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.
Freedom is letting other people die for one’s rights :<)
Sorry, I disagree that the anti vaccine folks are not acting out of spite. Certainly, their leaders are many of whom have secretly gotten the vaccine and as long as their numbers remain large they are an existential threat not only to the unvaccinated but to everyone because they keep the virus going and eventually it will mutate into something that is not stopped by the current vaccines. Then too the vaccines are highly effective but not perfect. Most of these people are not scientifically literate but that is not what is driving their behavior. Instead it is their anti social outlook on life that they are “ special” and do not have to follow the rules applicable to every other human being on this planet.
Terry – Yes and quit begging them to take the vaccine. They love the attention. Ignore them. They may or may not get the vaccine but they will never admit that they got the vaccine. Take care of yourself. Trust science to manage the variants and provide future vaccines. Sure that could eventually result in a variant that cannot be stopped but we are headed that way anyway. Deprive them of what they seek the most — attention.
We can always push them out of the teepee . . .
well, a plague on both your houses.
the “libertarian” sounds like an idiot who knows nothing about the situation or the motives of the “vaccine resistant.”
people like terru see, [ergdtly happy to use government power to force people to take injections neither they nor he know anything about.. whatever “science” says.
those who think that “everyone” should get vaccinated in order to protect not only themselves, but also to protect everyone else through “herd immunity” are probably right, but the odd thing is that they are only “right” if so many people don’t get vaccinated that the numbers actually do affect herd immunity. if a very small percent of people do not get vaccinated, then herd immunity would still be achieved. so you put yourself in the position of forcing people to submit to a vaccine [that you know nothing about except what you hear from politicians] either when it has no effect on your safety (numbers too small) or when the vaccine is resisted by a large minority who might be right…[they believe different politicians] andmight be assumed to have political rights as well as human rights,
well, no need for me to continue. I won’t change anyone’s mind and get called an ignorant right wing nut in the bargain. but let me modestly suggest that while we may rightly, in my opinion, ignore libertarians, especially when they sound like idiots, we ought to be very very careful, and considerate, about forcing people to do things that threaten them, they believe, at the very core of their being just because we believe in “science” or our own moral superiority.
you may not recognize it, but that’s facism.
Terry and Mary. I agree with Mary that it makes sense to stop talking about this, but don’t think it is the vaccine-hesitant population trying to get attention. The most attention seeking anti-VAX contingent, like RFK Jr., predate COVID by a lot. And I have no doubt that a guy like RFK Jr, is sincere in his beliefs, even if he is inaccurate. One can easily enough argue that a contingent of the vaccinated are seeking attention more than most of the unvaccinated. The concept of vaccine passports is, as far as I can tell, almost entirely a creation of the vaccinated and the reactions to those ideas feel like the dominant public commentary from vaccine-hesitant apart from anti-VAXers like RFK Jr. We can’t control what other countries require but getting rid of this concept domestically would pretty much shut-up everyone apart from the hard-core (who, again, are not new to their ideas because of COVID). The vaccinated (like I am) would be best advised to think about reinfection and future variants as second or third order issues for which creating a segregation regime is not merited. The unvaccinated (and even the vaccinated) should be considerate to avoid public places if they have a fever or other symptoms of illness.
Went to Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay yesterday. Interesting. They have unblocked seats on rides that were last summer running at restricted capacity. Now the full load of passengers goes on every ride. They have discontinued the sort of “pro-forma” wipedown between every ride, but have continued with periodic schedule of every hour or so. Masking was not even a big thing with customers last summer but employees continued masked.
We have a long history of letting others die for our rights. So, there is nothing special about the anti-vaxxers. The anti-draft crowd from our youth was nothing special too.
“The concept of vaccine passports is, as far as I can tell, almost entirely a creation of the vaccinated”
Yeah, it’s strange that people who won’t take the vaccine are not in favor of vaccine passports.
Too be clear, then I opposed the US war in South Vietnam, but never opposed the draft even after I was drafted and sent to South Vietnam.
Well said. THX!
For some reason the rights of citizenship have always been more popular than the responsibilities of citizenship.
Kind of delinquent in answering this; but . . . I did not hesitate in getting the shot. We did accomplish this 100% by early February.
Of course,we are talking about adults(?) here, yes?
