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Our panel of 89 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Since the word "deontological" covers a lot of territory, I'm going to start with an assumption: I'm assuming that for you, the deontological point of view is non-consequentialist and broadly Kantian: it says that we can't treat people as mere means to an end, even if the end is otherwise a good one. (If that's not what you mean, my apologies.)

If we have a mandatory vaccination rule, on the surface it's all about consequences: it's to protect people from preventable illnesses. But if we make people get their kids vaccinated even if they'd rather not, that sounds like treating them as means to the end of protecting others, even if there are other values at issue from their point of view. So your question is whether letting them opt out by home schooling their children is enough to make the rule acceptable.

We already have such a rule for parents who prefer not to send their children to public school. If that's okay, is there any reason to think a similar rule wouldn't do in the case of vaccinations?

One answer might be that for many parents who actually want their children to to go public school, home schooling isn't a realistic option. Among those parents are some who also don't want their children to be vaccinated. If home schooling is the only option the state gives them, the argument might go, that's too high a burden.

Whether that's right or not, the deontological street has two sides. Suppose I want my child to have the benefit of going to public school, but I don't want her vaccinated. If I insist that she should be able to attend anyway, this sounds like a case of imposing a risk on other children for the benefit of my own child; it sounds as though it might flunk the deontological test itself.

There's another complexity. It might be wrong for parents to put other children at risk for the sake of their own children. And it might be acceptable for the law to prevent them from doing that. But it's not simply a case of the law requiring that we treat others as ends and not as means. I shouldn't be selfish, and there are deontological reasons for that. But a law forbidding selfishness would be a bad law. What people are morally obliged to do and what burdens the State may legitimately impose on them aren't the same issue.

Where does this leave us? We agree that when the State imposes burdens on people, there has to be a justification. And for many (most?) of use, our reasons for saying that are at least partly about respecting people's autonomy. But we also think that at least sometimes, the State can require people not to put fellow citizens at risk. The reasons are partly consequentialist, but they also have a deontological component: it's not fair to allow people to impose at least some kinds of risks on other people.

In the vaccination case, it's hard to see that vaccination laws would automatically be illegitimate. But it's also hard to see that a law with no exceptions would be legitimate. The question of just what would be the right mix depends on questions about the proper limits of State coercion, but also on a detailed understanding of the risks, the realistic options, and the ways the law already handles related cases. That means that while philosophers can bring insight to the debate, they can't do it from too high a perch. The kind of wisdom called for here is what we might call political wisdom, and that's a kind of wisdom that's fairly close to the ground.