Judith Jarvis Thomson

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Judith Jarvis Thomson
A caricature of Judith Jarvis Thomson.jpg
BornOctober 4, 1929 (1929-10-04) (age 91)
Alma materBarnard College (B.A.)
Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.)
Columbia University (Ph.D.)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
Notable ideas
The "violinist" argument

Judith Jarvis Thomson (born October 4, 1929) is an American moral philosopher. She was elected a Member of the American Philosophical Society in 2019.

Childhood and education[edit]

Born in New York City, on October 4, 1929, Judith (Jarvis) Thomson was the second child of Theodore Jarvis (Javitz), an accountant, and Helen (Vostrey) Jarvis, an English teacher. Her mother was of Catholic Czech extraction, and her father was descended from a line of Eastern European rabbis, including Rabbi Hayyim Eliezer Wachs of Kalish and Rabbi Jacob Emden. Raised in an observant family on the Lower East Side, Theodore Javitz changed his name to Jarvis in 1918. His relationship with his wife, which began at socialist summer camp, was a source of tension for both their families.[1]

Helen Jarvis died when Judith was six, and Theodore Jarvis remarried two years later. His second wife had two children. She was a successful interior designer and an arts and antique dealer and importer.[2]

Judith attended elementary school in New York City and in Yonkers, graduating from Hunter College High School in January 1946. She went on to receive a B.A. from Barnard College in 1950, a second B.A. from Cambridge University in 1952 (at Newnham College, Cambridge), an M.A. from Cambridge in 1956, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1959, all in philosophy.[3]

In 1962, she began teaching at Barnard College, and in 1962 she met and married the British philosopher James Thomson, who was a visiting professor at Columbia University. After spending 1962–1963 at Oxford, the couple moved to Boston, where James Thomson was appointed professor of philosophy at MIT. Judith Thomson taught for a year at Boston University and, in 1964, was appointed to the faculty at MIT, where she is currently Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy. The Thomsons were separated in 1976 and divorced in 1980; they remained colleagues until James Thomson's death in 1984.[4]

Later career[edit]

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,[5] and in 2003, she gave the Paul Carus Lectures on "Normativity," at the APA Central Division meetings.[6] She taught at MIT for the majority of her career, remaining there as professor emerita.

In 2012, she was awarded the Quinn Prize by the American Philosophical Association.[7]

In 2015, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge,[8] and in 2016 by Harvard University.[9] In 2016, she was elected to a Corresponding Fellowship of the British Academy.

Research areas and publications[edit]

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 Relativism and Moral Objectivity (1996) 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"[edit]

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 suggest that the human right not to be killed can be trumped by another person's right to control her own body, when these two rights come into conflict.

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".[10] Thomson in turn replied to Finnis in her paper, "Rights and Deaths", reprinted in her volume of essays, Rights, Restitution, and Risk.

Selected publications[edit]

  • "A Defense of Abortion," Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 47–66.
  • "The Right to Privacy," Philosophy and Public Affairs 4 (1975): 295–314.
  • Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1976). "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem". The Monist. 59 (2): 204–217. doi:10.5840/monist197659224. PMID 11662247.
  • Acts and Other Events (Cornell University Press, 1977).
  • Rights, Restitution, and Risk (Harvard University Press, 1986).
  • On Being and Saying: Essays for Richard Cartwright. Cambridge/MA: MIT Press. November 1987. ISBN 978-0262200639.
  • The Realm of Rights (Harvard University Press, 1990).
  • "Goodness and Utilitarianism," (Presidential Address) Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 67.2 (1993): 145–159.
  • Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (with Gilbert Harman) (Blackwell, 1996).
  • Goodness and Advice (Princeton University Press, 2001).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jewish Women's Archive".
  2. ^ "Jewish Women's Archive".
  3. ^ "Jewish Women's Archive".
  4. ^ "Jewish Women's Archive".
  5. ^ "Lecture Library - The Tanner Lectures on Human Values - The University of Utah". tannerlectures.utah.edu. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  6. ^ "Carus Lectures - The American Philosophical Association". www.apaonline.org. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  7. ^ "American Philosophical Association honors Judith Jarvis Thomson". MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. 2012.
  8. ^ "Honorary Degrees 2015". University of Cambridge. 2015.
  9. ^ "Honorary Degrees". 2016.
  10. ^ John Finnis, "The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion: a reply to Judith Thomson" in Human Rights and the Common Good <https://www.jstor.org/pss/2265137>

External links[edit]