In this essay I aim to:
- Outline the case for government mandated vaccinations or inoculations
- Explain how these are different to quarantines
- Explain where mandatory vaccination departs from the Objectivist ethics
The Case for Mandatory Vaccination
I believe that the cases for mandatory vaccination can be classified in two ways:
- Protecting Individuals from Themselves:
This, the less convincing of the two arguments, is the standard argument that there is a clear best path for individuals and the state may force them to take it. This is similar to how the state bans you from taking many drugs, discourages you from smoking, legislates away the ability to use trans-fats in food, etc.
Individuals, left to their own devices, will do dumb things (such as refusing the MRI vaccine because of a fabricated link to autism) and the state needs to control their actions to make sure they don’t get themselves killed.
- Protecting Individuals from Each Other:
This form of the argument appears to be similar to the argument for quarantine: infected individuals are a threat to uninfected individuals, vaccination removes this threat.
A form of this argument is herd immunity theory: By cutting off potential paths of infection (other individuals), we make it far more likely that uninfected (but susceptible) individuals will never encounter the infection. When there are very few nodes in the graph of the population (susceptible individuals) it becomes very difficult for the virus to spread among those susceptible people.
Therefore, the state may regulate the actions of some to protect others.
Mandatory Vaccination vs Quarantine
The essential difference between mandatory vaccination and quarantine is that of the potential and the actual. A quarantine is a response to an actual threat, a vaccination is a preemptive action taken to reduce risk. There is no doubt that vaccination is a fantastic tool in the fight for human life, there is no question that the ability to eradicate disease from the planet is brilliant – yet the essence is not changed by the utility, vaccination is a response to the potential. A vaccine is not a cure for an infection, it is a safeguard against a particular infection.
The Objectivist Ethics
Rights, according to Ayn Rand, are the social principles necessary for the individual to live his life. As explained in my previous analysis of quarantine, the state may act only to stop individuals from initiating force upon one another.
This is why the state is justified in using quarantine: to walk down the street emitting disease that will hurt other people is the same as walking down the street emitting bullets – it is a direct threat to the lives of others. This is why the government may force somebody to remain in quarantine until they are no longer a threat, to contain the force that the infected are deploying in risking the lives of other people.
Recall that the difference between vaccination is that of the potential vs the actual. A vaccination is a response to a potential threat, rather than an actual threat or actual instance of force. There are many potential threats, some more serious than disease, for example:
- Sleepwalkers may stab somebody if they leave knives by their beds
- Alcoholics are more likely to be violent towards their families
- Men are more likely to commit rape, or child molestation, than are women
- People might fight each other if left unsupervised
However, these do not give the state authority to act. The state cannot lock up sleepwalkers, it can only hold them accountable if they do something negligent (leaving a knife in reach when they know this could be dangerous given their condition.) It should not lock up alcoholics or force them into therapy simply because they are alcoholics, only once they have harmed another person. The state should not treat men as potential rapists and send them on sensitivity training courses or enforce routine castration or tracking devices. It cannot set up a police state apparatus because human beings have the potential to fight, it can only intervene if they actually do fight, or threaten each other.
The risk posed here is that the individual has a future potential of becoming infected. He has initiated no force, and we have no evidence that he represents an actual threat of force (rather than a potential threat). Being a human being is not an initiation of force.
Ayn Rand uses this example to explain the illegitimacy of abortion bans. One cannot treat a foetus as an “unborn human”, just as he cannot treat man as an “undead corpse” – the potential of an entity to become another type of identity does not make up the essence of its identity. A man cannot be seen as an “uninfected disease carrier”: he only has the potential to become infected. Note that if this was an acceptable standard, it would be morally legitimate to quarantine all human beings as potential disease carriers, and the question of “ought” would be a question of mere efficiency. Similarly, the state would be able to imprison any number of human beings as “potential criminals”, and again the question of ought would become a counting game. This is a short sighted, pragmatic approach to rights which would not allow individuals to flourish, and would be morally monstrous for those “potential criminals” who did not plan to commit any crime. These two actions (imprisonment and forced vaccination) differ only in the degree to which they impair an individuals autonomy, they are conceptually comparable.
The initiation of force is the sole justification for the intervention of the state, the state ought never to be motivated by the general welfare of the population. Since man has the right to act however he chooses, rationally or irrationally, providing he does not actually constitute a threat to the rights of others, then the state should not be permitted to intervene in his decisions. The decision to remane unvaccinated, absolutely irrespective of any range-of-the-moment calculation of utility, ought to be a legally legitimate option.
Furthermore, before the state acts it must have evidence. It cannot quarantine an individual on hearsay, it must establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that there is a case to gain warrants and to take action. What is the standard of evidence for forcing a potentially infected person? That they have a non-omnipotent immune system?
The argument of herd immunity also does not stand up to the test of the Objectivist ethics. Although it is true that more immune individuals reduces the chance of spreading the disease to the susceptible, this is not a sufficient argument for mandatory vaccination:
- The overall maximum utility, long term, is reached by respecting individual rights. One can never sacrifice individual rights (which means, sacrifice individuals) for the benefit of the herd. Doing so is morally indefensible, and will not produce the greatest long term good. This is the essence of ethical egoism.
- Despite the wider social benefits caused by your individual decision, the actual result caused by vaccination is the immunity of the individual. We can compare this to peanut allergies: Some people are severely allergic to peanuts, so severe is their allergy that peanuts literally represent an immediate life or death situation for them. This is not, however, a case for banning peanuts. If one is susceptible to infection, even if this is due to a medical condition that prevents them from obtaining a vaccination, it is a dangerous thing. It is not, however, an excuse to exercise force against the rest of the population. An allergy sufferer must take great precautions to ensure they do not come into contact with their allergen, they cannot insist that the state bans peanuts, laundry powder, pollen, milk, and dust. Similarly, the susceptible cannot ban unvaccinated humans. Indeed, the case for choice in vaccination is even stronger, since the susceptible are not threatened by all unvaccinated humans, only the infected ones (which may be properly quarantined anyway.)
- The difference between vaccination and quarantine is that quarantine is a response to an actual threat, whereas vaccination is a response to a potential threat
- This is critical in determining the role of the state: The state can never use a mere potential threat as a justification for using force: such a standard would condemn all humans as potential murderers and potential disease carriers. This is reflected in the state’s requirement to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that a threat is real before restricting the autonomy of a citizen.
- Arguments for utility are not relevant: the Objectivist ethics is an attempt to define the principles which are requirement for individuals to live their lives. These represent the long term good, and cannot be sacrificed for social loot in the short term.