Tag Archives: Collective Action

An Obligation to Immunize

It is just to limit the harms to our society’s public health, only insofar as we are members of a moral community—the group of people to whom duties and obligations are owed to and should be expected from—because public health is a public good and all members either benefit or are harmed by what we permit. Immunization requirements are an infringement upon an individual’s liberty to determine their own involvement or the involvement of their children. However, immunization is also a proven method of protecting the public health and of limiting the harm to a moral community. Therefore, notwithstanding its parentalistic nature, imposed inoculation is a justifiable and defensible means of providing for the public health and protecting our public good.

All morality, moral principles and moral precepts at some point reduce to intuitions; i.e., to feelings about what is right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. The most fundamental of all intuitions, and the most necessary condition for morality or for the moral community to exist is a right to life; i.e., a right to live. The right to life is a prima facie claim based upon an a priori reasoning: “I think…I am.”[1] Because I am, I must have a right to be, otherwise I would not be. Therefore, until proven otherwise it has been assumed that there is a right to life. It is from this basis that all other rights, duties, obligations, protections and theories of justice emerge to secure a particular quality of life. Furthermore, without life none of these other rights make any sense and are inconsistent because there can be no right to liberty, which is to live one’s life uninhibited, if there is no right to live. Thus, the right to life is the most fundamental and foundational principle of morality and about which there is little debate.

By corollary, if there is a right to life, then there must a right to all the things that are necessary for life. There is a right to life. Therefore there is a right to all the things that are necessary for life. So, each person has a right to water, air, food, education, security, safety, health, and whatever else is contained under the penumbra that is necessary for the life of a person.

Quality of life on the other hand is much more heavily debated and difficult to assert in terms of the positive duties of others. If there is a threshold to the quality of a person’s life, below which is unacceptable and is repugnant to the moral community, then the moral community has a positive duty to ensure that no member of their community falls or remains below that threshold. Disregarding or disavowing members is not an option because it does not absolve one’s responsibility them. Drawing a principled threshold however is not easy. For example, it must be delineated whether all members of the moral community should have the opportunity to live to at least twenty-five years of age, or to live one hundred and twenty-five years of age or to some point in between. Determining the level of pain a person must be in to trigger help from the moral community; whether the hint of pain is sufficient or if there needs to be more chronic or life-threatening pain. Identifying the types and severities of illnesses or diseases that are permissible in terms of quality of life; whether the flu is enough to trigger obligated assistance or is something like the Zika virus that has a higher rate of fatality required. Defining where upon the spectrum of wealth and poverty the threshold is breeched and a person’s quality of life is left wanting. Food is one of the rights entailed under the penumbra of the right to life and thus each person should be guaranteed a daily caloric intake that is sufficient to provide them the means to have a productive life, but that does not also guarantee that it must always be food that is to their liking.

It is clear that at some point requiring further positive duties from the moral community becomes over-demanding and the redistribution of time and resources to those who are less-well-off becomes harmful and even counterproductive, but exactly where that point lies is not entirely clear. A sufficient threshold could be established by resorting the “Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance,” proposed by John Rawls.[2] If all the members of the moral community were to enter into a debate about what is a just distribution of health and resources in such a way that they were ignorant to their positions or roles in the society after they left the decision making table, it is supposed that they would agree on a threshold and correlating positive duties that would be the most fair to the members who will be least-well-off because no decision maker knows if that will be their position. Rawls argues that as a result of their ignorance in this hypothetical situation, the decision makers will make decisions in their own self-interest assuming their position as potentially the worst, and seek to achieve the greatest quality of life possible. This is the threshold of a sufficient quality of life that should be the standard for determining positive duties within the moral community and for triggering the actions to assist those who have fallen below the threshold.

It could be argued from a utilitarian standpoint that the best outcome or best consequence might not be to improve the conditions of the least-well-off, that it may cause more harm by leveling down some of the best-well-off in society and that redistributive justice is unjustified on these grounds. In response, it could be argued though not easily, that if the net happiness that would result either from leveling down while leveling up, or just increasing the happiness of the best-well-off is the same, then there is no justification for either on utilitarian grounds, and a principle of justice, like the original position, could be implemented to determine the best course of action. In addition, all things being equal, there is also something that feels wrong about not limiting the pain and suffering of members of our community, when there is a reasonable alternative and no good justification for not doing so.

