McDonough School of Business
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Mandatory, Government-enforced Vaccinations are Crucial to Avoid Disaster

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? This is an ongoing and heated debate between parents, doctors, and political figures. As we are in the midst of flu season, the anti-vaccination movement continues to sweep the country. Despite the risk of refusing vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported in the American Academy of Pediatrics health journal, Pediatrics, a steep rise of pediatricians who report parental vaccination refusals, upticking from 74.5 to 87 percent of doctors in a seven-year timeframe.

Jason Brennan, a Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Ethics at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, defends mandatory, government-enforced vaccination and argues people who refuse vaccinations violate what he deems the “clean hands principle,” showing anti-vaxxers are wrongfully imposing undue harm upon others. Brennan explains his position in his new paper, “A Libertarian Case for Mandatory Vaccination,” which will soon publish in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the foremost journal in the fields of medical ethics and medical policy.

“Mandatory vaccination is about group responsibility to prevent harm, and there are real dangers when parents refuse to vaccinate their children from diseases that were practically eradicated in the United States,” Brennan said. “As the anti-vaccination movement continues to gain strength, government-enforced vaccination can be justified even within a libertarian political framework.”

Brennan says government-enforced vaccination can be endorsed by even those who begin with strongly individualist and anti-government premises, such as libertarians, who hold it unjust and impermissible to force individuals to act to promote the common good. Brennan argues in his study that citizens should be made to accept vaccinations because those in society who fail to do so impose wrongful risk of harm upon others.

“Anti-vaxxers across the United States are processing scientific information in highly irrational ways, resulting in outbreaks of deadly, dangerous, or debilitating diseases, such as measles,” Brennan said. “It is crucial members of our society abide by the ‘clean hands principle,’ when there is a moral obligation not to participate in collectively harmful activities caused by a herd mentality.”

Brennan says those who speak out against vaccination tend to seek out misinformation and actively reinforce each other in reasoning, behaving in reckless ways.

Brennan discusses in his paper how historically it appears mandatory vaccination regimens work extremely well and that government failures in this particular endeavor are relatively minor. Even within a libertarian framework that assumes citizens cannot be generally forced to help each other or have strong rights against interference from others, Brennan argues governments can require citizens to accept vaccinations, turning libertarian thinking on its head, to “avoid disaster or catastrophic moral horror.”