Judith Jarvis Thomson on Responsibility

Though I do not think that a responsibility argument is necessary in order to dismantle the bodily-rights argument or other pro-choice arguments, the responsibility incurred in the creation of a new human being is a very important consideration in pregnancies other than rape pregnancies. I would like to take issue with an attempt to deny much of that importance:

If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, “Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him a right to the use of her house – for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.” It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars. It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in, but an innocent person who blunders or falls in. Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not – despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won’t do – for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.

The first thing to notice is that if we read this paragraph by Judith Jarvis Thomson literally, she finds her burglar analogy and her people-seeds analogy to lead to two quite different conclusions about responsibility. Since burglars are unwanted, a homeowner does not have to accept the presence of a burglar who does enter, even if the homeowner has voluntarily left the window open; and therefore Thomson reasons that if an unborn child is unwanted, the mother does not have to accept its presence, even if she has voluntarily had sex. It would be “absurd” to say that she did. It would be “still more absurd” if she had taken careful precautions (in the analogy, putting bars on the windows), but absurd even if she hadn’t.

But in the people-seeds analogy, her conclusion of non-acceptance – “Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not . . .” – depends on very careful precautions. “. . . fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy . . .” is a condition for “Surely not.” (“Surely not,” of course, means “You are surely not responsible, so the unborn child has no right.”)

So in the event of carelessness about contraception – according to the people-seeds argument – the woman does incur some responsibility.

We might think that perhaps Thomson’s underlying thought was not what she literally said, and perhaps her people-seeds argument was intended merely to expand on what she had already said about the burglar – despite the use of two different metaphors – and hence would not change her “absurd” conclusion about the burglar.

We might think that, if not for her “recapitulation” near the end of her paper:

if [parents] have taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it.

(The sentence refers literally to a born child, but this is a recapitulation of what she had said earlier about the unborn. So both of the moral principles – the “do not,” and the “if” condition without which the “do not” would become a “do” – apply to an unborn child as well.)

Another Kind of Responsibility

At this point we should mention a kind of responsibility other than the kind incurred simply in the act of creation of a new human being. Thomson in her paper considers the possibility of a right not to be killed, and, as we have seen above, also addresses the possibility that responsibility for another human being can be incurred in some way through the process of that person’s creation. Does she also consider the possibility of a responsibility that might be incumbent simply because a helpless person not only has a right not to be killed, but also a right to be taken care of? Yes, she does consider that possibility, though she does not say “responsibility” – she speaks of “Minimally Decent Samaritan laws.”

An argument for strong laws of this kind is the “de facto guardian” argument. The authors of “De Facto Guardian” find, within themselves, moral intuitions to the effect that an adult “in a situation in which she is the only person in the vicinity who can help a child in need. . . . now shoulders the same obligations of a parent or guardian . . . temporarily.” My intuition agrees at least up to this point. (I have explored correct and incorrect moral intuitions elsewhere.)

The farthest Thomson, however, seems willing to go is when she says:

It would [meaning with legal weight] be indecent in the woman to request an abortion, and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad.

So the only thing further that needs to be said about this kind of responsibility is that Thomson’s moral intuitions don’t allow it to extend as far as do my intuitions and those of some others.

Thomson does, however, take for granted the legitimate interest of the state in protecting unborn persons – and hence the state’s duty to protect them – though she thinks that that interest and duty should not usually prevail, due to lack of responsibility (as she sees it) and other considerations.


Getting back now to the burglar and the people-seeds, and looking at each of those arguments literally, we can say that Thomson’s burglar argument depends for its validity on four elements all working:

1. we must agree with the moral intuition that a homeowner need not tolerate a burglar in their house, even if they left the window open (I think Thomson has laid an effective groundwork here by picking a moral intuition we can certainly agree with)

2. we must agree that in assessing a homeowner’s or a pregnant woman’s responsibility – responsibility in terms of freedom to evict or a lack of such freedom – it does not make any difference what is being evicted – a burglar or an unborn child

3. we must agree that a pregnant woman is no more responsible for a sperm having entered her body than a homeowner is for a burglar having entered his/her house

4. we must agree that (analogous to the reasonableness of leaving a window open) it would be unreasonable to expect abstinence from sex – she says in the people-seeds analogy, but it would apply to the burglar as well: “Someone may argue that you are responsible . . . that [the people-seed] does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors” (an argument she rejects).

