Philosophy Professor Claims To Be Threatened With Dismissal for Refusing COVID-19 Vaccine


Julie Ponesse, a philosophy professor at Western University’s Huron College, says in a video that she is facing “imminent dismissal” by the university for her refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

 

Western University has adopted a policy that says “all members of our community – including students, employees and visitors – who plan to be on campus this fall will be required to demonstrate proof of vaccination, except under rare exemptions.”

Ponesse’s refusal is not based on one of the allowable exemption categories (medical or religious) but rather on claims of bodily autonomy. “I’m entitled to make choices about what does and does not enter my body.” She says this is true “regardless of my reasons,” though her main concerns seem to be unfounded and unexplained worries about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccinations, and the mistaken idea that since being vaccinated won’t guarantee that she won’t catch or transmit COVID-19, it is ineffective.

While we are perhaps familiar with this kind of anti-vaccination misinformation and foolishness by now, what’s also interesting about this case, apart from the fact that this one features a philosophy professor, is Ponesse’s conception of her job. “My school employs me to be an authority on the subject of ethics… and I’m here to tell you it’s ethically wrong to coerce someone to take a vaccine.” As Sergio Tenenbaum comments, “Whenever an ethics prof says something like that they have admitted that either they don’t know what their job is or that they are not very good at it” (related). That said, it may be hasty to assume that what Ponesse says in this video is representative of her approach to her work in a classroom setting.

According to several reports, Western University has not fired Ponesse. The CBC relays this statement from a university spokesperson: “While I can’t comment on individual HR matters, I can confirm to you that at this time, no one at Huron has been dismissed as a result of this policy.”

(via Hane Maung)

 

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stephen a jones
stephen a jones
2 months ago

So, ethics is ultimately “all about me”? Clearly I’ve been studying the wrong thinkers.—sjReport

Dennis Smith
2 months ago

If I wanted to go to school growing up, I had to have vaccinations. My choice, but there were consequences.

If I wanted to travel in Europe, I had to get vaccinations and have a record with me, no vaccinations, no travel. I couldn’t get a smallpox vaccination for health reasons and if an area had an outbreak while I was in Europe, I could not have gone to that area.

She fails to consider the “ethics” of communal responsibility. All she is focusing on is her individual personal autonomy. She is framing the consequential situation in terms of coercion and force. She is not forced to get vaccinated, she just can’t work there if she isn’t.

Authority to act includes responsibility for the outcome. The two go hand in hand and that is a part of “ethics” and ethical considerations.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Dennis Smith
Paul Hamilton
Reply to  Dennis Smith
2 months ago

“She is framing the consequential situation in terms of coercion and force. She is not forced to get vaccinated, she just can’t work there if she isn’t.”

This statement and general type of argument is either underdeveloped or not sufficiently clear. It is correct to say that one is not coerced by the natural consequences of one’s actions. For example, if I choose not to eat, I would have no grounds for complaining that I feel hungry. Nature does not coerce or force me to eat, though there are consequences for my not doing so.

But, that is not what we have here. What we have here is others imposing non-natural and non-necessary consequences for choices. These can be accurately described using the language of coercion and force. When I am presented with the choice of “your wallet or your life,” it is (absent explicit stipulation) accurate to say that I am being forced to give up my wallet and (absent explicit stipulation) inaccurate to say that I am not forced to hand over my wallet, I simply have to incur some consequences if I choose to keep my wallet.

What actually matters isn’t whether she accurately frames her situation as one of coercion or force, but whether it is legitimate for those others to impose these consequences upon her for these specific choices. Imprisoning and torturing someone for criticizing the government is clearly an illegitimate consequence to impose on another for that particular choice. Firing an employee for rejecting sexual advances is clearly an illegitimate consequence to impose for a particular choice. Repeatedly punching me in the head is a legitimate consequence for my opponent to impose on me for my entering a boxing match.

It isn’t clear that firing her is a legitimate consequence for her choosing to not be vaccinated. It is clearly illegitimate if intended for paternalistic reasons. It may be a legitimate consequence to impose with the intention of preventing her from infecting others, but that isn’t at all clear. It would depend on how likely it is that one who has been vaccinated will infect others with COVID, what the counterfactuals are for those one might infect (if they are going to be infected no matter whether one is vaccinated, then one does not harm them no matter his or her vaccination status), how easy it is for others to avoid harms she may impose on them, and how valuable bodily autonomy is.

Given that vaccinations are effective at preventing severe illness and death, risks she imposes on others by her not being vaccinated are too small and avoidable to justify coercing her to be vaccinated and overriding her claims to bodily autonomy. Others can protect themselves from her choices if they themselves choose to be vaccinated.Report

John
Reply to  Paul Hamilton
2 months ago

You appear to be picking up on my request (below), so I’ll pipe in here.

Solid points for sure. Juicy insights. Here’s a quick n’ dirty rejoinder:

  1. I accept that this situation involves coercion/force, at least if these are defined in terms of imposing consequences on an individual who chooses not to meet an expectation
  2. I accept that the key question here is what would make it legitimate in /this situation/ to impose /this consequence/ on /this individual/ for making /this choice/.
  3. But, I’m not sure I accept that losing her job is /not/ a legitimate consequence for this individual making this choice in this situation, as I understand you to be suggesting.

Here’s roughly why:

Those who choose not to be vaxxed free-ride on those who do. I think this is the direct implication of your last two paragraphs: assuming others around this individual are vaccinated, it is not obvious what risks she poses to them if she herself is not vaccinated. (So there appears even less reason for her to get vaxxed!)

But the employer has a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of campus members. And this is possible only if there is wide-scale buy-in to vaccines. So if the university lets the unvaxxed free-ride, then it cannot uphold its responsibility to a safe campus experience for everyone: there is a good chance there’ll be a percentage of free-riders who exacerbate the pandemic.

So I guess the crux of my response is that whether she can free-ride on the vaxxed should not be a factor in evaluating whether her opposition to this university policy is justified. And this is because free-riding is deleterious to cooperative action, and insofar as this professor is engaged in a cooperative enterprise (e.g., working with humans, etc.), using free-riding as a justification to (i) not follow a cooperative norm (i.e., getting vaxxed) while (ii) insisting you should still be part of the cooperative enterprise is self-undercutting.

I think that’s what I think. But it does seem to me to be a somewhat complicated version of: If you do not like the rules, then there is the door.Report

Paul Hamilton
Reply to  John
2 months ago

I’ll admit to not being sympathetic to free-riding arguments. I don’t think my book club can thrust my well-worn copy of Anarchy, State, and Utopia into your arms and create some obligation upon you.

But to be more serious, either the free rider poses no extra costs on others or he or she does. If no extra costs are imposed, then it isn’t clear why it is (morally) bad that someone is a free rider. (I may free ride on my neighbor’s fireworks display, but there is nothing bad about my doing that. The badness has to come from more than just the fact that one is free riding.) If he or she does impose extra costs (some negative externality), then it still doesn’t immediately follow that coercion is justified. As I often reminded my business ethics students, it takes more than just identifying the existence of a negative externality to justify intervention to eliminate the externality, and even if intervention is justified, that doesn’t mean that all forms or means of intervention are justified to eliminate the externality.(Perhaps the externality even goes the other direction. Perhaps she bears a cost from others’ being vaccinated. Perhaps if they were not vaccinated, the school would engage in distanced learning (perhaps her preference), have no vaccination requirement, and she would still be employed. Perhaps those who want to be vaccinated actually owe her compensation!)

I’m unclear why what I said lends itself to a free-rider argument. My point isn’t that she benefits from others’ being vaccinated because their being vaccinated reduces the risk that she infects them, which somehow is a benefit to her. Rather, it is that if she is posing an increased risk to others, it is one that they can choose to mitigate. Those bearing the costs of the negative externality can easily and sufficiently mitigate those costs, which significantly weakens the case for using coercion and overriding a very morally weighty claim to bodily autonomy. But, I will take it seriously that she receives some benefit from others’ being vaccinated (or from participation in the broader cooperative endeavor) and consider your thoughtful argument as I understand it. I’m not claiming that you are wrong, but pointing to various concerns about the argument to clarify potential weaknesses in the spirit of helping find the best version of the argument possible.

I worry the free-rider argument here falls prey to the rule worship objection and heavily relies on an assumption that free riding is always deleterious to cooperative action. To avoid the rule worship objection it does need to be assessed whether she can free ride without undermining this cooperative endeavor. We have some evidence that she very well may be able to. Religious exemptions are allowed, so not everyone has to be vaccinated for the success of the cooperative endeavor. (Or perhaps everyone does need to be vaccinated for the cooperative endeavor to succeed, but because religious exemptions are allowed, it is doomed to fail. In which case, it is unjustified to coerce her in an effort to save the doomed endeavor.) The endeavor can apparently support some free riding without collapsing. Given that it can support some, I would think that to justify this imposition of this harsh of a penalty it i) needs to be shown that it cannot bear this instance of free riding OR ii) needs to be shown that a sufficiently high number of individuals in the campus community would free ride if additional exemptions were permitted. (There’s probably some clever way to avoid this objection)

It may also need to be shown that she has not already paid a sufficient cost to the cooperative endeavor such that she bears no obligation to the other members to bear this additional cost of vaccination as well. She has worked there for a long time, and perhaps has already done more than her fair share towards the success of the cooperative endeavor of the success and health and safety of the campus. In which case, she can slack in other ways (perhaps by not being vaccinated) without free riding. By analogy, if I do most of the research for a group project, I do not become a free rider when I contribute less to preparing the group’s presentation. I did more than my fair share in one respect, so I may slack in another without becoming a free rider.

Ultimately, I agree with your previous comment that they are entitled to release her from her contract because their doing so does not violate her rights. However, on my view, that does not make their action good or unworthy of blame (either as a moral violation or just a violation of desirable norms). I, even as someone who is vaccinated, unemployed, and quite upset over not being in the classroom, think their actions are worthy of criticism and I would not consider applying for a job with the school because of their behavior in this case. On my view, they do not take personal liberty sufficiently seriously and have an incorrect view about when coercion is appropriate. While they may hire and fire at will, there reasons for firing in this case strike me as bad reasons.Report

dionissis mitropoulos
Reply to  Paul Hamilton
2 months ago

Hello Prof Hamilton, i left a response for you here at this link (replying in this thread would have made the width of the comment box invisible):

https://dailynous.com/2021/09/09/philosophy-professor-claims-to-be-threatened-with-dismissal-for-refusing-covid-19-vaccine/#comment-426564Copied%20to%20clipboard!

It’s a big comment so please don’t feel the need to respond, i am only notifying you in case you might not see my comment at all.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Paul Hamilton
2 months ago

> Given that vaccinations are effective at preventing severe illness and death, risks she imposes on others by her not being vaccinated are too small and avoidable to justify coercing her to be vaccinated and overriding her claims to bodily autonomy. Others can protect themselves from her choices if they themselves choose to be vaccinated.

If vaccinations were 100% effective at preventing severe illness and death, this might be plausible. (Even then, there’s a question – we rightly prohibit people from throwing punches or throwing heavy objects in class, even though punches basically never result in severe illness or death, but only consequences milder than many breakthrough covid cases.)

If vaccinations were 0% effective at preventing transmission, it would *also* be plausible that there is no interest in requiring vaccination to teach.

But in between, there is a range of values where it clearly *is* reasonable to require vaccination. Vaccine effectiveness appears to be in the 90s, but that is compatible with a very wide range – does it reduce hospitalization by a factor of 10 or by a factor of 100?

