Thomson outline

Notes for September 12

General remarks

This is a classic. You may not agree with Thomson’s arguments, but if you don’t appreciate the way they work, you just don’t like moral philosophy.

Thomson does two nice things for her readers.

She identifies the target she will attack and her basic strategy for doing so early in the article (p. 48).

The article has numbered sections that help you follow its dialectical structure. Each section makes a distinct point about the dispute between Thomson and her opponent.

Basic strategy

In order to understand a piece of philosophical writing, you need to know (1) what the author is trying to show and (2) how, very basically, she is trying to do it.

Both points are clearly stated early on: Thomson identifies the argument she wants to defeat (see the paragraph that begins “I propose” on p. 48) and her strategy for attacking it (the violinist example, also on p. 48).

Thomson is claiming that abortion is legitimate even if a fetus has a right to life. She will make this point by considering what the right to life gives an adult person a right to have.


  1. The extreme view.
    The view that abortion is impermissible even to save the mother’s life. Thomson wants to know what having a right to life entails. According to the Extreme View, it means that no one can ever kill you, even if failing to do so costs that person his own life. She argues that is too strong a claim.
  2. A weaker extreme view.
    Perhaps a person may defend herself by killing an innocent person, but no one else may choose between two innocent people. I called this a “weaker” view because it claims less than the stronger version in §1. Thomson tries to show that a third party (someone other than the mother and fetus) can legitimately choose the mother.
  3. Where the mother’s life is not at stake
    Again, the focus is on what the right to life would give a person the right to have. Would the violinist have a right to stay hooked up even if it wouldn’t kill you?
  4. The voluntariness objection
    Has the mother given the fetus a right to use her body by virtue of voluntarily “letting it in”?
  5. Indecent behavior
    A distinction between two different reasons why abortion might be illegitimate: (a) it would violate the right of the fetus, (b) it would be indecent of the mother.
  6. Samaritanism
    Two kinds of samaritanism distinguished. The claim that early abortions are indecent can be supported only if the more demanding kind of samaritanism is a legitimate legal requirement. That would be inconsistent with other social practices.
  7. Do mothers have special responsibilities for their fetuses?
    Answer: only if they are voluntarily assumed.
  8. Qualifications
    What the argument does not support.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 9, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy