What do we owe to the vaccine-hesitant?

In a recent post, libertarian political philosopher Jason Brennan argues that “we should ignore the welfare of people who choose not to vaccinate out of paranoia”.  We owe them nothing.  Brennan reaches this conclusion by analogizing vaccine hesitancy to a heckler’s veto (my bold):

The idea of heckler’s veto goes as follows: Take any action, P, which is permissible. Now imagine that a person makes a credible threat to do something wrongful or bad if you choose to do P. Do you thereby acquire a duty not to P? For instance, if the bully says that he’ll beat someone else unless you break up with your girlfriend, do you have a duty to break up? If the evil government official says that he will persecute other people unless you quit your religion and join his, do you have a duty to do so? If I credibly threaten to kill a kitten unless you stop playing guitar, do you have a duty to do so? If I threaten to kill a kitten if you watch the Bachelor tonight, do you have a duty to avoid watching it?

Here, most people conclude the answer is no. The heckler does not change the moral valence of your actions by making a credible threat. . . .

This is even more obvious when the heckler intends to harm himself. For instance, suppose I say, “Unless you, the reader, stop playing video games, I will cut my finger off.” This does not seem to impose upon you any obligation to stop playing. You can rightly tell me to go to hell. 

Now apply this to adults who could safely take a good vaccine, who have access to good vaccines, but who choose not to become vaccinated out of paranoia or scientific illiteracy. Should we keep the economy or schools shut down to protect them? No. In effect, the voluntarily unvaccinated are saying to the voluntarily vaccinated, “You had better choose to keep yourselves miserable, hurt your own economic prospects, ruin your social life, have no vacations or shitty vacations, keep your kids away from schools, and so on, or we will voluntary expose ourselves to high health risks.” The proper moral reaction to such a threat involves words “fuck” and “off”. In this case, the adults in question voluntarily choose to incur these health risks. We do not impose it upon them by getting back to normal; they impose it upon themselves. After all, they could have chosen to become immune. Their reasons for choosing not to do so–scientific illiteracy, social benefits from propounding conspiracy theories, etc.–explain their behavior but do not excuse it, and do not give us reason to treat their implicit threat differently. 

Clearly a great philosophical mind is at work.  However, I suspect Brennan may be mistaken. 

Brennan claims that those who are unvaccinated are threatening us to prevent us from doing something that we have the right to do, viz., resume normal life.  Furthermore, the analogies he gives invite us to assume that their motives are really, really, bad – either spite or jealousy (“break up with your girlfriend”) or theocratic (the evil government official who wants to force you to practice his religion). 

This is a serious mischaracterization of the situation.  Those who refuse to get vaccinated are not doing so to spite the rest of us, or because they disapprove of our desire to resume normal life and want to impose their values on us.  They are not threatening us or demanding that we keep shut down for their benefit.  This is not, as Brennan suggests, analogous to a case in which a heckler deliberately threatens to start a riot if we exercise our free speech rights (the usual heckler’s veto situation).  Instead, it is a classic case of inadvertent self-harm.  The vaccine-hesitant are confused, and they are putting themselves and their families and third parties at risk of serious illness and loss.  The relevant question is what the government should do to protect the vaccine-hesitant from the consequences of their poor decision-making. 

I think it is obvious that we should not remain locked-down on the behalf of the unvaccinated.  Once 60 to 70% of the adult population is vaccinated (plus more naturally immune) the benefits of a lockdown clearly cannot justify the costs.  This is a simple argument about promoting the public welfare and has nothing to do with a heckler’s veto.  Nor does it deny that we have an obligation to try to protect the vaccine-hesitant.  We are not justified in ignoring their welfare simply because we believe they are acting foolishly or irrationally. 

So what should we do?  Well, one thing we should do is try to persuade everyone to get vaccinated.  Information provision is usually considered to be an uncontroversial policy response to consumer error, but Brennan’s analysis suggests that this is unjustified.  No effort or tax dollars should be spent to persuade vaccine-hesitant people to get vaccinated.  No research should be funded to determine what approaches are most effective.  We owe them nothing, they should just go fuck themselves.  I disagree; they are people and the government should at least try to persuade them to avoid unnecessary self-harm. 

A trickier question is whether they should be pressured or even forced to get vaccinated.  Brennan’s approach suggests the answer is “no”:  they should just go fuck themselves.  My view is that we should avoid heavy-handed pressure, especially government pressure, if only to avoid inflaming a dangerously polarized political situation.  But some indirect pressure (such as vaccine passports) might be justified, both to protect the resisters from themselves, and to benefit third parties.  Brennan’s view also suggests that positive monetary incentives should not be used to encourage vaccination, since we owe the unvaccinated nothing. 

I think there a lesson here regarding a particular style of philosophical argument.  According to Brennan, when someone suggests using vaccine passports to get people to vaccinate, we should respond by drawing crude analogies to fanciful or arguably irrelevant stories about someone “credibly threaten[ing] to kill a kitten unless you stop playing guitar” or an evil government official who persecutes people who do not join his religion.  If you are interested in public policy, I would suggest that Brennan’s approach to political philosophy is a waste of your time.  Conventional, welfare-based policy analysis, despite its limitations, is far, far more likely to generate useful insights and to endorse policies that are deserving of our support.