To mandate or not to mandate, that is the question.
Vaccines‒more specifically, the various Covid-19 vaccines‒are perhaps the most polarizing topic in today’s public discourse. While much of this debate is rooted in years-long back-and-forth, trust in vaccines is based on efficacy and supposed potential side effects. This issue has never been as heated as it is today. The recent conflagration around vaccines mainly stems from three factors: the ubiquity of Covid-19 in all of our lives, the speed with which the Covid-19 vaccines were developed, and the controversy surrounding vaccine mandates.
Firstly, let me make it clear that the purpose of this article is not to discuss whether or not the Covid-19 vaccines “work,” nor is it to advocate for or against getting vaccinated. Personally, I have been fully vaccinated, but I recognize the fact that I alone do not have the authority to tell other people what they should or should not do with their bodies. The question here is, do state and federal governments have the authority on moral or legal grounds to tell people what they should or should not do with their bodies?
History of Vaccine Mandates
In order to fully understand vaccine mandates, we must go back to their genesis. Before vaccines, there was another, more dangerous method of inoculation against disease: variolation. This practice, originating in some form as early as the 200s BCE in China or India, involved infecting patients with substance from the pustules of usually smallpox-infected individuals to protect them against the usually harsher natural origin disease. Variolation was first introduced to the West through Cotton Mather, a Bostonian minister who learned about the practice through a man named Onesimus, a North African enslaved person in his household.
The first instance of mandatory inoculation appears to have occurred in, of all places, the fledgling United States in the throes of the Revolutionary War. In 1776, the Continental Congress instituted a ban on inoculations due to skepticism that variolation truly halted the spread of disease. However, in the early months of 1777 with 90 percent of Continental army deaths coming from smallpox, General George Washington issued a military order that mandated the inoculation of all soldiers under his command, which eventually won the approval of Congress.
The practice of variolation soon died out thereafter and was replaced by a more effective method of inoculation. Edward Jenner (1749-1823), an English physician, became the father of vaccines when he successfully standardized and scientifically verified the process of vaccination in 1796 with his breakthroughs regarding cowpox inoculation being able to prevent smallpox.
Because of Jenner’s successful discoveries, Massachusetts became the first state in the union to encourage vaccination against smallpox only six years later. By 1813, the U.S. Vaccine Agency had been established with the purpose of increasing smallpox vaccination rates among Americans. It was not, however, until 1855 that the first vaccine mandate went into effect in Massachusetts in which the smallpox vaccine became required for children to attend public schools. By the dawn of the 20th century, nearly half of the other states joined Massachusetts in vaccine mandates for public school.
Of course, as with any action of the government in the United States, these mandates were not met unchallenged. In 1905, the case Jacobson v. Massachusetts reached the Supreme Court, in which a man named Henning Jacobson refused to be vaccinated during a smallpox epidemic in Cambridge, Massachusetts and took his case to court after refusing to pay the $5 fine associated with his refusal. The Supreme Court upheld the decisions of previous courts which had ruled in favor of Massachusetts and affirmed the constitutionality of vaccine mandates, asserting that there are “manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.”
Another case regarding vaccine mandates was brought before the Supreme Court in 1922. Zucht v. King was a case in which Rosalyn Zucht and her parents refused to submit proof of vaccination for Rosalyn to attend Breckenridge High School in San Antonio, Texas and was thus banned from attending the school. The Zucht family took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the Court ruled against them and reinforced its previous decision in Jacobson, thus solidifying the right of public bodies to mandate vaccines both during and outside of an epidemic scenario.
Moral Grounds for Vaccine Mandates
Both of these landmark cases rest on the idea that the individual liberty of any person over their body may be subject to restraint when a “well-ordered society [is] charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members.” This justification operates primarily on the grounds of utilitarianism, a philosophy which views the morally correct action as the best outcome for the greatest number of people.
Before delving into utilitarianism, however, it is worth noting that the father of the common good, a key idea on which utilitarianism rests, is often thought to be Aristotle (384-322 BCE). He described this as a “common advantage” for all citizens of a polity which allows each individual to flourish at one’s greatest potential in the most ethical way possible. Aristotelianism became the dominant ancient philosophy throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, greatly influencing philosophical titans such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) whose intellectual tradition undoubtedly occupies an important place in the Western moral tradition.
