Today in my critical thinking class (subtitled “Logic and the Law”), we had a great discussion on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s distinction between infringement of rights and violation of rights and the corresponding thought experiments she offers. I’ve given them the opportunity to post on the question(s) at the end of this post, and I’m curious as to what your thoughts are as well.
Thomson claims that you infringe on someone’s right when you bring about a situation that one has the right to not be the case. You violate someone’s right when you bring about the situation and you act wrongly in doing so.
She gives the following thought experiment:
There is a child who will die if he is not given some drug in the near future. The only bit of drug which can be obtained for him in the near future is yours. You are out of town, and hence cannot be asked for consent within the available time. You keep your supply of the drug in a locked box on your back porch.
In this situation, if we break in and steal the drug, we have infringed on your rights, but we have not violated your rights, for we have not acted wrongly in saving the life of the child. You should be compensated for what happened, as your rights were infringed upon, but your rights were not violated.
Thomson intentionally muddies the water a bit more by revisiting her thought experiment, but this time, we were able to call you, and you refused to give your consent. Since we know hat you do not approve, are we acting wrongly in breaking in and stealing the drug?
After much discussion, Thomson comes to the conclusion that the rightness or wrongness of breaking in and stealing the drug comes down to how much you value the box not being broken and the drug not being taken away from you. So if you value this property more than the life of this child for “no morally suspect reason,” then we must withdraw and not take the drug.
Let me explain the “no morally suspect reason” part of the qualification. If the box was a family heirloom that is of great value to you for which it would be impossible to compensate you for if it were broken because of the sentimental value of it (assuming that it is the only physical connection you have with your family or something like that), such that it is not for morally suspect reasons that you place such a high value on the thing, then if you valued that more than you valued a child you never met, it may not be morally splendid (according to Thomson), but we would not say it is morally suspect.
Given that we are talking about legal rights and that society must respect those rights (at least in that thought experiment), there are situations where the authorities must walk away and not get the drug that would save the child.
The class was quite uncomfortable with the idea that we can accurately judge intent behind consent or lack thereof, thinking that the legal rights would be not just infringed upon, but also violated if you denied consent and we still got the drug.
So I posed the question, what if the child about to die was your own child? Even if this person with the drug had good reasons for not wanting the box broken and the drug taken, would you break in and take the drug for your child? Would you be violating the box-owner’s rights in so doing? If so, how would you justify your actions? Should you be absolved from punishment for your actions?
So what do you think? What would you do in that situation? Please leave comments! I’m keeping my personal thoughts out of the discussion for now because I don’t want the students to parrot back my answer if they’re reading the blog, and this may be part of an essay prompt for them in the near future. But please, contribute to the discussion!
The reading was from Thomson’s article “Some Ruminations on Rights” originally published in Arizona Law Review, vol. 19(1977), pp.45ff