Category Archives: Liberalism

Vaccine Mandates are Morally Permitted

Vaccine Mandates are Morally Permitted


Mill’s principle says that the only reasonable limit on freedom is the prevention of harms to others. What is the harm in refusing to take vaccines?

The way I see it there are a number of  harms that are avoided by compelling others to take vaccines they do not want to take. One of them is that refusal to take vaccines gives the deadly virus that causes Covid-19 an increased opportunity to spread that it should not have. The longer the virus is allowed to circulate the more people can get infected, and seriously ill, or even die. The more people get vaccinated the better the chance is that the virus will be stopped in its tracks. Scientists have persuaded me that widespread vaccination is our best chance at stopping the virus. People who resist the vaccines are helping the virus to spread and infect others. This is a serious harm to others.

There is significant evidence that the virus can be spread by the vaccinated as well as the unvaccinated. If it were equally possible for either group to spread the virus there would be no reason for us to impose vaccines on others, on that  basis since it would not make a difference to others.  The chance of others  catching Covid-19 would then be no higher or lower than   Then a vaccine mandate would not justified on this basis at least.  So far as I have learned the spread is greater by the unvaccinated so I think the case is still strong that imposing a vaccine on others against their will is permissible to avoid the greater harm to others.

As well, the longer the virus is allowed to circulate unchecked the greater the chances that the virus will evolve and develop new variants that are even more dangerous than the ones we have now. This can endanger not just us in the vicinity but actually people around the world. We are seeing this right now around the world with the spread of the new virus Omicron. We also saw it earlier with the evolution of the Delta variant. New variants might be available to evade the vaccines again putting other people at great risk of harm.

These are serious harms that people who refused to get vaccinated without a sound medical exemption are inflicting on others, so, in my opinion, the majority has the right to compel people to take the vaccine. I think the case for vaccine mandates is a strong one.

Limits on Freedom


John Stuart Mill pointed out, more than 150 years ago, that much of what makes life good is dependent upon controlling or limiting interference by other people. This is really the basis of liberalism. This limitation is critical to the enjoyment of life. Some limits are absolutely necessary, while others are not.  His book On Liberty tries to define those limits. It is worth reading. I recently re-read it after many years.

In essence the problem, as Mill defined it, is that even in a democracy we must be able to resist the imposition of duties by the majority in some cases, though not all. For example, no one would argue that it is wrong to prohibit murder or assaults. Would the imposition of a vaccination mandate by the majority as represented by its elected  government fit into the category of permitted or non-permitted infringements of freedom? That is the question I am trying to answer in a meandering fashion. Mill sought a principle that would assist people in determining into which category an example or proposed example of government interference would fit.  I think that is a worthy goal.

This is the principle that Mill proposed:

“That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively 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 to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a 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 him with any evil in case he do otherwise. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amendable 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.”


That is the reasonable limit on a person’s freedom.

Mill also reminds that this does not mean one can do whatever one chooses to do no matter what the consequences.  Famously, others have said, ‘your freedom to swing your hand stops at my nose’. They really mean at anyone else’s nose. Mill put it more elegantly this way: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our good in our way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

 Mill accepts only 1 important qualification, that this principle is only for the benefit of “human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” Children cannot claim the benefits of this principle, in Mill’s view, and must abide by instructions imposed on them by their parents, and to some extent even others.

With some qualifications that I won’t get into here, I accept this principle. How does this principle apply to the question at hand? How does it apply to the case of whether or not it is permitted for society to say we demand everyone to be vaccinated unless there is a good  reason for not doing so?

Clearly, on the basis of these principles, we should be allowed to take the vaccine or not, as we choose, so long as we do not harm others by our choice. I agree with that. Does refraining from taking the vaccine harm others? On its face, the vaccine is designed to protect ourselves from the most harmful effects of Covid-19. But this does not resolve the matter. Our choice can affect others. In other words, if the evidence establishes that my refusal to take the vaccine affects others that is significant, and if the harm caused is great enough could warrant an imposition that compels me to take the vaccine to some extent at least.

Tyranny of the Majority


John Stuart Mill also recognized that just because society made  decisions (such as to impose vaccine sanctions or not) in a democratic manner would not give the decision the right to override the essential liberties. There should be limits on the power of society through the ruler, even if a democratic ruler, over members of society—i.e. individuals. That is exactly what liberty means. Certain immunities or “political liberties or rights” would be so important that it would be regarded as a breach of the duty in the ruler” if he infringed them, even if that rule consisted of a democratic ruler, such as Parliament. As Mill said, “The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community.” Even democratic governments must abide by these limitations.


