WORK SOURCE: http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm

(This is a homework assignment)

According to Thomson, if another person is about to cause your death, then:

A. It is permissible for you to kill them only if they are not innocent.

B. It is permissible for you to kill them, even if they are innocent.

C. It is permissible for you to torture a third party, since torturing someone is not as bad as killing them, and it is permissible for you to kill them

D. All of the above.

I find this a very poorly-written question because answer A implies exclusivity by using the word "only." So A and B could never be simultaneously true, as long as the word "only" is used in answer A. It therefore seems illogical to have an "All of the above" option.

Assuming this mistake was just due to poor question-writing, I chose D - All of the above anyway, for the following passages:

In our case there are only two people involved, one whose life is threatened, and one who threatens it. Both are innocent: the one who is threatened is not threatened because of any fault, the one who threatens does not threaten because of any fault. For this reason we may feel that we bystanders cannot interfere. But the person threatened can.

In sum, a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death.

This passage explains that even though one may be innocent, it is permissible to kill them if they are about to kill you (Answer B). Through logical deduction and information gleaned from Thomson's work, "Self-Defense," we know that Thomson also sees it permissible to kill those who are not innocent and are about to kill you(Answer A). However, this doesn't make A technically true because A is worded, "permissible...ONLY if they are not innocent."

As for C, I assume the question's author got the idea from the following passage:

If someone threatens you with death unless you torture someone else to death, I think you have not the right, even to save your life, to do so.

This is the only passage in Thomson's work dealing with torture, and it only speaks of "torturing to death," but not torturing without killing. Because it's not explicitly stated, I personally am left to SUPPOSE that Thomson would find it permissible to torture another without killing them, along with killing the aggressor.

I think my confusion mostly comes down to conflicting answers (considering the "All of the above" option) and answers unable to be found explicitly in the text. What's the correct take on this?

  • First off, it's homework, you should mention that.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 23:33

1 Answer 1


The answer the author intends is clearly B.

Answers A and B are mutually incompossible. This could be seen using Venn diagrams or by thinking through the following:

  1. If A is true, then because it would only allow for killing innocents, then B would be false because B includes killing others.
  2. Conversely if B is true, then A is false since B includes killing others than innocents and falsifies the "only" in A.

Consequently, D must also be false, since it's truth would require A, B, and C to all be true, but we already know A and B cannot both be true.

Without rereading J.J. Thomson's article, I would say C is highly improbable. You can capture this from the internal logic of C -- namely, for C to be true, Thomson would have to somewhere declare that "torturing someone is not as bad as killing them." In the absence of that, she's not saying C.

Consequently, the answer will be B -- as based on the passage you note above.

you could also reach this answer by thinking about the goal of her article: she's trying to provide a defense of abortion on moral grounds. Since abortion is a woman killing in Thomson's own words her "unborn child", she's got to justify de minimis killing an innocent. But it's doubtful she wants to do so by saying torture is okay (since that would be a pyrrhic victory). Instead, she's going to want to establish a category where she thinks it's fine, but it'd be bizarre to openly argue "you have the right to kill someone as long as they are innocent."

  • Thank you. B was my first choice (before writing out my logic), but I wasn't able to determine if the questioner was just (1) bad at writing questions or (2) being purposefully tricky. I'm always quick to assume fault in the question-writers for whatever reason...(pride)
    – velkoon
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 0:33

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