Objection to Jarvis-Thomson #3:The woman has a special kind of responsibility because she is the mother

Responsibility only arises from a commitment

Teed Rockwell
3 min readJun 24, 2022

Jarvis-Thomson points out that “ 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 our attention might be drawn to the fact that men and women both are compelled by law to provide support for their children.(64–65)”

Here is Jarvis-Thomson’s response:

“Surely we do not have any such “special responsibility” for a person unless we have assumed it, explicitly or implicitly. If a set of parents do not try to prevent pregnancy, do not obtain an abortion, and then at the time of birth of the child do not put it out for adoption, but rather take it home with them, then they have assumed responsibility for it, they have given it rights, and they cannot now withdraw support from it at the cost of its life because they now find it difficult to go on providing for it. But if they have taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it. They may wish to assume responsibility for it, or they may not wish to. And I am suggesting that if assuming responsibility for it would require large sacrifices, then they may refuse. (65)”

Here I find that my own intuitions get a bit muddled, and perhaps yours will too. Does my kidney thought experiment change if it is a relative who needs your kidney? A distant cousin or even a brother? Perhaps not. Your own child as an adult? Your own child while you are still raising it? Note that this passage begins with the word “surely”, which philosophers usually use when they don’t have an argument for their conclusion and hope you don’t ask for one. And she ends with “I am suggesting. . .” implying even more uncertainty.

The enlightenment tradition that gave birth to modern philosophy assumes that all relationships can be explained in terms of social contracts between autonomous self-interested individuals. This passage is basically an application of this principle to family relationships, and it is arguably not a very good fit. This essay of mine argues that it’s a serious mistake to think that love relationships can…

Teed Rockwell

I am White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male Heterosexual cisgendered over-educated able-bodied affluent and thin. Hope to learn from those living on the margins.