Judith Jarvis Thomson
Judith Jarvis Thomson (born 4 October 1929) is an American moral philosopher and metaphysician. She was the second child of Theodore Jarvis (Javitz), an accountant, and Helen (Vostrey) Jarvis, an English teacher. She is known for her defense of moral objectivity, her account of moral rights, her views about the incompleteness of the term 'good,' and her use of thought experiments to make philosophical points.
Education and career
She attended elementary school in New York and in Yonkers, graduating from Hunter College High School in New York in January 1946. She received a B.A. from Barnard College in 1950, a second B.A. from Cambridge University in 1952 (at Newnham College, Cambridge), and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1959, all in philosophy.
Judith Thomson has been visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh (1976), the University of California at Berkeley Law School (1983), and Yale Law School (1982, 1984, 1985), and has held fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation (1950–1951), the American Association of University Women (1962–1963), the National Endowment for the Humanities (1978–1979, 1986–1987), the Guggenheim Foundation (1986–1987), and the Center for Advanced Study in Oslo, Norway (1996). In 1989, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1992–1993 she served as president of the American Philosophical Association (APA), Eastern Division. In 1999, she gave the Tanner Lectures on Human Values on "Goodness and Advice," at Princeton University, and in 2003, she gave the Paul Carus Lectures on "Normativity," at the APA Central Division meetings. She taught at MIT for the majority of her career, remaining there as professor emerita. Her ex-husband, James Thomson, was also a professor of philosophy at MIT for many years.
Research areas and publications
Thomson's main areas of research are moral philosophy and metaphysics. In moral philosophy she has made significant contributions to meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. Her contribution to her book with Gilbert Harman, Moral Realism and Moral Objectivity defends the objectivity of morality against Harman's relativism. The papers collected in Rights, Restitution and Risk (1986) include discussions of assisted suicide, abortion, self-defense, and preferential hiring. And her work published in Goodness and Advice (2001) and The Realm of Rights (1992) cover basic issues in normative moral theory concerning the basis of moral rights and an account of goodness. Her work in metaphysics focuses on issues concerning action and events, time and parthood.
A Defense of Abortion
One thought experiment for which Thomson is especially well-known occurs in her paper A Defense of Abortion:
- 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. ... 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.
The scenario is meant to push back against the concept that human beings possess an unalienable right not to be killed.
In this paper, Thomson argues on the basis of the violinist thought experiment that "the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly." Therefore, to show that abortion is morally impermissible, "it is by no means enough to show that the fetus is a person and to remind us that all persons have a right to life—we need to be shown also that killing the fetus violates its right to life, i.e., that abortion is unjust killing. And is it?" Thomson's article defends abortion rights and functions primarily as an argument by analogy in regards to the idea of mother/fetus consanguinity.
The paper meets reactions and criticisms from many different philosophers and bioethicists. Philippa Foot, a prominent Aristotelian ethicist argued that negative non-provision of service, as in the case of the violinist, is different from active killing, or interference, as in abortion (see Foot's book Moral Dilemmas, 86–87). Thomson's thought experiment has also been replied to by Oxford philosopher John Finnis in "The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion: a reply to Judith Thomson". Thomson in turn replied to Finnis in her paper, "Rights and Death", reprinted in her volume of essays, Rights, Restitution, and Risk.
- Normativity (2008)
- Goodness and Advice (2003)
- (with Gilbert Harman) Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (1996)
- The Realm of Rights (1990)
- Rights, Restitution, and Risk (1986)
- Acts and Other Events (1977)
- Killing, Letting Die and the Trolley Problem (1976)
- The Right to Privacy (1975)
- Preferential Hiring (1973)
- American philosophy
- The fat man version of the trolley problem
- Violinist (thought experiment)
- List of American philosophers
- List of women philosophers
- "Jewish Women's Archive".
- "Jewish Women's Archive".
- Tanner Lectures on Human Values Lecture Library
- Carus Lectures
- "American Philosophical Association honors Judith Jarvis Thomson". MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. 2012.
- John Finnis, "The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion: a reply to Judith Thomson" in Human Rights and the Common Good <http://www.jstor.org/pss/2265137>
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) — Judith J. Thomson
- Boston Review (1995) — "Abortion", Judith J. Thomson