In her classic paper, “In Defense of Abortion,” Judith Jarvis Thomson uses a number of intuition pumps to argue in favor of a fairly permissive stance on abortion. The first thought experiment asks you, the reader, to imagine that you woke up tethered to a famous violinist, who will not survive without the support of your kidneys for the next several months. Thomson assumes you recognize a right to your own bodily integrity, and that your response to the violinist case will be governed by the intuition that violations of this right are unjust. However, at the end of her paper, Thomson anticipates an objection: “It may be said that what is important is not merely the fact that the fetus is a person, but that it is a person for whom the woman has a special kind of responsibility issuing from the fact that she is its mother. And it might be argued that all my analogies are therefore irrelevant—for you do not have that special kind of responsibility for that violinist” (1971, p. 64).
We (Jeanine Weekes Schroer and I) tend to agree with this objection, and hypothesized that responses to the violinist case may be driven by care-based concerns, either entirely or in addition to justice-based concerns. The care approach argues for a shift away from rights and fairness talk, which conceptualizes moral philosophy from the atomistic agent’s perspective outward, and toward responsibility and needs talk, which conceptualizes moral decision-making as happening always already within a network, where the modernist individual is no longer an interesting metaphysical unit for explanatory purposes. We predicted that this care effect would appear when participants were asked whether there was a moral obligation to remain attached to a relative, as opposed to a complete stranger.
The experiment. Our study asked participants to respond to two of four possible vignettes, all of which closely resembled Thomson's orginal case. We manipulated the perspective through which each participant interacted with the case, as “you” or as a third person thinking about “Lee,” and the relationship to the sick person, either a “violinist” or a “half-sibling.” Participants were asked to answer two sets of two (balanced) questions on Likert scales (emphases below added):
- Will you/Lee remain connected to the violinist/half-sibling?
- Are you/is Lee morally obliged to remain connected to the violinist/half-sibling?
- In thinking about how you arrived at your answers to the first two questions, did you think about the quality or character of your/Lee’s relationship with the violinist/half-sibling?
- In thinking about how you arrived at your answers to the first two questions, did you think about the rights and privileges you/Lee and other people have when it comes to your body/their bodies?
The results: In designing the study, we hypothesized that a care effect would appear among particular natural groups: people of either gender who had caregiving experience and/or women. But we found that both lived caregiving experience and gender did not affect participants’ responses significantly. We found no ordering effects.
Some participants were asked to respond to a vignette almost exactly like Thomson’s original case (modified with “three quarters of a year” instead of “nine months,” to further prevent participants from thinking about a fetus). And our data show that Thomson’s implication, that readers will find her initial violinist thought experiment “outrageous,” is empirically false. Of the 93 participants who were asked if they were morally obligated to remain attached to the violinist, only 34 (36.6%) responded “definitely not.”
Seth Chin-Parker conducted comparisons of the distributions of responses among the groups of participants using Mann-Whitney U tests.
The effect of relationship. Focusing first on the questions of whether the participants would remain connected and whether there was a moral obligation to maintain that connection, we see that it made a difference if the connected person was a violinist or a half-sibling for both questions. When the vignette was presented in the second person, the distribution of the responses differed when the participants were asked to consider whether they would remain connected to a violinist or half-sibling (p < .001), and when they were asked whether they were morally obligated to do so (p < .001). A similar shift in the distribution of responses is seen when the vignettes were presented in the third person for both the question of whether they would remain connected (p < .001) and the moral obligation to do so (p < .001). From both the perspective of “you” and “Lee,” there was a clear difference in the decision to remain connected and the perceived moral obligation between the case of the violinist and the case of the half-sibling. In all cases, the participants were more likely to respond that they would remain connected and felt more obligated to do so when the person connected to them was a half-sibling.
