The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

A defence of just letting poor people die


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?

Glenn Peoples

  1. Thomson’s article “A Defense of Abortion” is available online here:,Fall02/thomson.htm []


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  1. David Brindley

    No, because my compassion is for the living, not the yet to be born. I think even Jesus said something similar on one of the parables, Matt 25. Can’t find Jesus every speaking out against abortion or contraception.

    And there is no moral issue with abortion, it is a simple medical procedure, not unlike a tonsillectomy. Although, for some women, it becomes a life saving operation, more akin to cutting out a gangrenous wound.

    It is also odd that the vast majority of opposition to abortion come from males, not females.

    • “No, because my compassion is for the living”

      David, the question was: If you grant Thomson’s analogy, then do you accept that we should let these poor people die?

      Remember that Thomson’s analogy accepted that the unborn was one of the living – hence the point of using a living violinist. If you’re going to turn around and raise an objection based on your view that the unborn isn’t one of the living, then you’re rejecting Thomson’s analogy after all. I’m asking those who accept Thomson’s analogy. To argue that the unborn are less worthy of protection because they are less than human is to make a very different argument – one that is not under consideration here.

  2. Jason

    Since the Jews regarded every child as a blessing from God, abortion in their culture would have been unthinkable. Not so much in Roman culture where an unwanted child could be, and was, chucked in the garbage to die.

    You’ve counted up the number of people opposed to abortion worldwide, and determined the majority of them are men? Or do you assume the femi-tards speak for all women?

    Of course someone who thinks that because Jesus didn’t specifically name the unborn as one of the least of his brethren, it’s not covered under “what you did for this, the least of my brethren, you did for me, probably needs to go read Jesus’s parable of the Samaritan, and his rather saturnine response to someone who wanted to be able to limit definition of a neighbour only to the group he approved of.

    The speaker’s position is completely rational from a materialist point of view. There are, after all, no transcendent moral duties in a materialistic universe, just whatever moral duties we choose to burden ourselves with. If one doesn’t want to care for poor people, why should you?

    Those who do recognize a transcendent moral duty to care for “these, the least of my brethren” would not agree with him. Their position would be just as rational, of course, but starting with different presuppositions.

  3. David Brindley

    Haven’t read thomsons analogy, and your link to it doesn’t work.

    Simply stating my point of view, without needing cover of another’s analogy.

  4. Ok, to recap, the question was: “If you find Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist” thought experiment 1 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?”

    It’s impossible to correctly answer “no” without doing the reading. This isn’t open mic night, it’s a question. 🙂

  5. Ben Smith

    Perhaps we hold the position, “There exists an obligation by society to help people in need, within the bounds of a framework which applies equal responsibility to all and does not bring about a less equitable outcome for any identifiable group or class.”

    Then there would be an obligation to provide welfare in to the poor of your society, so long as that obligation was applied equally to all – for instance, by a flat income tax – and no identifiable class or group would experience a less equitable outcome than before. The wealthy class would be disadvantaged, but since acquisition of their wealth was arbitrary, that disadvantage wouldn’t be less equitable.

    Even assuming fetal personhood, women are not obliged to carry unborn fetuses to term under this framework for two independent reasons:

    1) Any such obligation would apply special responsibility to the individuals who actually have to carry the fetuses, which would violate the ‘equal responsibility’ clause.

    2) Such an obligation would burden women as an identifiable class with extra costs (no-one ever said bearing and raising children was cheap!), or at least, burden women with the risk of incurring those extra costs.

    Whether or not you agree with the position specified, I suspect this forms a substantial part of the intuition behind people who are both left-wing and pro-choice.

  6. Hi Ben, and thanks for your thoughtful response. Thomson’s claim (as I understand it) is that whatever we are required to do, we are not required to make sacrifices to preserve the lives of others where we never consented to that arrangement.

    It seems that you reject that principle, saying: “There exists an obligation by society to help people in need, within the bounds of a framework which applies equal responsibility to all and does not bring about a less equitable outcome for any identifiable group or class.” This is incompatible with Thomson’s claim as I understand it.

    So you’re talking about whether or not letting the poor die (or destroying an unborn child) is permissible according to a different rule. If we proceed we have to do so recognising that Thomson’s rule has not been shown to be compatible with the right to abort a foetus but not with the duty to provide welfare.

    You say this new rule explains (at least partially) the intuition held by those who are left-wing and pro-abortion-rights. At a psychological level that may be so, but it is doubtful whether or not left-wing abortion rights proponents should take any confidence from a rule like this.

    A flat tax, left-wing commentators frequently observe, does not affect everyone the same way. The lower a person’s income, the greater the impact a flat tax has on them. A person who gets $100 per week can much less easily afford to pay $10 in tax than a person who earns $10,000 per week can afford to pay $1,000. Compared to a progressive tax system, it is not the wealthy who would be disadvantaged but the unwealthy. But we can always improve this with a progressive tax (which of course is what the left advocates). So that one can slide.