Compare:

If wearing a seatbelt were 100% effective at protecting people from severe injury and death from car crashes (we might have to imagine some additional hypothetical intervention that is 100% effective at protecting pedestrians, cyclists, and other bystanders) then we would have no legitimate interest in compelling people to only drive sober. On the other hand, if sobriety had no effect in reducing people’s crash rates, we also would have no legitimate interest in compelling sobriety while driving.

But if sobriety reduces crash rates by 95%, and all the other methods we have of reducing severe injury and death from car crashes are only 90-95% effective, it still seems legitimate to compel sobriety while driving.Report

Dustin Locke
Dustin Locke
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 months ago

Kenny, I couldn’t agree more. EVERY TIME I’m in this debate it comes down to my interlocutor not seeing the implications of the fact that the vaccine is neither 0% nor 100% effective. Making the right decision here requires thinking about probabilities, and that is simply something too many people are unwilling or unable to do.Report

Jon Light
2 months ago

I hear her main concern as being about bodily autonomy, not concerns about the vaccine per se. Whether the vaccine was fine or not, we could still think people shouldn’t be forced to take it.

The reply to this always seems to be: yeah, but we require smallpox and polio, so that can’t be right. However, there’s little argument as to whether those are similar or different—there’s lots of relevant ways in which they’re different.

Particularly in feminist bioethics, there’s a lot of “my body, my choice”; I wonder why that’s not meant to generalize to instances like this as well?Report

Bill Quine
Bill Quine
Reply to  Jon Light
2 months ago

Well, I met a research group in Spain, supposedly affiliated with analytical philosophy, where colleagues did not know (or misread) Frege’s work. I know of a logic professor who is a guru on the weekends. I know of more than one research group that bases its relationship to the humanities on the work of an obscure Nazi. What do we think “the philosophers” are? Special beings with a “privileged access to the Truth”?
Postmodern philosophy, triumphing in this era of “post-truth,” is definitely committed to ironies and paradoxes like this professor’s. In its current literature, Foucaultian feminism has deified and industrialized the theme of “my body” like Texas ranchers have “private property.” The teacher is not ridiculous, her philosophical background is.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Bill Quine
Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Jon Light
2 months ago

I don’t understand how your first two paragraphs are consistent.

In the first you say this isn’t about this particular vaccine, it’s about a general principle of autonomy.

But then in the second paragraph you seem to say that references to other vaccine mandates aren’t necessarily dispositive because there are many relevant differences between this vaccine and those vaccines.

If the issue is just one of whether vaccine mandates are consistent with legitimate rights to bodily autonomy, it seems that the (presumed) legitimacy of other vaccine mandates would settle that issue. The arguments about whether those are similar or different would seem to clearly turn on disputes about the particulars of this vaccine.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 months ago

And insofar as there are differences between the Covid vaccine and those other vaccines, they seem to me to make the case for mandating Covid vaccines even stronger. We’re in the middle of a Covid pandemic right now, so vaccination mandates help prevent a clear and present danger, whereas the likely consequences of some people refusing vaccines for (say) mumps are much less serious. (To be clear, I think mandates are justified for both.)Report

Jon Light
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 months ago

Right, that’s fair, something I’m still working on. I guess I want to draw a distinction to the vaccine itself (i.e., the science-y part) from all the associated politics.

And so one way I’d want to *accept* the bindingness of smallpox, e.g., is that it’s neither controversial from a science or politics perspective. At the same time, the COVID-19 “vaccine” (by which I mean the things other than the vaccine itself) is fraught by all sorts of considerations that don’t apply to the smallpox vaccine.

So I guess the idea is to object to these vaccine mandates on “exogenous” considerations, like the process and the ways in which various actors play out. Part of that is an idea I’m working on regarding “vaccine bullying” that looks very different from smallpox situation. (E.g., here you’ve got all sorts of incentives/coercion that are pretty unique. Like Ohio running a lottery to financially reward people who get vaccinated.)

There’s also very little attention in the COVID-19 context to relevant *exemptions* from mandates; that should be a much more robust conversation than currently exists. It should probably include medical, religious, and philosophical exemptions, imo. The actual mandates (aside from the Indiana University one) are fairly narrow in the exemptions. So that’s another “exogenous” facet of this vaccine that isn’t leveraged in other settings.

I’m going to be really surprised if the Supreme Court doesn’t start knocking these mandates back. Not just for the obvious reason that there’s a 6-3 conservative majority and (almost) all the mandates come from liberal governors. But for the less obvious reason that *at least one* of these mandates is going to be broken, and that’s all it takes. (I also think Jacobson v. Massachusetts is going to get distinguished for all sorts of reasons, including the existence of Zoom and other things that didn’t exist in 1905. There’s no way the reasoning in that case straightforwardly transfers to the current setting. But that’s a prediction, so we’ll see.)Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Jon Light
2 months ago

Thanks for the reply. I would welcome an in-depth comparison between COVID-19 and other vaccine mandates that was both philosophically and historically informed.

The versions of that comparison I’ve seen so far have been much shallower and fail to account for the hindsight and status-quo bias built into our mostly unreflective endorsement of existing vaccine mandates. But as Tim O’Keef notes, any such comparison must take seriously that we accept existing vaccine mandates as restrictions on liberty to address merely the possibility of future outbreaks – dangers that are much more limited and indirect than, e.g. those imposed by the need to impliment crisis standards of care in Idaho or overwhelmed medical systems where my family lives in Georgia. And it must also take account more nuanced accounts of autonomy found in political philosophy, feminist philosophy, and the ethics of care, as Janella Baxter reminds us below. And of course it must take account the degree to which opposition to this vaccine has been intentionally promoted and amplified by bad faith actors in both traditional and social media.

What I object to in these conversations is the implication that the issue can be resolved using ‘gotcha’ arguments founded on simplified political slogans. This isn’t a game of political checkers or philosophical chess. People’s lives are at risk – and being lost – right now because their local medical system is overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID patients.Report

John
2 months ago

I think we can accept, ‘regardless of one’s reasons’, the claim that:

(1) I’m entitled to make choices about what does and does not enter my body

While seeing no obvious connection to:

(2) Therefore, my employer is not entitled to require I vaccinate as a condition of my employment.

