Critically explore the purpose of an analogy in arguments

evaluate Thomson’s violinist analogy.

violinist analogy is a very popular argument in the debate for the
permissibility of abortion and is therefore heavily deliberated. To critically
evaluate the analogy, I will focus on its technical craft and then explore the
reasoning provided within it. First, I will explore the purpose of an analogy
in arguments and their effectiveness in conveying Thomson’s standpoint on abortion
. Then, I will analyse argumentative tools such as thought experiments and
slippery slope arguments for their credibility in Thomson’s analogy. Finally, using
Wiland and other assessments of the analogy, I will consider potential flaws
within the argument. Thus, strengthening my thesis for this essay, saying that
Thomson’s violinist analogy holds up as a strong argument in its reasoning and
style, but falls slightly short in being a perfect analogy.  

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The unconscious violinist
analogy is as follows : You wake up and find yourself in bed with a famous unconscious
violinist. He has a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has
found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore
kidnapped you and plugged the violinist’s circulatory system into yours, so
that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood. It is only for
nine months1.
The analogy aims to represent the situation of abortion for the mother, with
the unconscious violinist being the innocent foetus being made to use her body
to survive. Through this, the strengths and flaws of the argument arise.

analogy is an effective tool of taking a premise, like ‘abortion is permissible’,
that has been clouded with many arguments and provide an alternative, clearer
perspective. As Wiland states “the whole point of using analogies in moral
philosophy is to get us past our self-interest, inertia, lack of empathy, lack
of imagination and defensiveness. Analogies do this by getting us to look at
seemingly all-too-familiar moral problems in a new light.”2 The reader can approach a
problem by thinking they are tackling something completely new, and proceed to solve
it differently. Hence being able to see the parallel between this conclusion and
the one of the original problem of abortion. Consequently, either helping solidify
their preconceived stance, or influencing their current deliberation, e.g.
unplugging the violinist is/is not permissible but abortion is still not. One
must also be able to empathise with an analogy in order for it to be
successful. Thompson “uses the second person pronoun: you are attached to the famous violinist.”3 This technique has a large
impact in dismissing any supplementary arguments such as battle of the sexes
and arguments alike that aren’t directly about abortion itself. Through the
violinist analogy, every person can decide their stance from the same starting

problem with creating parallels between situation is the risk of having a
slippery slope argument. “The key question in any slippery slope appeal is
whether the two situations are truly similar in a morally relevant way.”4 Within the analogy, this
can be considered as, “if the first is morally acceptable (unplugging the
violinist), and if the second (having an abortion) is similar to the first in a
relevant way, then the second should be acceptable also.”5 Many state that the
analogy is not morally relevant to the situation of abortion. For example; the
violinist is artificially attached to the woman. However he foetus is attached
to the mother in the most natural form without any intervention.6 Therefore, one is not
bound by the same moral obligations that would influence their decision in the
case of the violinist like they would with a baby.

this is a valid counterargument and shows that Thomson’s analogy may not draw
direct parallels with the situation of abortion, we must consider that it is a
form of thought experiment. This means that its purpose is not to directly
replicate the situation of abortion, while that’s the purpose of an analogy,
but to provoke purposeful thought from the reader. In moral philosophy, a
thought experiment triggers awareness of conflicts between judgements and thus
prompt further search for principals that do more substantive work.7 Therefore, the analogy serves
a slightly different purpose as part of the thought experiment than its
standard intention.

herself never asserts her stance upon the reader, but allows them room to prompt
their own considerations, many of which she covers as the essay progresses. The
validity and soundness of her arguments are credible to the analogy as it is a centric
reference for most of her arguments. Thought he analogy may not be completely
sound, its premises lead to a conclusion of two apt choices, providing it with
at least some validity on its own.

of the debated parallels between the analogy and abortion is moral
responsibility. Eric Wiland states that since one is not responsible for the violinist
being attached to them, they can detach themselves. However if one holds some responsibility,
then they cannot.8
This is to say that because the mother chose to have sex, she “bears some moral
responsibility for the pregnancy in all cases except rape. And so doesn’t have
a right to abort the child because it is a product of chance and not
However, considering logically, one cannot be expected to entirely avoid an act,
or be held morally responsible for its result since, they were responsible in their
methods of prevention, for the fear of those methods failing and resulting in a
certain outcome that already had the smallest probability of occurring. Perhaps
some causal responsibility could be placed but is not enough to warrant the
denial of the right of abortion. As Boonin stated, there is a difference
between “a person’s (a) voluntarily bringing about a state of affairs
S and (b) voluntarily doing an action A foreseeing that this may lead
to a state of affairs S.”10

the argument of ‘killing and letting die’ also holds up some debate. Wiland
explains that “a woman who gets somebody to perform an abortion is getting
somebody to kill someone.”11 There stands a fine line
between what is regarded as killing and letting die. Letting die is when one will
not die solely as a direct result of your actions (unplugging the violinist)
but from external factors of their own (the kidney ailment). However killing is
when your actions are directly the sole cause for one’s death. As Koukl states “A
more accurate parallel with abortion would be to crush the violinist or cut him
into pieces before unplugging him.”12

argument made is discredited by Thomson’s explanation on ones rights in this
situation by saying the best way to define the line is to state that killing is
unjust but letting die is not, making the latter permissible.. Thomson argues
through her analogy that the violinist has no right against you that you should
give him continued use of your kidneys. Nobody has any such right unless you have
given it; and nobody has the right against you that you’ll provide this right.
For if you do allow them the right, it is a kindness on your part, not a due
they can claim.13
Therefore, the argument of killing and letting die can be dismissed since the
other person has no right to hold you to any moral obligations,  “if you refuse, you are self-centred and
callous, indecent in fact, but not unjust.”14

can sustain my thesis and position that the violinist analogy is a strong tool
to use in Thomson’s argument on the permissibility of abortion. As an analogy,
it has some flaws if used as a standalone tool, however, substantial evidence
shows that Thomson has applied a combination of clever techniques, persistent
reasoning and a coherent argumentative structure in producing her argument, all
the while keeping the unconscious violinist analogy as the foal point. The
weaknesses highlighted in her argument are not substantial enough to discredit the
analogy; it still elicits a thought provoking response from the reader and does
not hinder the effective reasoning provided towards Thomson’s perspective in
the argument of abortion.

1 Thomson, Judith
Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public
Affairs 1, no. 1 (1971): pg. 48-49

Wiland, Eric. “Unconscious Violinists and the Use of Analogies in Moral
Argument.” Journal of Medical Ethics 26, no. 6 (2000) pg. 468

3 (n.d.). On Judith Jarvis Thomson’s ‘A Defence
of Abortion’. online

Koukl, G. (2013). Unstringing the Violinist. Blog Stand to Reason.

Koukl, G. (2013)

Koukl, G. (2013)

Harry. (2010). Thomson’s violinist: what is the point of thought experiments in
moral philosophy?. Blog Crooked Timber.

Wiland, pg. 467

9 Warren, Mary Anne (1973) On the Moral
and Legal Status of Abortion. The Monist Vol 57, No. 1: pg.42-61

Booni-Vail, David (1997) A Defense of “A Defense of Abortion”: On the
Responsibility Objection to Thomson’s Argument. Ethics, Vol. 107, No. 2:
pg. 286

Wiland, pg.467

Koukl, G. (2013)

Thomson, JJ. Pg. 55

Thomson, JJ. Pg. 61