "rights" doesn't it :P
[13:52] herman Bergson: In fact it is Peri
[13:52] AristotleVon Doobie: in reality it is, Sam.....all democracies are exactly that
[13:52] Alarice Beaumont: right are formed in society
[13:52] Samuel Okelly: it is my view that consensus does not equate to moral correctness
[13:52] AristotleVon Doobie: I agree Sam
[13:53] Samuel Okelly: morality is NOT and can not be determined by a show of hands
[13:53] Peri Roux: If you have two opposing moral views, who's "right"? I struggle with that one.
[13:53] herman Bergson: That might be so, but there does not exist an absolute truth on moral standards
[13:53] AristotleVon Doobie: only opinions
[13:54] Peri Roux nods in agreement with Hermen
[13:54] herman Bergson: If that were so we even wouldnt have ethics....
[13:54] Alarice Beaumont: yes .. that is the difficulty
[13:54] herman Bergson: just one single book of THE RULES
[13:54] Samuel Okelly: peri, i think how we determin objective moral virtue is a seperate debate
[13:54] Samuel Okelly: the question here is whether or not we can assume it does not exist
[13:54] herman Bergson: The past three of four debates were on that subject Samuel
[13:54] Alarice Beaumont: and we wouldn 't talk about decadence of morality in the society
[13:55] Samuel Okelly: oh sure, i am aware of that herman
[13:55] herman Bergson: And we didnt come to one single absolute answer
[13:56] Samuel Okelly: but that was harldy surprising eh? ;-)
[13:56] Peri Roux: I wasn't here, much to my dissapointment now, but I suspect there is never a single absolute answer :P
[13:56] AristotleVon Doobie: I can tell you I have wrestled with the question of abortion and the actual beginning of life for many hours....the question remains vaporous
[13:56] herman Bergson: Yes Peri....that is what we are struggling with here time and again...
[13:56] Samuel Okelly: simply because something hasnt be found is no reason to assume that it does not exist
[13:57] herman Bergson: our need and eagerness to have that ONE SINGLE RIGHT ANSWER and our observation that it eludes us time and again
[13:57] Samuel Okelly: has eluded "some" "so far"
[13:57] herman Bergson: No Samuel..assuming that would end all philosophy
[13:58] herman Bergson smiles
[13:58] Samuel Okelly: of course ;-)
[13:58] Samuel Okelly: but then i am a theist ;-)
[13:58] AristotleVon Doobie: those who think they know the answer are only self-righteous
[13:58] Peri Roux: personally I think we are too complex as individuals and as a society for there to be a single answer.
[13:58] herman Bergson: I guess you are right Peri
[13:58] herman Bergson: But that makes philosophy so important
[13:59] Peri Roux: Though the question of rights, what they are and how we decide them is one that needs to be discussed at all levels of society.
[13:59] herman Bergson: and in fact the article of Judith Thomson too
[13:59] herman Bergson: It is not because I think she is right, but because I think she shows how to think
[13:59] Samuel Okelly: my question when considering this issue is are we all created equal?
[13:59] AristotleVon Doobie: ye
[13:59] AristotleVon Doobie: yes
[13:59] herman Bergson: how to discuss a problem
[14:00] AristotleVon Doobie: we are not equal
[14:00] Peri Roux: now that's a very interesting question too
[14:00] herman Bergson: stop.....
[14:00] Peri Roux stops
[14:00] herman Bergson: here is introduced a concept about we can discuss for ages without knowing what it means
[14:00] herman Bergson: that makes no sense....
[14:01] herman Bergson: I mean....equal is a word.....
[14:01] herman Bergson: but using the word doesnt know we thing equally about the concept's meaning ^_^
[14:01] Samuel Okelly: i disagree
[14:01] Samuel Okelly: i think it is perfectly clear
[14:01] Peri Roux: Maybe it's more accurate to ask "do we all have equal rights?" there's that pesky word rights again.
[14:01] AristotleVon Doobie: 'equal' is like 'infinity' neither can ever be reached
[14:02] Samuel Okelly: it is enshrined in many nationalk documents and underpins many laws
[14:02] herman Bergson: I wouldnt say that....
[14:02] herman Bergson: all humans are genetically different for instance
[14:02] herman Bergson: only identical twins might be equal in that respect
[14:03] herman Bergson: physically we all look different ..not equal...even in SL we look different and individual
[14:03] AristotleVon Doobie: and then birth makes them different
[14:03] Samuel Okelly: i think i see where you are going herman but i am elduing to the christian ideal of equality that certainly western society has inherited
[14:03] herman Bergson: so in what sense are we equal?
[14:03] AristotleVon Doobie: we never are
[14:03] Samuel Okelly: equality before the law is a fundemental principle
[14:03] herman Bergson: That is not equality, Samuel....that is the concept of EQUAL RIGHTS
[14:03] Samuel Okelly: everyone is treated in the same way
[14:04] Samuel Okelly: you make a distiction without qualification herman
[14:04] Alarice Beaumont: noone is every treated in the same way.. not even in aspects of the law
[14:04] Peri Roux: But that's a difficult concept too. If some are not Christian, at what point do we have to agree with the Christian line? What is it about Chritianity that makes it right above all other concepts?
[14:05] AristotleVon Doobie: equal opportunity under the law is the civilized evolution
[14:05] herman Bergson: That is a fundamental philosophical point Peri
[14:05] Samuel Okelly: as a matter of principle "equality" underpins many foundational documents in america, the UN, europe etc
[14:06] herman Bergson: All men are equal only in the sense that they have equal rights on Life, Liberty and property, as Locke says
[14:06] AristotleVon Doobie: yes, Herman
[14:06] Peri Roux: Agreed Alarice, the law doesn't treat people "equally" nor do we treat individuals equally in our day to day lives. We complicate matters by thinking that we do.
[14:06] Samuel Okelly: sure and that there is an inherent idea that anyone going before the law is equal and should be treated equally
[14:06] herman Bergson: yes..which means..his rights have to be respected...also by the law
[14:07] Samuel Okelly: equality does not negate difference
[14:07] Peri Roux: And upheld, even if those rights are not in agreement with prevailing religious belief?
[14:07] Alarice Beaumont: but a person looks to it that the law is excecuted.. it's a person again.. with his views of the rights!
[14:07] herman Bergson: And this is the fundamental problem with abortion.....what rights and when has a fetus
[14:08] Samuel Okelly: i completely agree
[14:08] Samuel Okelly: start with the biology
[14:08] Alarice Beaumont: and the views depend on the experience.. the raising as a child.. the role in society etx.
[14:08] AristotleVon Doobie: yes, Herman and that problem has to be solved cerebrally
[14:08] Peri Roux: I have a question to which I genuinely don't know the answer. Do we really have a right to life?
[14:09] herman Bergson: I think you should put it otherwise Peri....
[14:09] herman Bergson: Does the other have the right to end my life?
[14:09] AristotleVon Doobie: only as far as you are able to sustain life, Peri
[14:09] Peri Roux: Aren't those different questions herman?
[14:10] Peri Roux: Agreed Aristotle.
[14:10] herman Bergson: Yes
[14:10] Samuel Okelly: but that is a question of emphasis i think
[14:10] herman Bergson: I think my question is easier to answer....simpley ..NO
[14:10] Samuel Okelly: i agree
[14:11] Samuel Okelly: "The fusion of the sperm (with 23 chromosomes) and the oocyte (with 23 chromosomes) at fertilization results in a live human being, a single-cell human zygote, with 46 chromosomes-the number of chromosomes characteristic of an individual member of the human species. "
Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D
[14:11] Samuel Okelly: the biology is clear
[14:11] Peri Roux: If I were attacking you with the intent and ability to kill you herman, would you have the right to kill me in defence? Even that question is a complicated one.
[14:11] AristotleVon Doobie: I think that is the prime basis of ethics, no one has the right to take you life
[14:12] herman Bergson: The issue of self defence...and all firearms in the US for instance
[14:12] Peri Roux: Doesn't it depend in the situation ultimately though? That again there is no definitative answer to that question either?
[14:13] AristotleVon Doobie: well, I will defend myself and my loved ones....both from a rational level and most important from a primal level
[14:13] AristotleVon Doobie: but that is the survial instinct
[14:14] herman Bergson: Yes Aristotle but that is where human life and thinking begins
[14:14] AristotleVon Doobie: I think the choice between others and your blood line will automatically establish that the others life is less important
[14:15] Peri Roux: What if a loved one is physically suffering terribly and there is no hope of even easing that person's physical pain, do you allow suffering because life is sacred? There are many situations where you can question whether not killing is the best option.