Like Aristotelianism, utilitarianism also has roots in Classical Antiquity. Figures such as Epicurus (341-270 BCE) reasoned that it is the purpose of every person to pursue ataraxia and aponia, or states of “serene calmness” and “the absence of pain.” Epicurus and his philosophy of Epicureanism are often wrongly associated with gorging oneself excessively on gourmet food and wine, but in reality the primary Epicurean ideal is the simple pursuit of long-term pleasure. Pleasure in this sense can be thought of as both mental and physical, as happiness and bodily comfort. A key component of this search for ataraxia and aponia is living modestly among a community that one cares deeply about.
This idea of caring for the community and the common good being central to life was expanded upon by Enlightenment-era philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
Firstly, Thomas Hobbes devised the idea of the social contract, a literal or figurative agreement between the government and the governed that defines the responsibilities of each. In his seminal work Leviathan, Hobbes describes this compact as being the solution to the perpetual violent competition between individuals or groups of individuals within a society. The stipulations of this agreement are that in order to maintain social order for the benefit of the whole, some individual abilities, such as the capacity to steal, must be suppressed on a legal basis. Therefore, maintaining a covenant of mutually sacrificed rights is the basis for justice and stability. Although Hobbes’ Leviathan is a text which advocates for absolute monarchy to maintain the social contract, this root idea has been used by more liberal thinkers to construct a more people-centric view of society.
One of these thinkers was Jeremy Bentham, another Enlightenment-era philosopher, who fleshed out utilitarianism into a formal canon of ideals. Echoing Epicurus millennia later, Bentham wrote about how human beings are “under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” which determine how people act. This reasoning undermines traditional Augustinian thinking, which asserts the existence of an eternal struggle between a divine good and a sinful evil. Instead, when looked at in the aggregate, Bentham promotes actions that benefit the overall pleasure, happiness, and welfare of society. However, it should be noted that the tension between actions that might be pleasurable and evoking happiness for one person might not always be in perfect congruence with the action that fits these criteria for society at large.
While there still might not be a definitive answer for the friction between personal happiness and societal happiness, John Stuart Mill attempted to provide some clarification to this matter. He noted that while it might be the “ultimate desire” of each individual to act in a way conducive to their own happiness, this is usually not a person’s only object of desire; virtue for the sake of virtue plays a role as well. This virtue, defined by cultural values which universally possess some degree of reverence for one’s “in-group,” often combines with one’s rational self-interest in placing the highest value on actions that are positive both for oneself and one’s community.
Both Bentham and Mill advocated for utilitarianism with the goal of influencing the structure of society as a whole. Each attacked archaic traditions which they believed to be hindering the development of a society in which the most amount of prosperity could be achieved for the highest number of people, with both men supporting ideas such as the protection of freedom of speech and women’s suffrage.
The core of the different ideologies of Epicurus, Hobbes, Bentham, and Mill is the principle of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure for the greatest number of people. The Supreme Court expressed these basic “common good” ideals in its rulings which reinforced the legality of vaccine mandates; when deemed necessary by the appropriate authorities, one must be vaccinated against a given disease to perform certain functions in society.
Contemporary Vaccine Mandates
Presently, the history and philosophy of vaccine mandates become increasingly pertinent. The disdain for the Covid-19 virus is virtually universal among all Americans, but the response to this pandemic certainly has not been a unified front. The polarizing conversations about how we as a society might return to the sense of the “normalcy” we had prior to March 2020 have only gained more fervor following the development and deployment of the various vaccines combatting Covid-19.
As mentioned previously, much of the anti-vaccine sentiment in the United States has its origins in the past, but the present day zeal around the Covid-19 vaccines is largely wrapped up in a greater political storm whose tendrils reach deep into the past as well but have become increasingly emphasized in the last 10 years due to the rapidly approaching failure of the American Reagan-era technocracy. Concerns over subjects such as the short amount of time it took to develop vaccines and the contested necessity of people who have already been naturally immunized against Covid-19 to get the vaccine regardless, topics normally reserved for scientific forums, have been assimilated into the political circus that grips American discourse.
