About a Vaccine Mandate Argument

  • Hendrik van der Breggen, Author
  • Retired Associate Professor of Philosophy, Providence

Fallible thoughts from an old and tired (and retired) philosopher.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden defended his COVID-19 vaccine mandate with this statement: “The unvaccinated overcrowd our hospitals, they’re overrunning emergency rooms and intensive care units, leaving no room for someone with a heart attack or pancreatitis or cancer.”

In Canada, the argument is similar and oft-heard: We should require vaccinations because our hospitals and ICUs are being overwhelmed (primarily by the unvaccinated), causing those who need treatment for other medical issues to be neglected.

In other words, the unvaccinated are causing grave danger to others by using scarce medical resources, so we should require – mandate – COVID-19 vaccines. Or else.

Or so the argument goes.

I find this argument puzzling.

First, two clarifications.

(1) As the #MeToo movement has made clear, an unwanted touch is a serious infringement on bodily autonomy and freedom. By implication, it seems to me, so too is an unwanted injection (and perhaps even an unwanted swab pushed deep – really deep – up one’s nose).

(2) Coercion includes, among other things, the threat or duress of possible job loss. Such threats may be presented benignly as an “option.” Or as a “reasonable” encroachment of Charter rights in times of a pandemic.

Okay, let’s think.

A piece of the puzzle that seems to go unnoticed in the above argument has to do with the apparently static health care resources that are, we are told, being stretched to their limits in our war against Covid.

I don’t doubt the resources are being stretched. But it’s the oft-assumed static part that I find problematic.

It’s odd to me that in our war against Covid – an ongoing war – we continue with “peacetime” health care resources. It seems to me that we (as a society) should re-direct resources to the war effort in a huge and unprecedented way.

It also seems to me that we should not quash precious hard-won freedoms paid for in other wars by the blood of our forebears and guaranteed by Canada’s Charter (or the U.S. Constitution). Indeed, if we take Canada’s Charter seriously, such quashing could be illegal, and, if we take #MeToo seriously, immoral.

So instead of possibly infringing on bodily autonomy and freedom by embracing coerced vaccine injections (and coerced eye-watering, bodily invasive nasal swabs) maybe we should first be making huge efforts to increase significantly our health care resources. Efforts to pursue the latter should be exhausted before we embrace the former.

In other serious health matters – and there are many – we ensure health care is available, though we advise (i.e., persuade with reason, not coercion) that people choose not to engage in behaviours with high health risks.

I’m thinking of the health concerns arising from obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, excess alcohol drinking, not taking prescribed medicines, diabetics who don’t manage diet properly, cervical cancer patients who didn’t get Pap smears, etc.

Our health care system is there for them, thank goodness. And we don’t coerce them to change their behaviours by taking away their jobs. Rather, we persuade with reason.

We don’t coerce, yet we care. Basic healthcare is a human right, after all, for all.

So why treat differently a minority of generally good and decent citizens (included are some of my family members and friends, some with PhDs) who have serious and perhaps legitimate concerns about Covid vaccines and thus haven’t yet chosen to be vaccinated? Why take the coercive authoritarian route via vaccine mandate?

Indeed, won’t taking the coercive authoritarian route make those who are vaccine hesitant even more hesitant?

Reasonable persuasion, not coercion, would seem to be the way forward. The fact is that intelligent people of good will have different thresholds for being reasonably persuaded. A free and open society should recognize this.

Also in a free and open society, differences of view and debates should be encouraged to flourish, so if a view is correct then knowing that it’s correct will help the rest of us, and if it’s incorrect then that knowledge will also help the rest of us. (I’m pretty sure I’m following philosopher John Stuart Mill on this matter; see his 1859 essay “On Liberty.”)

If we allow debates and open inquiry to flourish, then truth instead of mere power will prevail – and, as a bonus, conspiracy theories will tend to die off instead of get reinforced.

At this juncture, one might object that, unlike those suffering from obesity and unlike others who engage in high risk health behaviours, the unvaxxed may spread COVID-19.

In reply, it helps to keep in mind that it’s the unvaxxed (mostly older folks, or persons with chronic medical conditions, or those with compromised immune systems) who are primarily at risk. And it’s their choice not to be vaxxed, so it’s their risk.

Moreover, the vaxxed – nearly 80% of Canadians aged 12+ are fully vaccinated – are not at risk, or at least not at as great a risk. And they might transmit Covid, too.

Think of it this way. For me to be concerned for intelligent adults to such an extent that they must give up their consent and human agency concerning what happens to them because of my concern for them – this seems to undermine my concern for them. It strikes me as a case of me being, well, a wee bit bossy. Maybe even imperialistic.

Also, one might object: Aren’t the unvaxxed selfish? In my experience the answer is no. The majority of the unvaxxed whom I know are concerned not just for themselves but for all of us. They continue to have questions that are relevant not only to themselves but also to others. Some of their questions are fueled by past abuses of science: Remember thalidomide (a drug touted as safe for pregnant women but resulted in severe birth defects in thousands of children)? Remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (which violated the basic ethical principle of respect for autonomy of African Americans and harmed them by not treating their syphilis)?

And the unvaxxed I know are vigilant about our – not just their – freedoms. And they are willing to risk not only their own health (think of nurses who work with Covid patients but refuse vaccination) but also marginalization and vilification from the larger community. This doesn’t sound selfish to me.

It’s important, then, to pause before we unleash the might of government coercion onto the unvaxxed minority, a minority of our fellow citizens, of whom some are our family, friends, and neighbours.

To me, the coercive authoritarian route seems unfair, discriminatory, and illegal. (I think it’s illegal because it’s an infringement of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, since plausible avenues and efforts to attain the Charter’s “reasonable limits” in Section 1 which justify violations of bodily autonomy/ security of the person guaranteed in Section 7 have not yet been exhausted; more on this below.)

As one of my history professor friends tells me, the coercive authoritarian route historically has had very serious health risks and danger, too, and on a massive societal scale. And this is especially so, when, paradoxically, it is justified in terms of citizens’ safety and good.

C. S. Lewis warns: “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity [greed, avarice] may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

So to ensure that seriously ill people do not die – especially those needing cancer treatments, surgeries, and such – let’s significantly and rapidly increase (double? triple?) our health care resources.


For starters, Canadians could – and should – demand governments cut frivolous spending.

I’m thinking we should cut wasteful tax spending on things like the following: giant boat-sized yellow rubber ducks, our prime minister’s $1.6 million family trip to India (complete with personal celebrity chef), our federal government’s $8.1 million temporary hockey rink in front of Ottawa’s parliament buildings (on which only relatively few skated), etc.

And what about the $610 million waste – Rex Murphy correctly calls it a sham – of calling a federal election during a pandemic?

And maybe we could say yes to some pipelines that would generate huge revenues and increase tax-dollar funding of our hospitals and ICUs?

Surely, we all should first be championing the redirection of large amounts of tax money to super-fund our hospitals. That would be a reasonable third alternative to the false dichotomy of either (a) coercive vaccination or (b) people dying needlessly because of a shortage of medical resources.

It would also put a check on government overreach.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada.