Editorial: When Principles are in Conflict

Simply “acting on principle” is not good enough. Simply demanding “freedom” is not good enough. It is not even good.

Simply “acting on principle” is not good enough. Simply demanding “freedom” is not good enough. It is not even good.

Most of us like to think that our actions are informed and controlled by principles; but which principles shall we choose?

Kindness, forgiveness and mercy would seem to be virtues that have universal and salutary application – and certainly they are admirable and desirable, most of the time. But even these estimable qualities can at times be called into question. Suppose one encounters a severely and hopelessly injured person – what is one to do? Simply stand by and wait for the mercy of death? Offer what help we can even if it is evident we would be adding to the victim’s pain? Or even hasten death to minimize suffering?

Each of these quite different possibilities can be defended by a different principle:

  1. Let the experts handle it; you might do more harm than good.
  2. Offer whatever help is possible.
  3. Relieve suffering.

This is not to argue against kindness, forgiveness and mercy, but to simply point out that even these estimable qualities can contain elements that are in conflict. Fealty to any one principle cannot provide unerring assurance of moral behaviour.

Some principles are fraught with more ambiguities than others. Take freedom. Is there any other idea that is both so fundamentally important to a dignified human condition and yet so egregiously misappropriated? There are important ideas regarding freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of the press, freedom of religion (and freedom from religion) and others, but that does not mean that any of them, at times, is beyond legitimate challenge. And it certainly does not mean that the idea of freedom is some universal standard for what is of value in human life. Yet, in increasing numbers here and particularly in the United States, freedom is being taken as the final measure of value. Years ago there was a common saying that “I’d rather be dead than red,” a dubious observation at best.  Now it is common to hear something to the effect that “I’d rather be dead than be required to have a vaccination.” How did we get to this point? How has rational thought taken such a beating; why has reason, apparently, gone into such retreat? Will such folly prevail?

Yes, there are conflicting principles involved here. But the saving of untold numbers of innocent lives, and trying to prevent an even worse plague, would seem to trump all of the others.

Principles are important guides to our behaviour. They help us think about what right and what is wrong, but there are no shortcuts to moral responsibility. That is not simply a matter of, say, determining if our actions lead to greater personal freedom. Morally responsible behaviour is much more complex that that; it requires research, serious thought and reflective insight. It is not well-served by simplistic sloganeering.

Let us examine, more closely, the current widespread confusion about freedom and vaccinations. The best freedom argument (I  will not consider here the absurd objections voiced by conspiracy theorists, science haters and others of that ilk, nor the ridiculous, anarchic actions of the so-called truckers) goes like this: the most basic freedom of all is to have autonomy over our own bodies. That has long been the claim of abortion rights advocates. How can we claim that women have that sort of control over what happens to their bodies, on one hand, but not have the right to refuse vaccinations, on the other?

But no principle is absolute. There are always counter-principles, which of course are not absolute either. A rational assessment of the matter involves weighing the relative strengths of the relevant principles; it is not that one – bodily autonomy – automatically wins out in all circumstances, but that its force in the abortion case may be less obvious in other cases. Abortion is a matter of mostly personal consequences, mainly affecting the mother and prospective child. Permitting an abortion is not going to lead to a proliferation of other such events – it is a traumatic event for all women. Abortions may marginally affect population figures, but that is probably a good thing. Granting abortions will not lead to a catastrophic decline in population. So, on this reasoning, there is no good argument for restricting the bodily autonomy of women seeking abortions.

Vaccinations, though, are a different matter entirely; they are not just personal choices, mainly affecting the person making the choice. Mill’s principle of doing no harm comes into play here. Refusing to be vaccinated does not just threaten the person making the choice – that could well be allowed, reasonably, by freedom advocates. But others are also threatened by the refusal to get vaccinated – others, innocents, who have had no choice in the matter.

But there is a more sinister prospect here. We are painfully aware of the prospect of viral mutations. So far these seem to be of the same order as the original virus – killing hundreds of thousands of people. But what happens if the virus mutates to a much deadlier variety, one that does not respond to existing vaccines or treatments? Every new case of covid presents another chance for the emergence of a new, more catastrophic virus.

The risk here is no small matter. It probably a low probability, but no one really knows. Should the plague worsen in this way, I wonder if the bodily autonomy advocates, and the other anti-vaxxers, will reconsider their unworldly fear of getting a little jab in the arm.

There are many reports and analyses of the threats posed by anti-vaxxers, but for some reason one has stuck in my mind. In May of 2019 Gavin Francis wrote an article for the New York Review of Books called “Resistance to Immunity” In his article Francis writes:

In Japan in 1947, 20,000 children died from pertussis [whooping cough]: by 1972, thanks to vaccination, the figure was zero.  Then in the winter of 1974-1975 there were two high-profile deaths following administration of the vaccine, and vaccination rates plummeted; by the end of the 1970’s the disease had resurged, killing more than forty people a year in Japan.

These Japanese children are no more important than the millions of children who have suffered cruel deaths throughout human history, but somehow the idea of 20,000 of them dying in one year, for lack of a vaccine, has haunted me. And then to have it prevented, and then to have a resurgence of the illness due to anti-vax efforts – is horrifying. These children who died were loved by their parents as much as any children are loved by their parents, and the grief of the parents as acute as that of any parent who has lost a child – a grief acute as any suffered by humans. In every instance of these Japanese children dying, there would been a similar grim sequence of events – a beloved child falling ill, parents desperate to do something to save the child, perhaps a frantic run to a hospital followed by an unbearably sad doctor’s report to the parents. Something like that would have occurred for each of the 20,000 – illness, panic, death, grief. And what a relief for subsequent generations, that this need not happen to their children. Vaccinations, perhaps the most important of all medical discoveries, ever, would protect them. All that human agony caused by this one illness would be no more. Except for the perfidy of those who would, for many dubious reasons, let children die unnecessarily.

Francis wrote his article before the full malevolence of the covid anti-vax movement was fully engaged. But he was prescient in his implicit warnings. Now we have the spectacle of anti-vaxxers comparing those promoting life-saving vaccines to Nazis and the Holocaust, and other absurd and meritless claims.

Yes, there are conflicting principles involved here. But the saving of untold numbers of innocent lives, and trying to prevent an even worse plague, would seem to trump all of the others.

An editorial reflection on the content of this magazine:

This magazine is “Humanist Perspectives,” not “The Humanist Perspective,” as it is sometimes called. The reason for this, when the name was adopted in the mid-2000s, (it was formerly “The Humanist in Canada”) was that we represent many different non-secular points of view, not a single one. We might, for example, argue in one article that religion provides false and harmful grounds for moral behaviour, and in another we might say that religion, though fanciful, does more good than harm. The belief in a natural world – the belief of most modern humanists – does not preclude either of these perspectives. But we are not likely to argue, for example, that there actually is some sort of supernatural presence in the universe. That would not be a humanist argument. So, while I believe that anti-vaxxers are a manifestation of latent and dangerous anti-intellectualism in society, and I have little sympathy for the plight of those who oppose the stunningly successful accomplishments of the scientific world in fighting the pandemic, I must acknowledge and accept that other humanists can have other legitimate perspectives. We have articles in this issue of HP I find distressing, but I would find it more distressing if I felt moved to silence these legitimate voices – humanist voices – from this issue exploring the idea of freedom. It would be ironic indeed if, with this theme in particular, I published only that work I found to be agreeable.