Judith Jarvis Thomson

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Judith Jarvis Thomson
Judith Jarvis Thomson, philosopher (1929 – 2020).jpg
Judith Jarvis Thomson in 2005
Judith Jarvis

(1929-10-04)October 4, 1929
New York City, U.S.
DiedNovember 20, 2020(2020-11-20) (aged 91)
Alma materBarnard College (BA)
Cambridge University (BA, MA)
Columbia University (PhD)
(m. 1962; div. 1980)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
Doctoral studentsKathrin Koslicki
Notable ideas
The trolley problem, ethics concerning abortion

Judith Jarvis Thomson (October 4, 1929 – November 20, 2020) was an American philosopher who studied and worked on ethics and metaphysics. Her work ranges across a variety of fields, but she is most known for her work regarding the thought experiment titled the trolley problem and her writings on abortion. She is credited with naming, developing, and initiating the extensive literature on the trolley problem first posed by Philippa Foot which has found a wide range use since.[1] Thomson also published a paper titled "A Defense of Abortion", which makes the argument that the procedure is morally permissible even if it is assumed that a fetus is a person with a right to life. She was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 2019.

Early life and education[edit]

Thomson was born in New York City, on October 4, 1929. Her mother Helen (Vostrey) Jarvis was an English teacher and her father Theodore Jarvis was an accountant.[2] Thomson's mother died when she was six and Theodore Jarvis remarried two years later. His second wife was Jewish and had two children.[2]

Thomson’s parents placed no religious pressure on her, but she officially converted to Judaism at age fourteen, when she was confirmed at Temple Israel in Manhattan.[2]

Thomson graduated from Hunter College High School in January 1946.[2] She received her bachelor's degree (BA) from Barnard College in 1950, a second BA at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1952, an MA from Cambridge in 1956, and a PhD from Columbia University in 1959.[2] All of her degrees were in philosophy.[2]

In 1960, Thomson began teaching at Barnard College.[3] In 1962, she married James Thomson, who was a visiting professor at Columbia University. Judith and James spent the 1962–1963 academic year at Oxford, after which they moved to Boston. Judith taught for a year at Boston University and, in 1964, was appointed to the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she was Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy. James was also appointed a professor of philosophy at MIT. The Thomsons divorced in 1980; they remained colleagues until James's death in 1984.[2]


Thomson was a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh (1976), UC Berkeley School of Law (1983), and Yale Law School (1982, 1984, 1985). She 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, Thomson 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 at Princeton University; her lecture was titled "Goodness and Advice".[4] Thomson taught at MIT for the majority of her career, remaining there as professor emerita.[3]

In 2012, Thomson was awarded the Quinn Prize by the American Philosophical Association.[5]

In 2015, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge,[6] and in 2016 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University.[7] In 2016, she was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.[8]

Thomson died on November 20, 2020, at the age of 91.[9][10] She was buried beside her former husband in Mount Auburn Cemetery.[11]

Philosophical views[edit]

Thomson's main areas of research were moral philosophy and metaphysics.[12] In moral philosophy she made significant contributions to meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

"A Defense of Abortion" (1971) introduced one thought experiment for which Thomson is especially well known. Published in 1971, Thomson’s work on abortion is historically connected to and located just prior to the court case of Roe v Wade. The paper asks the reader to imagine that her circulatory system has, without her consent, been connected to that of a famous violinist whose life she must sustain for nine months. The hypothetical posed by Thomson notably redirects philosophical attention from the rights of the fetus to those of the pregnant woman.[13] Specifically, her argument accepts that a fetus is a person, moving past any discussion which revolved around that topic. Instead, Thomson claims that the bodily autonomy of the woman supersedes any rights of the fetus. This argument has been widely discussed since, such that it is accepted in some anti-abortion circles to have changed the way in which abortion is debated.[14]

In regards to ethical theories, Thomson was opposed to consequentialist, hedonist, and subjectivist perspectives.[15][16] Her work relied on specific elements of deontological argumentation.[17]

In metaphysics, Thomson focused on questions regarding the relationship between actions and events, and between time and physical parts.[18]

She also made significant contributions on the topic of privacy.[19]

Selected publications[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Edmonds, Dave (2013). Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong. Princeton University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9780691154022. "Philippa Foot set Trolleyology going, but it was Judith Jarvis Thomson, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who delivered its most high-voltage jolt. Struck by Foot's thought experiment she responded with not one but two influential articles on what she labeled The Trolley Problem."
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Gendler, Tamar S. (February 27, 2009). "Judith Jarvis Thomson". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved November 21, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Byrne, Alex. "Professor Emerita Judith Jarvis Thomson, highly influential philosopher, dies at 91". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved December 11, 2020.
  4. ^ Thomson, Judith Jarvis (March 1999). "Goodness and Advice" (PDF). Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  5. ^ "American Philosophical Association honors Judith Jarvis Thomson". MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. 2012.
  6. ^ "Honorary Degrees 2015". University of Cambridge. 2015.
  7. ^ "Honorary Degrees". 2016.
  8. ^ "Professor Judith Thomson FBA". The British Academy. Archived from the original on August 4, 2020.
  9. ^ Traub, Alex (December 3, 2020). "Judith Jarvis Thomson, Philosopher Who Defended Abortion, Dies at 91". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 5, 2020.
  10. ^ Keller, Roberto; Humbert-Droz, Steve (November 30, 2020). "J. J. Thomson, une vie consacrée à l'éthique". Le Temps (in French). ISSN 1423-3967. Retrieved December 2, 2020.
  11. ^ "Professor Emerita Judith Jarvis Thomson, highly influential philosopher, dies at 91". MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved February 19, 2021.
  12. ^ McGrath, Sarah (2005). "Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1929—)". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved November 21, 2020.
  13. ^ Burgis, Ben (November 30, 2020). "Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929–2020)". Jacobin. Retrieved December 11, 2020.
  14. ^ Bradley, Gerard (2016). "The Future of Abortion Law in the United States". National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. 16 (4): 633–653. doi:10.5840/ncbq201616460.
  15. ^ Zimmerman, Michael. "Review of /Goodness and Advice/ by Judith Jarvis Thomson". Noûs. 38: 534–552. doi:10.1111/j.0029-4624.2004.00482.x. JSTOR 3506252 – via JSTOR.
  16. ^ Brown, Curtis (July 1998). "Review of Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity by Gilbert Harm, Judith Jarvis Thomson". The Philosophical Quarterly. 48: 387–390. JSTOR 2660325 – via JSTOR.
  17. ^ Encyclopedia of philosophy. Donald M. Borchert (2nd ed.). Detroit: Thomson Gale/Macmillan Reference USA. 2006. ISBN 0-02-865780-2. OCLC 61151356.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  18. ^ Stoljar, Daniel (2010), "Thomson, Judith Jarvis", The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Continuum, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199754663.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-975466-3, archived from the original on March 11, 2021, retrieved March 11, 2021
  19. ^ Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1975). "The Right to Privacy". Philosophy & Public Affairs. 4 (4): 295–314. ISSN 0048-3915. JSTOR 2265075.

External links[edit]