Apparently, as I type this, the Parliament of NSW is debating changes to public health legislation which will lead to mandatory vaccination of children. This provoked a considerable controversy on the FaceBook wall of a friend of mine (I imagine it provoked controversy in other places too) and, surprisingly enough, I was drawn into the fray.
The debate centered around two separate questions: first, does vaccination actually help or harm public health and, secondly, even assuming vaccination aids public health, is it acceptable for the state to coerce parents on this matter.
I avoided part one; I’m a philosopher, not a doctor and not a public health expert. On the second issue, however, I had a bit more to say. Now, I can imagine that many of my friends who are utilitarians/ consequentialists will find this an easy question. I however, am not a consquentialist; I think parental rights are a real thing and they need to be respected. On this occasion, however, I agree with the consequentialists in their practical conclusion. I think the value of vaccination to the common good is such that the state may legitimately over-ride parental claims in this matter.
I’ve laid out my reasoning on this matter below. Before I give it, however, I need to make a couple of a couple of points: I’m not, at this time, interested in debate on natural law theory versus consquentialism. If you are a consequentialist, or an adherent of any other school than natural law, please view the following as an exercise in “what if”. Second, while the effectiveness of vaccination and the lack of any significant risk thereof are premises of my argument, I’m not much interested in debating those either. Once again, if you are one of those people who disagree with the near universal consensus amoung actual health practitioners who regard vaccination as a good thing, treat the below as a “what if.”
One final point, the views, expressed in this post, are my own and not necessarily the views of any group I may be affiliated with.
1) Parents have a universal duty to not needlessly endanger the lives or health of their children.
2) Citizens have a universal duty to not needlessly endanger the lives or health of their fellow citizens.
3) The state has a legitimate interest in legislating to ensure that people meet their duties under (1) and (2) above.
4) While the duties under (1) and (2) above are universal, the exact nature of what constitutes “needlessly endangering” may legitimately vary from situation to situation.
5) If, within a given society, there exists a certain technology such that said technology is easily available, that the use of said technology does not involve any significant cost or risk to the user and such that the use of said technology will lead to greatly reduced risks to the lives or health of others, then failure to make use of such technology violates either (1) or (2) above.
6) From (1) – (3) above it follows that, if, within a given society, there exists a technology which meets the criteria given in (5), then, the state has a legitimate interest in compelling the use of that technology.
7) In 21st century NSW, vaccination does, in fact, meet the criteria given in (5)
8) It follows from (6) and (7) above that the state of NSW has a legitimate interest in compelling the use of vaccination.