I’ve written a few articles about vaccinations from the scientific point of view but felt it was time to turn my attention to the morality of the topic; both from the angle of if it is a moral obligation to be vaccinated, and the morality of forcing vaccinations on people.
What do we mean by moral?
As we discussed on ‘Does morality have a purpose?’ we could see the ultimate purpose of morality is human wellbeing & flourishing. Therefore, anything that enables this would be something moral, and anything that detracts from it would be immoral.
Do we have a moral obligation to be vaccinated?
Vaccinations, whilst mostly safe, are not completely risk-free. There are some adverse events and side effects (there is a difference) that people have reported. These are incredibly rare, most people without pre-existing conditions will not suffer them but there is a really small risk.
Honestly, vaccines are actually really safe, and if anyone gets a side effect it is usually a mild one like feeling under the weather for a few days. There is way more chance of a child dying or having a long term complication from the disease they are being vaccinated against from than their vaccination.
You can verify this for yourself at the WHO site: https://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/index4.html
That said, there’s probably more risk with your simple home appliances, and there is definitely more chance of dying by living your everyday life.
Lifetime odds of death for selected causes, United States, 2018
|Cause of Death||Odds of Dying|
|Heart disease||1 in 6|
|Cancer||1 in 7|
|All preventable causes of death||1 in 25|
|Chronic lower respiratory disease||1 in 26|
|Suicide||1 in 86|
|Opioid overdose||1 in 98|
|Motor-vehicle crash||1 in 106|
|Fall||1 in 111|
|Gun assault||1 in 298|
|Pedestrian incident||1 in 541|
|Motorcyclist||1 in 890|
|Drowning||1 in 1,121|
|Fire or smoke||1 in 1,399|
|Choking on food||1 in 2,618|
|Bicyclist||1 in 4,060|
|Sunstroke||1 in 7,770|
|Accidental gun discharge||1 in 9,077|
|Electrocution, radiation, extreme temperatures, and pressure||1 in 12,484|
Conclusion on Risk
- The risk of vaccination causing long term harm is incredibly low.
- The risk of complication from getting the disease is much higher.
- Vaccination reduces the risk of catching a disease and if you do catch them then you have a higher chance of fighting it off.
- The risk of living your life is much higher in general, so it’s probably safer to prevent unnecessary disease for yourself.
Morality of Being Vaccinated
If, as alluded to at the beginning, a moral behaviour is anything that enables human flourishing and wellbeing, then does getting vaccinated count as a moral behaviour?
The Benefits of being vaccinated
- Usually prevents one from getting the disease.
- If one still contracts the disease, the body knows how to fight it off (higher chance of recovery).
- Protects others who are immunocompromised and cannot be vaccinated.
- Herd immunity, which with enough people vaccinated could lead to the disease effectively being wiped out.
So we protect ourselves and others, with the added benefit we eventually might even wipe out the disease so it is no longer a problem. Sounds to me that would enable flourishing. In fact, it sounds like the benefits massively outweigh the risk.
So what about the risk of not getting vaccinated?
The Risks of not getting vaccinated
- Higher chance of getting a disease.
- Higher chance of complications from a disease.
- If enough people don’t get vaccinated, this causes issues with herd immunity.
It varies on how infectious the disease is but usually around 90-95% of people need to be vaccinated for herd immunity to work.
- If herd immunity drops it can cause an outbreak, or even a resurgence of a disease.
- It also puts immunocompromised people at risk.
- With hosts, viruses can mutate and reduce the efficacy of vaccines.
So on a risk/benefit analysis, the risk of not getting vaccinated is higher than the risk of getting vaccinated, and not just to you but other people too.
Conclusion of the Morality of being vaccinated
- It is moral to get vaccinated. It not only protects you but others as well.
- Refusing to get vaccinated, unless there is a medical reason not to be, is immoral.
- Thus, we have a duty, or moral obligation, to get vaccinated.
So, Should Governments Force Vaccinations?
This is trickier than people might think.
It might seem like a simple, “Yes, it would be of benefit to people!” but it is far more complicated than that.
I’ve often thought about this topic, and there have been times I have argued for forced vaccinations or segregation of the anti-vax folk from the rest of society, but I think I was somewhat wrong in my thoughts.
Whilst I do believe we have a moral responsibility, I am not sure we should have a legal one. With reports last year of both vaccinated numbers dropping, and the potential children would be banned from school if not vaccinated in the UK: https://metro.co.uk/2019/04/26/children-banned-school-arent-vaccinated-9321592/ and reports this year that it is still happening with all sorts of conspiracies about vaccines, not to mention that COVID will never go away if anti-vaxxers have their way: https://metro.co.uk/2020/06/09/coronavirus-might-derail-anti-vaxxer-movement-forever-12745269/ I thought it worth discussing why even though I feel everyone has a moral responsibility to be vaccinated, I don’t think it should become law.