In addition to the positive duty to mitigate the factors and conditions of those who fall below the quality of life threshold, there is entailed in this also a negative duty to not impose such harms upon any members of the moral community that would force them below the threshold. This particular negative duty does not supersede other duties to not harm per se, so long as the two do not conflict, and if they should then the duty that mitigates the most harm has authority, so long as the threshold is not breeched. Yet as with the positive duties, there must also be a limit to the negative duties because if there is no limit then there is a potential for every action to be shown to be harm too great to bear. The “Harm Principle” proposed by John Stuart Mill, which states that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will is to prevent harm”  is a good starting point.[3] First, there has to be some form of justification for when power can rightfully be exercised when there is a breach of duty, which the Harm Principle expresses. Second, as was expressed above in the section on quality of life, self-interest is one of the primary motivators for defining the just threshold of a sufficient quality of life within a moral community. When quality of life and self-protection are conceived of in these terms it reveals that both reach beyond the individual and actually depend upon the well-being, or the health aggregate of the community as a whole. This is what binds the moral community together to form the necessary interdependence to manage collective action problems.

A public good is something that all people within a society benefit from regardless of whether a person chooses to participate in the use thereof. It is not obligatory that any person participate in the use of a public good; any person at their liberty may opt-out of using it. A public good is not only something that is made by humans such as a park or road, but it may also be something like the air (oxygen) or water; things humans and other creatures need and share to survive, or that is sufficient for enjoyment or fulfillment of life. A public good however, only remains a public good so long as it continues to provide a benefit to the society. Water is necessary for the survival of humans and thus for the moral community. If a public good such as the water humans share becomes polluted or otherwise unusable, then it will cease to provide the necessary benefit to human life. If roads are not kept clear of debris or are otherwise unusable, then they will cease to provide their benefit to human mobility, which is essential in this society for human life. Thus, the public has a negative duty to not harm the public good, and a positive duty to protect and to ensure the sustainability of the public good both for his or herself and for the rest of the members of their society. As a result of who is responsible for the maintenance public goods, such as, maintaining clean and healthy potable water, clean air, nutritious food, and the general aggregate health of a society these are collective action problems.

The aggregate level of health of a society is a benefit to the public, regardless of whether any member of the public elects to participate in the use thereof. When the aggregate level of health of a society is threatened or harmed it ceases to be a benefit to the public. Thus, each individual has the duty to protect all public goods and to ensure that it remains beneficial regardless of whether they opt-in or opt-out of using it. Therefore, Public Health is a public good and as such the public has a positive duty to protect it and a negative duty to not harm it. This is further justified on the grounds that regardless of whether a person wants to benefit from or to contribute to the general health of their society, i.e., eating healthy, exercising, practicing safe sex, or participating in vaccination programs they do in fact benefit from its existence. Thus, if a person does not contribute to the general health of their society and yet benefits from it, then they are Free Riding on the contributions of others, which gives them an unfair advantage and also poses a harm to our moral community. If enough people opt-out of contributing to the general health of the public then the members of the society will be placed in jeopardy of breaching the just threshold established by the original position, thus breaching their duty to not cause harm to others. Furthermore, it will undermine the integrity of the interdependence of the moral community. To overcome the tendency to free ride and to meet the positive duty to protect the public good, the moral community is justified in creating an institution with authority to impose proven methods to maintain the just threshold upon the general public. This will also work to limit the over demandingness of positive duties upon individuals because it will remove from them the liberty to opt-out. This is all justified applying the interpretation of the Harm Principle stated earlier.

Any activity the general public is obligated by law to participate in the state has a duty to make that thing as safe as possible for the public to do without reasonable risk of harm. The Public School System is something that the general public is obligated by the law to participate in. Therefore, the state, which is the public, has a duty to make the Public Education System as safe as possible for the general public to participate in. Since, most children go to school, many of who attend public school, and start school at a very young age and usually prior to their being considered morally culpable and responsible or capable of responding to the positive and negative duties adults are bound by; the institution of school is perhaps the best institution to manage and track inoculations for infectious diseases of the general public. Making vaccinations obligatory for children as they enter into the public education system will provide the double benefit of creating a healthier environment for the students and increasing the level of health for the entire population.

There will of course be objections to this on both philosophical and religious grounds. However, it is difficult to see what argument a libertarian would make in opposition since this course of action is justified under the principle of liberty. One utilitarian argument has already been raised and rejected earlier in this paper and since this course of action is for the common good and is about good consequences, it does not seem plausible that a successful utilitarian objection can be made to oppose it. There may however be some ground to be made by a deontological argument, wherein the children in the public school system are argued to be being used as mere means to an end, i.e., that their humanity and their own personal goals are not being respected. There are two ways of overcoming this objection (1) the practice of inoculating the children is not only for the benefit of the public, but also the children themselves; (2) there are other options for the education of children such as private school and homeschooling. An argument could be made in regard to class discrimination because parents who are poor might not be able to afford one of the alternatives to public education, given that they desired the alternative because they had a sincere objection to their children being inoculated. This is perhaps one of the strongest objections because it is based on the theory of justice and there also does not seem to be an easy means to remedy the concern. Many of the other objections will most likely be made upon religious grounds and these also do not seem easy to overcome because of how connected religious ideals are to people’s identities. The remaining objections are most likely to be made on some form of scientific grounds, which question the reliability of the vaccinations that are currently available to the public.

It seems possible that since most of the objections have been overcome and that potentially a vast majority of the population will either be inoculated through the public school system or other means, that so long as a sufficient amount of the population is inoculated against the infectious diseases that cause the most problems and are the easiest to remedy given current technologies and costs, that so long as the just threshold can be maintained it is permissible to omit these sincerely conscientious objectors from inoculation. It is clear that inherent in the course of action recommended in this paper that there is a certain amount of parentalism (a gender neutral term for paternalism), which often arouses contempt. However, it is not clear that whether this level of parentalism, or this manner of parantalism is unjust or inherently bad or wrong. This seems to be especially the case if the Harm Principle as interpreted earlier is accepted wherein the only permissible reason to intervene in an individual’s liberty is to limit harm. Inoculation is a proven and effective method of limiting harm. Thus, by intervening in the liberty of individuals and imposing inoculation upon the population harms are being limited. Therefore, requiring that children be immunized as they enter into the Public Education System is justifiable and lacking a sufficient reasonable alternative can be viewed as obligatory.

[1] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (Second Meditation).

[2] Rawls, John, “A Theory of Justice” http://www.csus.edu/indiv/c/chalmersk/ECON184SP09/JohnRawls.pdf

[3] John Stuart Mill, “Introductory,” in On Liberty (1859), 18.

Hard Won Vitories are Still Victories

I am tripping right now. In the last couple of weeks I have watched three of the major battles we have been fighting come to fruition, at least in part. Resolution 31614 “zero use of detention for youth” in Seattle, and while this is only a resolution, it is nonetheless a step in the right direction. Then Shell pulled out of the artic drilling, and while this is not an end to dependence on fossil fuel, it is nonetheless, a victory for the people. UW is also now paying over 5,000 other employees the $15 that have been so fought for, and while there are still countless others that are not earning a living wage yet, this again, is a step in the right direction.

All of these battles we have been fighting for quite some time and I have been engaged with them for the better part of a year. There came a point where I did not really think that we were going to get the decision makers to see anything differently; it was dieheartening and disillusionment set in. But the people never gave up or relented and now change, however slow, is taking shape.

Being new to both activism and advocacy, I expected to be imprisoned or killed, or ostracized and marginalized, and there were more than a few times that they all seemed like very real outcomes for me and the people I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with. Yet, we all braved the risks together, and some of us–including me–were arrested and/or beaten by the police, but we were acting for a purpose much greater than our own personal concerns. Those fears and realities are nothing new and many who came before us in the struggle for justice have confronted them and come out victorious as well.

What this is teaching me is one, not to expect immediate change and to not stop running before the race is over. It also teaches me that it may take a while to be fully understood, but that we are being heard. And third, that collective action can and will make a difference in all of our lives when we can find a way to sort out our differences long enough to stand together for something greater than ourselves.

Rude Awakening

I had a rude awakening a few weeks ago. It probably started some time during the last school year, but it came to a head a few weeks ago. The reality of, what I considered at the time, to be a bleak future sunk in and it was like a huge Linus cloud decided to rain all over my parade. I decided to go to school to learn how to be an effective leader to help our civilization become sustainable, just, equitable, fair and all the other normative and evaluative qualities necessary to ensure not only survival of our species, but a good quality of life as well. Therein lays the issue because in order to figure a way out of the injustices that our civilization suffers, one must first understand those injustices. It makes no sense to attempt to address a problem before the problem is fully understood because then more problems are likely to be created in the process. At least that is the logic behind why I decided to major in both History and Philosophy.

As I began to learn about all of the injustices that are currently occurring to people all over the planet and even to the planet itself, which in turn visits injustice upon the marginalized communities or our planet, but then I also see this pattern repeatedly played out throughout history. Concomitantly, I also discover the stories of several figures who have attempted to inform many leaders and populations throughout time of the dire consequences of particular policies to little avail. Sure, they may have had some success; African Americans are no longer slaves and Women have earned the right to vote in most societies. These examples are particularly acute and salient being an African American male in the United States. However, by simply grazing through one introduction a person can become acquainted with a new form of Jim Crow and legalized slavery that reveals that African Americans are still not truly free of the oppressive nature of the system, but rather, that it has only taken on another form. Just as important, while women can vote, they are still treated as second class citizens and are consistently paid only 3/4 that of men, even when they do the same jobs, in the same companies, have comparable educations and levels of outputs; the only difference is their genders. So, while on the surface it appears that success have been made in terms of justice, the situation is really just rearranged to limit power in some other less obvious manner and people are still oppressed and suppressed and thus, suffer from injustice.

In the past, when a society or civilization was facing similar crises, the collapse of their system, it did not also include the collapse of every civilization on the planet, and possible the destruction of the planet itself. This is not the case in the world we live in today with the set of circumstances that we are currently confronting. Yet, instead of the people coming together to address the problems we are pulling further apart from one another, stratifying and polarizing our societies both internally and between societies themselves. This is only exacerbating the problems and factors that led to the crises in the first place. I am referring specifically to the competition for the acquisition and control of limited resources and land, wherein this competition is driving a wedge between those with access and control of resources and those without. This is of course completely consistent with the ideology of conquest and by corollary, capitalism. However, this is inconsistent with any theory of justice unless one can somehow manage to make the successful claim that the powerful controlling the resources is somehow for the benefit of those who are not in control of the resources. For this claim to be substantiated though, it would have to be shown that the people who are not in control of the resources are actually being benefitted, and the evidence shows that it is quite the contrary. Poverty and famines are rampant throughout the non-industrial regions of the world, the wars fought for the control of these resources continue to murder thousands of innocent people, and those who stand in opposition to this system are systematically silenced and in some extreme cases are removed.

To make matters even worse, the environment we depend on for our survival is being damaged to the point that it is about to cross the threshold of repair. This means, that even if somehow we as a civilization we able to cease all our wars, provide food for all those who need it and to redistribute the wealth into a manner that is more equitable, that if the practices we currently employ in terms of production are not changed, that we will still perish. This drastic change requires that the way of life and standard of living that most of the industrialized and post-industrialized regions of the planet will be irrevocably altered, and most likely decreased. This proposition in itself is contradictory to human nature, at least as we understand because it means that people will have to make an active choice to harm themselves or alternatively, that a governmental institution imposes these alterations on them. In either case, this will prove to be problematic.

On the one hand, people tend to act in their own immediate self-interests. This is especially the case in industrial and post-industrial societies and is extreme in the United States where people tend not to be socialized to sacrifice of themselves for the greater good. For most people it is almost nearly impossible to submit to a diminished existence today for a better future for their children. They can however, save money today, or suffer through a college education for the hope of their own future benefit, so it must be possible for people to do this for future generations, but as yet, we have not witnessed this occur on a massive enough scale to make a difference in the course that our civilization is on. It seems that the problem lays in the situation that has been set up, that people can stay off the immediate benefit for their own future benefit, but once they are no longer the one receiving the benefit a road block is encountered and the suffering of future generations is discounted. Thus, it does not seem likely that this level of change will occur voluntarily unless something very paramount occurs to encourage people to institute this type of move on their own or it is somehow made to benefit them in the near future.

