Why and how is ‘The Ailing Violinist’ a thought experiment and to what extent is it successful?

In philosophy, as in science, the use of thought experiments is a well-known method for drawing conclusions that we can apply in the real world. Much is published about the success of using thought experiments. The use of thought experiments can be a useful and valuable analytic method  in ethical philosophical cases. We can use them as examples for formatting an opinion or make a choice in similar situations of everyday life. Thomson’s thought experiment ‘The Ailing Violinist’ is a good example of a thought experiment that has influenced opinions in our society. In this essay I will explain her experiment and show why I think this is a thought experiment and why I think it is a successful one.

The definition of thought experiments I’d like to use is given by T.S. Grendler. Thought experiments are situations that are imaginary, that can be actual or hypothetical and that can teach us how we could respond in that situation, or similar situations, in real life.[1] They can be hypothetical, situations that could obtain in real life, or counterfactual so that you immediately know it is imaginary. [2] Each thought experiment can be characterized by the following structure:

  1. An imaginary scenario is described.
  2. An argument is offered that attempts to establish the correct evaluation of the scenario.
  3. This evaluation of the imagined scenario is then taken to reveal something about cases beyond the scenario.[3]

Not all thought experiments are the same, even though they meet the structure for a mode of reasoning given above. Grendler makes a distinction in three types of thought experiments. The first one is called the factive thought experiment. It concerns what we think the facts of a situation would be and therefore it is often used in science. The second one is called conceptual. It features the proper application of concepts. It is mostly used in metaphysics and epistemology. The third type is valuational, concerning the proper moral of aesthetic response to a situation. It is used in ethics and aesthetics. [4]

Now that we have got a definition of thought experiments, we can figure out how the experiment of Thomson’s Ailing Violinist works and see if it is a proper thought experiment. Suppose you wake up one morning and you find yourself in a bed, circular connected with a famous unconscious violinist. He has a fatal kidney ailment and the Society of Music Lovers had searched in all medical records to find out that you are the only one with the right blood type to help him survive. They kidnapped you and plugged his circulatory system into yours. Now your kidneys can be used to extract poison from his blood, as well as your own. You should stay connected for nine months because he is then cured, unplugging earlier would kill him. Do you accept this situation? Is it morally the right thing to do because all persons have a right to live? And what if this connection should be there for longer, or for the rest of your life? Does that change the argument that all persons have the right to live? Thomson claims that, assuming the fetus is a person, abortion can still be morally justified sometimes. [5]

Now that we know the content of the case, I am able to explain why I consider it to be a proper thought experiment. To begin with complies to the complete characterisation as given by Grendler. At first an imaginary scenario is described, you should imagine that you are kidnapped and, after that, connected with the violinist. Second, the argument offered for a proper evaluation of the scenario is there. You are kidnapped, unwillingly connected to the violinist and if you want to quit the situation, someone dies. That is a situation that nobody desires. The third characterisation, the evaluation that reveals something about cases beyond the scenario, is that people have the right to decide over their own body. Self-determination and ‘the right to live’ are the most important values here, because you shouldn’t be forced to use your own body for saving the life of someone else at all costs.
Furthermore the scenario is hypothetical. Being kidnapped is something that can happen, as is medical use of your body in favour of another person.
The case also fits perfectly in the valuational distinction that Grendler describes. We can learn what values are the most important in this scenario and therefore use this case as an argument in similar cases such as abortion or organ donation issues.

Now that we can agree that the scenario of the ailing violist is actually a thought experiment, the question rises if it is a successful one. To find out if this particular experiment was a success, we should first know how to divide successful and unsuccessful thought experiments. J.Y Goffi and S. Roux state that in order to have a successful thought experiment, two hypotheses are important. At first laws of nature should be preserved.[6] Second, we should come to rightful conclusions due to our intuition. In their theory, intuition is understood as an hierarchy of different assumptions, based on reality that are made due to the scenario.[7] When the assumptions are made, reasoning makes it possible to reject a number of assumptions and gives us the most reasonable assumption as the conclusion. [8] When an experiment can meet up to these hypotheses, it is a successful experiment.
For the Thomson experiment we can state that the laws of nature are preserved as we had already claimed that it was a hypothetical scenario. That leaves us with the part of reasoning to the conclusion. Thomson’s opponent claim the following:

  1. A woman has autonomy on her own body.
  2. A person’s right to life is stronger than another person’s right to autonomy.
  3. A fetus is a person.
  4. An abortion performed in the name of autonomy gives more weight to weak rights

Due to these assumptions they claim that an abortion is morally wrong and may therefore not be performed. Thomson’s experiment shows that we should reject assumption 2 because of equivocation. What do we mean when we speak of the right of life? Is that the right not to die, or the right to be supported in living you’re life. The last version includes autonomy. That leaves assumption number 1, on which both sides will agree. Assumption 3, on which both sides also agree because of factual argumentation. And 4 can’t be taken into account when assumption 2 is rejected. That assures us that assumption 1 is the conclusion of the experiment and the leading argument in cases that go beyond the scenario.[9]

Of course, there are also some objections. The most important one is that the experiment states that there is an analogy between a fetus connected to its mother, and an ailing violinist connected to a complete stranger. But it is not necessarily an issue because it is an imaginary scenario and we don’t have to take everything into account. The experiment is used to extend the discussion in ethical and legal rights, the right to life in particular, and therefore we can easily reject psychological and affective relations.[10]

As a conclusion I can say that I have been reasoning to state the claim that the Thomson experiment of the ailing violinist is a successful thought experiment. At first I explained the definition of a thought experiment, and the scenario of Thomson’s scenario. Due to these explanations I could conclude that the Thomson experiment was in fact a proper thought experiment. Then I argued to what extent the experiment was a successful one. I described parameters that could be used to measure the success of an experiment and applied it to the case of the ailing violinist. It turned out that the scenario was a success, but it raised one serious objection. The analogy of the violinist and the fetus was an objective assumption but it could reasonably be excluded from the discussion. Therefore, I can claim that ‘The Ailing Violinist’ is a successful thought experiment.

[1] T.S. Grendler, Thought experiments: On the power and limit of imaginary cases, p14 – 17

[2] T.S. Grendler, Thought experiments: On the power and limit of imaginary cases, p14 – 17

[3] T.S. Grendler, Thought experiments: On the power and limit of imaginary cases, p14 – 17

[4] T.S. Grendler, Thought experiments: On the power and limit of imaginary cases, p21 – 25

[5] J. J. Thomson, A defense of abortion, 1971

[6] J.Y Goffi & S. Roux, Thought Experiments in Historical and Methodological Contexts: On the very idea of a thought experiment, P167 – 170

[7] J.Y Goffi & S. Roux, Thought Experiments in Historical and Methodological Contexts: On the very idea of a thought experiment, P167 – 170

[8] J.Y Goffi & S. Roux, Thought Experiments in Historical and Methodological Contexts: On the very idea of a thought experiment, P167 – 170

[9] J.Y Goffi & S. Roux, Thought Experiments in Historical and Methodological Contexts: On the very idea of a thought experiment, P177

[10] J.Y Goffi & S. Roux, Thought Experiments in Historical and Methodological Contexts: On the very idea of a thought experiment, P179

 

This essay was an assignment for the premaster EBO at Tilburg University

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