So her burglar argument depends for its validity on these four elements working; and her people-seeds argument depends basically on the same four working, except that with the people-seeds argument Thomson concedes more in the first element. So that element becomes:

1. we must agree with the moral intuition that a homeowner need not tolerate a people-seed in his/her house, if the homeowner has taken very careful precautions against it

Though we will all agree with the burglar version of 1, I don’t think we should fully agree with the people-seeds version of 1. And in the cases of both the burglar argument and the people-seeds argument, I don’t think we should agree with 2 or 3. And I think there is a logical flaw in 4.

But before I get to the people-seeds version of 1, let’s see what is wrong with 2, 3 and 4 in the burglar argument.

The problem with 2, of course, is that there is in fact a difference between a burglar and an unborn child. Anyone capable of burgling a house, if ushered out, will survive. An undeveloped child will die, unless some arrangement for it has been made. Here I feel that the de facto guardian concept should come into play. Thomson will eventually go on to speak of a very minimal (indeed) Minimally Decent Samaritanism, but here, where she uses the word “responsibility” itself, she does not concede even that much.

However, Thomson does here do the surprising segue from the burglar to the people-seeds. People-seeds, if the homeowner cannot turn them over to someone else, are dependent on the homeowner, and on the homeowner alone, for their survival. Perhaps Thomson does this segue out of some consciousness of the fact that many of us would expect an adult to be a de facto guardian for a child. Perhaps she is trying to have the best of both worlds in the reader’s intuitions – both our intuitive antipathy towards burglars (which militates toward our rejecting the idea of any responsibility), and our intuitive recognition that (unlike with a burglar) there is good analogousness between the vulnerability of an unborn child and the vulnerability of a people-seed – and that a child deserves some Samaritanism.

Thomson’s conscious or unconscious sleight of hand in 3 revolves around this choice of words: “If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it . . .” This is misleading because the woman’s role in becoming pregnant is greater than just that of a homeowner who leaves a window open for a purpose other than that which eventuates. If we really want to compare a homeowner’s behavior in opening a window “in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars” with a woman’s behavior in full knowledge of how babies are made, the nearest analogy would be to say:

“A homeowner who leaves their door unlocked and is burgled is like a woman who falls asleep in an unlocked room and is impregnated in her sleep.”

The homeowner in Thomson’s story opened the window for air, not to let the burglar in; therefore that homeowner is like a woman who has not consciously consented to sex. The homeowner is not like a woman who has consented, though Thomson tries to suggest that the homeowner is. So only the above “falls asleep” analogy is a good analogy with burglary. In the “falls asleep” version, I would agree that the woman, in spite of having left her room unlocked, is not responsible. She has been raped. But Thomson’s analogy is not like that.

And what about element 4, “we must agree that (analogous to the reasonableness of leaving a window open) it would be unreasonable to expect abstinence from sex”?

Let us accept Thomson’s contention that one cannot live without sex. Still there is a flaw in her argument, and it can be demonstrated with another analogy: One cannot live without food, either, yet we expect to pay for food. Hardly anyone gets it without some quid pro quo.

For sex, the quid pro quo is that one accepts responsibility for the possible outcome of the slight risk that one runs.

But if we are to apply a legal-contractual analysis like this in what is really a psychological and moral context, the transactions involved would be more complicated than when someone buys a sandwich.

First, think of a slot machine from the point of view of the casino. If the casino’s luck is bad on the occasion of one particular wager, the casino will have to pay big. That obligatory big payoff was compensated for by the probability of receiving regular benefits (small wagers that it won). In a similar way, a woman (or a man) who obtains the benefit of sex will run a risk of incurring a moral responsibility to make a big payoff sooner or later.

But you may object that the payoff for sex is owed only to nature, the giver of the benefit, and that since it is not owed to any person, it is not really owed at all in the normal sense. You might say that sex should be free of cost, like enjoying the beauty of nature.

