Several weeks ago, I posted to Facebook what I think is a steelman argument in favor of mandatory/forced vaccinations to stop the spread of COVID 19.
What followed in comments was a useful conversation from most people (I was only called a Nazi by one person.) but I didn’t get a fully-developed counterargument framed in terms of natural rights against this argument. But I did get several good ideas and hints at a rebuttal.
It should be noted that my default response to the question “Should the government do _____?” is an emphatic “NO.” But I prefer to have a reasoned explanation for my conclusions beyond a basic distrust of state power.
One issue that I’m not sure everyone accepts is that infecting someone with a disease is a violation of their rights. I suspect a lot of people see disease as an act of God or some such, but human-to-human spread of disease hinges on one human negatively affecting the health of another through their actions.
This might strike some people as strange because we (in America) don’t seem pursue disease as a crime very extensively and for a very litigious society we rarely hear about civil suits associated with disease. But it’s not completely without precedent. Consider the case of Mary Mallon, AKA Typhoid Mary, who was forcibly quarantined for a couple of decades because she refused treatment and continued to pursue employment where she would spread the disease. There’s also a famous case from 1905 in which SCOTUS upheld the power of the state to mandate vaccinations. In more modern history, it used to be (and may still be in some places for all I know) a felony in California to knowingly expose someone to HIV. And a quick Google search reveals a few possible avenues for civil claims against knowing exposure to HIV or other STIs. And carrying disease has often been used to screen immigrants who want to enter the country. The point being that there is legal support in real life for disease as the means of violating rights.
And, philosophically, because it’s your actions (coughing around someone, leaving your germs on their belongings, etc.) that lead directly to the infection and harm, infecting someone with a disease is a violation of rights in the same way that poisoning them or assaulting them is a violation of their rights.
Some people argue that it’s hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that individual A infected individual B. That’s true. And the effect of giving someone a cold, for example, hardly makes pursuing a criminal complaint worth it. SARS-CoV-2, in particular, presents some special challenges to civil and criminal proceedings against those who spread it. You can spread it without even knowing you’re infected. And with lots of people spreading it, it’s particularly hard to figure out exactly which person gave it to another.
However, the challenges of proof and severity of damages are distinct questions from whether a rights violation has happened in the first place. The reason this question of rights violations is relevant is because in my view (and that of those who subscribe to the philosophy of Objectivism) the primary and sole responsibility of the government is to protect individual rights.
For those who accept the points above, it’s easy to get them to agree that the government should take forceful action to stop you if you are known to be spreading a (potentially) deadly disease. And I do agree that if you’re known to spread a disease and you won’t do anything to prevent it — like Mary Mallon — then it’s proper for the government to use force against you.
That is, I think, the strong case for force vaccinations. Infecting others with disease violates their rights. The government is here to protect rights. Vaccines can slow/stop the spread of disease. Therefore, the government can force vaccines on people in the interest of protecting rights.
This view has problems, though.
But before I get into the actual knotty problems with this argument, I want to present one bad argument:
I shouldn’t call this an argument, really. It’s just one of those silly things people say on social media to be pithy. It doesn’t present the reasoning behind any conclusion nor does it present any mitigating evidence. What’s more, it’s plainly false because ALL laws are enforced at the point of a gun. Unless you’re an anarchist, you think we need to have some things that we force people to comply with in order to have an ordered, thriving society. So, this is just dumb… and yet a lot of people seem to think saying, “BUT FREEDOM,” is a trump card for any and all arguments about masks, vaccines, or whatever. It isn’t.
Rights are not limitless chains with which to bind your neighbors.
I dislike quoting Ayn Rand at any length because I think it’s important to be able to describe and apply concepts in your own terms. But sometimes she really did say it best. Here’s where she offers a definition of what a right is from the Virtue of Selfishness: “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.” So, for the entity who has a right, it’s freedom of action. For everyone else, it’s a constraint on their actions. This is important for later.
So, let’s talk about the actual challeges to this argument which do actually support claims of rights and freedom.
The first major problem that I have with mandating a vaccine is that it is a clear and obvious encroachment on your bodily autonomy, which — given that your right to your life is the fundamental right — is very near the core of where individual rights come from. If you have no right to what is done to your body, then it’s hard to say that your rights are being protected at all. So, whatever rationale is offered to force people to submit to vaccination needs to be pretty dang compelling.
This is why in my original post, I submitted the example of the zombie plague which has 100% mortality rate and spreads easily. In THAT situation, one can easily justify all sorts of emergency actions to stop the spread. But COVID isn’t like that.
