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Thomson's Violinist and the State of Israel

Goldstein, Laurence (2007) Thomson's Violinist and the State of Israel. Yearbook of the Irish Philosophical Society 2007, . pp. 62-72. ISSN ISBN 0-9531706-7-5. (KAR id:13130)


At the present time, no conflict in the world is more serious than that between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and in no other conflict has attempt at dialogue so signally failed over a long period. At times, a political solution has seemed tantalizingly close, but invariably the parties have been unable to agree on one or other crucial issue and negotiations have collapsed. President Ahmadinejad’s view, which he alone among political leaders has been bold enough to voice, but which is widely shared in the Muslim world, is that Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’. Israel, as he sees is, is a cancerous tumour implanted in Arab lands. The Israeli view is (unsurprisingly) different. The state of Israel was founded under the auspices of the United Nations to provide a safe haven for a people uniquely victim, over many centuries, to persecution, and, say the Israelis, if left in peace, with a guarantee of security, would be happy to co-exist harmoniously with all of its Arab neighbours.

Where politics has foundered in the effort to resolve this dilemma, can philosophy hope to do better? This paper answers in the affirmative. There is a classic thought-experiment in applied ethics, contrived by Judith Jarvis Thomson, featuring a famous violinist. Thomson’s aim was to use the case of this sick violinist (hooked up, without consent, to the circulatory system of a healthy person so as to share that person’s kidney function) as a way to challenge our prejudices about abortion. The analogy, though obvious (the violinist can, after nine months be decoupled from the host and can lead a healthy independent existence thereafter) is weak. A far stronger analogy subsists between the situation of the violinist and that of Israel, created, as it was, in the middle of Arab land without Arab consent. Do the Arab nations have a moral right to ‘abort’ it? If Thomson’s conclusion is correct, then, legal considerations aside, the answer would be that they do have such a right and that it would be an act of supererogatory generosity to allow Israel to continue to exist. However, Thomson’s argument is suspect, and has been attacked by advocates of a neo-Aristotelian ‘Virtue Ethics’. Generosity, as they see it, is a virtue and it is our moral responsibility to cultivate such virtues. An argument is given to show that such generosity, in this instance, need not be regarded as unrequited.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled keywords: Israel Thomson Palestinian Violinist Hursthouse
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Culture and Languages
Depositing User: Laurence Goldstein
Date Deposited: 01 Jun 2009 08:57 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2021 09:51 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Goldstein, Laurence.

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