September 15, 2021

About a vaccine mandate argument: Fallible thoughts from an old and tired (and retired) philosopher


About a vaccine mandate argument: Fallible thoughts from an old and tired (and retired) philosopher

By Hendrik van der Breggen

September 15, 2021


Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden defended his Covid19 vaccine mandate with this statement: “The unvaccinated overcrowd our hospitals, they’re overrunning emergency rooms and intensive care units, leaving no room for someone with a heart attack or pancreatitis or cancer.” 

In Canada, the argument is similar and oft-heard: We should require vaccinations because our hospitals and ICUs are being overwhelmed (primarily by the unvaccinated), causing those who need treatment for other medical issues to be neglected. 

In other words, the unvaccinated are causing grave danger to others by using scarce medical resources, so we should require—mandate—Covid19 vaccines.  Or else. 

Or so the argument goes. 

I find this argument puzzling. 

First, two clarifications. 

(1) As the #MeToo movement has made clear, an unwanted touch is a serious infringement on bodily autonomy and freedom. By implication, it seems to me, so too is an unwanted injection (and perhaps even an unwanted swab pushed deep—really deep—up one’s nose). 

(2) Coercion includes, among other things, the threat or duress of possible job loss. Such threats may be presented benignly as an “option.” Or as a “reasonable” encroachment of Charter rights in times of a pandemic.

Okay, let’s think. 

A piece of the puzzle that seems to go unnoticed in the above argument has to do with the apparently static health care resources that are, we are told, being stretched to their limits in our war against Covid. 

I don’t doubt the resources are being stretched. But it’s the oft-assumed static part that I find problematic. 

It’s odd to me that in our war against Covid—an ongoing war—we continue with “peacetime” health care resources. It seems to me that we (as a society) should re-direct resources to the war effort in a huge and unprecedented way. 

It also seems to me that we should not quash precious hard-won freedoms paid for in other wars by the blood of our forebears and guaranteed by Canada’s Charter (or the U.S. Constitution). Indeed, if we take Canada’s Charter seriously, such quashing could be illegal, and, if we take #MeToo seriously, immoral. 

So instead of possibly infringing on bodily autonomy and freedom by embracing coerced vaccine injections (and coerced eye-watering, bodily invasive nasal swabs) maybe we should first be making huge efforts to increase significantly our health care resources. Efforts to pursue the latter should be exhausted before we embrace the former. 

In other serious health matters—and there are many—we ensure health care is available, though we advise (i.e., persuade with reason, not coercion) that people choose not to engage in behaviours with high health risks. 

I’m thinking of the health concerns arising from obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, excess alcohol drinking, not taking prescribed medicines, diabetics who don’t manage diet properly, cervical cancer patients who didn’t get Pap smears, etc. 

Our health care system is there for them, thank goodness. And we don’t coerce them to change their behaviours by taking away their jobs. Rather, we persuade with reason. 

We don’t coerce, yet we care. Basic healthcare is a human right, after all, for all. 

So why treat differently a minority of generally good and decent citizens (included are some of my family members and friends, some with PhDs) who have serious and perhaps legitimate concerns about Covid vaccines and thus haven’t yet chosen to be vaccinated? Why take the coercive authoritarian route via vaccine mandate? 

Indeed, won’t taking the coercive authoritarian route make those who are vaccine hesitant even more hesitant? 

Reasonable persuasion, not coercion, would seem to be the way forward. The fact is that intelligent people of good will have different thresholds for being reasonably persuaded. A free and open society, it seems to me, should recognize this. 

Also in a free and open society, differences of view and debates should be encouraged to flourish, so if a view is correct then knowing that it’s correct will help the rest of us, and if it’s incorrect then that knowledge will also help the rest of us. (I’m pretty sure I’m following philosopher John Stuart Mill on this matter; see his 1859 essay “On Liberty.”) 

If we allow debates and open inquiry to flourish, then truth instead of mere power will prevail—and, as a bonus, conspiracy theories will tend to die off instead of get reinforced. 

At this juncture, one might object that, unlike those suffering from obesity and unlike others who engage in high risk health behaviours, the unvaxxed may spread Covid19. 

In reply, it helps to keep in mind that it’s the unvaxxed (mostly older folks, or persons with chronic medical conditions, or those with compromised immune systems) who are primarily at risk. And it’s their choice not to be vaxxed, so it’s their risk. 

Moreover, the vaxxednearly 80% of Canadians aged 12+ are fully vaccinated—are not at risk, or at least not at as great a risk. And they might transmit Covid, too. 

Think of it this way. For me to be concerned for intelligent adults to such an extent that they must give up their consent and human agency concerning what happens to them because of my concern for them—this seems to undermine my concern for them. It strikes me as a case of me being, well, a wee bit bossy. Maybe even imperialistic. 

Also, one might object: Aren’t the unvaxxed selfish? In my experience the answer is no. The majority of the unvaxxed whom I know are concerned not just for themselves but for all of us. They continue to have questions that are relevant not only to themselves but also to others. Some of their questions are fueled by past abuses of science: Remember thalidomide (a drug touted as safe for pregnant women but resulted in severe birth defects in thousands of children)? Remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (which violated the basic ethical principle of respect for autonomy of African Americans and harmed them by not treating their syphilis)? 

And the unvaxxed I know are vigilant about our—not just their—freedoms. And they are willing to risk not only their own health (think of nurses who work with Covid patients but refuse vaccination) but also marginalization and vilification from the larger community. This doesn’t sound selfish to me. 

It’s important, then, to pause before we unleash the might of government coercion onto the unvaxxed minority, a minority of our fellow citizens, of whom some are our family, friends, and neighbours. 

