Being Unvaccinated Doesn't Harm Others
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has once again raised the moral question of when one party can use force to vaccinate another. For example, over 500 universities are requiring COVID vaccines for returning students this fall (and some students are fighting back). It's a complicated issue, of course, which is what makes it such a great theme for the culture wars of the political left and right. Each side can cherry pick the facts and arguments in a way that makes their side look good and outrages partisan followers.
But one thing is clear: being unvaccinated doesn't harm others. That's true whether we're talking about COVID-19 or any other disease. This point is important because many of the arguments in favor of mandated vaccines trade on the idea that it's OK to force people to get vaccinated in order to prevent harm to other people. Colleges that require a vaccine are just doing their jobs to make sure that people don't harm one another on campus. That's a nice-sounding argument that falls apart under closer scrutiny.
Let's start with the concept of harm. If I harm you, I've made you worse off than you would have been otherwise. There are two parts to this definition: (a) the worse-off part and (b) the would have been otherwise part. Each matters.
As to the first, to be harmed is to have your situation deteriorated in some way. Harm makes you worse off. An easy way to think about harm is in terms of interests. There are lots of things that are in your interest, from being healthy to making money to feeling pleasure. If I do something to impede your ability to secure those interests, I've harmed you.
For example, when I punch you in the face, that harms you. One of your goals is to be pain-free and happy. When I punch you, I set back those goals. Or when I steal your stuff, that harms you. Your stuff is useful to you in securing your other goals, and theft impedes your pursuit of those goals.
As to the second part, the deterioration of your situation must make you worse off than you would have been otherwise. Harm has to be measured against a baseline, and that baseline is the status quo. I haven't harmed you by not giving you a dollar: it's not as if you would have gotten an extra dollar without my action. But I have harmed you if I steal a dollar from your wallet: if I hadn't acted, the dollar would still be there.
Putting them together, harm requires making someone else worse off than they would have been otherwise. In particular, my failing to benefit you is not a harm. So, how does this analysis apply to vaccines?
Suppose you and I have the option to get vaccinated against some disease, and you do and I don't. In that case, did I harm you? No. That's because my refusal to get a vaccine didn't make you worse off than you would have been otherwise. Before the vaccine, you were already at some certain level of risk by hanging out with me. That risk has neither increased nor decreased when I refuse the vaccine. And if the risk hasn't budged, then I couldn't have harmed you.
On the contrary, your decision to take the vaccine was a benefit to me. You made me better off than I would have been otherwise. Hanging out with you is less risky, and this decrease in risk is a benefit to me. Thanks!
So, getting a vaccine benefits others, but a failure to get the vaccine doesn't harm others. That's an important distinction. Here's why.
We often think that it's morally OK to use force to keep people from harming others (at least those who have not consented to the harm). Even libertarians like John Stuart Mill think that harm to non-consenting others often justifies government intrusion. The reason it's OK for a college to enforce rules about theft, rape, and murder on campus is because those are all instances of egregious harms to other people.
But it's important to see that the vaccine case is crucially different. Not getting a vaccine harms no one, so we can't use the same justification to explain why it's OK for a college to require student vaccines. Refusing a vaccine does not harm others.
The more general lesson is that while it's easy to justify interfering in people's lives to prevent them from harming others, it's much more difficult to justify interfering in people's lives to force them to benefit others. Those are two very different things.
While it's easy to justify interfering in people's lives to prevent them from harming others, it's much more difficult to justify interfering in people's lives to force them to benefit others.
So what are colleges to do? Well, as I flagged above, it's a complicated issue. But here are two things to keep in mind.
First, there's a moral difference between using force on a kid versus using force on an adult. The distinction is one of consent. Children can't understand as much as adults, and so they are unable to give informed consent for many things. When they were little, I had both of my children vaccinated, and I did so without their consent. That's not wrong. Parents have the right to make their kids do things that are good for them even though they can't consent.
This is relevant for the issue of vaccines at college because the typical college student is not yet fully an adult when it comes to mental development. The area of the brain in charge of executive function doesn't fully mature until about 25 years of age. So, there's at least a case to be made that requiring college kids to have a vaccine even if they don't want one is justifiable: it's in their best interest. No doubt we need to weigh the vaccine issue against all of the other decisions that we say college students can and can't make (vote, drink alcohol, etc.), but there's no reason in advance to think that requiring vaccines won't be within bounds.
Second, when an unvaccinated person gives someone else a disease, that is a case of harm. Suppose I have a mild case of COVID-19, and I cough on you. If you get sick, I've made you worse off than you would have been otherwise. I've impeded on your ability to pursue your interests, and you wouldn't have been sick otherwise. I harmed you.
In that case, there's an argument to be made that I am liable for the harm I've caused. I knew COVID-19 was contagious, I could have gotten a free vaccine, but I turned it down and got you sick, instead. We hold people liable for all sorts of negligent behavior from drunk driving to owning a pit bull. Why should running around unvaccinated be any different?
On this second way of looking at the issue, while it's wrong for a college to use force to require vaccines in advance, it's not wrong to hold students accountable if they make others sick. With contact tracing in place, we might be able to trace COVID-19 outbreaks on campus back to the unvaccinated students who started them. And those students could be held responsible.
While it's wrong for a college to use force to require vaccines in advance, it's not wrong to hold students accountable if they make others sick.
The beauty of this system is that it preserves individual choice. We can't force you to get a vaccine. But we can hold you responsible if you get others sick. Which option you take is entirely up to you.