The effect of perspective. There was not a simple effect, when it came to the perspective variable, both when assessing what would happen, as far as remaining connected, and whether there was an obligation to remain connected. There is an interaction between the perspective and the question posed to the participant. When the participants were asked about what would happen, as far as remaining connected to the violinist, whether the question was presented in the second or third person changed the distribution of responses (p = .04), but there was no effect on the participants’ assessments of moral obligation (p = .92). Similarly, when the participants were asked what would happen, as far as remaining connected to the half-sibling, the response changed according to whether the question was presented in the second or third person (p < .001), but there was no difference in the distribution when asked about the moral obligation to remain connected (p = .17). When asked what would happen, as far as remaining connected, we observed more participants responding in the affirmative when the asked in the second person (whether “you" would remain connected), than the third person (whether “Lee” would remain connected). This difference was not seen in the assessment of the moral obligation to remain connected.
The effect of expertise. We divided the sample into non-philosophers, the 67.3% of the sample who reported having taken fewer than three philosophy courses, and philosophers, the 32.7% of the sample who reported taking three or more philosophy courses. Overall, we found that the distribution of responses of the philosophers and non-philosophers were marginally different on the question of whether they would remain connected (p = .06) and significantly different with regard to their assessment of moral obligation (p = .003). For both questions, the philosophers responded more negatively: they were less likely to remain connected, and they considered there to be less of a moral obligation to do so.
Our (early) conclusions.
A. It’s not that, as Thomson suggests, the personhood/non-personhood status of the attachee is irrelevant to her readers’ feelings about the moral obligation to remain attached, but, rather, that some kinds of people do not affect the moral obligation to remain attached and other kinds do. The relationship to the attachee is empirically significant.
Someone might object, "You’re emotionally compelled to remain attached to people for whom you care. So regarding the half-sibling, the question of moral obligation is not in play." But our data show that in the case of both “you” and “Lee,” more than 10% of respondents say they’re “definitely not” morally obligated to remain attached to a half-sibling. So the argument for compulsion is not obviously reasonable. Our data show that we do seem to recognize responsibilities to these special people—responsibilities we do not recognize to strange violinists. But talking about these responsibilities in terms of compulsion is an unreasonably blunt way to think about them. Care ethics offers a more nuanced approach.
B. Our data identify a situation in which we display the cognitive bias of illusory superiority—the “better-than-average” effect: that is, when we think about how we will respond to needy people. According to our data, though respondents do not think they have a greater moral obligation than others to help needy people, respondents think they are more likely than others to help needy people.
C. Philosophers believe they will be less responsive than non-philosophers to needy people and, in particular, do not feel morally obligated to respond, perhaps in virtue of their training or as an effect of self-selection. (This may explain why philosophers have been so resistant to the care lens.)
Additional questions. Beyond our results, we are interested in your thoughts about the following two broader questions:
1. Thomson has said: “A philosophical problem is not an empirical problem.... [S]o I don't see how their empirical investigations can be thought to have any bearing on any philosophical problem—much less help anyone to solve a philosophical problem” (Chronicle of Higher Ed, 10/3/08). What do you think she meant by this? If she has is-ought concerns, we think these could be alleviated by thinking about x-phi as a way of understanding/explaining claims, rather than a way of justifying claims. We think there is support for the latter in Thomson’s paper, as her thought experiments do not seem to play a justificatory role there. Instead, they identify a set of readers/interlocutors. In other words, if you respond to her first vignette that you would remain attached to the violinist, you need not read any further in the paper, as she’s not talking to you. Given that the thought experiments are meant to locate an audience, an experimental study can help to clarify this audience and the aspects of the thought experiments that trigger this audience to respond in the way she anticipates. So, there is no reason for the hostility to x-phi.
2. Philosophers often cast justice and care as incommensurable paradigms. Can xphi data be used to adjudicate the broader justice-care debate? Can data like ours show that justice and care are commensurable theories, i.e. ones that respond to a common data set?
We would like to thank Mark Phelan, Josh Knobe, everyone at Experiment Month, and the 2009 NEH Summer Institute participants for all of their help with this project.