Violinists, Samaritans, and Love

Perhaps the most well known argument in contemporary philosophy defending the right to abortion is the one offered by Judith Jarvis Thomson, published in 1971 in the journal Philosophy & Public Affairs. Thomson argues that even if the unborn human being is a person, it does not follow that abortion is morally wrong. Because most everyone believes that the morality of abortion rests on the nature of the unborn – whether or not he or she is a moral subject. Thomson’s argument is significant because she denies that this premise is self-evidently true.

Thomson offers several illustrations to make her case, the most famous of which is her argument about the “unconscious violinist.” Imagine that the Society of Music Lovers researched the world’s medical records and discovered that only you have the right blood type that would help save the life of a world-class violinist suffering from a fatal kidney ailment. The Society kidnaps you, renders you unconscious, and subsequently hooks you up to the violinist so that he may use your kidneys.

When you awake and realize your predicament you are told by the attending physician that you only have to stay hooked up for nine months whereupon the violinist can be safely removed and return to normal life. He will die, however, if you unplug yourself from him at any time short of the nine months. Do you have a right to detach yourself from the violinist?

Thomson answers “yes,” since nobody, even a fetal person, has the right to use another’s body against their will. So even though violinists are persons and have a right to life, it does not follow that one may be forced by the state to use one’s bodily organs to sustain the violinist’s life. The analogy should be obvious: just as it is morally wrong for the government to require that you remain hooked up to the violinist for nine months, even though the violinist is a person, it is morally wrong for the government to require that a pregnant woman remain pregnant until childbirth, even if the fetus is a person.

Although that argument has been critiqued by many (e.g., John Finnis, Christopher Kaczor, Patrick Lee, Keith Pavlischek, David B. Hershenov, Mary Anne Warren, and yours truly) and defended by some (e.g., David Boonin, Eileen McDonagh, Michael Watkins), there is an aspect of Thomson’s case that has not (to my knowledge) been assessed in great detail: her reliance on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan by Aimé-Nicolas Morot, 1880 [Petit Palais, Paris]
The Good Samaritan by Aimé-Nicolas Morot, 1880 [Petit Palais, Paris]

She asks us to distinguish between a Minimally Decent Samaritan and a Good Samaritan. According to Thomson, the latter is someone who acts above and beyond his or her moral duty, whereas the former is simply someone who by exercising little effort provides assistance to another. You are a Minimally Decent Samaritan if you call the cops when you hear or see an innocent person being assaulted, whereas you are a Good Samaritan if you inject yourself into the conflict in order to stop the assault. The state, according to Thomson, should not require its citizens to be either Minimally Decent or Good Samaritans.

But if you carefully look at the context in which Jesus offers this parable (Luke 10:25-37), you quickly realize that Thomson is missing Our Lord’s point. Jesus tells the parable as part of a dialogue with a lawyer who asks the Lord what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers by asking the lawyer two questions, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

After Jesus tells the lawyer that his answer is correct, Luke tells us that the lawyer, “wanting to justify himself,” asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Apparently, the lawyer wanted Jesus to declare him minimally decent. But Jesus, as he was prone to do, extended the moral boundaries of his culture’s conventional wisdom: he answered the lawyer’s final query with the parable of the Good Samaritan:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” (Luke 10:30-35)

As should be obvious, the point of the parable is to repudiate what both Thomson and Jesus’ discussant are attempting to accomplish: devise nice, neat lawyerly distinctions in order to justify withholding love from those who we perceive as inconvenient intruders to our otherwise tranquil lives.

So it should not surprise us that the word “love” never once appears in Thomson’s famous article, even though, as we have seen, Jesus tells the Good Samaritan story for only one reason: to explicate what it means to love one’s neighbor.

For those of us who are Christians, we should never entertain a moral philosophy that has no place for love. As Cardinal Sean O’Malley once put it, “We must build a civilization of love, or there will be no civilization at all.”

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).