When you start grade school, each student is required to get a series of shots in order to attend school. There is virtually no exceptions to this. If you are in the military, you also get a series of shots to which there is no questioning. And yes, I have heard of some of the military resisting getting the Covid shots.
You can resist; but, you better show up for duty healthy. If you are requested to get the shot and you do not, it is dereliction of duty if you become ill or have endangered others by your actions. It can result in at least an Article 15 or if you have an ass for an officer, a Court Martial.
To wit, this sounds more like J.S. Mill discussion or Majority versus Minority and the rights of each. Does a minority have the right to endanger the majority by their actions? Mill would answer “no” as their actions are mostly protected with the exception of whey those actions may endanger the majority.
There is establish legal precedent established on requiring immuration both in this country and also when you travel if that country requires it.
Any who, I am sure Jason knows this and he is blowing smoke.
if i understand you…and i am getting dizzy… the “vaccine passports” sound reasonable to me. if i don’t want to get vaccinated, fine, but then i shouldn’t complain if “society” excludes me from certain high-risk activities. just don’t force me to put an unknown fluid in my body because “science” tells me to. [and yes i am aware of all sorts of problems with that, but i like to begin with my best approximation to human rights.]
as for the draft… yeah, i understand why we might think we “need” that. but i am against slavery, and i earnestly hope that if we ever really need to defend the country we can find enough volunteers who will volunteer anyway even if some shirkers don’t. again, i think i have a human right not to be drafted, but i don’t have a reasonal expectation not to be be shunned by those who think i am shirking my duty to god and country.
and, i think mandating masks is a reasonable “infringement” on my “rights”. i also think “taxes” are a reasonable infringement on my rights. i don’t think forced abortions, or forced non-abortion, are reasonable.
I was hesitant. I decided to wait on normal approvals, but a doctor (an orthopedist) convinced me that this was going to be a formality really. But I support the right of people to make their own choices in this area. Give them the information and stop worrying about their decisions is my advice. If you want your brother to get it, well feel free to pester him, but that one guy that lives in the green house 8 doors down? Let it go. If getting the vaccine is as good as we hope, the percentage will inch up naturally. We might limit it at something near the current level if it becomes an “us versus them” issue and the vaccinated have more capacity to avoid that than the unvaccinated. If you work for a system where the unvaccinated lead lives only among the unvaccinated, well the result will be what you want to avoid. “Here are the bars and restaurants you can patronize”. “You can go to the movies Sundays – Wednesdays.” “You basketball fans will all be in sections 201-247”. “Hey, this week’s convenience stores for you are at the follwing addresses.” If a chemist wants to slow down a reaction, he or she does not take steps to concentrate the reagents.
I cannot argue with you because you most eloquently made exactly my point. Society draws fine lines of acceptable behavior that have nothing to do with a higher power or authority or even a clear matter of right and wrong. We make rules because we can, kind of, sort of. In other social structures then there might be those that usurp the authority by force or those that delegate to intellectuals, wise men, or saints, but we have the political system and the republican privilege to make minor decisions such as healthcare in the open subject to debate. Of course, the important stuff such as financialization and globalization is decided by the really important few elites that grow our society in the manner of mushrooms.
If I was correctly informed, members of the military can reject taking the vaccine right now because it has only the emergency authorization. Once the full approval by the FDA is complete, members of the military will lose that option.
“When you start grade school, each student is required to get a series of shots in order to attend school. There is virtually no exceptions to this.”
My understanding is that is that there is an industry that provides medical exceptions for anyone who wants one regardless of why they want an exception. The schools cannot really refuse such exceptions. (no link provided since googling it is trivial)
Correct on your understanding for military. Students are only allowed for religion and health. Much of the former is based upon political beliefs. Much of this was passed under the auspices of the 21st Century Cures Act. I have little sympathy for those who do not get ands come down with it as most of the rejection is due to political and not scientific beliefs.
I’m in the Fuck You group. They should be as shunned as racists, and treated like the selfish assholes they are.
I am with you except for the FU. They will be the seedlings for a new virus.
I think Biden has picked approximately the right date. I have been volunteering at vaccine clinics and they are still quite busy. Not everyone can easily come in during the day, but by July 4 our walk-ins should have had a chance to get a shot on their way home from work.
We will open up and start breathing each other’s air and all but the most willfully blind will see that the resulting increase in cases will be those who are not vaccinated.