Tuesday 20 June 2023

Refusing the COVID-19 vaccine: What’s wrong with that?

Today's post is by Anne Meylan (University of Zurich) and Sebastian Schmidt (University of Zurich) on their recent paper, "Refusing the COVID-19 vaccine: What’s wrong with that?" (Philosophical Psychology, 2023). Anne is the director of the Zurich Epistemology Group on Rationality (ZEGRa) and Sebastian is a postdoc at ZEGRa.

Anne Meylan

This article analyses the cognitive attitudes of people who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. We argue that vaccine refusers are responsible for their belief that they should not get vaccinated and that they are rational (although mistaken) in holding this belief. We support this conclusion by building on recent philosophical theories of responsibility for belief and of the rationality of attitudes. Our conclusion has further implications for public health policy: there is a reason not to use non-argumentative means, such as mandatory vaccination or certain kinds of nudging, to make rational vaccine refusers comply with vaccination recommendations. Although this reason has significant weight, it is pro tanto and can be outweighed by the harm that is caused if a significant part of the population remains unvaccinated.

We rely on some empirical research that states the main motivations of people who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine: not being concerned about the virus because of one’s age, worries about the effectiveness of the vaccine, and distrust in epistemic authorities. This allows us to build a case of a ‘standard vaccine refuser’ who is representative of a large class of people who think that they should not be vaccinated. We describe a case of a relatively privileged individual. If we can show that this person is responsible and rational in her belief, then this allows us to conclude further that less privileged and more marginalized individuals are rational as well.

Sebastian Schmidt 

We argue first that the standard vaccine refuser is responsible for her belief, and thus in principle open to criticism or blame: her belief isn’t just delusional, but rather responsive to evidence or epistemic reasons to a sufficient degree. Part of our argument is that standard vaccine refusers are inquiring people who allow themselves to be swayed by new incoming evidence. They also behave differently towards the MMR vaccine (many of them are willing to take it).

We then consider the rationality of the standard vaccine refuser from the perspective of philosophical theories of rationality. We first point out that the attitudes of vaccine refusers aren’t obviously incoherent: they don’t contain an obvious contradiction and they aren’t conflicting with other beliefs about evidence. We then consider various objections and acknowledge that, although some of their implicit beliefs are likely contradictory or incoherent, these implicit beliefs don’t render vaccine refusers irrational in a sense of ‘irrational’ that implies legitimate criticism or blame. 

Finally, we argue that vaccine refusers respond correctly to their evidence or epistemic reasons. This is because their distrust is often rational, especially when it comes to the experiences of marginalized groups with medical, scientific, and political authorities, and because our epistemic environment is polluted, for instance by fake experts and problems within our current scientific practices themselves.

Finally, we point out that, given an epistemic condition on responsibility, vaccine refusers seem to be often blameless: their action of refusal rests on rational belief. This has implications for public health policy: enforcing rational people to comply with what one takes to be morally right can endanger their autonomy.

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