The violinist analogy improved

Judith Jarvis Thompson famously put forward an analogy between abortion and someone who suddenly finds themselves hooked up on life-support to a famous violinist, and told that they cannot disconnect the life-support apparatus linking them to the violinist because it will take the life of the violinist. (The analogy is described in the fourth paragraph of the article I linked to above.)

I think her analogy is seriously flawed, and here I will offer what I believe is a much more accurate one. However, in honor of the loyal reader who recently brought this analogy up, I change the musical instrument.

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Srinivasan is a famed and beloved sitar player. He is so good, and so pleasurable to listen to, that many people have paid very large amounts of money to hear him play. But a tragedy has struck: his kidneys are failing. However, medical researchers are on the verge of perfecting artificial kidneys. In fact, they predict with confidence that in nine months, these will be completely viable for transplants.

But Srinivasan does not have nine months. He needs help now, or he will be dead in weeks. So his management team cooks up the following way to save him: He will give a concert for free, open to as many people as will fit in the arena in which the concert is to be given. But there is a condition on this free admission: someone from the audience, based on genetic screening, will be selected to keep Srinivasan alive for the nine months necessary to get him through until the artificial kidneys are ready for transplantation, by being hooked up to him in just the way that Thompson describes.

This condition is so well-publicized that we can say "ignorance is no excuse." Every person who accepts the offer of free admission to the concert ought to know that there is a chance that he or she will be hooked up to Srinivasan in this way, and will be obligated spend nine months supporting his life.

The venue is filled to capacity as the concert begins. Some of the attendees love Srinivasan so much that they would not mind if they were selected as the one to give him life support. Others just find his concerts so pleasurable that they attend despite hoping that the roulette wheel will not pick out their number, given that his concerts are so pleasurable. Some of them even come wearing prophylactic devices, intended to make their kidney functioning look worse than it is.

The concert ends, and I see a number of security guards approaching me. One of them taps me on the shoulder and says, "Gene, you are the one we need." They then sedate me (since the hook-up procedure is painful), and I awake to find myself hooked to Srinivasan, the only thing keeping him alive.

But this was not what I had bargained for: I had thought the roulette wheel would not pick my number, and I could enjoy a free concert at no cost. I invoke my "rights," and complain that I am now being used as a mere means to keep him alive.

Does anyone agree that my complaint is valid?

And to be fair to Thompson, she does make a hand wave at the issue of rape, only to declare that this can't possibly make any moral difference. But that conclusion only follows if one holds that rights are absolute. But I don't: all rights must be balanced against each other. In fact, I am not even a strict abortion prohibitionist in non-rape cases. Simply because I recognize that argument X is invalid does not mean that I accept the completely opposite argument Y as being entirely valid.

15 comments:

  1. This condition is so well-publicized that we can say "ignorance is no excuse." Every person who accepts the offer of free admission to the concert ought to know that there is a chance that he or she will be hooked up to Srinivasan in this way, and will be obligated spend nine months supporting his life.

    My response to this is that it is still mandatory in its context which makes it problematic. This is the same objection I raise to libertarians on conditions of employment and to Tenthers with respect to substantive due process.

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    1. Huh? Did anyone force you to attend the concert, Samson? How is it "problematic" to ask you to fulfill the conditions upon which you attended?

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    2. Samson, it is "mandatory" that you not murder your neighbor because you are annoyed by the smoke of his BBQ grill. It is "mandatory" that you not rape his daughter because you think she is attractive. What in the world is your problem with something being "mandatory"?

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    3. Never mind. That post wasn't as clear as I would've liked it to be. And I have nothing wrong with certain things being mandatory.

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    4. I have nothing wrong…

      Yup. Poor grammar, too. I'm definitely not thinking straight at this moment.

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  2. This is an interesting argument. But I think it only addresses one point which I make: the key issue is whether a fetus is a person, and when. I agree many pro-choicers are not up front about this, especially in their characterizations of motives.
    FWIW I think it is pretty clear that in the early stages of pregnancy it is not.

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  3. Like I pointed out in the other thread, my first name is Keshav, not Srinivasan; Indian names work the same way as American ones.

    And just so we're clear, do you think it would be acceptable for a pro-choicer to call someone a fanatic who believed in outlawing an abortion even in the case where the woman didn't consent to the act that produced the child?

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    1. Ah! My friends were Telegu: Telegu family names come before given names! When they told me this, I assumed it was India-wide. (I think they might have even assumed this.) This had come up because their names on official documents were the reverse of what I called them. See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_name

      In any case, Ken notes you are in the US. I had assumed India, I think from the times you were posting.

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  4. Doesn't this anology assume that the baby exists before its parents have had sex? This unfairly makes those who use contraceptives look like cheaters!

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    1. I didn't pick the musician analogy, someone else did. I'll be improved. No analogy is ever perfect or it would not be an analogy.

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    2. And in any case, Gorilla, from an evolutionary point of view, they ARE cheaters! This thing was "designed" to produce offspring, and "made" pleasurable to promote that end: you are not doing what this is "for" from an evolutionary perspective when you use contraceptives.

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  5. But that conclusion only follows if one holds that rights are absolute. But I don't: all rights must be balanced against each other.

    A bit off topic, but what would you have to say about the idea that getting rid of public property eliminates the need to balance rights against one another? And why do you think it is that some people embrace the position of rights being absolute and put on a show when someone suggests the opposite is true? Wanting to feel like they're standing on firm ground perhaps?

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  6. This was great. I was absolutely delighted by the part about prophylactic devices!

    Can you clarify what you mean at the end regarding absolute rights?

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  7. Out of curiosity, what is your opinion on Roe v. Wade? I don't mean the conclusion, but rather the reasoning. Like do you think they pulled it out of their asses or that it was slapdash or whatever? Of relevance to the subject, just in case you need some of the legal background, is substantive due process and the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incorporation_of_the_Bill_of_Rights>incorporation doctrine</a>.

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  8. JJT's article is an exercise in how to make laughably bad analogies. I remember writing a critical paper on it as a college freshman just skewering it, and getting outstanding marks and feedback from the liberal philosophy prof who very much agreed with her conclusions (as did I, at the time, and somewhat although not entirely still do).

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