Monday, September 13, 2021

Arguing for vaccine mandates

Readers of this blog know Kyle and I took turns in 2020 dancing with reason on COVID-19. 

 

Recently, Todd Zywicki (George Mason University) and Aaron Kheriaty (University of California-Irvine) filed separate lawsuits  against their respective universities for not adequately recognizing naturally acquired COVID-19 immunity from prior infection in their vaccine mandates. 

 

Zywicki had a substantial win last month; Kheriaty has his first court date set for later this month.

 

One of the philosophical issues raised by their cases and their Twitter feeds (yes, Virginia, there is sometimes sanity on Twitter), might be put as follows: 

 

What are the best ways of understanding the arguments for a given vaccine mandate?

 

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Consider four distinct claims:

 

1.     It is morally permissible that you get the vaccine.

2.     It is morally required that you get the vaccine.

3.     It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.

4.     It is morally required for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.

 

Three quick observations:

 

First, these claims are phrased using “you” and “me” rather than A and B, Smith and Jones, state and citizen. If you think this is cheating (perhaps because it places you, dear reader, in the cross-hairs of a mandate from me), I invite you to adjust accordingly in what follows.

 

Second, these claims have interesting connections: arguably, 2-4 each assume 1, 4 assumes 3, and none of the earlier ones, taken separately or together, entail any of the later ones.

 

Third, a funny true story illustrates what I mean by a mandate.

 

During playground recess my first day of first grade, I watched wide-eyed and listened open-mouthed as two sixth grade bullies squared off to shout things I’d never heard before:

 

Bully 1 (Grog?): “Aw, shut up!”

Bully 2 (Goliath?): “You wanna come over here and make me?!”

 

So, that afternoon, I cautiously and curiously tried an innocent experiment in imitation:

 

Mom: “Honey, please bring your jacket over here to hang up.”

Me: “You…wanna…come…over…here…and…make…me?”

 

The next thing I remember from that day is me laying on my back in my top bunk, staring at my ceiling, thinking “I should never say that again…”

 

Point: mandates are attempts to “come over here and make me” do something; they may vary by context in countless ways while still being mandates. 

 

So even though “Joe Biden Is Not Our National Dad,” mandates can come from presidents or parents. 

 

And even when a University aspires to be a “family” in some sense, mandates from employers are typically different from mandates from family members. 

 

Or bullies.

 

*

 

So, then. Let’s consider two arguments for 3, starting with this one:

 

5.     If something is more likely than not to prevent future harm to you, then it is morally permissible for me to mandate that you do it. 

6.     You getting the vaccine is more likely than not to prevent future harm to you.

Therefore, 

(3) It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.

 

5 is a statement of a controversial view called “paternalism.”  Some actually seem to endorse it if you listen to them closely when they talk about COVID-19. But most realize 5 is appropriate for parent-child relations but not for adult relations. So a better defense of mandates rejects 5, and thus treats 6 as irrelevant. 

 

A different argument for 3 says this:

 

7.     If something is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others, then it is morally permissible for me to mandate that you do it.

8.     You getting the vaccine is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others.

Therefore, 

(3) It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get the vaccine.

 

8 is a locus of controversy, for the plaintiffs above and others today, because they argue that 8 is often simply false, especially when spoken to the millions who have already acquired and maintain a robust natural immunity to COVID-19 and its variants from prior COVID-19 infection. 

 

Even if 8 were able to be stated more carefully so that it quantified the likelihood of future harm prevention as “between high number H and low number L,” it is not clear that L would be both true and relevant to the argument.

 

It would of course be cleaner for the argument if our world had just two humans, one C19 vaccine, and one C19 virus. But our world has nearly eight billion humans, far more than the few C19 vaccines with an FDA Emergency Use Authorization (including the one with full FDA approval), and hundreds of C19 variants (e.g. the CDC uses today’s “Delta” as shorthand for what scientists label “B.1.617.2”).

 

7 is also a locus of controversy, and in ways that I think are worth inspecting.  When plaintiffs (Zywicki and Kheriaty) discuss studies showing 8 false for many, they also point out what is true for many:

 

9.     You getting natural immunity from the virus is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others.

 

And 9 would deliver a very different conclusion than (3) when combined with 7:

 

7.     If something is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others, then it is morally permissible for me to mandate that you do it.

(9)   You getting natural immunity from the virus is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others.

Therefore, 

(10) It is morally permissible for me to mandate that you get natural immunity from the virus.

 

Defendants in these cases might argue “we and plaintiffs agree on 7 being true, but we just disagree on 8.” But this would be mistaken. 

 

Plaintiffs deny 7, which explains why they reject an argument from 7 and 9 to 10. Plaintiffs have no interest in mandating that other people acquire natural immunity from getting infected.

 

This suggests defendants do not really believe 7 either. They are not about to argue from 7 and 9 to 10 for anyone.


 

Russell DiSilvestro

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

1 comment:

  1. Interesting breakdown, Russell. A few quick thoughts.

    a) It seems like we could qualify (7) with something like:

    (7*) "If something is more likely than not to prevent future harm to others, then it is morally permissible for me to mandate that you do it ***provided that doing it does not incur a substantial risk of substantial harm to you.***"

    Such a qualification would allow compulsory vaccinations to SARS-CoV2, but not compulsory exposure to SARS-CoV2, because the prior has an extremely low risk of substantial harm, while the later has a high risk of substantial harm. (This assumes we can come to agreement on what counts as 'substantial' in both cases, but I'll set that aside.)

    This wouldn't help the plaintiffs, but it seems like a reasonable qualification in its own right.

    b) Assuming your argument here holds, I think it vitiates the Plaintiffs' case. I don't see how anyone can reasonably reject (7), or at least some close variation thereof.

    Jessica Flannigan uses the analogy of shooting guns in the air to celebrate. The odds of any single person's bullet hitting another person is very small, but when enough people are firing their guns in the air together, the likelihood that someone will be hit is high. Ergo prohibiting people from firing guns in the air is justified on public health grounds. (And, she argues, the same logic justifies compulsory vaccinations.)

    In order to reject (7) (or some close variation thereof) I think the plaintiffs would have to bite the bullet (pun intended) on Flannigan's analogy; they'd have to say that prohibitions against firing guns in the air are unjustified. That seems grossly implausible on it's face.

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