Pro-Vaccine Arguments That Don't Work: 'Get A COVID Shot Or You're Un-American'

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Always eager to win friends and influence people, The Conversation recently published an article claiming that people who refuse to get COVID shots are selfish and un-American. This is not how you convert vaccine skeptics.

Stories like this one continue to fill my news feed: Why refusing the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t just immoral – it’s ‘un-American.' Taking aim at people who assert that governments can't make them get vaccines, Penn State ethicist Christopher Beem claimed that “arguments grounded in self-interest can often be correct – but still deeply inadequate.”

Vaccines, the accepted medical wisdom rightly notes, don't just protect us from deadly diseases, they also protect our friends, neighbors and family. Therefore, some commentators say, Americans who refuse immunizations are selfish. Beem went further—these people are immoral and un-American:

The Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have others do unto you — manifests that concern for the well-being of others is at the core of morality. Those who choose not to take the vaccine ignore this concern and therefore act immorally. But, I would argue that their indifference to the welfare of others is not only immoral, it is also un-American.

 If we want more people to get vaccinated, shaming them into doing their patriotic duty won't work. Let's examine why that is by breaking down Beem's version of this claim.

Your civic duty

Citing several statements made by James Madison, Beem argued that America's founders believed in individual liberty, but that a free society couldn't survive without virtuous citizens willing to cooperate for the greater good:

Madison argued that this other side of human nature, this concern for others, had to be operative if democracy were to survive. In fact, he insisted that, more than any other form of government, a democracy depended on virtuous citizens.

We have some evidence that the founders were enthusiastic about inoculation, but there's no indication that they believed Americans should be pressured or forced into compliance. Kevin Gutzman, professor and former chairman in the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University, told ACSH by email that

Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic supporter of vaccination and inoculation ... He also sent matter for use in inoculation with Lewis & Clark. However, he did not force free people to be vaccinated or inoculated--even when, as in the cases of Lewis, Clark, and their subordinate soldiers, he could have ordered it. 

It's conceivable that the founders wouldn't have objected to state (as opposed to federal) immunization rules, though, Gutzman added, "we have no evidence that they thought states as an internal matter had a right to force people to be vaccinated, though that would have been a matter for each state to decide for itself." We also know that riots broke out in Virginia when smallpox inoculation was initially introduced into the colonies. [1], [2]

In any case, how do you think vaccine skeptics will react to this argument? Not only does The Conversation think you're selfish and immoral, but James Madison would have, too. “Well since you put it that way,” you could never imagine a skeptic responding, “let me roll up my sleeve.”

Shame can motivate us to change our behavior, but it has to come from people we trust. The science community needs to earn the public's trust before it claims any kind of moral high ground.  

You're making it worse

Beem also argued that

Rising case numbers and hospitalizations, renewed restrictions regarding public events, even the emergence of the delta variant itself are happening largely because many millions of Americans chose not to get the vaccine.

While cases have rebounded in the wake of Delta, they are still less than half what they were in January. This very well may change; deaths lag behind cases and hospitalizations, and the variant could cause another surge. If it does, though, this is the context in which it will happen:

We still want vaccine uptake to climb, but more than 60 percent of US adults are fully vaccinated, as are more than 80 percent of Americans over 65—those most vulnerable to severe infection and death. Millions of us are also running around with some level of infection-induced immunity. We are clearly gaining ground against the pandemic.

This isn't to suggest that COVID-19 is a thing of the past; the virus is probably here to stay and we still have much to learn about how to control it. Still, the constant panic-mongering and finger-pointing need to stop, because they are counterproductive. 

Back to Beem:

And for parents of children under 12 who cannot yet receive the vaccine – some of whom are immune compromised – the thought of returning to school this fall with infection rates again climbing no doubt fills them with dread.

"Whatever their partisan identification," a YouGov poll recently reported, "two-thirds of the American public (66%) and three in five parents with K-12 students (62%) agree that schools need to be open at full capacity this fall." 59 percent of parents said schools should be allowed to require masks, but these numbers don't suggest America's moms and dads are filled with dread. I think I know why, too.

The evidence is clear that children generally don't spread the virus very well, and their risks of hospitalization and death remain low, even post-Delta. "At this time," the American Academy of Pediatrics reported on August 5, "it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children." 

A word about selfishness

Years ago, the economist Milton Friedman was asked whether or not it was wise that our society ran on a greedy system like capitalism. After pointing out that greed pervades every country, no matter its economic views, Friedman quipped, “Of course, none of us are greedy; it's only the other fella who's greedy.”

Friedman's point is helpful in this context. Why do we want the skeptics to get vaccinated? So they don't infect others. Who are the "others" here? Us! Pretending that it's only the anti-vaccine fella who's selfish is transparently false and thus unlikely to convince anyone to get a COVID vaccine. If we want the praise of people who already agree with us, articles like Beem's are great. But if we actually want to boost vaccine uptake, we should abandon these kinds of arguments immediately. 


[1] According to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia: "There were deaths associated with the inoculation process, as it initiated the disease, though in a milder form. There was also the not-unfounded concern that smallpox could be spread through an inoculated person not properly quarantined. Consequently, inoculation often encountered fear and opposition."

[2] The College of Physicians of Philadelphia notes that "George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, ordered mandatory inoculation for troops if they had not survived a smallpox infection earlier in life." Beem didn't mention this, though.