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?