The Corner

Politics & Policy

No, a Vaccine Mandate Is Not Like Requiring Seat Belts

A healthcare worker holds coronavirus vaccines at a vaccination center in El Paso, Texas, May 6, 2021. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Mainstream bioethics thinking is growing increasingly authoritarian. Princeton’s notorious utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer now joins Ezekiel “Mandate” Emanuel in an internationally syndicated column urging that everyone be legally required to take the COVID jab.

Singer justifies this imposition by comparing the proposal to laws that require people to wear seat belts in cars. From, “Why Vaccination Should be Compulsory:”

We are now hearing demands for the freedom to be unvaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19. Brady Ellison, a member of the United States Olympic archery team, says his decision not to get vaccinated was “one hundred percent a personal choice,” insisting that “anyone that says otherwise is taking away people’s freedoms.”

The oddity, here, is that laws requiring us to wear seat belts really are quite straightforwardly infringing on freedom, whereas laws requiring people to be vaccinated if they are going to be in places where they could infect other people are restricting one kind of freedom in order to protect the freedom of others to go about their business safely.

Good grief. There is a huge difference between a law that requires wrapping a cloth belt around one’s body while in a moving car and injecting chemicals into one’s system. Yes, both acts involve attempts to promote public safety. But the former’s interference with liberty is de minimus, while the latter is one of the most potentially portentous that can be asked of people.

In free societies, legal mandates must be reasonable. A national vaccination mandate — which would be unprecedented — fails that test.

Why aren’t near-universal mandates “reasonable?” Well, young people almost never become seriously ill from COVID — although a very few certainly do. But there is also some evidence of a very slight — but potentially serious — risk from the vaccines for the young. If we care about freedom, surely, for the young, vaccination may be the preferred — but should not be the mandatory — course.

There is also significant evidence that people who recovered from COVID already have significant natural resistance to the disease. That being so, is it reasonable to force people with antibodies to involuntarily inject substances into their bodies, particularly since there is a very slight potential for serious bodily injury or death from the vaccine? No.

Finally, the people most at risk of serious disease are the unvaccinated. People who choose to go unprotected are risking mostly themselves. Allowing them to face that risk is more reasonable than violating their personal autonomy.

Singer enjoys playing hypothetical mind games and making comparisons, as the one involving seat belts. All right. Let’s play.

What do you think Singer would say about a legal mandate requiring men to wear condoms every time they had sex (except for purposes of procreation)? After all, think of the HIV and other VDs that would be prevented — serious illnesses and deaths avoided — if all men did that. Think of the fewer unwanted pregnancies and subsequent abortions. And, more like seat belts than vaccination, the action required would be wholly external with zero risk of side effects.

I can guarantee you Singer would resist such a law — as would I — because it would interfere with the most intimate of human activities without a sufficiently compelling cause to justify such a dramatic infringement of personal liberty. In other words, it would not be a reasonable assertion of government authority.

We never went that far at the height of the AIDS epidemic, before the treatments came online, when it was almost 100 percent fatal. Nor do we now require people who have risky sex to take the HIV prophylactic drugs that prevent infection. Similarly, it would be unreasonable to force everyone to accept the jab.

Yes, I know about the potential for variants. But authoritarianism can spread, too. In free societies, significant interferences with personal liberty can be justified only by urgent need — and then should be done in the least intrusive way practicable. Especially with testing readily available, a vaccine mandate simply does not pass that test.

Recommended

The Latest