Monday, November 23, 2009

The Violinist

As a male I tend to not get involved in the pro/anti abortion debate except as ethical thought experiments and what-if scenarios.

I've never come across this before and I think its interesting. It's known as the "Violinist Thought Experiment" as a defense of abortion. Although the analogy is slightly flawed (it can be fixed) it does then raise a number of questions. I want to raise one particular objection from an anti-abortion point of view...

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?
J.J Thomson
The flaw I see in this analogy lies mainly in the circumstances one finds oneself in. The analogy almost seems to take the view that "you are what?", and takes the action (sex) out of the equation.

So what then is the role of sex and does the act of sex, perhaps originally done for any purpose (such as for fun) entail one to accept any and all responsibility for the consequences of said action even if measures were taken to reduce the probability of said consequence occurring?

Or to put it more formally...
If person P performs action X, does it mean P has to take full responsibility for all consequences Y1, Y2, etc that may result from action X, where each consequence Y1, Y2, etc has an associated probability P(Y1), P(Y2), etc associated with said action? (Whether one is knowledgeable about the probabilities or not)

The intuitive answer is that one might be inclined to accept this and say that if one has sex and falls pregnant, one must take full responsibility for getting pregnant in the first place.

(1) X = Have sex

Y1 = Fall pregnant
P(Y1) = 0.1 (for example)
Y2 = Contract a STD
P(Y2) = 0.01 (for example)
Y3 = Have heart attack and die
P(Y3) = 0.0001 (for example)

But this does not hold for other examples and therefore it cannot be true that one ought to take responsibility for a "failed risk", highlighted in this example.

(2) X = In a bad neighborhood wearing revealing clothes

Y1 = Assaulted
P(Y1) = 0.2 (say...)
Y2 = Raped
P(Y2) = 0.1 (say...)
Y3 = Killed
P(Y3) = 0.001 (say...)

Is P fully responsible for getting assaulted or raped given she knew (intuitively or otherwise) the risks associated with the action? Is P fully responsible if she was unaware of the risks associated? (By say stumbling into the wrong area though no fault of her own or by being mentally handicapped)

Many callous people have suggested P is responsible however I believe that is wrong-headed.

I would say (1) and (2) cannot be compared because they deal with consequences in different categories.

In (2), the consequences Y1, Y2, Y3 all relate to actions done against P by other agents whereas (1) are natural/normal consequences related to the action itself.

Unless someone can see a flaw in my reasoning, I am forced to conclude the analogy does not work and therefore one can simultaneously be anti-"for social reasons" abortion and pro-violinist-choice. The only exceptions are rape and incest abortions (which belong in the same category as (2)), which, to be consistent, would be okay.

No comments: