Should personal freedom apply to vaccines; or should the greater good take priority? Is it more complex than this?
It's probably one of the most interesting questions not only in the area of vaccine hesitancy, but in moral philosophy more broadly. Personal freedom. What is it, exactly? How do you apply it? Why is it so important to us? How does it apply to vaccines? Are there reasons why personal freedom doesn`t apply to vaccines? Finally, how can we leverage this knowledge to address vaccine hesitancy? I`m going to look at these interesting questions in this blog post.
In the most basic terms, freedom means having the ability to do whatever you wish. You can manage your time, decisions, and by extension, your life (within reason, of course). So, we all intuitively have a sense of what freedom is, and know that it is good. In the course of everyday life, that intuitive understanding is sufficient. We can go about our day, doing what we want etc. There's no real need to think much more deeply about it.
However, when you're talking about more complex issues like vaccine hesitancy, or when people feel their freedom is restricted, there is a lot of emotion. So, before delving into vaccine hesitancy specifically, it helps to analyze freedom more deeply.
You`ll notice that there's a common denominator to all the things freedom allows us to manage. This can be summarised in a single word.
We like to have control over our lives (or at least,we like to think we do). That's the real overarching theme. I`ve said this many times before, but it's so important that it's worth repeating again. Lack of control and fear of the unknown are among our biggest fears as humans. Few realities distress people more than these.
There are many variables that dictate the outcome of our lives. Many are out of our control; and there are even more we`re not even aware of. That reality is a difficult one to even acknowledge, let alone come to terms with. In terms of vaccines; although adverse reactions are extremely rare, we can`t predict who will have one. Nor can we control it.
Though we don`t actively think about it too often, we apply personal freedom in almost every moment of our lives. What will I wear today? What will I eat?Where will I go today? The list goes on and on. However, there are cases where decisions can have a much bigger impact on our lives, either positive or negative. So, these decisions are less passive. For instance; what career should I choose? Should I move to that city? Should I take that new job? Maybe I ought to return to education?
It`s during these more significant decisions that we become much more aware of the responsibility and thus the stress that personal freedom brings. Someone I really respect once told me that where there is responsibility, there is inevitably going to be stress. Nobody has more responsibility for your life than you.
So of course life is stressful, and the decisions we make throughout life are stressful.
However, what about when “personal” choices aren`t so personal anymore? What about when they do affect other people? Not just strangers, but possibly members of our family, friends, and our community. Is it accurate to define choices as “personal” when this is the case? Why? This is where the decision whether or not to vaccinate gets complex depending on the location, time, and vaccine in question.
Does personal responsibility really apply to vaccines?
An argument againt vaccination (and against many public health behaviours is that they restrict personal freedom, and that individual choice is overruled. This is a particular issue when discussing vaccine mandates.
However, there is an issue I have with this.
“Personal”, by definition, only refers to an individual, as opposed to a group or community. This doesn`t apply to vaccination, as a core principle of vaccination is that it protects many others through herd immunity. This is a pillar of not only vaccination, but of Microbiology and Immunology more broadly.. For that reason,it could be said that the “personal freedom” argument against vaccination is a strawman fallacy, because it misrepresents such an important tenet of vaccination.
Let's apply this in a more practical way. Take someone who is on medication; maybe it's blood pressure medication for instance. In theory, they`re free to stop taking it at any time. Nobody is going to stop them, right? The consequences of not taking it are going to affect them and only them. Nobody else is going to become ill , hospitalised or die because of this. In my opinion, in this case it's a personal choice. So, here the personal freedom, my-body-my-choice arguments would absolutely apply.
Here's the distinction between this and vaccines. If you don`t vaccinate, other people can and do become ill. Not only ill, but severely so. So not vaccinating can severely affect other people, and on a large scale too. If you don`t want to vaccinate, but your immunocompromised colleague with multiple other conditions needs you to. This doesn`t fit the description of what “personal” actually means.
How can we leverage this knowledge to address vaccine hesitancy?
That said, we still need to to maintain a sense of autonomy over all the decisions we make; especially important medical ones. So you can`t force someone to vaccinate. Just like you can`t force someone to take any other kind of medication. You especially can`t make someone happy about vaccine mandates for work, leisure etc. However, what you can do is try to re-frame it, knowing the importance of autonomy to people. You might say that actions have consequences; including free, autonomous choices they make. That's just a universal truth - it doesn`t restrict their freedom in any way. You`re free to make any choice you want, but it will inevitably have consequences. In the case of vaccines, it might be that you can`t access certain areas e.g pubs, restaurants, etc. You may have to work from home. That`s essentially all that mandates are saying.
To sum up, freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Freedom of choice, speech, or any form of expressing yourself, doesn`t mean freedom from reprecussions.