Should a U.S. school or workplace require Covid-19 vaccination?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

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  1. John Hooker says:

    Let’s start by acknowledging our amazingly good fortune. When it comes to Covid, modern medicine has given the US population the proverbial silver bullet. A couple of shots in the arm provide virtually complete protection against the virus, and almost as much protection against the new variants. We have plenty of vaccine to go around, unlike most of the world. If we would only get the shots, Covid would already be history in the US. There would be no issue of whether to require them.

    But only about half the population is fully vaccinated, much less in some areas, where hospitals are filling up. These hot spots can breed new variants that endanger everyone. This poses the question: should schools and workplaces require the vaccine?

    I won’t ask whether governments should require the shots. At this writing, no jurisdiction in the US requires vaccination for Covid. (I’m not sure what libertarians are screaming about.) A few public universities require the vaccine to attend in-person classes, and they can be seen as representing state power. Yet even here, one can avoid the shots by attending another college. In any case, I will focus on private organizations.

    There are actually two questions here: (1) Is it ethically permissible to require shots? (2) Is it ethically obligatory? Beginning with (1), the generalization principle could argue against a workplace requirement, because there could be a breach of an implied employment agreement (ethically speaking, not legally). When one takes a job, there is an understanding about what employees have to do. One who signs on as an Amazon warehouse worker should not be instructed to babysit the boss’s kids. Most employees have no reason to expect medical intervention requirements like vaccines, unless they work in an environment like a hospital or nursing home. So maybe it is a breach of agreement to require them.

    Schools are a different matter. Schools (public and private) have a long history of requiring vaccinations, and so it is hard to defend an implied contractual obligation not to impose such requirements. On entering a school or university, one can expect that there may be health-related requirements down the road.

    Some may argue that requiring vaccines is a violation of worker or student autonomy. Not so. The autonomy principle prohibits interfering with ethical actions over which people normally have control. People don’t decide that they will be employed or enrolled, with or without a shot. They only decide whether to accept a job or admission offer. Going to work or attending class without a vaccine is normally unethical anyway, because it needlessly endangers others, and so the autonomy principle would not apply even if people could unilaterally decide these things.

    Finally, it is said that requiring shots is medically risky for some people, or violates their religious belief. The first one is easy: allow medical exceptions. As for the second, one cannot ethically claim exemption from social duties solely on religious grounds. What if one’s “religion” commands mass murder? The argument must do more than simply play the religion card. (The Constitutional provision against prohibiting the free exercise of religion applies only to the government, not to private organizations.) Aside from this, I cannot find a major religion that even suggests that vaccination is somehow wrong. This is certainly the situation with Islam, Judaism, the main varieties of Buddhism, and the main branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant). The First Church of Christ, Scientist, takes a dim view of medical interventions, as perhaps do such lesser known faith-healing congregations as Church of the First Born, End Time Ministries, Faith Assembly, Faith Tabernacle, and First Century Gospel Church. Even if we grant an obligation to exempt these small sects, we can do so without affecting the overall effectiveness of the vaccine.

    Moving to question (2), is there an obligation to require shots? The utilitarian principle clearly says yes, because the benefits far outweigh the risks—unless a requirement would violate other principles. This means that an employer probably has no utilitarian obligation to require shots, due to the possible breach of agreement just described. However, there is a clear obligation to take less questionable steps, such as incentivizing vaccination. This could be done by offering a bonus or perks to vaccinated employees, without stigmatizing those who refuse vaccination or compromising what is due them contractually.

    As for private schools, there is a clear utilitarian obligation to require vaccination once it is medically approved and recommended for the relevant age group. Universities, in particular, should require the shots. Public schools pose a complicated issue, but one should note that they have required various types of vaccination for decades, with limited controversy until the matter became politicized in recent years.


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