In other words, it seems to me that (1) is plainly true, (2) is plainly false, and therefore that the solution is straightforward (albeit no doubt emotionally charged for involved parties, including this professor):

With an opening for this professor’s position pending, Western should take a peek at the knock-out applications of vaxxed philosophy PhDs. Something tells me there’ll be an embarrassment of riches.

Objections showing a route from (1) to (2) are sincerely welcome.

 Report

Blain
2 months ago

Dear Huron College: I’m fully vaccinated and would be delighted to take this person’s position. I’m already quite familiar with London (I grew up there!).Report

Jon Light
Reply to  Blain
2 months ago

Idk, I’d be more inclined to try to support this vulnerable colleague than clamoring over her position. I don’t think we should look at faculty positions as rotating doors that we’re just trying to fill; that sort of is a race to the bottom and makes us all less valued and more replaceable.Report

Blain
Reply to  Jon Light
2 months ago

Well, Jon Light, you will be relieved to know that I did not mean for my comment to be interpreted as a sincere letter of application. In any case, I normally am keen to support genuinely vulnerable colleagues. This person, however, is refusing to comply with a perfectly reasonable requirement for protecting the health of the people with whom she interacts in her job (*her* colleagues and students). Her own irresponsible behaviour is rendering herself needlessly “vulnerable.”Report

ehz
ehz
2 months ago

In the video she says that her job is to teach students how to think critically and to ask questions that might expose a “false argument”. It’s too bad that she doesn’t apply those skills to her own thinking.

She suggests that to agree to take the vaccine is to trust the authorities with control over her body, that the COVID vaccine(s) is just experimental and potentially unsafe, and that you’re always entitled to refuse to take a vaccine (or anything that goes in your body) regardless of your reasons or the consequences of your refusal.

Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is. Suppose you’re faced with a choice of being fired from your job or eating a beet salad, which you dislike. It might be wrong, unfair, unjust, etc., and you might bemoan the fact that you are faced with this choice. But, ultimately, surely the choice is easy. It’s hard to imagine that people will make videos of themselves crying in front of the camera and heroically be willing to get fired from their jobs over this. So there must be something else here, although I’m not exactly sure why. And given what Ponesse says in her video it’s not a matter of the safety of taking the vaccine, because she says that does not matter to her.Report

Lisa
2 months ago

Antivaxxers are almost always conspiracy theorists. IMO we’re significantly underestimating the danger to civilization of the conspiratorial mind, especially in the age of social media. Generally when people believe in one conspiracy theory, they believe in others, and if you research anti-vaxxers you will find that most are host to a variety of paranoid and irrational beliefs. While I believe in academic freedom, I think we need to do a much better job of weeding out those inclined to this sort of thinking–the Sandy Hook deniers, antisemitic Rothschild types, etc.–long before they reach tenure-track jobs. How long before we find there’s a QAnon follower in academia (or has one already been found?) The Academy has a responsibility not to lend credence–through the elevation of individuals to the role of presumed intellectual authority–to worldviews that are killing people, destroying families, and potentially threatening democracy itself. Otherwise, what are we here for?Report

James
James
Reply to  Lisa
2 months ago

Expertise in one’s field (along with related concerns, such as having a proven track record of success in teaching, securing grants, etc.) should be the only thing that matters in hiring. It is ridiculous to think that universities ought to ensure faculty members hold to the Correct View re: current party-line dogmas in fields far outside their own in order to be hired.

What does it matter if an expert astrophysicist with a laudable research record, success at obtaining external funding, and excellence in teaching also happens to believe there is a pedophile ring operating in the basement of Comet Pizza? Sure, all thing’s considered (i) it is unlikely that such an expert physicist would also hold this false and irrational belief and (ii) it might be preferable for job candidates not to hold such beliefs, and so deciding between two otherwise equally qualified candidates on the basis of one’s support for a wild conspiracy theory may be permissible. But it certainly doesn’t seem obvious (or, frankly, even true) that universities ought to consider this heavily when making new hires.

Last, I wonder how we might even craft a policy based on your suggestions. Do you think that, in addition to satisyfing all the other requirements of the hiring process, candidates should also be tasked with filling out surveys describing their attitudes towards various conspiracy theories that have nothing to do with their research or teaching? Should every candidate be asked “What exaclty do you think happened to JFK?” or “In your view, did Donald Trump win or lose the 2020 presidential election?” in order to get a job teaching art history or doing biochemical research?Report

Last edited 2 months ago by James
Chris
2 months ago

Apparently she is on paid leave.

Re: weeding out the conspiracy theorists from academia: it is hard to see how to do this better – the philosopher who was a Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist (and believed in other conspiracies) began his career doing mainstream philosophy of science and studied with a famous supervisor at a leading school.Report

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  Chris
2 months ago

Are you talking about James Fetzer?Report

Chris
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
2 months ago

YepReport

Rob Hughes
2 months ago

Anti-vaxxers may argue that employer vaccine mandates infringe their autonomy. But there is an infringement of autonomy if an employer requires workers to share an indoor workspace without imposing a vaccine mandate. Such an employer forces workers to share a workspace with unvaccinated coworkers. That is a significant burden on vaccinated workers, since breakthrough infections are possible.

Faced with competing autonomy claims, employers should do what’s best for their workers’ health and safety. They should mandate vaccination.Report

John Varty
2 months ago

Let me get this right: you are all happy for her to be fired because you disagree with her stance.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  John Varty
2 months ago

Compare:

“Let me get this right: you are all happy for a drunk driver to be forcibly detailed and their vehicle impounded by agents of the state just because you disagree with their stance on drunk driving.”Report

John Varty
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 months ago

I do not share your view that her actions are analogous to those of a drunk driver.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  John Varty
2 months ago

Be that as it may, your response concedes my point, which is that if there is any firing in this case it will be done based on disputed actions, not based on disputed viewpoints.Report

John Varty
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 months ago

Lisa wishes to have a witch-hunt that weeds out conspiracy theorists. I am not sure that you are right that people are only concerned about Julie Ponesse’s actions.Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  John Varty
2 months ago

Witch-hunts are objectionable if either there aren’t any witches, or witches themselves aren’t sufficiently dangerous. That inclusive disjunction is certainly satisfied in the case of witches. The analagous one in the case of conspiracy theorists is not.Report

Jason
2 months ago

I’ve been enjoying the commentary here.

