Morality by the numbers
The pandemic’s cold calculus
This is a meditation on individualism, the common good and which takes precedence.
The first modern vaccine was developed for smallpox in 1796, followed by rabies in 1885. Prior to that forms of vaccination existed in China in 1000CE and later in Turkey and the Middle East.
In the United States compulsory vaccination in schools, starting with Massachusetts in 1850, met resistance from those who felt their individual rights were being infringed upon. The Supreme Court settled the issue in 1905 declaring that the government could “reasonably” require individuals to be vaccinated during a public health crisis.
Besides a natural aversion to pinpricks, there is a cohort of fearful deniers who see vaccines as an instrument of government control. Yet history shows that when a disease is eradicated, the vaccination mandate ends, as it did with smallpox in the US in 1972.
It can be argued that the current Covid pandemic is not a “public health crisis” and consequently mandates not “reasonable.” Mortality rates from various epidemics in the past 50 years range from 80% down to .02%. Covid checks in at 2.2%, next to last.
What is the number that defines a “public health crisis?” If only children were dying, any number would be intolerable. That is why mandatory vaccination of children would be less resisted. Adults who are bullish about their individual rights may also tend to be bullish about their good health and the power of their auto-immune response. But even adults must confront the threshold of the tolerable death rate.
“Tolerable” is both a scientific and political term. Politicians measure the point where social discord, even mayhem, might result. Scientists see it as a point where medical resources and scientific ability are no longer able to contain the spread. Politicians see people as numerically expendable. Scientists and doctors hate to lose even one patient.
In the liberal tradition every human being counts and the common good is paramount. So it is science’s call as to who is the most vulnerable, who should get more resources and who can be mandated. As in the case of the seasonal flu, it need not be as deadly to support arguments for being vaccinated, but no one is clamoring for mandates. If the 1918 flu pandemic were repeated today, all might be singing a different tune.
The current Covid response is a case study in why politicians should not be involved after they abdicate their roles as keepers of the common good. Republicans, already a numerical minority, further enhance that status by urging their followers not to get vaccinated. This defies all common sense. Their sadistic calculation could be that the loss of support due to flipping would be greater than their share of the 2.2%.
Much has been made of herd immunity. This requires the combined total of vaccinated and recovered individuals to reach a certain number…for instance, 80%. However if more of the unvaccinated keep dying, there may not be enough survivors to reach herd immunity goals. Then would a mandate be appropriate for as long as it takes to reach that goal.
”Give me liberty or give me death” may be an appropriate rallying cry for revolutionaries, but it makes no sense in this instance. Being vaccinated is actually the only guarantee of liberty tomorrow. Death only guarantees no future. Evangelicals may have an “other worldly” view, and that circles us back to two kinds of rights — inalienable (natural or human) and enumerated (legal or constitutional).
When two of these rights collide in the instance of vaccination - say freedom of religion vs. pursuit of happiness - it is left to the courts to decide. And in most instances the “common good” will come into play - and that brings us right back to the numbers. What percent of the populace must benefit for a good to be considered common?
Remember when Donald Trump infamously exclaimed that he could shoot a person in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose one voter? He did not qualify the person as good or evil. Could be that some of his voters might feel “he must have had a good reason to do it.” But consensual morality at some point must confront the question, “How many people could he shoot before losing any voters?” No one would argue that it was his individual right to deprive another person of their ultimate individual and inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The issue of “numbers” injects another moral and legal dimension into the argument.
By Marjorie Taylor Green’s warped math, any count of numbers dying is dismissed On the principle, “We all have to die sometime,” which elevates her status as a primary target for Trump.
While Americans revel in their rugged individualism, it doesn’t translate into individual freedoms exempt from any official outside interference. Our lives are full of regulations whose violation involves swift penalties. Nor can we infringe on the rights of others, such as children or the elderly. When individuals are incapable of articulating their rightful choices, then outside authority steps in to enable them. In this sense mandated vaccination of children and the elderly is consistent with the common good of all and the group. No person can be chattel to another, be it slaveholder or parent.
Whether the issues are abortion, gun control, compulsory medical insurance etc., other human beings (judges) will apply human values to decisions that affect the common good. And they will also decide to what extent the unvaccinated are liable for the pain, suffering and deaths due to an unchecked pandemic.
Liability can be quantified by a jury that will assign a dollar value to compensate for loss. But there is no escaping moral responsibility, which is neither quantifiable nor relative. When misinformation and fear is the foundation of one’s position on vaccination, truth is no longer a defense. Willful omission of truth is worse than an outright checkable lie.
It’s one thing to put yourself in jeopardy, another to spread vulnerability to others. Many nameless within earshot may get seriously ill or die. Friends and relatives succumbing can be counted, and only one would provide enough guilt to last a lifetime.
In some traditions it only takes one unforgivable sin to lose one’s soul.