Free-riders, collective benefit and the philosophy of mandatory vaccination

Thomas Schramme is Professor of Philosophy in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Philosophy, and the author of the book, Theories of Health Justice

“Get vaccinated, protect the NHS, save lives” – is a message that is easy to imagine appearing in the UK.

From a philosophical point of view, vaccination is interesting because it combines an immediate benefit to the vaccinated person with a cumulative benefit to others, meaning every citizen benefits at least indirectly from mass vaccination.

So, do citizens who reject vaccination behave like free-riders?

They avoid the costs but reap the benefit. The cost is the jab itself. It can be risky in terms of side-effects, or it can be against personal beliefs, or it can be something that is feared. There are multiple reasons, and they aren’t always irrational.

Free-riding seems morally wrong, but it is important not to morally condemn vaccine refusal, or to interpret the individual side of the dilemma – rejecting a contribution to a collective goal – as based on selfishness or as a case of people not doing what they are required to do.

Getting vaccinated is different from paying taxes or paying for a fare. The costs involved can be high. It is not straightforward for individual citizens to be obliged to take such a risk or to make such a sacrifice to the collective.

The best approach is to describe the problem in more neutral terms, as a social dilemma scenario. Such dilemmas ensue in specific collective action contexts, such as vaccination of a population.

The gist of this type of problem is that it might be beneficial for an individual to “defect” in cases where others cooperate as they will reap the rewards anyway. But if all individuals defect, the group is unable to achieve the collective benefit. Traditionally, these problems have been neutralised by a sanctioning power. Legal coercion, punishment, and so on, are means to ensure that people observe the jointly beneficial rules.

So, does that lead us to an argument in favour of mandatory vaccination?

Some will say that the risks that come with vaccination are far less significant than the risks voluntarily unvaccinated people pose to others, albeit indirectly as defectors in the joint effort to achieve herd immunity. This argument has some bite, but there are implications. We thereby seem to introduce a duty of citizens to risk their own health for others and perhaps even to forfeit deeply held personal values. In other words, making vaccination mandatory leads to a duty to help others by sacrificing the individual’s own bodily and personal integrity. This is asking too much, I think, of citizens.

We normally don’t ask for such a level of contribution to society; though it is of course commonly required in specific roles, such as being a fire-fighter. Maybe that’s why the metaphor of a war against COVID-19 is so pervasively used – to prepare people for making collectively requested sacrifices. However, even in war we don’t ask people to make sacrifices because they pose a risk to others. Rather, we assume an overriding common aim to which contributing in a specific way is a necessary means. This is surely different from the current scenario.

Finally, we need to consider the global nature of the pandemic. Even if herd immunity is achieved in this country, unvaccinated visitors will pose an indirect increased risk to others, because they reduce the percentage of immune citizens by making the herd bigger. But these visitors cannot simply be deemed free-riders if they have not had the option to get vaccinated, for reasons beyond their control. At this point the vision of mandated vaccination becomes even paler.

Altogether, from an ethical perspective, the idea of mandated vaccination is not without merit. Yet, there are significant problems – both ethical and practical – that speak against it.