Mill recognized that the people, or a majority of the people, in some cases might want to oppress an individual or a part of a group.  Just like liberty is not absolute, so the power of the ruler/authority must therefore be limited or constrained as well and cannot be absolute. Some people forget this important aspect of Mill’s thought. Some people think that provided a decision is made by the majority they can do whatever they want. Mill denies this.  There must be limits even on the power of the majority.  In fact, Mill had a powerful expression for this—i.e. “the tyranny of the majority.” Mill said, “ ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” So, just because the majority of the people think they should impose the obligation on an individual to get vaccinated does not of itself make that decision just.

Mill waxed eloquent on this subject:

“Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling…There is 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.”


Really what Mill is arguing in favour of is what we now call a liberal or constitutional democracy. That means a democracy that is subject to the human rights of the individuals. A democratic society cannot do anything it wants to do. There must be reasonable limits on that power and Mill helps us to understand what those limits are.

John Stuart Mill on Liberty


I think we can gain a better understanding of the issue of mandates by looking at what English philosopher John Stuart Mill said in the 19th century. In my opinion he has helped to shed light on many important social issues by his careful analysis of liberty.

John Stuart Mill set out well the rationale for allowing individuals to be free (autonomous) to decide for themselves what medical treatments to take or not take.

He asked a preliminary question to set out the issue clearly.  He asked,

“What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin?  How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and now much to society?”


That is precisely the question raised by the mandate issue. Should the individual be allowed to decide for himself or herself whether or not to take the vaccines or can society legitimately make the decision instead? Note that unlike many modern people who deny that the state has the right to impose virtually any restrictions on them, let alone vaccines, Mill recognized that there were restrictions on freedom and he wanted to understand what those limits were.

Mill said, in trying to answer this question, the following:

“Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong that part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.”


If society is of greater interest in the answer to the question then the individual, then it ought to be allowed to make the decision. If the individual is more interested in the question  then he or she should be permitted to decide.

Mill did not say society had no right to get involved in the personal affairs of individuals. For example, Mill said “Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.” As a pertinent example, in society there is no objection to trying to persuade individuals to take a vaccine if society has evidence that this course of action would be good for the individual and society. Society has the right to do that.  But does it have the right to go further and impose an obligation to take one of the vaccines?  According to Mill,

“But neither one person nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being; the interest which any other person, except cases of strong personal attachment , can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and all together indirect; while with respect to his own feelings and circumstances , the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. (emphasis added)”


Please note the vitally important qualification which I have highlighted.  Therefore, Mill concludes, with regard to what concerns only himself, society has no right to override the individual’s decisions. Mill said,

“in this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper  field of action…Considerations to aid his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others: but he himself is the final judge.  All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning are outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.”


On this basis, individuals would be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to take a Covid-19 vaccine, provided his actions do not affect others.  That then becomes the central question: do they affect others and to what extent?

Back in 1859 when Mill wrote On Liberty, he realized that It would be “a vital question of the future,” what the nature and limits of the power  which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” On that point he was indubitably right as the current debate over the propriety of a vaccine mandate makes clear.



Autonomy: A society of adults


One of the things Chris and I like about the Phoenix area of Arizona is the University of Arizona. In particular we found it is nice to be close to a major university. The university had a wonderful array of activities from plays to concerts and above all world class professors and speakers. All open to the public and usually at no cost to us. I am amazed at how many of them we got to hear.  One of those very interesting speakers was Dierdre McCloskey. We heard her speak in 2020.

Deirdre McCloskey is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, and Professor Emerita of English and of Communication, adjunct in classics and philosophy, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Educated at Harvard as an economist she has written 24 books and numerous articles. This is how she describes herself: a “literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, ex-marxoid, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian classical liberal.” I did not agree with everything she said, but everything was very interesting. She was a very interesting speaker.

She talked to us about innovation. According to McCloskey, “liberty is the theory of adult.  At first that seemed like a strange description.  Eventually I think I caught on. Adults are free. Youngsters are not. Adults have the right to infringe on the rights of young people in their care for their own good and protection, but only while they are in need of such interference. At some stage, minors get to be treated like adults and then have the same freedoms as adults. According to McCloskey, “Liberalism is the theory of the society of adults.” Other theories, such as socialism, treat adults as children. They assume we, or the government, know what’s best for you. She wants a society where adults make their own decisions.  So do I, subject to the qualifications.

McCloskey argues for a very strong autonomy. We should be able to make all decisions about our own welfare on our own terms without interference from others. No one should tell us what to do in other words. That is autonomy. I quite agree that autonomy is a very important social value, but like all values it is not absolute. In some circumstances the public’s right to ensure that its members are given reasonable security and that actions of its citizens won’t harm them unnecessarily. Each of us has a right to live in a healthy and safe society.  Again, like all values, this right must be balanced against other rights as well. I shall try to clarify a test that can help us establish whether or not a particular infringement of a right is justified or not. To do that. I want to turn in my next post to the classic liberal philosopher of all time—namely John Stuart Mill.

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.

Liberalism: A response to Extremism


I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:


  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.


Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51