I wonder if a compromise could be reached in the form of requiring professors to work remotely if they are unvaccinated.Report

Janella K Baxter
2 months ago

Setting aside what university policy should be regarding vaccine mandates (for now), I’m unsettled by the starting assumption that the appropriate way to make sense of autonomy is in individualistic terms. Alternative conceptions of autonomy (such as care ethics and some non-Western perspectives) understand autonomy in a more relational way. It seems to me there is an argument in favor of preferring a relational conception of autonomy in the context of a global pandemic given how an individual’s health and wellbeing can profoundly influence another’s. Furthermore, arguably a relational conception of autonomy can easily generate the conclusion that everyone (who is able to) is morally required to get the vaccine (assuming the vaccine is sufficiently safe and effective — which I’d argue many of them are). Personally, I’m not convinced that an individualistic conception of autonomy is the obvious starting point for this issue.

With that said, I’m sympathetic to the idea that the university’s policy to threaten people with loss of employment for not taking the vaccine is unduly harsh. Why can’t the university allow faculty who choose not to take the vaccine to teach remotely at least for the immediate future?Report

Kaitlyn
2 months ago

Seems ironic to me that an advertisement for the book, “When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People: How Philosophy Can Save us From Ourselves,” popped up under the article.Report

Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
2 months ago

Well, her freedom ends where my nose begins– fire her.Report

JTD
JTD
2 months ago

She appears to be assuming the following principle:

(1) An employer is not morally permitted to threaten an employee with termination if they fail to put something in their body.

However, this principle is way too broad and leads to some counter-intuitive results. For example, suppose I am a taste tester and, on a whim, start refusing to taste test half the items I am given. (1) says that my employer cannot tell me I will be fired if I refuse to taste the food. Or, suppose that I am payed to play a contact sport where mouth guards are compulsory. Again, (1) says that my employer cannot sanction me if I refuse to use them.

Given these examples, the principle she assumes is clearly false. A better principle would permit an employer to demand that their employee put certain things into their bodies only if: (i) the risk that employee is harmed by doing this does not pass a certain threshold (e.g., my employee cannot say that I will only keep my job if I do something that will likely cause me serious injury or death) , (ii) any risk of harm to the employee is outweighed by the likelihood of significant gain for the business employing them (e.g., my boss cannot demand that I insert funny looking dentures into my mouth just on a whim, or in order to humiliate me, but they can demand this if there is a legitimate business case for wearing them, such as being part of a clown show where funny teeth are expected, and the gain that comes from me wearing them (a successfully executed clown show) outweighs whatever risk there is to me that wearing them will cause me harm).

This principle appears to get the correct verdicts in all the relevant cases. Now lets apply it to another example. Your job is to go to remote tropical locations and do geological surveys. Your next destination has a high risk of malaria. If you catch malaria while working there your company will be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for an emergency medical evacuation. So they ask you to get a malaria shot. You refuse citing the very small risk that the shot will cause you serious side effects or death (which is lower than the risk of catching malaria and dying should you go to the island without the shot). Your employer says its ultimately your decision whether you get the shot but they will fire you if you refuse it as they cannot risk the serious consequences for them should you catch malaria doing your job. Clearly, the business case for their demand that you have the shot outweighs the very small risk of harm to you. Hence, it is reasonable for your employer to make this demand.

But this case is pretty closely analogous to workplace COVID vaccination mandates. So, both by appeal to the general principle defended above, and by analogy to similar cases, workplace COVID vaccination mandates are morally permissible. In any case, it is very disappointing that this professor made an unreflective appeal to our right to bodily autonomy at work without doing the basically intellectual work of thinking through some of the obvious cases that might arise, examining the main candidate general principles and then defending here particular stance.Report

Muffins
Muffins
Reply to  JTD
2 months ago

Your principle would allow an employer to demand penetrative sex from an employee as a condition of employment whenever (i) harm to the employee would not exceed the threshold you have in mind, and (ii) there’s some significant benefit to the business at stake. It’s easy to imagine cases where those conditions are met yet where it seems obvious that the employer can’t make that demand. So, I think your principle needs revision.Report

Lurky McLurkface
2 months ago

Can we shed some light by looking at this from the opposite direction? Taking as given that public health rationales for overriding bodily integrity are acceptable in the case of Covid, is there any limiting principle that allows us to say “This far, and no further”?

For example, at the height of the AIDS epidemic there were people who wanted to tattoo HIV-positive individuals as a warning to others. I assume everyone here thinks that proposal is ridiculous and unjustified. It is nevertheless the case that it would have reduced transmission of HIV, which was deadly back then and still requires a life-long medication regimen if you get it today. Getting a tattoo is less of an invasion of bodily integrity than getting a vaccine (yes? no?).

Again, the proposal is ridiculous, but how do we distinguish between it and a Covid vaccine mandate?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Lurky McLurkface
2 months ago

Would such a policy have reduced transmission of AIDS, though? Apart from being intrinsically morally undesirable, the stigmatizing and dehumanizing effects of such mandatory tattoos would have further disincentivized screening for and disclosure of HIV infection, making the disease harder to detect and its transmission harder to study. I also see no reason to think that a forcible tattoo would be a less significant invasion of the integrity of one’s person than a vaccine mandate, and plenty of reasons to see it as a more significant invasion.Report

Lurky McLurkface
Lurky McLurkface
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 months ago

For sure; I agree with all the points that you’ve raised. But I could have just as easily countered with:

  • It absolutely would have reduced transmission; no one is going to have sex with someone who has a tattoo. We just have to be more vigorous about finding the infected… maybe OSHA could promulgate an ETS mandating testing at work?
  • The stigmatization is justified to protect public health. They are, after all, carrying a deadly, communicable disease.
  • It’s self-evident that injecting something _into_ your body is more invasive than tattooing something _on_ your skin.