I think it’s also important to note that mandatory vaccinations should be an emergency measure — limited in time and place — not a standing order that would apply to normal, everyday life. This is a concern I have about the various mandates in the COVID pandemic: I’m not sure anyone has a clear idea of when these mandates will be lifted for good. We already went through one reversal and even my patience is wearing thin with it.
The second major problem I have is that vaccines are a preventative measure. They can make it harder for you to spread the disease if you get it. They can make it less harmful to you if you get it. But the notion of using force against people who have yet to do anything wrong is terrifying to me… and some dude who called me a Nazi on Facebook for presenting an argument he disagrees with.
Neither of these objections presents an argument that applies everywhere at all times, though. Rights are not boundless or contextless. There are limits of action one can morally claim with regard to one’s life, person, and property vary depending on the situation. And emergencies like pandemics are unusual situations.
We can imagine lots of scenarios from every day life where — even in a libertarian utopia — the government might step in to prevent harm to others before wrongdoing is done. Like, if you wanted to fire a gun into the air in the middle of a crowded city, even if you did that and didn’t hit anyone, you might legitimately be fined for the reckless disregard for safety. That same rule may not apply if you lived in a sparsely populated area out in the country. Such a society would even outlaw private ownership of nuclear weapons in some contexts, too. In the real world where the concept of “public property” is so pervasive, we have lots more examples like traffic laws, building codes, disclosure regulations, etc. etc. To some extent, I think a lot of those laws are rightful uses of government power — although, I wish we’d address more of these sticky problems by promoting private property and property rights rather than just issuing government edicts.
On the topic of disease, testing for disease is something governments routinely do to people before they are allowed to enter a country. I could see some people getting upset about forced testing (Could you imagine the disaster that airport security would be if we had to wait for a 15-minute rapid test to come back negative before being allowed to get on a flight?!) but I also imagine forced testing is slightly less objectionable than forced vaccinations. That’s not to say I would support some sort of countrywide testing mandate, though. It’s just a curious intuition I had about the situation while contemplating the question of forced vaccines.
So, although the government may rightfully take action to prevent harm before any rights-violating actions are taken, there has to be some set of constraints on the exercise of that state power. Because for a million reasons we don’t want to give the state unlimited power to impose on our lives. (I’m only barely resisting the urge to go on a lengthy analogy to a dystopian future where robots control our lives and impose all sorts of controls on us “for our own good.”). And even or especially in emergencies, we want to make sure the government’s role is clearly defined and limited.
This is where I find my answers running out. While I would support mandatory vaccines in some contexts, I don’t know what thresholds or considerations define those contexts. But I’d like to offer a few thoughts.
A couple of friends reminded me that rights are hierarchical. The primary right one has is a right to one’s own life and from there you have all your other rights, like the right to freedom of movement, right to free speech, right to free association, etc. The nature of that hierarchy is the subject of some debate, but for a layperson like me, it’s sufficient to just say that in order to justify forcing something like a vaccine on people, the threat needs to be very high because of how high up the hierarchy bodily autonomy is.
Tangentially, this is also why you can’t rationally justify putting people to death for small crimes like petty theft.
I used the zombie plague example above because it’s an extreme example. It illustrates the fact that there is SOME point at which the government would be justified to force people to take a vaccine in order to prevent them from ultimately doing harm to others.
But I don’t know what the threshold is for justifying that sort of action. It seems to me that it has to be some combination of the severity of the disease, how easily it spreads, and perhaps another factor or two. COVID is a serious disease, but I don’t think it’s bad enough to justify forced vaccinations.
From a practical perspective, I think mandating vaccines for COVID is just a terrible idea.
It seems logistically problematic, but I think the biggest practical issue is simply that people won’t go for that. There are already enough crackpots out there who think vaccines are installing 5G into our spleens or something. And there are even more people with a different view of the nature of rights from my own who are making noises against even private requirements concerning vaccines. Making a government mandate of it will make a lot more resist it just because it’s a government mandate.
I think President Biden is in-bounds to mandate vaccines for government employees as a condition of their employment just as I think every employer is within their rights to mandate vaccines for their employees. But I don’t think he’s justified in using OSHA to mandate that to private companies. I also don’t think his power extends to state government employees. And I don’t think state authorities have the moral authority to mandate it for private people.
So, yeah. Mandatory vaccines, in this situation, are no bueno. Let’s not do that.