Judith JarvisThomson

b. 1929

by Tamar S. Gendler

In her thirty-five-year career as a philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson has published important papers in ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of law, including the widely anthologized essays “A Defense of Abortion” (1971) and “The Trolley Problem” (1985), both of which apply the techniques of analytic philosophy to questions of morality.

Born in New York City, on October 4, 1929, Judith (Jarvis) Thomson was the second child of Theodore Jarvis (Javitz), an accountant, and Helen (Vostrey) Jarvis, an English teacher. Her mother was of Catholic Czech extraction, and her father was descended from a line of Eastern European rabbis, including Rabbi Hayyim Eliezer Wachs of Kalish and Rabbi Jacob Emden. Raised in an observant family on the Lower East Side, Theodore Javitz changed his name to Jarvis in 1918. His relationship with his wife, which began at socialist summer camp, was a source of tension for both their families.

Helen Jarvis died when Judith was six, and Theodore Jarvis remarried two years later. His second wife was Jewish and had two children. She was a successful interior designer and an arts and antique dealer and importer.

Judith’s parents placed no religious pressure on her, but she officially converted to Judaism at age fourteen, when she was confirmed at Temple Israel in Manhattan. Though her adult involvement with organized religion has been minimal, she feels concern for Israel and for the future of the Jewish people.

She attended elementary school in New York City and in Yonkers, graduating from Hunter High School in January 1946. She went on to receive a B.A. from Barnard College in 1950, a second B.A. from Cambridge University in 1952, an M.A. from Cambridge in 1956, and a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1959, all in philosophy.

In 1962, she began teaching at Barnard College, and in 1962 she met and married the British philosopher James Thomson, who was a visiting professor at Columbia University. After spending 1962–1963 at Oxford, the couple moved to Boston, where James Thomson was appointed professor of philosophy at MIT. Judith Thomson taught for a year at Boston University and, in 1964, was appointed to the faculty at MIT, where she is currently Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy. The Thomsons were separated in 1976 and divorced in 1980; they remained colleagues until James Thomson’s death in 1984.

Judith Thomson has been visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh (1976), the University of California at Berkeley Law School (1983), and Yale Law School (1982, 1984, 1985), and has held fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation (1950–1951), the American Association of University Women (1962–1963), the National Endowment for the Humanities (1978–1979, 1986–1987), the Guggenheim Foundation (1986–1987), and the Center for Advanced Study in Oslo, Norway (1996). In 1989, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1992–1993 she served as president of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division.

Judith Jarvis Thomson has published countless philosophical articles, a number of which were collected into her well-respected anthology Rights, Restitution, and Risk. In addition, Thomson is the author of Acts and Other Events, The Realm of Rights, Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (with Gilbert Harman), and Goodness and Advice.


Acts and Other Events (1977); Rights, Restitution, and Risk (1986); The Realm of Rights (1990); Symposium on The Realm of Rights. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53, no. 1 (March 1993): 159–194; Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity, with Gilbert Harman (1996); Symposium on Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58, no. 1 (March 1998): 171–222; Goodness and Advice (2001).


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How to cite this page

Gendler, Tamar S.. "Judith Jarvis Thomson." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 14, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/thomson-judith-jarvis>.


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