And so on.

But observe the exchange which has just occurred. You and I have gathered and presented, in an ad-hoc fashion, those factors which we believe to be relevant, and our respective assessments thereof. Many of the factors which we might deem relevant are subjective, or incommensurable, or both. I don’t feel that its much of a stretch to hold that reasonable individuals could disagree on a) which factors are relevant and b) how those factors should be weighted.

So again, let me ask you for a limiting principle. Is there some readily-articulated rule by which we can say “these things are fine, and these things are beyond the pale”? Or, instead, is there just an endless sea of greys, with people squinting and saying “yeah, that balances out OK” on the basis of how they personally weigh the various factors under consideration?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Lurky McLurkface
2 months ago

I agree that approaching the issues from both directions – starting with assumed-acceptable and assumed-unacceptable examples of mandates – and looking for underlying principles and differentia is a good method. I did not mean my response to your specific example to be an indictment of your proposed method. I hope others will continue that process, and I look forward to seeing candidate limiting principles proposed as our national and international discourse on these issues continues. As a philosophical matter, that is all to the good. But I also think it’s perfectly reasonable, as a matter of immediate practical decision-making, to take the on-face much closer examples of existing vaccine mandates as a presumptive basis for justifying similar mechanisms for addressing the rather pressing need of resolving the sort of life-and-death coordination problems we’re currently facing.Report

Lurky McLurkface
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 months ago

it seems that we’re in violent agreement, for the most part. I would then take this opportunity to make a general observation (not directed at you in particular, Derek):

This is a _hard_ problem which should be approached with a degree of epistemic humility. In particular, given the difficulty in identifying guiding principles, we should be less quick to judge that people who come to a conclusion which differs from our own are obviously wrong. And we should be _very_ cautious about invoking the power of the state to coerce people when there is room for legitimate disagreement about means and ends.Report

dionissis mitropoulos
2 months ago

I am reposting my exact same comment trying to fix the italics through the system’s menu, in case my original comment that awaits approval will not be recognized by the system as having italics in it (i have not commented here since long )

Hello everyone, hello Prof Hamilton
 
This is an attempt to contribute to the thread here:
 
https://dailynous.com/2021/09/09/philosophy-professor-claims-to-be-threatened-with-dismissal-for-refusing-covid-19-vaccine/#comment-426476Copied%20to%20clipboard!
 
 
I am not a philosopher, but I like analytic philosophy, and the issue of the mandatory vaccines is something that has defined my life the last 2 years (I was  anticipating it in horror from the beginning of Covid, I am a conscientious objector to vaccines). I found your analysis in response to the point of commenter (Dr? Prof?) Dennis Smith very useful conceptually and I was wondering whether we could improve upon it with a few considerations I have in mind. Everyone please keep in mind that, me not being a philosopher, my attempts at theorizing will necessarily be as analytically defective as your students’, so I am warning you in case you don’t feel like spending time on such writing. Commenter Dennis Smith said “<i>She [Prof Julie Ponesse]  is not forced to get vaccinated, she just can’t work there if she isn’t</i>. One of Mr Dennis Smith’s tacit points sounds like being that it is illegitimate to exploit the rhetorical force of the term “being forced” in the case of coerced vaccinations. You rightly, to my mind, point out that <i> “What we have here is others imposing non-natural and non-necessary consequences for choices. These can be accurately described using the language of coercion and force. When I am presented with the choice of “your wallet or your life,” it is (absent explicit stipulation) accurate to say that I am being forced to give up my wallet and (absent explicit stipulation) inaccurate to say that I am not forced to hand over my wallet, I simply have to incur some consequences if I choose to keep my wallet.”</i>.
 
 The jargon in the literature of vaccine ethics  seems to be drawing a distinction between various coercive policies by reserving the term “coercion” only when the State makes the omission of getting vaccinated a crime or something similarly punitive, and reserving the term “mandatory” for cases of more “moderate” interventions by the State –(“moderate” in the sense of being felt as less onerous by a reasonable person? that’s how I interpret the following paragraph from philosopher Daniel Haliday):
 
 https://www.publicethics.org/post/should-a-covid-19-vaccine-be-mandatory
 
   
<i> “We might first wonder exactly what is meant by “as mandatory as you can make it [the vaccine]”. Really there are a range of different ways in which governments can use their powers to get citizens to do things, including receive a vaccine. The most radical approach would be to make it a crime to not get vaccinated, backed by a threat of legal punishment. Some countries have gone so far as to issue fines to citizens found to have failed to get vaccinated against certain diseases. A more moderate approach, typically preferred by governments where existing vaccines are concerned, is to withhold certain benefits until evidence of vaccination can be provided. For example, a condition of getting one’s child placed in a state childcare facility in Australia is to provide evidence that they have been immunised against the various diseases for which there are established vaccines. In the literature on vaccine ethics, it is customary to talk of ‘coercive’ vaccine policy when the approach is of the more radical punitive sort. The term ‘mandatory’ is often used to refer to the more moderate practice of withholding benefits, though this still counts as coercion insofar as it involves the government attaching credible threats to vaccine refusal. (In saying “there are no compulsory vaccines in Australia” the Prime Minister’s remarks avoided explicitly ruling out this weaker approach.). Whether a radical or moderate approach is justified in the case of a COVID vaccine depends partly on what the status quo is like in the country in question … “</i>
 
