On Vaccinations and Masking: John Stuart Mill … and Joinville, Brazil

Given the fact that three members of our family studied Political Science during their education regimes, we have a disconcertingly extensive collection of the works of political theorists from Plato to J. D. Vance.  [Given Mr. Vance’s transformation from telling observer to pandering politician, I suspect that being linked to Mr. Vance in the preceding sentence has made Plato cringe in the Hereafter ;)].  The persistent resistance of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to employ or enable others to institute measures now clearly demonstrated to help limit the spread of COVID-19 – on the ground that it is an encroachment upon someone or other’s freedom – recently caused me to pull out John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay, “On Liberty.”  

Considered by some the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century, Mr. Mill, an Englishman born in 1806 who was among the first members of Parliament to condemn slavery in America and, author of the 1869 essay, “On the Subjection of Women,” among the first to argue for social equality between men and women, is a founding father of the notion that each person should be free to conduct his or her affairs in his or her own way.  “On Liberty” is an ode to individuality.  In it, Mr. Mill waxed eloquent about our need for eccentrics (he did literally talk about eccentricity).  He did not believe that society was advanced by those in the conforming, complacent majority.  Thus, I was curious to see if I could discern, if he was alive today, how he would assess the views of those staunchly opposing mask and/or vaccine mandates on the ground that such constitute an infringement of citizens’ “liberty.”

It didn’t take much guesswork.  Early in “On Liberty,” Mr. Mill wrote:

[T]he 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 to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.  He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear 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.  … [T]he conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one [sic] else.  The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable 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.  [Emphasis Added]”

I would venture that given the strong evidence that masking and vaccines have helped check the spread of a deadly disease, Mr. Mill, a Godfather of Liberty, would have no patience with mask and vaccine mandate naysayers.  Some who claim to cling to the libertarian philosophy that Mr. Mill articulated over 150 years ago might still assert that such mandates constitute an infringement of their rights because the science is not completely settled.  Given the data we have, I suspect that at this point such supposed reservations would hold no sway with Mr. Mill.  He was also a scientist who believed that knowledge was derived from experience.  In A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, he wrote in 1843:

“After a general law of nature has been ascertained, men’s minds do not at first acquire a complete facility of familiarly representing to themselves the phenomena of nature … [T]his habit, in the case of newly-discovered relations, comes only by degrees. … But in time … a prolonged habit of arranging phenomena in certain groups, and explaining them by means of certain principles, makes any other arrangement or explanation of these facts be felt as unnatural … [The philosopher’s] real reason for rejecting theories at variance with the true one, is no other than that they clash with his experience … he adopts the true theory because it is self-evident …”

While the vast majority of those opposing vaccine and mask mandates as intrusions on their “freedom” probably have no familiarity with Mr. Mill – not all of us can be this geeky; somebody has to get stuff done – FL Gov. Ron DeSantis (possessing a Yale undergraduate degree and a Harvard law degree) and TX Gov. Greg Abbott (possessing a University of Texas undergraduate degree and a Vanderbilt law degree) should be and presumably are well aware of Mr. Mill’s philosophy and of the careful distinctions he articulated over a century and half ago regarding an individual’s right to liberty.  As they exert all of the powers of their offices against imposition of what are demonstrably the most effective measures for preserving the health of their respective states’ citizens, they are shameless, despicable provocateurs.

On a less ponderous note:  in an early April post, I entered portions of a close friend’s email describing the manner in which he had spoofed a young woman getting her first vaccination shot by suggesting that she would receive the inoculation not in her arm, but rather in a lower bodily area in which we have all received other injections.  [He also indicated that she later indicated by gesture that she did not appreciate his sense of humor when she discovered that he had been pulling her leg (so to speak  ;)].  Now, it turns out that our friend was perhaps not that far afield.  There is a link below to a Washington Post article by our favorite correspondent, “Most everyone gets the coronavirus vaccine in the arm.  Butt this Brazilian city is shooting lower,” in which he reports that in the Brazilian city of Joinville, medical personnel providing injections have elected to wage a rearguard action.  As justification for its bottom-up approach, a city spokesman has cited the Brazilian health ministry’s guidance that for vaccinations such as the COVID inoculation, the body’s ventrogluteal region is one of the “best options” for “alternative administration” of the shot.  In light of this guidance, I suspect all reasonable observers will agree with the Joinville medical community that given the world’s vital need for widespread COVID protection,  any twinges we have about vaccines should be put … behind us.

May you have an enjoyable Labor Day weekend.


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