Chris Kaposy examines some of the reasoning that motivates those who refuse vaccination against COVID-19 and finds much that is deficient and disturbing.
American intensive care units are filling up with unvaccinated patients. Here in Canada, we may be facing the same problem soon. We may wonder whether those who refuse vaccination are doing something morally wrong. There are a couple lines of argument suggesting that there is a moral duty to get vaccinated.
First, we ought to prevent harm to others when doing so carries a minimal burden. Because unvaccinated people are more likely to get infected, they are more likely to transmit the virus to others. Most patients currently in intensive care units probably caught the virus from others who are unvaccinated. The vaccines are safe and effective, and their illnesses are largely preventable.
Second, we ought to avoid using up finite community resources when others need them, especially when this use is avoidable. Hospitals are community resources. When there is a surge in patients, elective surgeries must be cancelled, and those who end up at hospitals because of heart attacks or accidents are in danger of not receiving the care they need. Furthermore, because of COVID-19, health care workers all over the world have been overworked and often traumatized by the massive suffering they have witnessed.
There may be other arguments opposing a duty to get vaccinated. But among vaccine opponents, the poor quality of their ethical reasoning is striking. The American journalist Derek Thompson recently interviewed over a dozen people opposed to being vaccinated against COVID-19. Thompson’s conclusion was that nothing could convince them to get vaccinated. However the one argument that gave some of them pause was that “Your grandparents, elderly neighbors, and immunocompromised friends will be safer if you’re vaccinated”. According to Thompson, it was as though these vaccine opponents had not thought about their responsibilities to others. Thompson wrote that “The United States suffers from a deficit of imagining the lives of other people”.
In May the New York Times produced a podcast about people in rural Tennessee who were reluctant to be vaccinated. One person interviewed stated that he mistrusted the vaccine because, “I think we have been hornswoggled”. He and his wife gave a number of reasons for this belief. They believe that the vaccine program is driven by a disagreeable political agenda. They worry that the vaccine contains microchips. In short, his use of the term “hornswoggled” was a folksy and disarming way of endorsing conspiracy theories. These kinds of beliefs also motivate a great many Canadians who have not been vaccinated.
In her classic study of Adolph Eichmann, the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted Eichmann’s “horrible gift for consoling himself with clichés”. Eichmann infamously argued that he was innocent of mass murder because he was merely following orders. But he also had a great capacity for evading reality and moral accountability through the invention of empty slogans and stock-phrases. According to Arendt, Eichmann “was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché”. While on trial in Jerusalem, one of Eichmann’s favoured clichés was that he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”. He ridiculously proposed a conciliation committee composed of Nazis and their victims as adequate redress for his crimes.
The Nazi analogy is far too common and hardly ever fair. I don’t want to suggest that vaccine mistrust is anywhere near the category of evil of Eichmann’s crimes. However, I want to point out the problem of letting clichés and mindless slogans stand in the way of clear thinking about ethical duties. The allegation that “we have been hornswoggled” operates this way. When you reach for a colourful formula like this to justify your actions, you fail to take your ethical responsibilities seriously. There is nothing standing behind a worry about being “hornswoggled” but baseless conspiracy theories. The stock-phrase, the cliché, distracts from the emptiness of reasoning about something that is very important.
This failure of seriousness itself is morally blameworthy. Those who are circumspect about vaccines are not exempt from their obligations to others. At this point in the vaccination program, virtually everyone has been exposed to good information about the vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy is fundamentally an issue of trust. Recognizing this, public health officials have mobilized trusted figures, such as family doctors, to help convince people to get vaccinated. Everybody knows that medical professionals are encouraging vaccination. Nobody can argue that good information is unavailable. Yet many still refuse. On some level, people can choose what they believe. Many vaccine refusers have chosen not to believe sources of information that they should know are trustworthy.
Some people have not been vaccinated because of access issues, and these problems are not their fault. We should recognize as well that television personalities, social media figures, and others who spread misinformation have greater culpability. But those who refuse vaccination for bad reasons or because of a lack of moral reasoning are at fault as well.
Chris Kaposy is an Associate Professor at the Memorial University Centre for Bioethics, and an editor of the Impact Ethics blog. @ChrisKaposy