By: Sid Spahn
As vaccines have become readily available, many people and organizations want mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for all Americans. Many other Americans reject this idea, saying it’s unethical, an obstruction of personal liberties and a violation of religious freedom. It can be argued that the risk of harming others justifies limits on personal freedoms.
But what makes any mandate ethical?
To answer this question we must consider liberty and the ethical concept of autonomy in our society. In the US, liberty and autonomy is considered to be part of the root of our democracy; but these have been limited on multiple occasions, especially when considering the impact on others.
While we have the right to our personal autonomy and choices, when those choices affect other people there are consequences. Driving under the influence, smoking in a plane, and yelling “Fire!” in a theater are all instances where your liberty is limited and there are consequences. The impact of your actions on the people around you impinges on their liberty. Their freedom to not breathe in second-hand smoke, not to crash because of your reckless driving, and not to be trampled in a crowd of panicked people.
This limiting of personal freedom is widely accepted as ethical in both secular and religious worldviews and traditions including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. In fact, the responsibility of helping those who are more vulnerable is a core value of many religions. One non-religious belief directly asks for individual people to accept limited liberties to protect the safety and well being of others in their community: democracy.
In a democracy, people and their elected representatives are explicitly authorized to limit personal freedoms. In the United States, the government has a responsibility to create conditions where people can be as healthy as possible. To fulfill this responsibility, they have to assess health status and needs, have policy development and assure that necessary services are provided so that every resident in every community has access to public health protections.
But how do we know that a mandate falls under those health protections? How will one unvaccinated person cause harm to other people? Nearly all people come in contact and interact with others on a daily basis. An unvaccinated person with the original COVID-19 strain can infect 2.5 other people. In the same environment, an unvaccinated person with the Delta strain can spread to 3.5-4 other people before even showing symptoms.
While doing things like social distancing, regularly washing your hands, and wearing a mask does help slow the spread, it is not a long-term strategy. Only herd-immunity from vaccines can stop COVID from continuing to be a pandemic level threat. Unfortunately, public debate, education, encouragement, and incentivization has not been enough to get enough people vaccinated to reach the point of herd immunity.
When outbreaks are ongoing, coercion from mandates is ethically justified. While this doesn’t mean strapping people down and jabbing them with a needle against their will, there should still be consequences. The choice not to be vaccinated is still there, but not without the risk of losing your job, not enrolling in school, or not being allowed in a public event.
This is coercion. But coercive mandates are justified when the only other option is to continue with a pandemic-level threat where people get infected and die every day.