Voluntariness and Samaritanism

Class notes for 27 April

The voluntariness objection

Ming Ming had objected to Thomson’s argument on the grounds that the person hooked up to the violinist was kidnapped. She pointed out that abortions are often requested by people who voluntarily had sexual intercourse, knowing that they might become pregnant as a result.

That is a distinction. Does it make a difference?

One thing to say right off is that it can’t make a difference to the fetus’s right to life. We’re granting, for the sake of argument, that the fetus is a person with the right to life. The history of a person’s conception doesn’t have any bearing on whether that person has the right to life.

So what could the voluntariness of sexual intercourse affect? It would have to be the woman’s right to control what happens in and to her body.

Putting this in Thomson’s terms, the point would be that the pregnant woman gave the fetus the right to use her body. That sounds odd. Voluntarily engaging in sexual intercourse involves giving someone the right to use one’s body, but it’s rarely a fetus.

We considered making the argument turn on some combination of fault and dependency: the pregnant woman’s voluntary behavior resulted in someone else’s depending on her and, because that is so, she is responsible for that person’s plight and has to take care of that person.

I should add that fathers are responsible too. Fathers can’t bear the physical burden of pregnancy, but they can be responsible for doing other things. It’s just that a woman’s right to control what happens in and to her body tends to come up first in these discussions.

What is a right against someone?

Ally asked a great question (by email): what does it mean to say that someone has a right against another person. She’s right to find that phrase weird. Here’s what it means.

If I promise you that I will mow your lawn, you have a right that I mow your lawn. By contrast, you have no right that Daniel mow your lawn: he didn’t promise, after all.

When we say “you have a right against me” that’s basically what we mean.

We inherited a lot of the vocabulary of rights from law. That helps to explain what’s going on a bit.

In the case I just described, you could bring a case against me if I fail to mow your lawn. By contrast, you couldn’t do that to Daniel.

There’s no such thing as moral court, but the idea is roughly similar. You can use your right ‘against’ me by, say, demanding that I mow the lawn now, as I promised, rather than “sometime when I feel like it,” as I want you to. You can’t use your right to have your lawn mowed against Daniel.

Is the body special?

Both Nick and Mark noted that there has to be something special about the right to control one’s body that distinguishes it from the right to control other things that one owns.

Borrowing from Mark, if we treated all cases of ownership as the same, then I could withdraw my life-support machine from you, even though you need it to survive. (Perhaps your family fell behind on the rent or I decided that I would rather make it into a decorative planter). That is much less compelling than the violinist case.

It’s interesting to look at the history of the right to control one’s body. If we we look at the seventeenth century, we will find that it was understood pretty much as Thomson suggests, as a case of ownership. For instance, here’s Thomas Hobbes:

Of things held in propriety, those that are dearest to a man are his own life, and limbs; and in the next degree (in most men,) those that concern conjugal affection; and after them riches and means of living. (Leviathan [1651] Ch. 30, par. 12)

What Hobbes is saying is that these three rights all belong to the same class. They are “proprietary” rights. That means that they are all held by an individual and that all other people have obligations to respect them. So my property right in my watch means that I’m the only one who can determine what happens to the watch; everyone else has to leave it alone. The same goes for my body: I can determine whether or not it falls down on the ground, you don’t get to make that decision.

I’ll leave it to you to figure out how “conjugal affection” fits the model.

Both Nick and Mark drew parallels with Singer’s argument, which is very interesting. Could you draw an anti-abortion conclusion from the drowning child case?


Thomson is willing to concede that there are some cases in which abortion would be wrong. This is not a concession that abortion would violate the fetus’s rights. Rather, the claim is that it would be indecent of the mother not to bear the costs of bearing the fetus in some cases.

So how can she avoid drawing a similar conclusion for all cases of abortion? She does so by distinguishing between minimally decent samaritanism and good samaritanism. She notes that we don’t require anything like good samaritanism in any other area of life.

That is intended to shift the burden on those who think that pregnancy should be treated as special. Why should this be the only case in which we are required to make extensive sacrifices for others?

I said that I thought those who are opposed to abortion would reply by saying that we do require some people to act as good samaritans for others. We require that of parents; they are required to do an amazing amount for their children.

Abortion opponents view the relationship between pregnant woman and fetus as being like the relationship between parent and child. In fact, they maintain the relationship is exactly the same. That’s why they think it’s so important to show that fetuses are persons.

I wonder if something like that lies behind some of the doubts that have been expressed about Thomson’s discussing abortion as a matter of conflicting rights.