Monday, March 22, 2021

Against the Heckler's Veto: Why We Should Ignore the Welfare of People Who Choose Not to Vaccinate Out of Paranoia

Emily Oster recently argued that once adults are vaccinated, we should go back to normal. We needn't wait for children to be vaccinated. While unvaccinated kids will get infected at higher rates than vaccinated adults, simply avoiding infections in children is not the goal. Instead, the goal is to avoid severe illness. In fact, the data shows that children's rate of moderate to serious illness, once infected, is on par with the overall rate for vaccinated adults. So, get the adults vaccinated and then get back to normal. The point of keeping children masked and out of school wasn't to protect the children, but to protect adults.

I would add here that in a normal year, flu is much worse for kids than COVID-19. (COVID-19 is of course much, much worse for adults and thus much worse overall, but that's not what we're discussing now.) However, none of you recommended we close off schools or shut down things to protect children from the flu in 2019. Accordingly, if you say we should shut down schools or close the economy to protect kids (not adults, just kids) from COVID-19, I don't believe you are sincere, and neither do you. (The charitable thing is for me to assume you know you are making a bad argument with a conclusion you don't believe, but that you are doing so for social reasons. Soi-dissant progressives especially derive social benefits from exaggerating the risks of COVID-19.)

On Facebook, one prominent philosopher responded to Oster's argument by asking, what about the adults who are eligible to vaccinated but choose not to do so because they are paranoid about the vaccine? A fairly large percentage of adults assert that they will never take the vaccine. Note that he was not here discussing the very small number of people who have genuine contraindications to the vaccines, such as people with genuine allergies to the ingredients. Rather, he meant dumbasses and dipshits who refuse the vaccine out of paranoia, conspiracy theories, scientific illiteracy, and so on. What do we owe them?

Here, I think this is a softball question: nothing. The reason is that we generally have no obligation to change our behavior to accommodate a heckler's veto. (Indeed, if you are a rule consequentialist, you might go further and argue we have a general duty not to accommodate such vetos, in order to reduce the tendency of others to make them.)

The idea of heckler's veto goes as follows: Take any action, P, which is permissible. Now imagine that a person makes a credible threat to do something wrongful or bad if you choose to do P. Do you thereby acquire a duty not to P? For instance, if the bully says that he'll beat someone else unless you break up with your girlfriend, do you have a duty to break up? If the evil government official says that he will persecute other people unless you quit your religion and join his, do you have a duty to do so? If I credibly threaten to kill a kitten unless you stop playing guitar, do you have a duty to do so? If I threaten to kill a kitten if you watch the Bachelor tonight, do you have a duty to avoid watching it?

Here, most people conclude the answer is no. The heckler does not change the moral valence of your actions by making a credible threat. In some cases, it might be prudent to give in, and perhaps if the heckler threatens a genuine moral disaster, you might have compelling moral reasons to give in. But you don't in general have to acquiesce to the heckler's demands. (Even an act utilitarian can agree, though I won't go through the exercise of explaining why here.)

This is even more obvious when the heckler intends to harm himself. For instance, suppose I say, "Unless you, the reader, stop playing video games, I will cut my finger off." This does not seem to impose upon you any obligation to stop playing. You can rightly tell me to go to hell. 

Now apply this to adults who could safely take a good vaccine, who have access to good vaccines, but who choose not to become vaccinated out of paranoia or scientific illiteracy. Should we keep the economy or schools shut down to protect them? No. In effect, the voluntarily unvaccinated are saying to the voluntarily vaccinated, "You had better choose to keep yourselves miserable, hurt your own economic prospects, ruin your social life, have no vacations or shitty vacations, keep your kids away from schools, and so on, or we will voluntary expose ourselves to high health risks." The proper moral reaction to such a threat involves words "fuck" and "off". In this case, the adults in question voluntarily choose to incur these health risks. We do not impose it upon them by getting back to normal; they impose it upon themselves. After all, they could have chosen to become immune. Their reasons for choosing not to do so--scientific illiteracy, social benefits from propounding conspiracy theories, etc.--explain their behavior but do not excuse it, and do not give us reason to treat their implicit threat differently. 

In response to this point, the philosopher in question suggested that while it's true we don't owe it to the hecklers to stay shut down, we might owe it to their kids. After all, a small minority of these irrational parents will die because they choose not to become vaccinated, but their kids will suffer the consequences. 

But then this brings us back to the heckler's veto when the heckler threatens a third party. Suppose I make the following credible threat to you, the reader: "Henceforth, you had better start voting the opposite way, and you'd better give up your favorite hobby. Otherwise, I will kill myself. Sure, you don't owe it to me to acquiesce to my threat, but think of my kids! They'll be so sad! And even with my life insurance, their economic prospects will suffer! You owe it to my kids to acquiesce to my threats." 

Here, again, it seems the answer is no, you don't have a duty to comply. Yes, my kids would suffer, but that's my fault, not yours. It's regrettable, but the negative consequences of my actions do not impugn you.

So, let's be clear. People who, out of irrationality or illiteracy, choose to avoid the vaccines, have no moral standing to demand of us that we keep shut down. They are, in effect, threatening us, demanding that we keep being miserable in order to protect them and their children from themselves. The morally proper response is to ignore them. Once vaccines are available for all adults who want them, we should go back to normal.