    This one cannot slide as easily: A specific class of people is always affected by taxpayer funded welfare, namely those who are able to pay tax. This may seem like a trivial thing to point out, but it is not. Children who depend on their parents do not have to pay tax, neither does anybody who does not earn money (e.g. somebody who lives off the land or who is supported by a spouse or family members). Only those who have taxable income are required to pay tax. Bear that fact in mind as we consider your two reasons: Only the capable are required.

    So let’s look at your two observations. First, only pregnant women are required to use their body to support them. This is true, but not strictly relevant. They are the only ones in a position to support them – and they have the ability to do so. Analogously, only those who have income and are in a position to pay tax have the responsibility to do so. Your second reason is not an additional reason but merely an explanation of the type of obligations incurred. As for the financial cost of pregnancy, others have the ability to assist there, so the welfare obligation starts to apply to other people.

    So your principle should not serve as grounds for “left wing” people to support the right to destroy a foetus. And (more importantly as far as this blog goes), Thomson’s rule still appears to be incompatible with a welfare requirement.

  7. Christopher Bowers

    >Thomson’s claim (as I understand it) is that whatever we are required to do, we are not >required to make sacrifices to preserve the lives of others where we never consented to >that arrangement.

    I don’t think that, right there, is a very credible claim. We have a moral responsibility to love our neighbor and care for them, irrespective of issues of consent. How much we must sacrifice is certainly a question, but remember that Christ sacrificed everything, so how much are we required to sacrifice?

    That being said, we are not perfect moral beings. If we were perfect (as Jesus states) we would sell all our belongings, give them to the poor and follow him.

    One flaw in the violinist argument is the dismissal of other consequences. It’s undeniable that the initial kidnapping is a violation of your rights. If the transfusion is allowed to continue and save that person’s life, other people will take to kidnapping. Then when other people agree to the transfusion, the effect will continue.

    Thus there is an outside reason to deny the treatment: you could be setting a precedent for future kidnappings!
    \Sacrifices and another’s right to life must be balanced.
    If we say “Hey, I’m not obligated to donate my time to help flood victims,” and everyone follows suit, then flood victims die.

    Conversely, there are people dying all over the world all the time from famine, lack of medical treatment, heck, even ebola now. Are we morally obligated to give everything up and just work for the poor all day? That’s hardly realistic.

    As Christians we try to balance these two extremes. Unfortunately though, many Conservative Christians err on the side of “I’m not morally obligated!”

  8. “If the transfusion is allowed to continue and save that person’s life, other people will take to kidnapping.”

    This evidently uses the analogy in a way it was never intended – and I am sure Thomson would agree here. We can tell that this is so like this: If women who get pregnant unintentionally (the most analogous example being rape) agree that they should look after their babies, that would not plausibly encourage people to commit rape.

    So the fact that the acceptance of such kidnappings might increase their frequency is not intended to be something we consider. If we go there, we have to scrap the analogy.

  9. Ben Smith

    One way to affirm Thomson’s statement while also affirming a welfare tax system is to deny absolute property rights; to say that the people, represented by the state, have a legitimate claim to a portion of everyone’s income to redistribute at will. Then, strictly speaking, no one is required to “sacrifice” anything they had. That seems like a bit of a stretch but I think it’s a defensible argument.

  10. Ben, true, that’s not crazy. It’s basically John Locke and I think it’s very plausible. But are we affirming Thomson’s claim now? If everyone must give up part of their labour (i.e. what they do with their bodies) for nothing to support the lives of others when required because they don’t actually have an absolute right to it – why agree with Thomson’s statement?

    So I have a right to my labour, but if I see a person dying in a ditch and I know that if I spent just 30 minutes I can save them, then I ought to stop, use my time and do so. And if a baby (assumed for now to be fully human) requires a woman to largely do nothing but allow the baby to grow (and let’s suppose that society offers material support where needed), should she not allow the child to grow?

    Or are we saying that Thomson is right once a certain level of sacrifice is crossed, and that level is… (basically where somebody says it is)?

    [I’m just following this argument of yours to see where we end up. My own stance on Thomson’s argument is that it most likely fails because of a disanalogy between the violinist and a foetus, for a couple of reasons. But this of course isn’t merely an evaluation of her argument, but rather a hopefully interesting comparison of what people think about that argument and the argument as applied to the poor.]

  11. Ben Smith

    We can’t so easily equate income with labour…there are a number of counter-examples, including income earned from inherited wealth and the fact that often people with different amounts of productive output ca get the same pay, and people with equal productive output are sometimes paid differently. It’s more accurate to say income is a function of labour and a number of other factors. Since they can’t be equated, I’m not convinced that declaring a portion of income belongs to the state amounts to forced seizure of labour like you imply.

