Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Living in a Tiny House

We got the beginning lecture on the (infamous) violinist of Judith Thomson. We are being taught to recognize and evaluate arguments by analogy. She uses three, actually, in that article: the violinist, the rapidly growing baby in the tiny house, and the person-seed problem. There's no problem with her imagination


One of the fascinating and intellectually challenging aspects of her most famous analogy is that it ignores the possibility that philosophically-rigourous pro-lifers (the "extreme view") might agree that you could disconnect yourself from the violinist and be morally justified.

In our first reading, Noonan alludes to the Catholic position on abortion, which Thomson indirectly identifies as the extreme form (by citing two popes and Noonan while discussing it). The idea of abortion to save the life of the mother (the object of Thomson's "rapidly growing baby" analogy) has long been accepted in Catholic thinking (precluding here from what, exactly, is theology versus philosophy). In traditionally Catholic countries, with the strictest laws on abortion, saving the life of the mother was (is?) permitted. The philosophical and theological insight, however, is that directly killing the baby/child/fetus is always wrong.

Which brings us the principle of double effect: a form of moral reasoning that deals with seeming dilemmas, like ectopic pregnancy, cancer of the uterus, or, for the more imaginative, the trolley problem. We have already discussed in class the idea that a single action may have multiple motivations--a potential problem for Kantians. It is also true that a single action can have multiple effects.

The principle says that if an action, by itself, is good in it's intent and form (some actions are, in and of themselves, immoral; such as directly killing an innocent human being), but it has an undesired, but inevitable, bad effect, that action can be moral. The prime example would be removing an ectopic fetus to save the life of the mother (as distinct from directly killing, then removing it). The death of the child is inevitable, but undesired. Saving the life of the mother is a good. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, this operation is morally justifiable.

Even a slight modification of the Rapidly Growing Child analogy makes it acceptable to almost all pro-lifers: removing the child, knowing that it will die inevitably, to save the mother's life. It's curious that this is the only one of Thomson's analogies that actually speaks plainly of killing. The other two are more antiseptic: disconnecting the violinist and removing the "person plant". Could it be that Thomson, in 1971, wanted to justify as many abortions as possible, but felt it necessary to disguise, somewhat, what actually happens in almost all abortions?

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