Judith Jarvis Thomson was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Her justly famous essay in defense of abortion rights is a model for how to combine philosophical rigor with political engagement in the real world.
BY BEN BURGIS
A fan-favorite episode of NBC’s The Good Place is called “The Trolley Problem.” If you’ve watched it, or if you’re one of the quarter of a million people who follow the “Trolley problem memes” page on Facebook, you know at least a little bit about Judith Jarvis Thomson’s work — even if you’ve never heard her name.
The prehistory of this philosophical puzzle goes back to Philippa Foot. In an essay crammed with examples intended to illustrate the complexities of an obscure idea in moral philosophy called the “doctrine of double effect,” she introduces the “driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one track to another.” If he does nothing, he’ll kill five workers doing repairs on the track. If he steers onto an alternate track, he’ll only kill one. Foot thought it was obvious that “we should say, without hesitation, that the driver should steer for the unoccupied track.”