Bodily Autonomy & The Slippery Slope
The key issue here is bodily autonomy. Do we have the right to invade someone else’s body? This is a human rights issue. Do humans have the right to body autonomy?
I understand that it poses little risk, and offers great benefits, but what sort of precedent does that set?
Our governments are known to take something like this and run with it. It might seem like a slippery slope, but that doesn’t always make it a fallacy. Like I explained in ‘Is that Really a fallacy’
If I let my kids choose what they eat, they will likely choose sweets and junk food, this will potentially lead to weight gain, obesity, and maybe even rotten teeth.
The point here is, there are things that are genuine slippery slopes. If we can back up our claims with some form of evidence, we can say that this is the most likely thing to happen but also be aware it might not.
With the example above, most kids would probably choose sweets and junk food overeating a nice balanced diet, but not all of them.‘Is that Really a fallacy’
The same can be said for a government. Give them a reason to invade our bodily autonomy and they will eventually find some other reason to do it. At the start it might all be done under the guise of ‘benefit for peoples health’ but eventually it might not.
Therefore, I do not think we should force vaccinations on to people.
What’s more, we spend so much time fighting for bodily autonomy, especially for women, I think that we are somewhat contradicting ourselves by saying people don’t have that right when it comes to vaccinations.
Whilst we can encourage those to get vaccinated and provide them with clear concise and factual information on the topic, we can’t be guilty of doing what we suggest others are trying to do.
That said, I do think they are invading others bodily autonomy by not getting vaccinated, at least in an indirect way.
They are choosing to allow preventable diseases to multiply, mutate and be passed on. The mutation reduces the efficacy of the vaccines.
It could cause a pandemic.
So what of segregation?
I think this one is a more realistic option, but again not really that feasible. It would be unfair to uproot an entire family, would it not? Yes, they are not fulfilling their moral obligations, but do two wrongs make a right?
If we think about it on a more local scale, is it fair to children to be told they are not allowed to go to school if they are not vaccinated? It is not their fault their parents are misguided. But equally it is not fair to everyone else if we do allow some kids to go unvaccinated either.
It is tough, but it could be an argument for home/online schooling. This does mean the kids might miss out on socialising, which can be a very important part of their development. Again, it is not their fault their parents are so misguided. Also, if allowed to be home-schooled by their parents and their anti-science pro-disease agenda, are we not going to breed another generation of misguided folks?
Is it child abuse?
Indirectly, I could see this being an argument and could understand why folks might assume parents are not doing their duty of care to their children. But again, we have to understand from the parent’s point of view here. They may be wrong, but what they are doing is out of love and the want to protect their kids.
It is what makes this situation so tough. Anti-vaxxers, at least the ones not trying to sell you something, are generally good people looking to do the best for their kids.
As parents, we all make mistakes. With each child, we (hopefully) learn from the mistakes, and make new ones with the next. Some of our mistakes endanger our kids.
If every mistake was judged so harshly, no parents would be able to bring up their kids.
So, is this mistake abuse? Not really. Not in the same way say faith healing instead of chemotherapy is child abuse.
It is dangerous though and does need some way of being corrected, but I am at a loss for what the best course of action is.
What about Potential Punishments?
In the same way that we might not punish someone until they have robbed an item, even though we might suspect they will, or even in the instance of an accidental crime where serious harm has been caused, we convict after the fact, it might be worth having a similar thing for the antivaxxers.
Yes, they are engaging in potentially dangerous behaviour, but they haven’t actually done any harm yet. People should be guided away from potentially dangerous behaviours, but without consequence many ignore them.
As such, instead of a legal obligation to go with the moral obligation we have discussed, a legal repercussion in the instance of harm being caused is necessary. That is it say, if someone refuses to get vaccinated, or denies their children vaccines, we do not force them at this stage. Instead, we see if anything happens in the area. If they are an outbreak, or mutation in a particular area causing a more virulent strain, all the anti-vaxxers in the area are responsible for the harm caused by their dangerous behaviour.
Another angle could be, punishing those who are trying to sell you something. All those folks peddling crystal healing, homoeopathy and other things that have been proven not to work consistently, ought to be held accountable for their misinformation.
In both instances, it is hard to know exactly what the punishment should be. Perhaps picking up the medical bills and some community service on hospital wards where folks are dying from preventable diseases.
- We have a moral obligation to be vaccinated.
- This should not be enforced by law, as that would also be immoral.
- If the irresponsible behaviours of an anti-vaxxer end up causing harm, they might deserve some form of punishment.
It is a really difficult topic with no good answers past making sure everyone has a good science education. Please take some time to read the science in regards to vaccinations rather than the scaremongering and fringe cases you might see claimed.