Suppose you awoke one day and found yourself in a relatively technologically advanced society in which there were some very poor people. You did not consent to be in this position, but here you are. You ask around among some people with reasonably well-paying jobs (that is, people like you), and they all tell you the same thing: They didn’t intend for there to be any very poor people. They all just woke up and found themselves here.
You quickly see – and see quite clearly – that the way the land has been zoned by the powers that be means that these very poor people cannot turn to subsistence living. Besides, they don’t own any land. They are trying to find jobs so that they won’t be so poor, but until they get one, poor they will be. They have no money, no food and no houses in which to live. It is perfectly clear to you and everybody else that unless somebody provides them with something they will die. You ask a couple of them why they are here. Why would they place themselves in such a risky, dependent situation? They tell you that they didn’t mean to be in this position. They woke up in this world just as you did and this is the way they found themselves.
There is some good news, however. A very large company is about to set up, and the owner has promised to provide all these people with jobs so that they can provide for themselves and their families. All of this will happen forty weeks from now. This unintended situation isn’t forever.
You and all the more well-to-do people in this society hold a meeting about what to do in the meantime. You stand up and address the large hall full of people: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an unfortunate situation. We didn’t agree to be here, but here we are. On our streets and under our bridges there are some very poor people who have nothing: Men, women and children. An end is in sight forty weeks from now, but unless we act now these people will die. Until they can get work, they depend on us to live. What should we do?” A man at the back of the room gets up, angry, and shouts to everyone: “Why should we do anything? Like you said, this wasn’t our choice. We don’t owe these people anything. None of you are required to give up your own resources to keep them alive. We don’t have endless savings stashed away you know! Sure, we earn enough to do this out of our weekly paychecks without hardship, but for most of us that’s going to mean lifestyle changes. We’ll have to give up some things to support all those parasites. We will be using our time, bodies and effort every week to support them. We didn’t sign up for that! There are nearly as many of them as there are of us! On what basis do we owe them welfare?”
Now stop imagining. If you find Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist” thought experiment1 to be a compelling argument for the moral legitimacy of abortion on the grounds that you cannot be required to make sacrifices and provide for another person – even temporarily – without your consent (even if they are just as human as you), can I assume that you sympathise with this man at the back of the hall? You would say that there is no moral responsibility for the people at this meeting to provide temporary welfare for these poor people, would you not?
If not, why not?
- Thomson’s article “A Defense of Abortion” is available online here: http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm