An Ethical Approach to Vaccine Passports


Would it be fair to opening up society in a time of pandemic only to those with Passports (or other documents) that could satisfy us that allowing people who have had one of the vaccines for Covid-19 or had the “benefit” of having contracted the disease and developed sufficient antibodies? In either case, presumably it is safe to let these people wander around, more of less freely, while we continue to curtail the freedoms of those who don’t have such a passport.

First, it is clear, that current health restrictions in Canada are fundamentally restrictive and a substantial interference with our freedom of movement and freedom to gather as we see fit. Clearly this violates a constitutional right, as I have argued in an earlier blog post. Ordinarily such prohibitions could not be justified in a free and democratic society. But these are special circumstances? Are they special enough to provide the justification?

I think a good place to start my answer to this very interesting question is the classic book On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. Mill recognized in 1859 that people had the right to fear “the tyranny of the majority” which, he said, “is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” In other words, Mill argued there are limits on what a majority is entitled to do. As he said,

“There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”

To Mill as to many lovers of freedom, all that makes life valuable requires there to be reasonable limits or restraints on the actions of other people, either directly or through their elected representatives. Mills posed a clear answer to what he considered those reasonable limits. Mill said that there was one very simple principle that provided an answer to what are the reasonable limits. He elegantly put it this way:

“…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forebear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting upon him any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desirable to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one for which he is amenable is to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

This is the fundamental principle of classic  liberalism. The principle is often called the principle of autonomy. In simplified terms, this means that everyone should be free to do whatever he or she wants, without hindrance, unless the exercise of that freedom will harm others.

With some limitations, not relevant to this discussion I accept that principle. How is to be applied to the question at hand. To do that we must look at the facts, as best we can, for as Professor Schafer said, good facts produce good ethics.

In my next blog posting I shall show how this principle applies to the Covid-19 Passport.

Leave a Reply