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An epidemic of misguided moralising

The difference between vaccine sceptics and advocates is not as great as it appears

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There is nothing it is possible to think of … that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will. Immanuel Kant

When it comes to morality, it really is the thought that counts. We cannot be immoral by accident. Rather, we must choose to do something we know to be wrong. Thus, if I went around papering houses with what I (not unreasonably) believed to be harmless, pretty patterns but what was in fact arsenical wallpaper, I would undoubtedly be dangerous (and perhaps go by the name of William Morris), but I would not be immoral. 

Let’s move closer to home: an old lady is taken ill, and two doctors argue over the most appropriate form of treatment. In the event, only one can be right — factually right, that is, for is it impossible that both be morally right? Surely it is a factual disagreement (How do we cure the lady?), not a moral one (Should we cure the lady?). Unless one doctor entered the profession in order to kill off as many patients as possible, the two must share the same aim. Now say the family follows the first doctor’s advice, whereupon the poor lady dies. This would certainly be a stain on his professional capability (unless the case was hopeless anyway), but not on his moral character. He intended to save her and did what he thought best.

This is not to say that we should give free rein to the ignorant, but rather that we should see them as such, instead of conflating scientific and moral issues. Call them misguided by all means (provided you can explain why), but do not attack their moral integrity without cause.

Any student of history is aware of how difficult it can be to determine which is the ignorant side, which the well-informed. Take Semmelweis, whose suggestion that surgeons wash their hands was met with ridicule, or William Harvey, who was ostracised by the scientific community for correctly describing the circulation of blood.

How many people revel in the idea of spreading disease?

Science thrives on open debate, yet all too often any attempt to question the mainstream narrative (as Semmelweis, Harvey and countless other great scientists did) is stifled by ad hominem attacks. It should be possible to disprove a theory without attacking the theorizer. Yet too many lockdown advocates accused sceptics of disregarding human life, despite the very opposite being true. Scientists and commentators opposed lockdowns precisely because they were so concerned about the loss of life, such as from diseases other than Covid (which, strangely enough, still exist), poverty, suicide or domestic abuse. (See Laura Dodsworth’s A State of Fear). Lockdowns undeniably caused many deaths. The question is whether they prevented even a single Covid death — and there is reason to believe that they didn’t.

Of course, I am unqualified to comment on such matters with any authority, yet the question which prompted the writing of this article may, perhaps, fall within my remit: is it immoral not to take the Covid-19 vaccine? I shan’t go into the details of side-effects, clinical trials or government data. Whether I am factually right is irrelevant to this meta-discussion. If I believed the vaccine to be reasonably safe and effective at protecting others (whether I put myself at risk is my own affair) and still refused it, then I might, indeed, be selfish. But only if I genuinely believed that the virus was a great threat and that at relatively low cost to myself I could minimise this threat to others. To whom would this ever apply? How many people actually revel in the idea of spreading disease? How many would refuse such a vaccine in such circumstances out of sheer spite or laziness?

For argument’s sake, let’s say I was not convinced that the disease was a great threat to most people. Say I did not believe that this new vaccine was safe. Say I did not believe it was at all effective at protecting others. Would I still be selfish in preferring not to take it? In other words, how does my refusal to take a treatment I believe to be ineffective and harmful make me a bad person? Perhaps I am factually mistaken. Perhaps even dangerous. But not immoral. 

The drunk-driving analogy proposed by media personalities and politicians alike is clearly confused. Once more (and forgive me for repeating myself, but many otherwise intelligent people seem unable to grasp this), it is the intention that matters. To get behind the wheel knowing one’s reflexes will be slower and knowing the likely outcome thereof is obviously morally wrong. It is common sense: we feel our loss of control; and it has been studied. The effects of alcohol on our bodies are well understood and have been for many years — unlike Covid-19 or the very new Covid-19 vaccines (which, due to lack of data, could not be given a full authorisation by MHRA or EMA). 

Most of us believe in proportionate measures

Furthermore, a drunk driver, by taking a substance, is wilfully courting danger, whereas an unvaccinated person, by not taking a substance, is merely omitting to pursue extra safety. One active, the other passive. Arguably, the unvaccinated person is not careless at all, but acting from the very opposite principle. If one thought a new injection could do more damage than the disease itself (which, given the uncommonly high number of serious side effects reported to EudraVigilance and VAERS, is not absurd), one might reasonably wait until more information became available. Why does nobody consider that the unvaccinated might be erring on the side of caution? (Not merely because of potential side-effects that would affect them or loved ones personally, but from an epidemiological perspective: mass-vaccinating into a pandemic could create more harmful or resistant variants, which in turn would pose a greater threat to the vulnerable whom the vaccines were supposed to protect in the first place. Such considerations, no matter whether correct or not, are hardly selfish.) But let us leave the driving analogy by the wayside lest we analyse it to death. 

Regardless of our views on Covid policies, we may not be so different in our approach to perceived risk after all. Some people have identified the virus as the greater threat, others the new vaccine. The former are therefore prepared to incur damage from the vaccine, the latter damage from the virus. If we assessed the risk in the same way, we would presumably behave similarly too. Naturally, there are extremes on both sides: those advocating absolute freedom and those welcoming authoritarianism with open arms. But most of us lie somewhere in between. Most of us believe in proportionate measures.

To all my former friends, to all those who have accused me of callousness for refusing a medical treatment (not to mention the “fascism” and “racism” apparently informing my decision), I say this: I assume your name-calling is a result of misguided thinking rather than a nasty character, that you are too afraid, too emotional to disentangle the moral from the factual. I assume that though we disagree, you are not bad people. Though you supported measures which in my opinion caused more harm than good, you did so in good faith. Please, whatever our views, let us not assume the worst of others.

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