Combating COVID-19 Vaccines: Lessons in Political Philosophy

Challenging skepticism and resistance in the public response to the COVID-19 vaccine is deeply important to the state of public health. This is a critical conversation as people protest the COVID-19 vaccines not only in South Africa, but around the world as well.

As a professor of political philosophy, I think it is important to dispel the idea that the call to vaccinate is an attack on acceptable liberal freedoms.

Based on a significant number of years of studying, reading, and teaching the works of the world’s most important philosophies, I am of the opinion that the anti-vaccine position that “being forced to take the vaccine is a violation of their liberal rights ”is an uninformed position.

Through a liberal lens that examines positive freedom versus negative freedom, I want to show how taking the vaccine essentially creates positive (or clear) freedom. COVID-19 vaccine anti-vaccines can be seen as selfish in demanding freedom in the absolute sense. Negative freedom supports the idea that there should be no restriction or limit on any free activity. This can become incredibly problematic when it comes to public health.

For example, consider restricting where people can smoke. These are in place to ensure that the majority of people (non-smokers) are protected from the risks associated with passive smoke inhalation.

In a related vein, perhaps anti-vaccines should be reprimanded and regulated for not voluntarily taking the COVID-19 vaccine. The ethical goal is to promote universal vaccination and positive freedom for all in society.

The liberal philosophies that we could use to challenge the position of “free choice of anti-vaccines” are the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1789), the Harm principle of JS Mill (1859) and the reflections of Isiah Berlin ( 1969) on positive freedom.

This trajectory of liberal thought over the past 200 years is essential to the development of the liberal democratic freedoms that we know today. Let’s unpack the theories a bit more.

What philosophers have to say

Let me start by addressing the philosophical dilemma of the “freedom to choose” anti-vaccines.

The need to maintain individual freedoms is the most important mandate of the modern liberal state.

Today’s liberal democratic understanding of freedom (with acceptable restraint) was an idea first conceived over 200 years ago. In political philosophy, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1789) suggests that policies should be created to provide the greatest amount of bliss (or happiness) for the greater part of society.

This forms the crux of the conversation around COVID-19 vaccinations.

Read more: South Africa’s vaccination record at risk of being shaken by anti-vaccination views

At present, it is understood that for reasons of public health and “the common good”, all citizens should take one of the COVID-19 certified vaccines. The reason is that it will create more net freedom for everyone in that given society.

The alternative is absolute and unrestricted freedom not to vaccinate, which puts pressure on our common freedoms and could extend containment measures.

Continuing this theme on a positive application of freedom, JS Mill (1859) offers us a sophisticated ethical proposition, the Principle of Evil. This principle simply suggests that we should be free to pursue our individual will, as long as it does not harm someone else.

Although it may be an indirect influence, this principle fits perfectly into the ethical position held by many laws and policies adopted in liberal democratic societies.

Many countries, including South Africa, have used it in public smoking legislation, for example, by regulating smokers in confined areas in public so that they do not harm non-smokers.

This leads us to ask the same questions about the freedom of movement of unvaccinated people in public. There is no question that someone who refuses the COVID-19 vaccine could actually harm their community at large. The science is clear on this, overcrowded hospitals across South Africa are reporting that almost all COVID-19-related hospitalizations currently come from the unvaccinated part of society. This creates another prejudice to the implementation of positive freedom in society.

Isaiah Berlin’s (1969) reflections on positive freedom best diagnose the anti-vaccine dilemma, as it allows us to reflect on their desire for unlimited “freedom to choose”.

Absolute and unrestricted freedom is also known by theorists as negative freedom. While negative freedom may sound alluring, it could be seriously damaging to society and communities if strictly enforced. It is acceptable in a progressive society that we accept the limitations of our freedom, so as not to infringe on the freedoms of others.

Read more: Compulsory COVID-19 vaccination in Nigeria? Why it’s illegal, and a bad idea

It is therefore important to convey that verifiable vaccine science should not be further politicized.

There is also a link to be made between the African community philosophy of Ubuntu (Humanity) and positive freedom. Ubuntu remains somewhat of a cliché call for civic nationalism and the promotion of a caring society in a fractured South Africa.

However, the phrase isiZulu, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, (I am, because we are) turns out to be an important part of society. “I am because we are” simply implies that: I am part of my community, where the good I do is reflected in society. This can be incredibly important in the face of vaccine skepticism and anti-vaccination ideas.

South Africans in particular should heed Ubuntu’s call to mobilize for immunization, as it advocates for the “common good” and encourages community benefits for society at large. This in turn promotes positive freedom.

What is added to this

There are many debates to be had in a changing society where freedom of speech and choice will take center stage. But, in my opinion, COVID-19 vaccination shouldn’t be one of them. Armed with ideas such as utilitarianism and the principle of evil, the application of positive freedom could see many liberal democracies ultimately ban the spread of disinformation and anti-vaccine protests.

Read more: Why COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory in South Africa

It is imperative that citizens understand that this is a public health issue, that the science is verifiable, and that 99.9% of the global medical community supports the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Therefore, getting vaccinated is for the “common good” of society and promotes the most desirable aspects of positive freedom.

There’s no time to delay

South Africa is a powder keg for COVID-19 outbreaks and potential mutations in the virus. Embracing the positive freedom’s focus on utility and minimizing harm, while emphasizing the community benefits of immunization, provides a clear imperative for action.

The country must vaccinate as quickly as possible so that its population can return to a semblance of normal life. A life where everyone can freely pursue their goals, bearing in mind that freedom without reasonable duress will inevitably harm others.

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