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.

If you’d like to read a poignant little story about vaccines and personal autonomy, I highly recommend “Vaccine Season” by Hannu Rajaniemi which was published in the Make Shift anthology. You can also listen to LeVar Burton read it aloud on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast.

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.

Rights are not boundless or contextless.

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.

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.


4 Comments

Qwertz · September 17, 2021 at 8:36 pm

I think OSHA does have the authority (legal and moral) to require employers of 100 or more employees to test all their employees for SARS-CoV-II infection at least once a week. Something like that would be burdensome, but still a lot less so than some other long-established mandatory OSHA standards against less likely harms. And I think OSHA could then also reduce that burden on employers by allowing them to exempt covered employees who can show verifiable documentation of vaccination from that testing requirement.

(Legally, I think it’s going to be important to limit the ETS to only those employees who cannot perform their work entirely away from close contact with any other person, and to allow employees who can document recovery from prior infection with +IgM serum test and concurrent negative virus test to substitute that for proof of vaccination.)

That’s how I expect the eventual ESA to read, based on how Biden has described it and what OSHA’s mandate is. And the fact that an order that “everyone must be vaccinated; if someone isn’t vaccinated they must be regularly tested” will be a lightning rod for anti-vax attacks, while an order that says “everyone must be tested; people who are vaccinated may be exempted from testing”, which does exactly the same thing, practically speaking, is more easily defensible politically, socially, and legally.

Setting aside pragmatic issues like who pays for what, is COVID-19 still not serious enough in your book to justify the kind of mandate I describe?

    Trey McIntyre · September 17, 2021 at 8:57 pm

    I can’t speak to the actual legal justification of using OSHA to make such a mandate; I’ll defer to your greater legal knowledge on that bit. I meant just that it ought not. I think the policy itself is one that private companies should adopt on their own. It’s straightforward and sensible. But I don’t think COVID is serious enough that it should be done at the point of a gun.

    But I still don’t know what WOULD be serious enough. This is a judgment based in part on my emotional sense of the risk posed by COVID. And I have yet to hear anyone make an argument in either direction that rely on a similar judgment.

    On the policy front, I am sure there are some employers who WANT there to be a mandate because they think it’s a good policy, but they don’t want to deal with the backlash, so they hope for government action instead. And that is really just sad.

