The covid-19 pandemic we are living in has showed how much power states and governments can exercise on our lives. Several daily activities which we all considered as perfectly normal just one year ago—e.g., meeting friends at the pub, throwing parties, etc.—are now prohibited or discouraged by many governments around the Western world. However, we should ask, Is it legitimate for governments to coerce their citizens into whatever (the former believe) it takes to contain a pandemic?
Take, for instance, the issue of state-mandated vaccinations: Is it legitimate for government to force its citizens to take vaccines? I think it’s not, and I will argue why I think so—even though I have nothing against vaccination per se. I simply maintain that whether to take a vaccine—or any other substance, for that matter—should be a free-willed individual choice, something government should have no concern with.
As human beings, we are acting entities: in other words, our nature is defined by our ability to act—i.e., employing (scarce) means having alternative uses in other to achieve our preferred (alternative) ends. By its very nature, action (as I have defined it) stems from free will: animals and inanimate objects do not act—they simply behave according to instinct and physical, unmotivated laws.
What does our acting nature as human beings entail? It entails that we are to be self-owners—namely, our being (body, mind, will, etc.) is our own natural and absolute property. Why is it so? Because were we (human beings) not self-owners, we could not act. Indeed, any kind of action requires the employment of (at least) the following means: nature-given resources, time, and labor. Thus, were we to be deprived of our self-ownership, we could not possibly act. In fact, we could neither employ our labor—broadly conceived as any kind of human effort—nor decide how to allocate our own time, because neither of them—not being owned by ourselves—would be under our control. Thus, the very concept of action requires ownership over: (1) a physical body carrying out that action and (2) a mind purposively choosing ends (to be attained) and means (to be employed) during that same action.
That said, should the reader think my definition of human beings as acting beings arbitrary, I invite him/her to consider the following: you cannot disprove my definition. In fact, as I have already argued elsewhere, the action axiom cannot be disproven, because while trying to do so, one would be acting as well, thus engaging in a performative contradiction—and that’s why action is an axiomatic attribute of human nature.
We reach, hence, a first philosophically very intuitive answer to our opening question: state-mandated vaccinations, being an invasive act carried out by the government against individual self-ownership, are to be regarded as ethically illegitimate.
The Problem with a Positive “Right to Life”
That said, a skeptical reader might consider my concise argument so far as philosophical quibbling. So, let’s try to make an even more concrete argument. Consider the thesis generally upheld by advocates of state-mandated vaccination: government must have the prerogative to impose vaccination, because otherwise people not willing to take vaccines would not only potentially harm themselves, but even cause damage to immunodeficient people who cannot—because of their unfortunate health—take vaccines themselves. Hence, the argument goes, in order to preserve the “right to life” (or “right to health”) of the latter, government—representing the majority of people—can legitimately vaccinate unwilling people.
But try to think carefully about this argument—especially the “right to life” part. How do we define this “right to life” we are dealing with? Are we to define it as a “positive” right—i.e., a right giving someone (say, A) a valid claim to impose upon someone else (say, B) a positive command? In other words, do we think that rights can take the form of “A can insist on B doing such and such, and if B refuses, his refusal is to be considered an aggression against A”?
Of course, if we accept the most fundamental of all rights—the right to self-ownership, which stems from the irrefutable action axiom—we cannot conceive of rights as “positive.” In fact, any “positive” right—being an invasive act against individual self-ownership—is clearly a prima facie violation of individual “natural” rights. There is no place, in the libertarian natural ethics stemming from the action axiom, for A to coerce B into doing something against B’s own free will.
As Rothbard very lucidly explained it,
it is impermissible to interpret the term “right to life,” to give one an enforceable claim to the action of someone else to sustain that life. In our terminology, such a claim would be an impermissible violation of the other person’s right of self-ownership….[T]he very concept of “rights” is a “negative” one, demarcating the areas of a person’s action that no man may properly interfere with. No man can therefore have a “right” to compel someone to do a positive act, for in that case the compulsion violates the right of person or property of the individual being coerced….[I]n the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights.
To set forth the argument against state-mandated vaccinations even more cogently, think of a less (I hope) controversial example. Let’s assume A is on the verge of death, and that he can be saved only by a blood (or bone marrow, or kidney, etc.) donation from B; would then A be legitimately entitled to B’s blood? I contend that he would not be, because B’s body is solely B’s property and any type of interference with his free-willed enjoyment of that property is to be considered an illegitimate invasion of his property rights. Quoting Rothbard again, there are “no human rights which are not also property rights,” and this holds true as well when it comes to pandemics and vaccinations.
Every human being has the natural (rationally derived from axiomatic premises) right to employ his/her own body the way s/he would like to; therefore, we cannot accept governments invading our individual selves. Moreover, rights can be only “negative,” that is, they can only entitle us to demand that others abstain from aggressing against us—i.e., from invading our own bodies and other material properties.
Governments have no right to coerce their citizens into taking vaccines. The decision whether to take a vaccine or not, whatever the reasons behind it might be (individualistic risk-benefit analysis, altruistic and charitable considerations, etc.), should rest solely on individual free-willed choices.