Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929–2020)

Judith Jarvis Thomson was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Her justly famous essay in defense of abortion rights is a model for how to combine philosophical rigor with political engagement in the real world.

Judith Jarvis Thompson. (Berkeley Graduate Division Videos / YouTube)

A fan-favorite episode of NBC’s The Good Place is called “The Trolley Problem.” If you’ve watched it, or if you’re one of the quarter of a million people who follow the “Trolley problem memes” page on Facebook, you know at least a little bit about Judith Jarvis Thomson’s work — even if you’ve never heard her name.

The prehistory of this philosophical puzzle goes back to Philippa Foot. In an essay crammed with examples intended to illustrate the complexities of an obscure idea in moral philosophy called the “doctrine of double effect,” she introduces the “driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one track to another.” If he does nothing, he’ll kill five workers doing repairs on the track. If he steers onto an alternate track, he’ll only kill one. Foot thought it was obvious that “we should say, without hesitation, that the driver should steer for the unoccupied track.”

I’ve introduced dozens of introductory classes of students to this example over the course of the decade and a half that I’ve taught philosophy classes, usually illustrating it with crude stick figure drawings on the chalkboard. When I’ve asked for a show of hands, I’ve never had a class where more than two or three students didn’t share Foot’s intuition that this would be the right thing to do. If that was all there was to it, no one would think there was a “problem” about the runaway trolley.

The complication comes in a 1976 paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem.” As well as coining the phrase “the trolley problem,” she introduced the problem itself. It feels obvious that diverting the trolley would be the right thing to do, but what if we scrambled the example a bit? Add in a footbridge going over the trolley track and take away the alternate track with only one worker. Put two people on the footbridge. One of them, George, knows a lot about trolleys. (Perhaps he’s an engineer.) He knows the only way to stop a trolley in its tracks is with a sufficiently heavy weight. As luck would have it, the other man on the tracks is heavy enough to do the trick.

When I draw a new set of stick figures to illustrate that one on the board, hardly anyone raises their hand to agree that the right thing to do would be for George to push the man into the trolley’s path. The “problem” is the inconsistency between being willing to kill one to save five in the first version but viewing this as cold-blooded murder in the second.

People who only know “the trolley problem” from the vague impression left by memes and jokes, often exhibiting the kind of dark humor that marks the episode of The Good Place, sometimes end up thinking that the point of thinking about examples like this is to deaden our intuitive moral reactions and train us to make cold-blooded utilitarian calculations about the respective values of different lives as if we were all imperialist generals calmly talking about “collateral damage.” But Thomson’s point in context was exactly the opposite. She was laser-focused on the rights of the large man whose life would hypothetically be sacrificed — just as, in the area where she made the most lasting contribution, she was focused on the rights of pregnant women.

The Sick Violinist

If you have heard Thomson’s name, it’s almost certainly in connection with her essay “A Defense of Abortion.” It was published in 1971, two years before the Roe v. Wade decision, and in the decades since, it’s become the most widely anthologized paper in all of contemporary philosophy. If you went to college and you took an “Intro to Ethics” or “Contemporary Moral Issues” class, you probably read Thomson’s article.

Traditionally, philosophical arguments about the ethics of abortion have focused on the metaphysical status of the fetus. Is a zygote a “person”? How about a second-trimester fetus that has started to develop a brain but doesn’t yet have a thalamus that would allow it to experience sensations? What are the conditions for counting as a “person,” anyway?

Thomson’s innovation was to shift the issue from the rights of the fetus to the rights of pregnant women. In the first page of the paper, she compares the idea that a fetus that will one day become a person is a person already to the idea that an acorn is already an oak tree, but she’s willing to grant the pro-lifers’ premise for the sake of argument. Even so, she insists, the mother’s right to control her own body comes first.

It’s easy to see why the right to bodily autonomy is important. As the great Marxist analytic philosopher G. A. Cohen memorably pointed out, if you require convincing on this point, imagine that future developments in medical technology made it easy to cure blindness by transplanting working eyes into the eye sockets of the blind and some future authoritarian government set up an “eyeball lottery.” Everyone who could see out of both eyes would be forced to register, and the unlucky winners would be forced to donate one of their eyeballs. If you think that redistributive taxation would be fine but that an eyeball lottery would be monstrously unjust, you must agree that our right to control the money in our bank accounts is a lot less important than our right to control our bodies.

Even if you nod along with all this, you might think that abortion is different. The right to bodily autonomy might be more important than the right to working eyeballs, but the right to life is surely the most important right of all.

Many people who took whatever class where they were assigned “A Defense of Abortion” years ago and don’t remember anything else about the paper, and might not even remember who wrote it, remember her response to this argument.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. 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?

Thomson’s striking and imaginative scenarios certainly add to the pleasure of reading her work. She clearly had a flair for this kind of thing. Later in the paper, her refutation of the idea that consenting to sex amounts to consenting to pregnancy includes an example about a world where people don’t gestate in wombs but grow from “people seeds” that could come floating through an open window and take root in the carpet. But the part of the paper I’ve always found most compelling isn’t related to her vivid science-fiction examples, but the real-world case of Kitty Genovese.