roberttemple · September 26, 2021 at 6:15 am

The decision to do or not do depends on choice – the identification of a course of action compared to an alternative course of action, the results often being different
the act of deciding this or that implies
for what reason
for what purpose
one looks to validate a decision
the other finds support in future or expected outcome
Every man and woman has the power of volition as an axiomatic attribute. This means that one must assume all other have this power and find reason to change the assumption by observation and and experience and study for verification.
The same holds true for consciousness. Obviously the degree of conscious attention in range and depth is a variable for all individuals. But most of us assume that the common level of conscious awareness comes close to the attention level of a automobile driving in complex traffic conditions.
Anyone who fails at that level does not drive for any length of time wihout killing others or himself.
A basic concept most people hold in relation to social responsibility is to act so that the least harm or injury is done to others by any action chosen. Involuntary actions are excluded here. No one pours rat poison into a punch bowl to see how many people react to it. Tik tokkers might do this kind of thing, though it simply proves them stupid and careless and comparable to any member of the Jackass cast.
So let us rule them out as purposeful retards. Back to the basic premise: individual life and social life are two levels of existence of modern man. On the first, man thinks and acts as if the only consequent to follow any action will fall on him alone. “no one was looking” so to speak. On the second, man considers his actions on a personal level and on a social level either simultaneously or reciprocally. Driving over the speed limit in complex traffic endangers the lives of other people. Getting into physical fight because someone cut in line in front of you endangers the safety of others around the altercation; furthermore, it causes a series of consequences that have the potential to make matters worse.
Think of Karens. The problems that arise for every Karen can be reduced if each of them simply keep quiet and complain to themselves. My brother is a master guru at this.
In the case of disease, infection, spread, and possible death from severe illness. Also, possible complications from other effects. First of all, it is hard to find good reason to get injected if one lives a life of solitude in deep Alaska. It is also just as hard to find good reason if one remains in solitude though living in a city. The key concept is contact frequency, keeping in mind that frequency of contact does not means transmission every time.
Then consider the possible outcomes for any person infected by transmission from you. The general assumption at the start was one person infected at least one other person. Data does not give us much more to work with. I attended a wedding in which one person had covid and infected no one out of 200 others in attendance. So shrug. So even if one person infects two others, the spread is not high at all. And of any number infected, it cannot be outright assumed that all contacts became ill and all subsequently died from the virus(not any other cause). So imagine one out of two become ill and suffer severe symptoms. Is this a factor for deep concern? For some yes; for others no. If one has to get out in the social strata for cheddar cheese that will pay the bills and feed the family, then what must be done will be done.
If others are vaccinated, then the onus of proof now rests on the accuser. General statistics show, even though numberds conflict depending on sources, that vaccinated persons get infected, carry the virus, and spread it others. Reports also suggest that shedding from the vaccine will also spread to others. So an unvaccinated person has only one of those two concerns to think about as a factor — vaccine shedding. Rate of infection, measured by positive test results does not equal the number of deaths. As much as media reports provide information that makes calculations impossible at times, death rate cannot be taken prima face, ever. I worked in a Mental Hospital environment for 11 months, tested daily, and had no experience of infection. My record for following protocols was about 50 per cent.
At this point, it seems that reasons for social consideration is minimal, unless one behaves like a complete asshole and walks around like Sylvester from Looney Tunes spitting on people every time something must be said. With the most gravid context set aside, the consideration which remains is perhaps the most important philosophically. In sum: does one have the right to refuse mandated vaccination? The question, in fact provides the answer. Every individual retains the right to exercise his or her power of volition — which means: the right to accept or deny anything be done to his or her physical or psychological being. Forgive the lack of eloquence in the selection of terms; I hope the meaning is clear.
At this stage of the thought experiment it comes to attention that two conditions must be reviewed for decision on each as a possible course of action. One can unequivocally say ‘no’ without providing a reason for the decision. For those who have grown up with siblings the rule for this is obvious. Any attempt to give a reason prolongs the dialogue that revolves like a circular argument. “Can I use your car to go across the country?” — No. “Why not?” Because I said No. “But that is not a reason.” I said No — that’s it! Psychotic patients are well known for this kind of argument. Without a court order, none of the staff have authority to force a patient to take medications. One refused his psych meds to the point of going out of his mind as manic symptoms increased. He broke his hip running around and riding a wheelchair as staff tried to apprehend him. Unfortunately his injury became the first step to sedantary lifestyle, which progressed to physical impairment and finally hospice care.
The power of volition is the power of free will, the act of attention selection — a fundamental feature of mind that connects cognition to perception and physcial action. A respect for this power must be demanded in the face of authoritarian desire to subdue it, diminish it, deny it. What use is liberty without the exercise of free will?
One the second course of action, which is a more or less head on strategy — and also requires far more skill in communication. The use involves reference to the policy of informed consent. Everyone injected by a medical person must give his or her consent otherwise both must simply agree to disagree. Without direct reasoning or due consideration — as is necessary for any contract agreement, this method falls into the first one quickly. The solution to avoiding that outcome requires specific questiions and definite answers that provide more and more information for the drawing of an intelligent conclusion — yes or no. If any relevent information cannot be articulated, then consent is withdrawn. The responsibility of informing for medical administration falls on the licensed staff, not the guilt of a conscientious person.
A further elaboration must be given here. I rarely see this reasoning but it is quite cogent in itself. When a medical staffer thinks about jabbing, he or she considers the statistical ratio and the span of minutes to lunch break. Let us simply say 65/100M. So to a staffer, the possible harm is almost non-existent. But life has a sense of humor that shocks everyone at times. The nurse may not be thinking about you or me; yet, I most definitely have my attention centered on the possibile adverse outcome of a medical procedure. Whether or not I survive an injection — which is proposed to save my life — is a supremely important factual outcome for me. me. Not the medical staffer. Some nurses have the attitude ‘bitch’ as some demonic spirit inside them that prevents any ‘human’ contact during their work. I do not need to elaborate here, right?
The effect of any medical administration has direct and indirect effect on my life no matter the statistical analysis and computer simulation results. IF, according to Objectivism, life is a supreme value — and my own life is the ultimate purpose of all that follows — rational thought, rational guide to ethical action, rational inferences for scientific generalizations, and rational problem-solving to succeed at work, and make profits/avoid losses — inter alia. The ethical responsibility for a rational man, who holds life a his highest value, and volition as a central power which makes it all possible, the rejection of mandatory compulsion must be paramount. I do not at this moment have the words to express the point any stronger. It is the act of an individual who can say ‘no’ without reasons; say ‘no’ after hearing the best reasons given; and say ‘no’ providing the most cogent reason of all.
The last point made it a necessity that I respond to your post. You had said no one constructed a persuasive argument. I hope this attempt qualifies as a logical strategy that changes your assessment.
In closing, my reasoning purposefully neglected the difference between government force v market force. I do not think it changes the root of my position explained from the personal and social perspectives. Should you have any comments, please submit them for further dialogue.

Be good and be well,

Robert T

    Trey Givens · September 26, 2021 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t think you’ve really addressed the core concerns of the discussion here, but I appreciate the input.

    Maybe you could get a blog of your own and write this up at length.

Comments are closed.