Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1929—)

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Judith Jarvis Thomson has made major contributions to moral theory and metaphysics. In addition to several books in these areas, she has written more than seventy articles on a range of topics, including action theory, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science. She was educated at Barnard College, Cambridge University, and Columbia University, the last awarding her a doctoral degree in 1959. Since 1962, Thomson has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she became a full professor in 1969.

In moral theory, much of Thomson's work concerns what it is to have a moral right. Thomson's 1971 article "A Defense of Abortion"an important contribution not only to ethics but also to feminist philosophyrevolutionized the abortion debate, which had previously focused largely on the question of whether the fetus has a right to life. Thomson grants, for the sake of argument, that the fetus has a right to life, but argues that it does not follow that abortion is impermissible. She asks you to imagine waking up in the hospital with your kidneys connected to the circulatory system of a famous violinist with a fatal kidney ailment; the violinist will die without the continued use of your body (no one else with the requisite blood type can be found). It is not obvious that you must continue to lend the violinist the support of your body; thus the fact that something has the right to life, together with the fact that it will die without the continued use of your body, does not obviously show that you must continue to lend it that support. Thus, in Thomson's words, "the right to life will not serve the opponents of abortion in the very simple and clear way" they thought it would.

Thomson's views about rights are further developed in her 1976 and 1985 essays "Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem" and "The Trolley Problem" (among other essays collected in Rights, Restitution, and Risk [1986]). These two essays focus on issues surrounding the problem, due to Philippa Foot (1967), of explaining why it would be impermissible for a surgeon to cut up one patient to save five who need organs, but permissible for a trolley driver to divert a runaway trolley onto a track where it will kill one person from a track where it would kill five. Foot's suggestion is that the duty not to kill is more stringent than the duty to save: Whereas the surgeon chooses between killing one and letting five die, and so should let five die, the trolley driver chooses between killing five and killing one, and so should kill one. Thomson objects that Foot's solution cannot account for the fact that it would be permissible for a bystander to flip the switch that diverts the trolley from killing the five, even though the bystander, like the surgeon, chooses between killing one and letting five die. Solving this problemthe Trolley Problemrequires a more subtle understanding of what rights are and which we have. Thomson's The Realm of Rights (1990) addresses these issues in detail.

Even if we grant that the distinction between killing and letting die does not solve the trolley problem, we may still think that the distinction is morally important. Many philosophers have thought that whether it is depends on what it consists in, metaphysically. Thomson's "Critical Study of Jonathan Bennett's The Act Itself " (1996) suggests that the metaphysical distinction is, roughly, that "there is a method in the making," whereas allowing something to happen does not involve bringing it about by any method"there is no how about it." "Physician Assisted Suicide: Two Moral Arguments" (1999) poses a serious challenge to those who think that while it is morally permissible for a doctor to accede to a patient's request to "let nature take its course"either by not supplying, or by disconnecting life supportit is impermissible for a doctor to supply or administer a lethal drug at the patient's request. Along the way, Thomson makes the point that the killing/letting die distinction might itself be a moral distinction rather than a metaphysical distinction that makes a moral difference. In particular, it might be a necessary condition on an agent's letting someone die that she "have a liberty-right to act as she does."

The second major theme of Thomson's work in moral theory is her anticonsequentialism. One source of support for this comes from what she takes to be the moral theorist's data: our settled moral judgments about particular examples (for example, that the surgeon may not cut up the healthy patient to save five). Another, developed in "The Right and the Good" (1997) and Goodness and Advice (2001), is that the consequentialist's basic ideathat morality requires one to act in such a way as to make the world better than it otherwise would have beenis meaningless: there is no such relation as "better than." If there were such a relation, Thomson argues, then we could make sense of the question: Which is better, St. Francis or chocolate? But the question doesn't make sense: The goodness of a saint is an entirely different property from the goodness of chocolate. If all goodness is, as Thomson puts it, "goodness in a way," then the consequentialist owes us an account of what he or she means when he or she says that we ought to act so as to make the world better than it otherwise would have been. Thomson argues that no such account is available.

A third theme in Thomson's work in moral theory is her opposition to expressivist and relativist views about the content of moral claims. In Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (1996), coauthored with Gilbert Harman, Thomson defends moral objectivism, Harman defends moral relativism, and each replies to the other's arguments. One exchange concerns Harman's influential argument that moral theory cannot be justified in the same way that scientific theory can: our evidence that scientific hypotheses are true is that the truth of those hypotheses would explain what scientists observe, whereas moral hypotheses are explanatorily inert (1977). Thomson replies that our evidence that moral hypotheses are true is that they would be explained by observation: the data explain the hypotheses rather than the other way around.

In metaphysics, one strand of Thomson's work concerns questions about the persistence of material objects through change. "Parthood and Identity Across Time" argues against the thesis that objects have, in addition to spatial parts, temporal parts. According to Thomson, that thesis is absurd, because it implies that "[a]s I hold the bit of chalk in my hand, new stuff, new chalk keeps constantly coming into existence ex nihilo." "The Statue and the Clay" (1998) concerns the related issue of how artifacts are related to the material of which they are composed. Thomson argues that artifacts are not identical to but rather constituted by quantities of matter, and she provides a much-needed definition of the constitution relation, which previous writers on the topic had left unexplained.

The killing/letting die distinction is at the intersection of metaphysics and moral theory, along with many of Thomson's other interestsincluding causation, action, and agency. Acts and Other Events (1977) concerns events, their causes, and parts, and presents important challenges to rival theories of events and action. "The Time of a Killing" (1971) and "Causation: Omissions" (2001) also address metaphysical issues that bear on moral problems. Indeed, contemporary philosophy is indebted to Thomson for showing that metaphysics and ethics are often so intimately connected.

See also Abortion; Consequentialism; Euthanasia; Feminist Philosophy; Foot, Philippa; Harman, Gilbert; Objectivity in Ethics; Suicide.


works by judith jarvis thomson

"The Time of a Killing." Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 115132.

"Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem." The Monist 59 (1976): 204217.

Acts and Other Events. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

"Parthood and Identity Across Time." Journal of Philosophy 80 (1983): 201219.

"The Trolley Problem." Yale Law Journal 94 (1985): 13951415.

Rights, Restitution, and Risk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

The Realm of Rights, edited by William Parent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

"Critical Study of Jonathan Bennett's The Act Itself." Nous 30 (1996): 545557.

"The Right and the Good." Journal of Philosophy 94 (1997): 273298.

"The Statue and the Clay." Noûs 32 (1998): 149173.

"Physician Assisted Suicide: Two Moral Arguments." Ethics 109 (1999): 497518.

Goodness and Advice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

"Causation: Omissions." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 2003.

works about judith jarvis thomson

Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Foot, Philippa. "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect." Oxford Review (1967): 515.

Harman, Gilbert. The Nature of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Harman, Gilbert, and Judith Jarvis Thomson. Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Sider, Theodore. Four-Dimensionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

"A Defense of Abortion." Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 4766.

Sarah McGrath (2005)

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Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1929—)

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