Thursday, 10 December 2020

J. J. Thomson, prochoice philosopher

Had we but known, our blog could have been called _DAMMIT JUDITH!_ instead.

From Judith Jarvis Thomson's NYT obituary:

Professor Thomson showed that moral questions surrounding abortion suggest more general conclusions about the nature of fundamental rights. As Thomas Nagel, professor emeritus of philosophy and law at New York University, put it, She expresses very clearly the essentially negative character of the right to life, which is that it’s a right not to be killed unjustly, and not a right to be provided with everything necessary for life.”

Professor Thomson advanced a theory of rights in her book “The Realm of Rights” (1992). But it was her abortion paper that, of all her work, had perhaps the greatest impact.

“A lot of the discussion in that time was focused on what was the fetus or embryo,” said Frances Kamm, a professor of moral philosophy at Rutgers University. “She completely shifted the view of the issues.”

Her brilliant essay published in 1971 argues a scathingly trenchant prochoice perspective. The relevance of her analogies, the elegant simplicity of her prose are eloquent and right on target.

"Everyone has a right to life, so the unborn person has a right to life." And isn't the child's right to life weightier than anything other than the mother's own right to life, which she might put forward as ground for an abortion?

This argument treats the right to life as if it were unproblematic. It is not, and this seems to me to be precisely the source of the mistake.

For we should now, at long last, ask what it comes to, to have a right to life. In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact is the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given? 

[...] to return to the story I told earlier, the fact that for continued life the violinist needs the continued use of your kidneys does not establish that he has a right to be given the continued use of your kidneys. He certainly has no right against you that you should give him continued use of your kidneys. For nobody has any right to use your kidneys unless you give him this rightif 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. 

Nor has he any right against anybody else that they should give him continued use of your kidneys. Certainly he had no right against the Society of Music Lovers that they should plug him into you in the first place. And if you now start to unplug yourself, having learned that you will otherwise have to spend nine years in bed with him, there is nobody in the world who must try to prevent you, in order to see to it that he is given some thing he has a right to be given.

Here at DJ! and on Twitter, I've challenged many fallacious and disingenuous factoids that fetushists scrape up to justify the forced pregnancy and patriarchal control of female bodies.

Some pithy tweets successfully smacked down these mostly religious zealots but had I been familiar with Thomson's splendid, succinct points, I would have certainly deployed them. Particularly since the jolly use of kidneys as metaphor was often explored.

That essay should be an integral part of the Philosophy Canon, and studied at colleges and universities.


Purple library guy said...

It's a decent argument but nobody Nagel likes can be all good . . .

deBeauxOs said...

The Nagel quote is ambiguous. It's not that he "likes" Thomson but that he recognizes the power of her rational thinking in the line of inquiry she pursued.

- deBeauxOs

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