Friday, January 23, 2015

How should people respond to anti-vaccination parents?


As many already know, California is suffering through the worst measles outbreak in 15 years, an epidemic that has spread to four other states and Mexico. It began when non-immunized measles-carrying Disneyland guests infected other visitors. Measles is ultra-contagious, so if someone has it, “90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.” Disney has responded by warning those who aren’t immunized to avoid the park and have instructed their ill employees to stay home.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those who got sick through their own bull-headed and anti-science beliefs. You play the game, you take your chances. But I do feel quite bad for their children, for those kids who are too young to be immunized, and for those who are too poor to have access to good medical care. My heart goes out to people who caught the illness because of others' ignorance.

But what is an infected family to do about these irresponsible anti-vaccination activists? The answer seems simple: they should sue the heck out of anyone who might have given them the illness. They should take any infected person whom they came in contact with and demand significant and costly remuneration.

It is not illegal to skip vaccinations. While some districts prohibit unvaccinated kids from attending school, there are religious, medical, and conscientious-objector exemptions in many states. So, arresting the anti-vaccination parents or taking away their children is not an option. Yet, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions and beliefs. Suing them is a sign of respect. In doing so, no one is forcing them to do something to their kids they don’t want to do, but it is asking them to come to terms with how much they are willing to sacrifice for their convictions. This is the same basic argument I made when I advised leaving restaurants to protest open-carry activism.

To explain: the anti-vaccination debate is an instance of the philosophical need to balance the common good with individual freedoms. Respecting the common good means acting so as not to endanger others and to work to better everyone’s lives in a community. This obligation comes with living in society and if someone is unwilling to care for the common good, he or she needs to move to international waters or, even better, off planet.

But we also live in a society that respects individual rights, particularly those stemming from religious, moral, and political beliefs. Therein lies the tension. What happens when a person believes something that runs counter to the common good? The notion that we are free to act only up until the point in which we hurt someone else—John Stuart Mill’s harm principle—isn’t much help because any action can be seen to help or harm others, depending on what we arbitrarily designate as the relevant consequences.

I would suggest instead that the best balance between individual rights and the common good happens when we take people seriously and hold them accountable for their beliefs. Had people ignored Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil disobedience, had he not been arrested, his power as a political leader would have disappeared. (As Ellie Wiesel famously put it, the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.) What the police didn’t understand—what they still don’t seem to understand—is that the more they respond with unjustified force, they more power they give their victims. The best thing America could have done for Dr. King (and for us all) was to grant true and equal civil rights to everyone without delay. But since that didn’t happen, the second best thing was to take him seriously enough that he amassed enough power to change the world.

In other words, if the anti-vaccination parents really want to be heard, if they really believe their kids need to be protected from disease-causing medicine, it is only respectful to expect them to pay the consequences when they turn out to be wrong. To not make them pay restitution is to infantilize them. It would be as if we were patting their heads and saying “you are of no consequence, go play somewhere else.”

This approach hinges on the idea that the critics of the vaccinations are wrong in their beliefs; it is about the nature of objective truth and the negative consequences of falsity. The claim that vaccinations actually cause diseases is as wrong as the claim that 2+2=3—it just is—but if my friend Ralph insists on his alternative mathematics, that 2+2 does indeed equal 3, then the best way for me to respect him is to let him come up short at the end of the month and not be able to pay his bills. The anti-vaccination parents are in the same boat. If they are not wrong about vaccinations, then they will never have to pay a cent, but since they aren't, they'll soon be forced to see how expensive their ignorance really is. Most will give it up and the world will be a safer place, and they will have changed their own minds, or at least, reevaluated their priorities. 

My point then is as follows: every time we sue an anti-vaccination person for the damage he or she has done, we are saying “you are a person and we respect you enough to hold you accountable for what you believe.” The right to be a moron is not in the constitution, but it does lie at the very foundation of what it means to respect the dignity of all people. We are not free if we are not permitted to make mistakes and we are not moral agents if we are not held accountable for the things we do

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