    [And I disagree with Thompson’s statement altogether, believing there are moral obligations to make sacrifices and at least sometimes its ok for a person’s community to compel them to make a sacrifice…I’m unsure how to apply it to abortion if you assume fetal personhood, which I don’t necessarily.]

  12. Ben, the 99% generally have to work for their pay. And rest assured, everybody in this thought experiment does. In fact they all get roughly the same pay too.

  13. As Christians we try to balance these two extremes. Unfortunately though, many Conservative Christians err on the side of “I’m not morally obligated!”

    Actually studies show conservative Christians are more likely to donate to charity than other groups are. You are doing the standard trick of equating support with the for the poor with support for state distributive welfare systems. That simply doesn’t follow.

  14. Jared Black

    Whew! I was relieved at the end to see that it was a “modest proposal.” At first I thought you’d been infected with the Ayn Rand Disorder (ARD), but in the last paragraph it was made clear what you are doing. People with ARD would genuinely assume the position held by the man at the back of the room.

  15. karl a

    I think you may have made a jump in comparing these situations.
    In the case of abortion the debate is whether or not we should ALLOW the option of pregnancy termination or not. The man in your example is fully allowed to do nothing about these homeless people if that pleases him, regardless of what your town hall meeting decides. To make that similar to the abortion debate, the question would become should we all FORCE this man to give his money to help the poor, rather than waiting for his personal consent.

    • karl, this article makes a comparison with a specific argument for abortion rights, but not all arguments.

      In particular, it singles out the argument from bodily autonomy, the argument that you cannot be required to give up any of your own autonomy to support another person. It’s an argument used by Judith Jarvis Thomson, made famous by her violinist analogy. That article was called A Defence of Abortion, hence the title of this blog post.

      On the face of it, the comparison seems to work quite well, because that’s the issue in this fictional scenario as well.

  16. N Vu

    t: Helping poor people is a lost cause.
    p1: Genes are like dice. Some groups have lower numbers overall on some sides pertaining to looks, intelligence, ambition, etc.
    p2: Equalizing environments only removes the marker blemishes on the higher dice rolls, since the limiting factors were no opportunities / no nutrition / etc – not all people get amazing brains, high height, etc.
    p3: The poor, the old, the stupid all incur costs on productive people.
    p4: All humans are self-interested. If rich, self-sufficient, don’t want to associate with poor / stupid / needy unless for “appeasing/looks/fame” the masses, or to satiate “feel good instincts of altruism which derived from reciprocation / insurance against being poorly treated when you’re sick / weak”. If poor, blame everything on the rich unless you get free food, then you depend on them and stick like a leech. Always demanding free handouts, always crying about overworking little hours, etc.
    p5: Humans in general don’t really care about other people. Some lands are naturally volcanic, some attract earthquakes, hurricanes, mining incidents…etc but people still live there. When “catastrophies” or incidents strike, people cry / give / donate job/home. But before those circumstances? No one gives a shit. People are also elated to see their ‘tax returns’, and never cry about their ‘student loans’ or entitled benefits.
    p6: If all humans were self-sufficient, no one would need donations, altruism, charities or anything.
    p7: More people = more mouths to feed. House price up, job competition up.. see china and immigrants to Canada raising house $$. Everyone’s “life” sucks if they are local with respect to competition, but if they are afar we exploit “walmart” and “foxconn iphone” cheap prices along with cheap “garbage dumping”. Also take note of japan 3 people per “room” and delayed “family” due to opportunity costs in all developed nations, with population pyramid distribution problems due to differences in fecudinity and all these old 80-90 age people being useless in nursing homes costing people’s time, energy, $$ and actual life time. income tax, house tax, land tax, provincial, over 50% easily.
    p7: If only smarter, more intelligible, better looking people, with less propensity to overeat, less propensity to be short-sighted exist, and so forth – then everyone will be more ‘equal’. Everyone will discriminate less, ignore each other less and respect each other more. Higher IQ points are inversely correlated with impulsive behaviour, crime, and all statistics of ‘badness’.
    conclusion: Yes, allow businesses to fail. Allow sick people to die. Allow poor people to die. A better society with less suffering / single mom/dad child families, less feeding to low quality-of-life people, less drainage onto minority groups for no particular reason, less cost per human = everyone benefits by having better genes, better environmental conditions, etc inherited from their family lineage. If I was poor or had bad limbs from the start, just kill me before I become conscious / can form a memory. Nature works on natural selection on variation. Allow those most fit and capable to perpetuate humanity and use transhumanism to cure different ‘valuation/preferences’ in economic value. Very little people provide ‘goods/services/entertainment’ to any degree of worth to society, majority can be replaced with drones / mindless robots in future by general AI. Low ppl+good…

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