 
By the way ,the (clearly mistaken, to my mind) tacit position of the Prime Minister of Australia, and the general idea that, as long as you have a way out of the bad consequences of the action threatened by the State, you do not count as being forced, is elucidated picturesquely by former Yale Professor of Preventive Medicine (and my favourite go-to source for evidence-based takes on healthful diet and Preventive Medicine) in an example with acquiring a driver’s license: you can choose to not acquire it, but you have to suffer the consequences of not being allowed to drive which were avoidable if you had chosen otherwise:
 
 
 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/nature-vaccine-reticence-david-l-katz-md-mph-facpm-facp-faclm/
 
 
<i> “The closest thing to a cogent expression of the opposition [to getting vaccinated]  would seem to be a claim of violated civil liberties. That is a non sequitur, however. I am aware of no mandate, no proposal for a mandate, and no argument in favor of a proposal for a mandate- to vaccinate hermets. If you want to stay where you live, by your unvaccinated self, you are, so far as I know, at complete liberty to do so. All mandates pertain to public places, and communal interactions. I am aware of no mass opposition …  to driver’s licenses. You are not obligated to get a driver’s license. You can be both an unvaccinated and unlicensed hermet, and no one will object. You can even drive a car without a license- as long as you do so on your own property. The license requirement is part of a quid pro quo: if you want to use public roadways, then you must be licensed.”</i>
 
I think, Prof Hamilton, that your example with the thief who threatens “your wallet or your life” clearly defeats the idea that there can be no forcing once you have a way out of a threat. In fact, the Mafioso example of “an offer you cannot refuse” (1)  is a similar instance of being presented with an alternative whose consequences are so onerous that it is almost impossible to accept the alternative, thus making the feeling of having been forced very relevant. And I think we may be able to do better in countering this type of argument by making a thought experiment with the thief threatening to shoot one’s child in the knee – so that the harsh consequences are firstly experienced by someone other than the agent. We surely would want to talk about “being forced” in such cases (an analogous threat  being  Dr Fauci’s condemning the agent’s daughter to a life without formal education if the agent does not get the vaccine), even though we do have a way out (by getting vaccinated) and even though we are not the primary target of the threatened harm.
 
Now, there is a moral difference between making an omission to get vaccinated a crime, and making a benefit conditional on vaccination, but the differences seem to be a matter of degree, and some benefit retractions might be impermissible too.  This moral  difference most naturally comes to my mind as somehow dependent on/relevant to  a) how onerous the threat by the State is <i>felt</i> by the agent to be, and secondarily  b) how warranted the experience of coercion/forcing is (subjectively or objectively warranted, my analytic thinking here is hazy more than my usual).  
 
Dr Hamilton, you rightly cut through all this to go to the gist of the matter in a more general way, I quote you:
 
<i> “What actually matters isn’t whether she [Prof Ponesse] accurately frames her situation as one of coercion or force, but whether it is legitimate for those others to impose these consequences upon her for these specific choices. Imprisoning and torturing someone for criticizing the government is clearly an illegitimate consequence to impose on another for that particular choice.”</i>
 
It is here that I would like to ask you if you see something analytically useful in the following take of mine: as a vaccine recalcitrant I have been time and again finding myself exasperated at the daily verbal assaults by the media and officials (the Prime Minister of England, probably the country with the most old-fashionedly polite population in Europe, publicly called “antivaxxers” “nuts”. The Brits typically don’t talk in public in such aggressive ways, this was a clear signal by the British elites that those like me who are vaccine recalcitrant and who reside in the UK are fair game of verbal mobbing. In my country things are not that bad but they are bad, mainly in the form of casting us as free-riders (I am not attempting to free ride because I am offering to be deliberately infected even under State supervision so as to get the immunity sought for the sake of contributing to herd immunity) or as selfish in that we putatively do not care about the harm we may inflict upon others (but I threaten no one if I get deliberately infected and then self-quarantine). Seeing the absence of the position of people like me in public discourse I am consumed by a feeling of injustice and I instinctively find refugee in moral talk expressive of the idea “my body, my choice”, which by the way was a long-held, and publicly stated, principle of mine, I value bodily autonomy and, more generally, my liberty as an indispensable part/necessary condition of my well-being. I am not a market libertarian, I was always uneasy about libertarian views on taxes, but I had to tolerate their beliefs on what seems to me (maybe mistakenly, I haven’t read the relevant literature on egalitarianism) to be grounds of consistency: If I don’t’ want the State to prohibit my brother to marry his boyfriend or to prohibit my sister from having an abortion, or my trans daughter to get surgery whenever she wants it if she wants it, or to coerce me to get vaccinated, I felt I had to be consistent in calling for State non-interference in those issues that mattered to me (abortions, gay marriage, trans rights), a consistency that dictated, to my mind, maybe mistakenly,  that I not demand from the Sate too much taxation on the rich – leaving the whole thing vague in my head. But I am not a market libertarian at heart, I wouldn’t mind seeing USSR style redistribution tomorrow morning across the planet, my lifestyle is degrowth incarnate, return-to-Nature and all of that, and I was living it before I even knew that the term “degrowth” exists. So I guess I can’t count as a libertarian in the current usage of the term but I want to keep the bodily-autonomy libertarianism and along with it the term “Libertarianism”. After all, between property and body, the latter must definitely be normatively weightier in its pro tanto inviolability  even in the minds of the most fervent market libertarians – or so I thought. It’s sad that we live on a planet that the State feels comfortable with messing up with people’s bodies but not with their taxes. All this introduction, Prof Hamilton, was meant to give you a picture of the inner world of some of us vaccine recalcitrants – those who are into the Green parts of society, the pro-Nature parts (organic foods sites, environmentalism, wellness), usually systematically misinformed by their leaders with outright and extravagant vaccine misinformation (that vaccines are not effective is a standard mantra), but all the same disposed to this laissez faire mindset re their bodies; these people exist, they have Nature-based intuitions re natural lifestyles and re the right to bodily freedom but they are silent in the public discourse because they are marginalized by the mainstream as their  brains are full of extravagant anti-vaccine misinformation. Anyway, the idea of bodily autonomy keeps popping up in my mind, and keeps popping up under various verbal guises in everyday layman’s discourse I overhear re vaccines, and it popped up in Prof Ponnesse’s video, so it is something, I think, that should not be analytically ignored. I would also add, taking a page from commenter JTD’s excellent (to my mind) analysis of Prof Ponesse’s proferred principle of bodily autonomy, that here we have a particular instance of violation of bodily autonomy that cuts as deep as it gets: it is violation of bodily integrity via forced administering of potentially hazardous substances within the body – it being understood that forced tatoos are included because some ink gets “ingested” by the body, and it is bad for the body to have ink circulating in it. My tentative description of the harm excludes forced consumption of salad (as another commenter said) and it excludes forced injections with water – water and salads are not hazardous at all, they are certainly  violations, but are not as morally serious as the forced ingestion or incorporation of potentially harmful substances. The plastic denture in my mouth is indeed a harm because I will ingest particles of plastic, but if the employer provides me with a marble one, or a wooden one there is no bodily integrity violation of the specific type of interest to me in this discussion. Here is commenter JTD’s excellent additions to the required amendments of the bodily violation principle that Prof Ponesse offered, with whose final conclusion re the cost-benefit comparisons I disagree as it is stated:
 