However, what if enjoying the beauty of nature free of cost sometimes involved killing somebody along the way? That would change the equation.

You have received benefits that would cause you to incur a debt. Then someone comes along who needs that payoff, who cannot live without that payoff. That new person comes along produced by a sex act that was, for you, one of a series of benefits.

I think that the moral intuitions of everyone who really considers that “someone” to be a person, will say that the debt gets transferred and that the someone, the unborn child, deserves the big payoff. The debt gets called in. But the moral intuitions of those, like Thomson, who only consider that someone to be a person for the sake of argument, may not say that.

Enjoying sex free of cost involves killing an unborn child if one happens to eventuate and if one feels it as a burden. But it is not free of cost: the debt gets transferred within the “moral universe” (a phrase liked by MLK). And if that alone does not create enough responsibility to require one – in the cases of many pregnancies, not all – to refrain from killing, remember that one is also in the position of a de facto guardian.

The father of an unborn child owes a payoff equal to that of the mother. For him the payoff will necessarily take the form of supporting the mother financially and emotionally, and shouldering many of the chores. Elaboration of his role, and also discussion of his possible avoidance, is in order, but would fall outside the framework of Thomson’s analysis and thus of this answer to her

“Social contract” thinking may tell us that it is socially functional for a person to pay for a sandwich. But such thinking cannot tell us that it is right or just for a person to pay for a sandwich. Only our moral intuitions can tell us that. The sex-woman-child obligations and transfer of obligations that I have described may not presently be recognized in legal-contractual thinking, but they may become recognized in the more sophisticated legal-contractual thinking of the future. For now, that transfer of obligations is, whether described in my words or in some other words, the moral intuition of many, many people. (Just as the rightness of paying for a sandwich rests, ultimately, only on the moral intuition of many, many people.)

A quite different kind of legal-contractual analysis might be applied if we remember that humanity is more than just the sum of its parts, that it is also a collectivity, and that we all depend on it as such. Everyone begins their life by using the body of one representative of that collectivity – they may even use a body that has already been used by other children three or four or n times and might have started feeling tired. So everyone should be prepared, if the necessity ever arises, to pay back to that same representative or another representative. How a pregnant woman can pay back is obvious. Others should be prepared to pay back in other ways.

Really these two kinds of legal-contractual analysis should both be applied simultaneously.

Finally, now, to the people-seeds version of 1, which I had said that we should not fully agree with. Here Thomson concedes that those who have not been careful about contraception should bear responsibility. This is good as far as it goes. But her contention that those who have been careful need not bear responsibility depends, as in the burglar argument, on the contention that sex is a necessity that should be cost-free; and that I have discussed above.


This has all been about responsibility. Regarding the obvious next question, whether abortion should automatically be legal even when there is no responsibility, I have written in an essay
“Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument.”

© 2016


You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate


Courtesy of Life Matters Journal. This essay was published, with illustrations, in Volume 4 Issue 1 — June 2015.


I would like to thank Jake Earl, who created the “John” thought experiment. The probing questions of various people, but most definitively of Earl, helped me to better think things through.


Moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions and laws should be based on those moral principles. (Of course to say that “laws should be based on those moral principles” is not to say that every moral principle should automatically be enacted into a law.)

Though everyone I have talked to agrees that moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions, I have heard an intelligent person or two contend that the correctness of such moral intuitions can still be logically proved or disproved (by which I mean, proved by a process of discursive argumentation, if not by formal academic logic) — as if moral inquiries were a hard science like math. More importantly, many people who would not explicitly make this contention nevertheless present their arguments about moral issues as if this were the case. So while some philosopher probably demonstrated centuries ago the impossibility of logically proving the correctness of moral intuitions, the relationship of logic and intuition still deserves to be examined. And I think the insights gained in the process of examining it can lead us toward methods of self-exploration and of discourse that will help reveal moral truths, including moral truths about abortion.

First of all, for moral principles to be based on moral intuitions really means that moral principles are the verbalized form of moral intuitions. Therefore correct moral principles will follow from correct moral intuitions. And if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved, then it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, with no recourse to intuition — since the process of constructing would be the same as the process of proving.

