Why I’m Pro-Vaccine but Anti-Mandate

When it comes to the covid jabs, I am pro-vaccine but anti-mandate. 

I am, broadly speaking, in favour of the covid vaccines. Getting the jab is, on balance, a wise course of action. This is especially true for those over 50 and those of all ages who are clinically vulnerable. But it might also extend to those aged 20 and over who have no underlying health conditions. With the roll out of the vaccine in the UK, we have seen the reduction of deaths and hospitalisations and so the risk of serious symptoms has been mitigated. Conversely, I find it generally irresponsible not to be vaccinated, though I would want to reserve that opinion on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, at the moment I’d view the goal of as getting as many folks as possible vaccinated against covid to be a good outcome because it is the most effective measure for allowing life to continue while also reducing (of course, never eliminating) fatalities and associated health risks. 

But I must part ways from the extreme voices on the pro-vaccine side who are calling for the vaccine mandate, i.e. for citizens to be forced to be jabbed. Many are comfortable with the state using a variety of measures to compel its citizens to get vaccinated. What appear to be authoritarian measures are, on this view, justified if the goal of vaccinating more people is achieved. I am extremely worried about the measures being used across Europe to compel citizens to be vaccinated. At the time of writing, such measures include lockdowns for the unvaccinated across countries in Europe, the threat of fines and imprisonment in Austria, internment camps in Australia, and segregated areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated in Germany. My central disagreement with the pro-vaccine camp is with the means of getting to that goal of increasing vaccination. 

I dissent from the mandate position on three grounds: first, on the basis of the fact that it is deeply counter-productive to the intended goal; second on the basis of liberty and opposition to authoritarianism; and third on the basis of the precedent that is being set for coercive state action moving forward. 

First, I am not sure that such coercive methods work practically (i.e. bring about the intended outcome of increasing the numbers of those vaccinated). To be sure, there will be some who, having been on the fence, will take the vaccine to avoid the various limits on personal freedom (this appears to be the case in France over the Summer, for instance). And yet, as time goes on, coercive measures easily turn those who might be persuaded—or indeed those who might never be persuaded—against the intended goal precisely by playing into the fears of those who are, at best, cynical about state intervention. This can lead and is leading to deepening divisions. Moreover, it has been shown that vaccines do not successfully prevent transmission. Therefore, one can also be infected by someone who has been vaccinated, and not only by someone who has not been vaccinated. So before we even get to its moral dubiousness, coercive measures don’t promise to bring about the intended aims. In many ways, they work against them.

Second, I am not comfortable with the vaccine mandate position on the grounds of liberty. A concern with liberty is not the same as libertarianism, which should not be used as a bogeyman to dismiss such concerns. Libertarianism reduces all decisions to the criterion of whether my personal freedom is maximised. I have advocated in these pages for a position that sees liberty rightly ordered by other values and circumstances (in fact, if we’re honest, our liberty is constrained in all sorts of ways from the very outset of life, in spite of our attempts to persuade ourselves otherwise). Protecting civil liberties should be part of the conversation around public health, if such a conversation is to be truly “public”. But I fear that this concern is being dismissed all too easily. In the UK, at least, we seem to be returning to those fruitless attempts to pit “protecting lives” against “protecting businesses” that broke out at the beginning of the pandemic. The reality is that safety from covid must be balanced against a whole variety of other concerns, including different types of safety (from cancer or heart disease, for instance) as well concerns for personal liberty. 

Third, I am frightened by the precedent we are setting for state action in other spheres. In fact, I think attempts to compel vaccination lead to some dark places. For the sake of argument, we might agree with “nudge” and strong-arm tactics today, but imagine that these strategies are put to an end that isn’t so valiant or virtuous (and here we are not even touching on the issue of who gets to decide what is or isn’t virtuous and our capacity to be self-deceived on this matter…). Isn’t it better to forswear such strong-arm tactics and aim at the goal of persuasion through robust and honest debate?

Here we must raise the subtle shift away from debate that has been taking place over the last decade or so. The nudge tactics that are being used to not so subtly compel citizens to get the vaccine are often imposed in an anti-democratic manner, while maintaining a veneer of popular support. Such government action grasps at our baser motives of fear, which operate under the hood of our cognitive processes at a pre-rational level. It is debatable whether such appeals, and attempts to coerce and nudge these “affections” ever have a place in public decision-making—Alistair MacIntyre argues that they do. I am not convinced and perhaps would even go so far as to say that such attempts are tantamount to an abuse of power.

It’s hard to argue with the evidence that shows that these “baser” motives are the hidden control centre of our decision-making process. An important part of becoming a moral person, virtue theory teaches us, is to undergo the process of training these instincts through habit for good. Rational actor theory, the theory which says that we simply make rational calculations to come to the most rational conclusions, has been shown to be reductionistic. But there must also be a place for rationality and logic in public decision-making, including the process of making decision about public-health. This is not a zero-sum game between instinct and rationality. Jonathan Haidt, who famously describes the relationship between rationality and instinct as a rider (reason) riding an elephant (affect), rightly never calls for the rider to climb off the elephant and leave the animal to its own devices. We should not throw out the baby—indeed the whole family—of reason, with the bathwater of rational actor theory. 

We are in real danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the public are treated as incompetent idiots through a bombardment of media messaging, public health announcements, press briefings and advertisements, all of which have the undesirable effect of dumbing down the public conversation and making the public appear ever more incompetent. I firmly believe such attempts must be resisted. If the government will not appeal to our reason, then it is up to the citizens to discuss and debate among themselves, acknowledge our baser motives and seek to let the truth out through exercising our powers of reason, as limited as they are. 

So, in summary, I broadly agree on the goal of the pro-vaccine lobby (increasing safety from the virus via getting more people vaccinated), but I strongly disagree on the means of getting to that goal. I’m not sure that the ends, however noble, ever justify authoritarian means. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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