To me, the coercive authoritarian route seems unfair, discriminatory, and illegal. (I think it’s illegal because it’s an infringement of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, since plausible avenues and efforts to attain the Charter’s “reasonable limits” in Section 1 which justify violations of bodily autonomy/ security of the person guaranteed in Section 7 have not yet been exhausted; more on this below.) 

As one of my history professor friends tells me, the coercive authoritarian route historically has had very serious health risks and danger, too, and on a massive societal scale. And this is especially so, when, paradoxically, it is justified in terms of citizens’ safety and good. 

C. S. Lewis warns: “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity [greed, avarice] may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” 

So to ensure that seriously ill people do not die—especially those needing cancer treatments, surgeries, and such—let’s significantly and rapidly increase (double? triple?) our health care resources. 


For starters, Canadians could—and should—demand governments cut frivolous spending. 

I’m thinking we should cut wasteful tax spending on things like the following: giant boat-sized yellow rubber ducks, our prime minister’s $1.6 million family trip to India (complete with personal celebrity chef), our federal government’s $8.1 million temporary hockey rink in front of Ottawa’s parliament buildings (on which only relatively few skated), etc. 

And what about the $610 million waste—Rex Murphy correctly calls it a sham—of calling a federal election during a pandemic? 

And maybe we could say yes to some pipelines that would generate huge revenues and increase tax-dollar funding of our hospitals and ICUs? 

Surely, we all should first be championing the redirection of large amounts of tax money to super-fund our hospitals. That would be a reasonable third alternative to the false dichotomy of either (a) coercive vaccination or (b) people dying needlessly because of a shortage of medical resources. 

It would also put a check on government overreach. 


Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who is double vaccinated, is inclined to think vaccinations are wise (especially if one has a high-risk profile for Covid19), but probably wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated if he were mandated to do so by government (because he has studied history as well as philosophy). Van der Breggen thinks the vaccine mandate issue not only is a puzzle with difficult parts to piece together but also a puzzle with moving parts. His mind isn’t as clear as it used to be, yet he’s pretty sure he sees darkness on the horizon.

For additional thought: 

Patricia Janzen Loewen, “Covid vaccine mandates: Reflections from a Canadian historian”

James Bryson,  “A Liberal Does of Compulsory Confusion


BWK said...

You're the best professor! God Bless. - Bryce

Climenheise said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Hendrik, and for Patricia's blog (which follows this one). They lead me to a question.

When my parents went to Africa (Zimbabwe and then Zambia) in 1946, they had to get certain shots as a condition of entering the countries they were sent to. These included small pox, typhoid, and yellow fever vaccinations. My father has described in some detail the difficulties of getting all the necessary shots, but his descriptions include no sense that government overreach or oppression was in play.

In 1988, Lois and I went to Zambia and Zimbabwe with our sons. Again, I remember yellow fever shots and proof of freedom from tuberculosis (like a negative Covid test, but demonstrated by an X-ray) as being required. Again, I had no sense of government overreach or oppression. The governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe required such things, and we accepted them as the cost of travelling to these countries and living there.

I accept readily that we are having (and should continue to have) a national conversation about the efficacy of the Covid vaccines. I accept also that vaccine hesitancy is not proof of some sort of moral or intellectual deficit. But my question is why it seems to us that requiring the vaccine for certain activities equals government overreach or oppression.

My own position is that the government official tasked with making these decisions are for the most part acting in good faith. I think that has been true in Australia (where restrictions have been much harsher than here), and I think that has been true for our own provincial governments. Whether they have chosen to remain as open as possible or to close almost everything down, I don't question their intent or motives. (This rosy picture does not, in my own estimation, apply where some US governors have criminalized efforts to fight the virus. Such actions are partisan in the extreme, but that's another discussion.)

For the most part, I am inclined to do as my government (in our case, the government of Manitoba) says. The objections you raise are well worth considering. They should be part of our ongoing national conversation. But I don't see that requiring vaccinations for working in our province is an act of oppression. It may be the right choice or not, but such requirements have been part of life as long as I've been around. It wasn't seen as oppression then, so why now?

P.S. By the way, the nose swab is much less invasive now! They no longer try to touch your brain through the nose!
P.P.S: Thank you for your relatively clear and fair presentation of the case. I appreciate your ability to make a case without calling names.

gloria said...

I believe a lot of mistrust of us “antivaxxers” is due to the fact that these shots are not the traditional vaccinations as the one you are speaking of. They are experimental and we sign papers before receiving the vaccination acknowledging this. As for the invasive testing. .. in our area they are denying the less invasive ones and insisting on the former. That itself causes lack of faith in our system Monetary gain? ?? Or humanitarianism??

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Daryl (a.k.a. Climenheise).

You point to vaccines and tests that you and your family have had in the past to get into other countries (I have had some of those, too), and you say they weren’t “seen as oppression then, so why now?” And you write: “I don't see that requiring vaccinations for working in our province is an act of oppression.”

It may help to keep in mind that the present vaccine mandate discussion isn’t so much about travelling to other countries, but mostly about being able to work in one’s own country (a country governed by a Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Today our government is requiring—mandating—vaccinations for its citizens (and not just for the high risk or vulnerable citizens).

I would add that in the old days there was greater trust in medical and scientific authority (and less doubt about knowledge of truth in general). Today, a lot of that trust has been eroded (some for good reason, some for not).

But I think my best response to you is to point you back to my article—which I hereby do.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

For additional thought, see Patrick Franklin’s recent blog article, Why I Don’t Support Mandatory Vaccines (in most cases).