To say that it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, but at the same time to agree that moral intuitions (of which moral principles are the verbalized forms) are pre-logical — as everyone seems to agree — would be contradictory. Nevertheless, as mentioned, some people do present their arguments about moral issues as if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved (that is, as if it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone). So let’s continue to address that contention.

“The correctness of a moral intuition can be logically proved” and “a correct moral principle can be constructed through logic alone” seem to me like two different formulations of the same thing. But in case there’s any doubt, as I continue I’ll address the one I’ve actually heard, the former.

Is there such a thing as a correct moral intuition, and if so, can its correctness be logically proved or disproved? Though I am arguing no to the second question, I will argue yes to the first.

Moral Intuitions and Moral Principles

As an example of a moral principle — a generalized moral principle, but basically a sound one, I feel — let’s use “Thou shalt not kill.” I would say that that principle did not come from God, but rather is based on a pre-logical and pre-verbal human revulsion at most killing of the innocent. A pre-logical and pre-verbal sense of right or wrong is how I would define a moral intuition. Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, said in an interview that while some moral ideals “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.” Even if Bloom overestimates the role of the genes in the “hardwired” moral senses, and underestimates the role of culture in those moral senses, and overestimates how universal those moral senses are across cultures, it would be safe to say that most of us do have senses of right or wrong that come out of our unconscious in ways we cannot understand. I am calling those senses moral intuitions. (For alternatives to the term “moral intuition,” and for an explanation of “pre-logical” and “pre-verbal,” see the Appendix.)
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Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument


Clinton Wilcox of Life Training Institute was kind enough to read the semi-final draft of this post and provide a brief but insightful critique. This does not mean that he necessarily endorses any of the final contents. However, I wish to take this opportunity to thank him.


The strongest argument for abortion rights is usually considered to be the bodily-rights argument. Perhaps the most effective variation of it that I have seen appeared in a (negative) comment under Kristine Kruszelnicki’s March 11, 2014 guest post on the Friendly Atheist blog:

They [both mother and unborn child] are entitled to their own bodily rights. So exactly how does a fetus have the right to co-opt another person’s body without consent?

Let’s say for example medical science has progressed to the point of being able to transplant a fetus into another human being. In an accident a pregnant woman is injured to the point of immanent [sic] death, does that fetus have the *right* to be implanted into the next viable candidate without consent?

The commenter was arguing, in other words, “A woman who is a candidate to be made pregnant in that futuristic way would have a right to refuse to let her body be so used – everyone would agree. Therefore, why should a woman who has become pregnant in a more usual way not also have a right to refuse to continue the pregnancy?”

In the context of the abortion debate (and, significantly, in hardly any other context), the term “bodily rights” comes up often. Synonyms still more commonly used are “bodily integrity” and “bodily autonomy,” but I will say “rights” because it is rights that have practical consequences. If anything can help determine the practical outcome “Woman goes through with abortion,” it is a right, not an abstract “integrity” or “autonomy.”

The above fetus-implantation version or any version of the bodily-rights argument could be rebutted by pointing out that most pregnant women voluntarily engaged in a sex act that caused the pregnancy in the first place, and therefore have a responsibility for the child (the “responsibility argument”); but this rebuttal does not work in cases of rape, and is not convincing to some people in any situation – for reasons which I need not discuss here but will refer to in an appendix. Thus the argument remains logically strong. But is it logic alone that makes an argument strong or weak? I would like to approach this from the perspective that an argument is an instrument for changing some of another person’s brain circuitry, and the ideas that correlate with that circuitry, to resemble part of one’s own circuitry and ideas, and that some value-related circuitry and ideas are better for us as individuals and as a species than others. I will contend that though logical demonstrations (such as the above thought experiment) and their rebuttals have an important place in the debate about bodily rights, there is no clear logical resolution to the debate one way or the other; that in seemingly logical demonstrations there are psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical, and that those factors sway us from our normal intuitions; and that those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.

