Monday, June 30, 2014

Vaccination is NOT a "Personal Decision"

I have seen many times recently where someone posts an article, a comment, or whatever about how vaccination of children is the moral thing to do and then all sorts of people chime in with bad science and bad reasoning.  It drives me crazy and, frankly, makes me a bit angry at all the innocent people, especially kids, who will get horrible diseases as a result of the perpetuation of this latest bit of American gullibility, scientific ignorance and anti-intellectualism.  (So apologies if this post comes across more strongly worded than usual) But what irks me the most (well, one of the things at least) is when people trivialize or dismiss the issue by saying things like "it's a personal decision" or "every family must decide for themselves", etc. 

Now, let's back up for a second.  There are five basic groups (here's where I'll probably get in trouble!) of which I think most anti-vaccine folks fall into at least one (often more): 1) Charlatans; 2) quacks; 3) people with poor reasoning skills; 4) people who, as a result of poor reasoning skills (thus making this a subset of 3), think that faith in God is incompatible with modern medicine; 5) people who have been deceived by any or all of the above.  It's really a very similar phenomena to snake oil, superstitions, and all manner of popularly spread falsehoods that have polluted society from its very beginning.  It's really all in the same boat.

So when people say the sorts of things I listed at the end of the first paragraph, I can't stand it. Seriously, it's only a personal decision in the same sense in which it is a personal decision whether to fire a gun into a crowded room is a personal decision.  And every family must decide for themselves, yes, but in the same sense in which every family must decide for themselves whether to commit murder (thankfully, most choose not to).  These attempts to sidestep the issue or ward off the ethical duties associated with it are perilously close to a lapse into utter ethical or even factual relativism - the whole vaccine thing might be true for you, but not for me! Such attempts make it seem like it's a matter of taste whether we ought to vaccinate or how safe vaccines are, rather than a matter of objective fact.  They make it seem like the issue is unclear in some way or that reasonable people, reasoning well, with the same facts available, would disagree with each other.  But, of course, none of that is remotely true.  Nor is it true that it is strictly personal, since the effects of such decisions affect others and society as a whole.

I think it is telling that the issue is often spoken of in terms of "my beliefs" or "personal beliefs" and other language usually reserved for matters of taste, "philosophies of life", or weakly-held religious convictions, as opposed to the language of scientific fact, evidence, or objective ethical realities.  The latter kind of language is appropriate here, not the former.  Yet I think the former actually does capture how this opposition to vaccines actually functions in many people, even though it shouldn't.  It is a quasi-religious belief held dogmatically and immune to actual evidence or reasoning (and not based on any good evidence or reasoning and certainly anti-scientific authority).  Whereas I think religious beliefs can in fact be justified, being responsive to evidence and reasons, and, if true, can have adequate epistemic grounding, this anti-vaccine position does not have the benefit of being a central node in a foundational world view or being even supposedly divinely revealed. Whereas religious beliefs, for instance, can at least make claims to divine authority, anti-vaccine positions do not have anything close going for them - there is no real claim to authority here and hence no reason to treat it in the way it gets treated by its proponents.

Ultimately, there should not be "sides" as to whether most children should be vaccinated - any more than there should be sides over whether we should let toddlers play alone in a pool with a live handgrenade and a family of water moccasins.  And, what's more, these "sides" matter - lives, health, and economy are all on the line here - but people do not think properly about them; they do not actually look at the evidence objectively and without resorting to logical fallacy.  People should stop merely "feeling strongly" about the issue and start thinking strongly (and, more importantly, thinking well).  Perhaps critical thinking classes or classes on scientific reasoning would be useful, assuming people would pay attention or actually absorb what they were taught.  At the end of the day, I would make vaccinations mandatory for everyone for whom there was no special health risk associated with them.  That way, people can be ignorant, deluded, and so on all they want without it hurting others. But then, that's why, in America, I'd probably never be elected for office in the first place!

1 comment:

W.LindsayWheeler said...

I would also like to second your opinion on this matter.

My reasoning is based on the Natural Law. Humans are herd animals. (Aristotle, man is a SOCIAL animal.) That is part of the Natural Order of things. We are all members of a group. The Natural Law is "Parts make up the Whole". Part of ethics is that we must consider impact on the group. Vaccination is not a "personal decision" or a "family matter", but is The Good of the Whole. We are members of a whole and in that case we have a duty to the Whole.