 
https://dailynous.com/2021/09/09/philosophy-professor-claims-to-be-threatened-with-dismissal-for-refusing-covid-19-vaccine/#comment-426512Copied%20to%20clipboard!
 
 
So, Prof Hamilton,  I would frame your more general point in a bit more fine-grained fashion, here is how I would tentatively put it: what matters is not whether we frame the real violation of the vaccine recalcitrant’s bodily integrity with hazardous substances as an instance of her having been forced, which she indeed has been, but whether it is legitimate for those others to impose these consequences upon her as a response to these specific  antivaccine choices. Do you see it as adding to the discourse? A benefit of it that I see is that it allows me to ask those who call us foolish or conspiracy theorists to not allow their tacit dehumanization of us to drown in their minds the fact that the violation of anyone’s bodily integrity through forced ingestion of potentially hazardous substances warrants pro tanto regret, regret in proportion to the receiving agent’s perceived onerousness of the violation irrespective of whether the perceptions of the receiver are warranted, a fortiori so in case they are warranted. In other words, violations of bodily integrity of the specific sort  do not seem to me to be fungible (2):
 
https://www.philosophyetc.net/2012/02/separateness-of-persons.html
 
 
This does not mean the violations are always unjustified. But it means that they should be perpetrated, if appropriate, with the right state of mind, which means there must be a realization that you are seriously harming some of the vaccine recalcitrants, if only for the sake of the greater good. At the end of the day, the majority of the vaccine recalcitrant are people who are afraid. Fear, even the irrational fear of, say, an arachnophobe, should not be seen contemptuously. Now, why do I see this description of the harms (i.e. <i>ingestion</i> (or absorption) of potentially hazardous substances) as the most appropriate? Because it appeals to God knows what is ringing in my lizard brain when I see the threat of someone’s injecting my body with potentially hazardous substances. There must surely be something relevant to our evolutionary make up that makes us so touchy when we perceive a substance we have to “incorporate” in our bodies as dangerous (this is scientifically uninformed empirical speculation of mine). True, I am more sensitive to this harm than the average vaccine recalcitrant, but the others’ fear too must be tracking something similar to mine. By the way there are others who are far more sensitive than I am, and warrantedly so, albeit for different reasons – some Black vaccine recalcitrants, anyone? Terrell has (veridically) heard from an older relative that the US government had experimented on Black people, or something to that effect. He has also lived his whole life in abject poverty, with all the bitterness that such poverty inescapably brings into one’s heart. The result is an atavistic fear, much like mine albeit for different reasons,  of what the government wants to inject his body with. How can one justify vaccine coercion to him? And if in his attempt to make sense of what is lurking behind the sudden urge of the government  to vaccinate him he forms a theory that falls under the label “conspiracy theory”, is it really warranted to talk about him in the dismissive way of “oh, antivaxxer, I should have known he would be a conspiracy theorist too”? If anyone has an issue with conspiracy theorists, why not track in her statements this particular feature, i.e. the production of conspiracy theories, or the disposition to fall for them, instead of conflating it with vaccine recalcitrance? Anyway, Prof Hamilton, I was trying to paint a picture of some of the vaccine recalcitrant’s specific concerns in the hope of maybe adding something ameliorating to your initial take. My own take is that the fears of the vaccine recalcitrant, whether warranted or not, are worthy of concern simply on account of their phenomenal feel: fear feels equally bad, whether warranted or unwarranted, so long as it is sincere. A fortiori fears pertinent to something protected even by Human Rights Law (the pro tanto right not to be forced to bodily violation for medical reasons). This aspect is missing from all the public discussions about “antivaxxers”. Moving a step further, if the fears happen to be warranted they may be justifying the recalcitrance, I suggest. But I’d better stop here to wait for your take if you have the time to respond.
 
FOOTNOTES
1: “An offer he can’t refuse”: I sincerely hope this counterexample, a cultural depiction of Prof Hamilton’s point, puts an end to those attempts to cast us (vaccine recalcitrant) as not having been forced, and hence as not having been harmed.
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeldwfOwuL8
 
https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/an-offer-he-cant-refuse.html
 
 
2: I am quoting from Prof Richard Chappell’s excellent blog, which is a fantastic source of learning for non-philosophers like me interested in philosophical Ethics and thinking analytically about it, but I do not share the environmental positions he tacitly supports in this post (philosopher Travis Rieder, who Prof Chappell mentions, is my type of philosopher on environmental issues, judging from the abstracts of his philosophical papers.  Report

dionissis mitropoulos
Reply to  dionissis mitropoulos
2 months ago

This the link i was referring to in footnote 2 above, i erroneously forgot to post it, as i just found out

https://www.philosophyetc.net/2018/04/three-kinds-of-offsetting.htmlReport