I would like to see people question where their convictions come from, because I think that the more they examine where they come from, the more they will move toward better convictions.

I would like to proceed according to the following outline:

1. Morality and moral principles, including our moral principles about when morality should be backed by legislation and when it should not, derive ultimately from intuition.

2. The intuitions of many people, particularly of most pro-lifers, say that the unborn children of pregnant women should be legally protected against abortion in some (not all) situations.

3. The intuitions of most pro-choicers differ from ours in the first place and say that the unborn children of pregnant women should not be afforded any legal protection.

4. There are some people who are, in terms of moral intuitions, “on the fence,” undecided.

5. Some people’s moral intuitions are better than those of others; in this particular area of moral investigation, the intuitions of pro-lifers are better. (Keep reading!)

I think that just as “there is no clear logical resolution to the (overall) debate one way or the other,” the correctness or incorrectness of any moral intuition cannot be logically proved, but that logic can nudge us toward correct moral intuitions, that is, help us find the correct moral intuitions within us. Under this point 5 below I will include a long section analyzing logically the concept of bodily rights. It is designed to nudge us toward more correct moral intuitions about the importance of bodily rights.

6. Though the intuitions of most pro-lifers say that unborn children should in many cases be legally protected against abortion, the intuitions of many pro-lifers also agree with pro-choicers (as do the intuitions of many undecideds) that a woman who is not pregnant (as in the above thought experiment) should not be legally subject to the forcible implantation in her of a child she did not conceive, even to save the child’s life. (And our intuitions also usually say that a violinist to whom we are hooked up should not be given legal protection from unhooking; and our intuitions also agree with various other pro-choice thought experiments designed to reject, in certain situations, legislative enforcement of a broad right to life.)

7. Human logical powers are limited, and therefore a particular situation, situation A, may seem parallel to another situation, situation B, in all the important morally-relevant ways that the human mind can think of, without the two situations necessarily being morally equivalent.

8a. The situation depicted by a thought experiment always includes some imagery of greater or lesser vividness, and some emotional content. If to our logical minds (momentarily or over a longer term) some outrageous situation, A, depicted by a pro-choice thought experiment, does seem parallel to situation B – a legal prohibition on abortion in a normal pregnancy – then the imagery and emotions of situation A get temporarily transferred to situation B. Let’s call this a process of “outrage transfer.” (Below I will touch on the search for an understanding of how events such as outrage transfer might actually work neurologically.)

b. Moreover, if we are subject to an over-fascination with logic, which many people are, then our consciences/intuitions will work with wrong information (the belief that logic can completely prove or disprove the moral equivalence of two situations) and may tell us that if there seem to be strong parallels between the situation of a pro-choice thought experiment that militates against legal protection of some living being, and the situation of pregnancy, then we should discard legal protection of the unborn in pregnancy – in spite of our earlier intuition supporting such legal protection.

8a and 8b are what I had earlier called “psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical.” I had said that those psychological factors “sway us from our normal intuitions” and I had gone on to say, “those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.”

9a. The effects of outrage transfer will fade over time. Moreover, the outrage transfer of a pro-choice thought experiment can be offset or more than offset by pro-life thought experiments such as those involving the separation of conjoined twins, or the “Cabin in the Blizzard” thought experiment of Stephen Wagner et. al. (It can be “more than offset” if only because our minds are impressionable and are always most strongly affected by the imagery and emotional triggers that stimulated them most recently.)

b. Though human logical powers are not sufficient to tell us conclusively about the moral equivalence or otherwise of two situations (as mentioned in 7 above), they are sufficient to convince us of said insufficiency, and thereby to free us from an over-fascination with logic and restore our original trust in our intuition that the unborn deserve legal protection.


Someone will say that I am discarding logic and that moreover I am saying that a pro-life position can only be defended by discarding logic. But that is not what I am doing. We should always apply logic to the fullest extent possible, and there are good logical rebuttals to the forcible-implantation and other pro-choice thought experiments, and I will discuss them in brief; but we should not think that logic, even on a base of intuition, can give us final answers to all moral questions, specifically the question of whether a right to life overrides bodily rights in the case of pregnancy.

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