On the other hand, though governments do have the power to impose such a dramatic change in the lives of the people that they govern, but not only would this be political suicide for any pundit that proposes it, but we would likely experience a global civil war. The justification for these claims follows directly from the previous discussion of self-interests. When the people see that their self-interests are not being served and their own existence is being discounted for future generations civil unrest will emerge. If the people have the power to impeach, then this is the likely outcome, which will subsequently be followed a repeal of any enactment the former government instituted. If they do not have the power to impeach, then the most likely outcome is an internal implosion as civil war erupts. If this outcome seems to be overstating the point and reaching beyond the premises, then all one has to do is acknowledge that the corporations, who are the ones controlling the resources and land are also in control of vast mercenary armies. Once this is acknowledged, then it will become apparent that if their claim to control of those resources is subverted that they will be the ones following their ideological bend and leading the revolt.

In either case, it is certain that there is an uphill battle when we are addressing the environmental crises that we are confronting as a civilization. It is a fact that the planet is warming and it is also a fact that much of the warming is human caused. This means that our cumulative use of fossil fuel and coal and nuclear power because of our civilization’s dependency on energy to function at a consistent standard of living is destroying the planet. It is at the very least, destroying the conditions that make life for humans, and creatures like humans possible. There are many options on the table that address many of the issues which have already been mentioned, but nonetheless, the harm that is requisite cannot be fully overcome, so there is pushback against any of it. Yet, while there is inaction because those in industrial and post-industrial societies do not want to manage a reduced standard of living for a period of time, those who are not privileged enough to live in those societies are suffering today. It also means, that as the polar icecaps melt because the planet is warming that the oceans will continue to rise and many of the coastal and island regions will soon be uninhabitable.

Many of these island regions are home to marginalized groups of people and as such do not have the resources necessary to defend themselves. This alone reveals that the actions of those in control of the resources are not managing the system so as to provide benefit to those not in control of the resource. Furthermore, it reveals that a harm is being done to these marginalized groups of people, so those, myself included, are blameworthy and responsible for this harm; however, unintended it may be claimed to be.

Nothing about these circumstances is consistent with utilitarianism, libertarianism, virtue ethics, deontology or any moral framework that I have thus far encountered. Utilitarianism is all about the Greatest Happiness Principle and provided the maximum benefit to the majority. However, the actions of the many now are making harm for the many in the future and that is something that is inconsistent with the calculus. Libertarianism is all about self-interests, but only insofar as no harm is being done. However, are harm is clearly being done now and will continue to escalate if our behaviors do not change. In virtue ethics, what is proposed is to considered what the virtuous person would do given the constraints of any particular situation in accordance with the flourishing of the human society. However, as I have clearly identified, the actions of our civilization are contradictory to the flourishing of our society. And lastly, deontology is focused on rules and the only rule that is necessary to point to is that it is wrong to cause unjust harm. That of itself reveals a contradiction and makes the behaviors of this civilization inconsistent with the moral framework. But, furthermore it also suggests that people should not be used as mere means, and if we are subjecting not only the marginalized groups of people today but also future generations to harm for our own personal benefit, then this also make the actions inconsistent with deontological constraints. Thus, in consideration of any moral constraints, the behaviors of our civilization are immoral, and as such are unjust.

Thus, we come back to the Linus cloud that hovered above my head pouring down onto my soul threatening to smite my fire. I began to think that what I am learning and the path that I have identified is correct for my life is pointless. I forgot that the logic of the plan is to first, understand the situation before I begin to devise a solution to the problems, so that we do not create unintended problems in the process. Well, I am learning about the problems we are currently confronting, as well as, the problems that we face attempting to solve the original set of problems. Although, addressing the concerns of the future does seem bleak, it is not without hope.  The most important thing that I or anyone else can do right now is to inform ourselves and to inform those around us about the reality of our circumstances. Then and only then, can we devise a plan of action together because it will require all of us to address these problems. Only together can we make this world more sustainable, just, equitable, fair and all the other normative and evaluative qualities necessary to ensure not only the survival of our species, but a good quality of life for everyone and all the species we share this planet with