Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Win Sharon's Money 6

I know nothing about bioethics so maybe this is an easy one. As usual, $5 (to be delivered after thanksgiving break) to the first person with a satisfactory answer. The question is, how is the violinist case morally different from the yaht case described below? Or why is it morally permissible to let the person on your yaht starve?

In a famous article on abortion, Judith Jarvis Thompson presents the following thought experiment:

"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? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it?"

She takes it that one would not be morally obliged to keep the violinist plugged in for nine months, and then uses comparison to this case to argue that - even if a fetus had the full moral status of an adult human - certain kinds of abortion would still be permissible. But is it permissible to unplug the violinist? I will argue that it is not.

Consider the following case:
You are making a solo trip across the Atlantic in your yaht, and halfway there you hear the muffled sounds of a person coming out of a coma. It turns out that this person was conked on the head and tossed into your boat by gangsters, the day you left port. Now your engine breaks so it will take 9 months for you to get back. You have enough food stored to feed yourself in comfort for 9 moths or to barely keep both you and the involuntary-stow-away alive for 9 moths if you choose to share it. Are you morally obliged to share your food with the involuntary stow away?

Intuitively (and perhaps legally) I think you are. It would not be morally permissible to let the person accidentally trapped on your yaht starve to death rather than share your food with them. But how does this case differ from the violinist example? The amount of sacrifice required, the fact that you are blameless in creating the situation of dependence, the fact that the space and resources which the person requires belong to you (you bought the food, and the yaht) are all the same.

If there is no morally relevant difference we must conclude that Thompson is wrong, and it is not permissible to unplug the violinist. This is not, of course, to say that abortion is impermissible. But it does suggest that if abortion is permissible the reasons why it's permissible have something to do with the way that fetuses are different from adult human beings.

OH and here's a link to the article:,Fall02/thomson.htm


Peter said...

Seems to me the relevant difference is the invasiveness of the burden placed upon the person. Thompson would no doubt distinguish the cases by pointing out that carrying a baby is invasive in the way that having some violinist attached to you for 9 months would be but that sharing food (even if unpleasant) would not be.


As an aside this isn't a very compelling talent. I mean it's far from clear that total utility is increased by keeping a 'great' violinist alive. I would argue that a substantial fraction of our appreciation of artistic elements is relative.

Brian said...

Because I am a consequentialist, and more specifically, a classic utilitarian, I think an action is moral only so long as it produces "the greatest good for the greatest number", and therefore whether or not keeping the violinist or the shipmate alive would entirely depend on the particular violinist and shipmate.

However, it can be argued that moral intuition is simply instinctual. Throughout time, it could be that people who are more likely to desire to help their companions survive are more likely to survive themselves, and therefore pass down this particular moral intuition to their offspring. And therefore, the fact that your intuition tells you that you should share your food with this shipmate is not necessarily a sound reason to do so, as you did not make a promise to this person, which is one of Thompson's arguments for responsibility. Coincidence should affect responsibility only so much. What if, for example, right when the violinist was unplugged, you were sneakily plugged to saxophonist who needed the same favor as the violinist, and then 9 months later you were again plugged to a drummer in the same situation, etc. Would you be morally obligated to be bound to the hospital bed for your whole life, and if not, where is the cutoff, and how is this cutoff not arbitrary?

oblomovitis said...

I am confused:

Are you saying we shouldnt trust any moral intuitions because they are "simply instinctual"? In that case the answer to the violinist and yaht cases should be 'I have no idea what we should do'.

Or do you think there's some reason to think the desire to aid someone when you can do so at little cost to your life is "merely instinctual" in some way that the feeling the intuition that one ought to keep promises isn't? If so why?

oblomovitis said...

the above post was about brian's comment

oblomovitis said...

Also (brian) I know there are utiliatarian arguments for promise keeping, but what's the utilitarian argument that *only* promise keeping is relevant to determining obligations?

If what makes promise-keeping good is essentially the same thing that makes charity good (e.g. that -as per Mill -enforcing a law requiring a certain degree of these things would tend to increase utility) then how come we have obligations to keep promises but not obligations to help those dying in situations where only we can help them?

Brian said...

In response to oblomovitis' comments:

To begin with, what I meant by “intuition” is ‘that little voice inside our head telling us the right thing to do’ or rather our conscience, which may not be what you meant by “intuition”. Therefore, I suppose intuition could result from natural selection and cultural influences and even pass methods of sound reasoning for attaining maximum utility. Although following intuition might be a good rule to follow for some people in some situations, such as the yacht case, it nonetheless is not necessarily based on sound reasoning, and therefore if it is possible for someone to accurately calculate the probable effect keeping the involuntary-stow-away alive will have on total utility (at least to the extent of whether or not keeping the involuntary-stow-away alive would benefit society, never mind to what degree), then the decision of whether or not to keep the involuntary-stow-away alive should be based on this calculation and not intuition. Furthermore, I think most people could make an accurate enough calculation in the yacht case to the extent that it would probably supersede intuition, such as by deciding to keep the involuntary-stow-away alive on the grounds that it is unlikely that he is a criminal for what ever reasons (his personality or level of education or his story), he has a wife and children to financially and emotionally support, he is integral to providing a necessary service to the world, he is rich and has promised me a fortune if I keep him alive, he is a classic utilitarian, or any other number of reasons.

I do not know how much instinct affects our intuition that we should keep promises compared to our intuition that we should help others when doing so requires little self-sacrifice, and I do think there are obligations other than promise-keeping that should be fulfilled to maximize utility, such as charity, and I agree with you that saving someone’s life when only you can do so might be just as important or more important an obligation than promise-keeping, such as in the yacht case.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't fit very well with the abortion analogy, but isn't it beneficial to society that the so-called "Society of Music Lovers" not achieve its objective?