In 1964, Genovese was stabbed to death outside of an apartment building in Queens. According to an article published in the New York Times at the time, thirty-eight people saw or heard what was happening and did nothing to help her. While contemporary journalists have cast doubt about the claim about bystanders in the original Times piece, it was widely believed at the time. Whatever may be true about how many people witnessed the murder and how many of those tried to help, the striking fact that Thomson calls our attention to is that “there is no law under which charges could be brought” against those bystanders who “didn’t even trouble to pick up a phone” to report what was happening to Genovese.

Maybe there should be such laws. There are in some countries. While it might be unreasonable to legally require anyone to endanger their own life by rushing into the street to help a stabbing victim, a case could probably be made for legally requiring people watching from their apartments to at least pick up the phone and call 911. As Thomson puts it, the former would require a bystander to be a Good Samaritan while the latter would only require them to be a “Minimally Decent Samaritan.”

Whatever you make of the idea that we should have Minimally Decent Samaritan laws, Thomson’s point is that legally forcing anyone to keep a fetus alive by gestating it in her womb goes absurdly further than what a bystander would have had to do to keep Genovese alive. A society that wouldn’t normally force a person to even pick up a phone forcing a pregnant woman to share her body with another being against her will for nine months is one that treats pregnant women less like full persons than walking incubators.

A Model for Debunking the Right

A fact mentioned in passing in online biographies of Thomson is that her parents met at a “socialist summer camp.” Her father Theodore Jarvis (formerly Theodore Jarvitz) grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household. He was the descendant of a long line of Eastern European rabbis, including famous luminaries like Hayyim Eliezer Wachs. Thomson’s mother Helen Jarvis (formerly Helen Vostrey) was descended from Czech Catholics. I’ve been told that the marriage was a minor scandal in both families.

Helen died when Judith was six. I don’t know if Theodore’s interest in socialist politics persisted long enough to have played any role in his daughter’s life. While Thomson wrote about “applied ethics” issues like abortion rights or affirmative action — which she supported with some qualifications — she wasn’t a specialist in “political philosophy” as that’s usually understood. I don’t think she ever wrote about capitalism and socialism or the ethics of economic redistribution or the rights of workers. As far as I can tell, her overall political worldview was probably the fairly conventional liberalism of most academics of her generation.

Even so, in my own efforts to debunk the Right, I’ve always seen her as an important model — and not just because her argument in “A Defense of Abortion” is brilliant. Her essays combined several important virtues.

The creator of “the trolley problem” certainly can’t be faulted for any lack of philosophical rigor. But even in essays where she’s parsing vastly more esoteric issues, her writing was always extremely clear — and often extremely charming. In an essay on complex metaphysical issues that I read as part of a brief stint as a research assistant for an old professor at the University of Miami, she illustrates the metaphysical complexities with an example about knitting someone a sweater. It’s been a decade since that project ended, but the example has always stuck in my memory.

Her writing was never purple or pretentious, but she put a tremendous amount of effort into it, and it shows. When Claudia Mills introduced Thomson’s keynote address at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Conference in 2009, as well as praising “her warmth and generosity as a mentor to a young woman about to enter in the mid-1970s into the male-dominated world of philosophy,” she went on at length about how Thomson made her a better writer. She was such a demanding critic that Mills was overjoyed when she “finally wrote a sentence that pleased her” in one of her papers.

“You just like it because it’s short,” I told her, as I knew she had disliked my long, flowery, dare I say eloquent, sentences. “I don’t just like its length,” she told me. “I like IT!” That was a wonderful moment that I’ve carried with me for thirty-four years. I wrote a sentence that Judith Jarvis Thomson admired.

Her line of thought in “A Defense of Abortion” doesn’t spare any complication in following the twists and turns of various possible arguments and counterarguments, but it’s written in such a clear and direct way that you don’t have to spend a single day in a philosophy classroom to read and understand it. She never “dumbed it down,” but, more importantly, she proved that you don’t have to do that to reach a wide audience. In the decades when the essay has been more widely anthologized and assigned to undergraduates than anything else that’s ever been published in a professional philosophy journal, millions of people have read and had their thinking about a politically urgent issue influenced by her arguments.

I always tell my students that the point of philosophy classes isn’t to propagandize any particular point of view on any of the issues we discuss but to expose them to a variety of points of view and give them the tools to reason better about these issues so they can decide what they think. When I say this, I really mean it. I go through a lot of effort to sympathetically unpack the arguments of authors whose conclusions I hate. If I haven’t given Robert Nozick’s case for libertarianism a fair chance, I haven’t done my job.

That said, I’ve always been curious about how hard or easy it is to persuade people to drop deeply felt beliefs, and sometimes at the end of the semester, I’ll ask students if they changed their minds about any of the topics we read about because of any of the arguments made in the readings or discussed in class. The most common answer (at least in ethics classes) is also one of the ones I’m happiest to read: “I used to be against abortion. I changed my mind because I read Judith Jarvis Thomson.”