Thus, the debate around vaccine mandates has been ever more split down political lines, particularly among the ranks of mainstream establishment politicians. Whereas Republicans attempt to speak to the blue-collar Middle Americans who voted for Donald Trump, Democrats appeal to affluent urban and suburban white-collar workers. Of course, these two voting blocs are not mutually exclusive to either party, but much of the culture war messaging from the two parties has been directed at the aforementioned groups.
In order to try to lessen the Covid-19 case and fatality numbers at all costs, an approach popular with wealthy liberals, many political figures, the vast majority of whom are Democrats, began calling for and instituting vaccine mandates starting in the summer of 2021. At first, these requirements only applied to government workers, such as in the states of New York, California, and federal workers under the Biden Administration. Most of the mandates also had the option for workers to choose weekly testing for Covid-19 instead of taking the vaccine, although regular testing for Covid-19 can be impractical for many due to the shortage of at-home testing kits and variability of cost for certain tests.
Since the summer, however, these mandates have expanded in scope. In early September, President Biden ordered vaccine requirements for healthcare workers and federal contractors, a mandate which covers nearly 100 million Americans. Following this, in October, Governor Gavin Newsom of California set in place a vaccine mandate for students of public and private schools over the age of 12.
Furthermore, states such as New York, Colorado, and Oregon, among others, have since taken a more hardline stance on vaccine mandates for healthcare workers, removing the option for weekly testing and enacting a “vaccination or termination” policy. Going forward, an upcoming mandate from the White House will, pending approval from OSHA, seek to require the Covid-19 vaccine for businesses with 100 or more employees, covering another 80 million workers but allowing for the option of regular testing.
A significant gust of wind in the sails of vaccine mandates also recently occurred with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a Maine vaccine mandate for healthcare workers that did not allow religious exemptions. Although this was merely an emergency decision as opposed to an official ruling, this verdict tracks with the historical support for vaccine mandates from the Supreme Court. Another pro-mandate decision was made on Oct. 29 by a United States appeals court in support of the New York vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. These decisions come alongside a number of firings of workers refusing to take the vaccine in spite of mandates, including police officers in New York City, a Washington football coach, and North Carolina and Colorado healthcare workers.
However, resistance to these mandates has been fierce. Many Republicans including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, and Arizona Attorney General and Senate candidate Mark Brnovich, plan to or have already filed lawsuits against the Biden Administration’s vaccine requirements. Kristi Noem and Ron DeSantis joined 18 other states in banning Covid-19 vaccine mandates, doing so via executive orders. Among these 20 Republican-led states is Texas, with Gov. Greg Abbott having banned vaccine requirements via executive order while advocating that the Texas Legislature pass a law which expands this ban. This law, however, has met resistance in the Senate due to opposition from business groups.
Anti-vaccine sentiment has also been seen among the citizenry. Parents in California pulled their children out of school in protest of the vaccination requirement imposed by Gov. Newsom; police officers in Seattle unfurled Gadsden flags from their vehicles to show their displeasure with the mandate soon to affect their department; and both current and former Southwest Airlines employees gathered in front of the Southwest headquarters in Dallas to resist the company’s vaccine mandate. In Republican-led states such as Texas, these protests likely have a better chance of success given the Republican political rejection of vaccine mandates, but only time will tell what the ultimate fate of these requirements will be at the state level.
The legal battle over vaccine mandates in the United States will surely continue. More protests will take place, politicians will bash or defend the requirements, and vitriol will be spit from both sides of the aisle. In the current political climate of this nation, no result is certain and nothing is set in stone. However, if the principle of utilitarianism maintains precedent in the court system and the aforementioned Supreme Court rulings stand, it is very likely that these vaccine mandates will hold, at least at a federal level.
Whatever, the case may be, we as a society must recognize that there has never been a unified consensus on this issue. There has always been debate, sometimes heated and at the highest levels of government, over the idea of vaccine mandates. And yet, this debate has never torn our nation apart; the principles of freedom of speech and the right to protest enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution have thus far held Americans together, no matter the differences between them. Let us see to it that this pattern does not change.
Categories: Domestic Affairs