[14:15] herman Bergson: here we are closing in on the selfish gene ^_^
[14:15] AristotleVon Doobie: yes Herman :)
[14:15] Peri Roux: lol uh huh we are :)
[14:15] Samuel Okelly: I view it as morally justified to administer medication to ease the pain and suffering of a person with the certain knowledge that it will precipitate their death but only when all other means of helping them have been exhausted
[14:16] Peri Roux: What if you were in a situation where no pain relief were possible?
[14:16] Samuel Okelly: the point i wish t make is that intent is key
[14:16] herman Bergson: and who decides on "all other means"
[14:16] herman Bergson: suppose someone claims that praying is a never exhausing means
[14:16] AristotleVon Doobie: my first question would be wherterh the one in pain has requested it?
[14:17] Samuel Okelly: when we are in hospital we rely on the docs
[14:17] Peri Roux: eg i'm stuck in the wildness with my husband on a camping trip and have been injured and there is no hope of help reaching us in time for me to live or die pain free. What does he do?
[14:18] Peri Roux: Watch me die in pain? Knowing how much I am suffering?
[14:18] AristotleVon Doobie: what dso you want him to do?
[14:18] herman Bergson: Then we should add the trolley problem here too
[14:18] AristotleVon Doobie: that is the key ingredient
[14:18] Peri Roux: What if I have lost the abiltiy to communicate with him?
[14:18] Samuel Okelly: trolley?
[14:18] herman Bergson: Yes.....
[14:18] Peri Roux: and he has to make the choice?
[14:18] Peri Roux: lol i was thinking about that one herman.
[14:19] Peri Roux: impossible desicions :P
[14:19] herman Bergson: Suposse you are at a railway line splits up in two...
[14:19] herman Bergson: on one track 5 persons are tied to the rails
[14:19] herman Bergson: on the other track only one person is tied to the rails...
[14:20] herman Bergson: to can make the train go either are at the buttons
[14:20] herman Bergson: My advise....
[14:20] Peri Roux: hehehe, being the dramatic gal I am, I usually say 100 adults or 1 young child :P
[14:20] herman Bergson: google on Trolley problem and try to find an answer
[14:21] herman Bergson: Oh that's a good one Peri
[14:21] Peri Roux: lol, great answer herman :)
[14:21] Samuel Okelly: graded ethics i guess
[14:21] herman Bergson: Problems like this drive me crazy ^_^
[14:21] Samuel Okelly: i know my answer would NOT be based on NUMBER
[14:21] Peri Roux: Easy questions are easy to answer I think, make the questions as hard as possible and then you start to really think about things :P and yes, my head hurts too
[14:21] herman Bergson: Yes is time for us to dismiss class :-)
[14:22] AristotleVon Doobie: I do so hate to leave theis discussion but I must..
[14:22] Peri Roux: on what then Sam? remember you only have a few seconds to decide too? :)
[14:22] AristotleVon Doobie: goodbye all, thank you Professor
[14:22] herman Bergson: is a good moment to we still are friends ^_^
[14:22] Samuel Okelly: :)
[14:22] Samuel Okelly: oh sure :)
[14:22] Peri Roux smiles broadly
[14:22] Alarice Beaumont: :-)
[14:22] herman Bergson: Thank you all...great discussion
[14:22] Samuel Okelly: and dont forget every1 is invited to join my prolife group ;-)
[14:23] herman Bergson: And your Latin is perfect Samuel ^_^
[14:23] Samuel Okelly: tx herman :)
[14:23] Alarice Beaumont: thx Herman
[14:23] Peri Roux: Thank you herman, that was great, though probably nothing like you were hoping O.o
[14:23] Alarice Beaumont: have a nice evening all of you :-)
[14:23] Alarice Beaumont: bye for now
[14:23] herman Bergson: Bye Alarice
[14:24] herman Bergson: My pleasure Samuel
[14:24] herman Bergson: Waht should I have been hoping peri?
[14:24] bergfrau Apfelbaum: phuuu herman das war soo interssant!!!!
[14:25] herman Bergson: Danke Bergy :-)
[14:25] bergfrau Apfelbaum: das muss ich noch verarbeiten - ich würde gerne mal mit dir darüber reden
[14:25] bergfrau Apfelbaum: mein englisch ist zu schlecht sonst hätte ich heute viel zu sagen gehabt
[14:25] bergfrau Apfelbaum: :-)
[14:25] herman Bergson: ok..machen wir
[14:25] bergfrau Apfelbaum: danke dir für den tollen stoff!!! du rakete :-))
[14:26] herman Bergson smiles

Posted by herman_bergson on 2009-04-07 18:19:17

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