Sunday, July 10, 2011

Short and Sharp - Limitiation of Liberty

I know I’ve been on a kind of ‘ethical bender’ of late, so I promise this will be my last post on ethics for a while (isn’t that what all addicts say?). However, I wish to have a final quick exploration of the topic of limiting the liberty of individuals in a society. I think that by being a member of society, we  agree (explicitly in some cases, implicitly in most) to give up certain rights, such as the right to murder each other, for the safety and benefits that living in a society offers (yes, I am a fan Hobbes, if you can’t tell; at least in regard to social contract theory). The point of this post is to explore what constitutes the line between what can and cannot be limited by society.

While this is related to my last post on bone marrow donation, I’m going to use the example of vaccination to draw out the potential points of disagreement. We all (well, the significant majority) accept the limit that we cannot kill (either intentionally or through recklessness on our part). The same is true for causing harm to others that falls short of killing them (again, both intentionally and through recklessness). So, given these two fair uncontroversial points, why do we allow people, be they adults or children by the choice of their parents, to opt out of vaccination?

For those of you not familiar with herd immunity, this is the phenomenon where when a certain portion of the population is immune to a certain disease, their immunity acts to protect those who are not immune. The percentage of immunity required to reach this threshold varies for every contagion and is based on factors like the route of infection (airborne, food etc.) and the virulence of the pathogen. Within any given population, there are a certain proportion of individuals that, for medical reasons, cannot be given vaccinations (effectively, anyone with impaired immune functions, often due to age, genetic conditions or other factors). So, with an already reduced population to work with, allowing others to opt out of vaccinations further reduces the amount that are immunised, putting everyone at an increased risk of infection.

My point is not that vaccination should be mandatory (I do think that, but that is not the case I am making here), but what reasons are there that we don’t make them mandatory? I’ve heard people suggest that it is to do with liberty, but as I’ve already said, we given up liberties all the time to benefit from living in a society. Does doing something to people rather than asking them not to do something change the issue (positive vs. negative liberty)? Does removing the option to opt out change anything for people who would have chosen to be vaccinated regardless? What is the threshold for what constitutes a significant harm of an action to the public as to reduce the liberty of individuals to undertake said action?


  1. Libertarians are basically just selfish toddlers.  They fantasize that they can do whatever they want without any repercussions from their neighbors.

    My state allows aerial shell type of fireworks.  Localities can ban them or limit when they can be set off, but my city actually exempts fireworks from noise ordinances.

    This means for about 3 weeks leading up to July 4 I can be jarred by a hugely loud *boom* at almost any random moment.  The fireworks store near me sets off the aerial shells over a busy intersection.  I live about 200-300 yards from this store, and my dogs were completely traumatized by this to the point that one of them now barks at fireflies and the moon.

    My neighbors have complained to the store owner and he has replied basically "too bad, live with it."  Babies get woken from naps.  Cancer patients can't get any sleep.  Does he care?  Nope, not at all.

    Sadly, I don't know where this fellow lives, or else I'd blare opera and Disney tunes in front of his home at 6 a.m. on July 5 every year.

    Okay, not exactly on point... but still.... anti-vaccination parents' children benefit from the vaccinated children around them.  At a certain point their children are no longer protected, and then these diseases will kill again.

    They're almost like evolution deniers.  Germ theory is "just a theory," right?

  2. Good post. Vaccination is a great example. Many libertarians employ some measure of logical consistency and accept that they should be free to do as they wish so long as their actions don't impinge upon the freedom of others. Because of the necessity of herd immunity for vaccination to be effective, there is a very close relationship between choosing not to be vaccinated and potentially causing harm to others. Accordingly, even a libertarian would be hard pressed to argue that they should be free not to vaccinate their children. Those who do, given the need for herd immunity, are simply hypocrites, or social Darwinists -- they think it's okay for them not to vaccinate, all the while depending on others who are vaccinated; or, they think that nobody should be vaccinated so that only the fit survive (and the unfit die). So, should we force people to vaccinate? Yes, because anybody who chooses not to vaccinate their child (for no good reason) is a hypocrite or a sociopath.

  3. Most people defend the anti-vaccine stance on two grounds. 1. Religious such as christian science. They usually dance through serious hoops to fit it into their world view. It stems back to their campaigns against smallpox vaccination.2. People with poor ideas about healthcare. A lot of healthcare scares exist because people who don't understand medicine (I keep putting of posting an explanation of immunity for a pro vaccine site) and they produce weird ideas that "make sense" but turn out to be unscientific. Every health scare allows them to bang ther drum. The problem being that medicine has exceeded common understanding so as to become akin to magic and religion and doctor's its priests. They see it as a trickery becuase they forget all the real diseases out there.