Published 08/20/2021

Andrew Jacobs is a student at University of Utah studying Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He focuses his philosophical mind powers on cats and good movies.

Vaccine Hesitancy Is Driving Drunk

On Sunday, August 8th, Steven Vinson was arrested for driving under the influence in DeSoto County, Mississippi. Vinson, a school teacher at a local middle school, was caught driving drunk in the early morning and subsequently arrested. A few days earlier, Friday the 6th, Manaure Gonzalez-Rea was arrested for drunkenly driving "southbound on the I-15 collector northbound lanes" after he collided with the car of recently married Angelica Dhondup, who ultimately died in the hospital the following morning.

Is there a difference between these two men? Should we consider their crimes differently?

Gonzalez-Rea caused significantly more harm so he clearly should be judged quite harshly for his immoral act of driving while intoxicated. Vinson, though, doesn’t seem to have caused any damage at all. Ultimately, the effect of his drunk driving is more comparable to driving sober than to Gonzalez-Rea’s. Does that mean Vinson shouldn’t be punished or considered immoral? Of course not. Vinson clearly did something wrong, and I cringe at the idea that anyone may have thought Vinson is undeserving of moral judgment. This article aims to articulate exactly what qualifies Vinson as blameworthy and to determine to what extent he is blameworthy compared to Gonzalez-Rea. By doing this, I hope to illuminate a general problem with traditional moral analysis in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tension between wanting to attribute moral blame based on the outcomes of an individual’s actions and the desire to hold people like Vinson more accountable than the average sober driver was famously identified by Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams in their literary works each titled “Moral Luck”. According to Nagel and Williams, the unique feature of Vinson’s drunk driving isn’t that he intentionally avoided harming others. On the contrary, Vinson was lucky that he didn't harm others. He was lucky that a law-enforcement officer stopped him before he could make the possible harms of drunk driving a reality. Hold on a second, how could we consider Gonzalez-Rea more blameworthy than Vinson if the primary difference between their intentional actions and the relevant outcomes is luck? Nagel “believe[s] that in a sense the problem has no solution.” Truthfully, if morality is based around that over which individuals have control, then it seems that Nagel is right. If luck plays a significant role in the outcomes of our actions, it seems nearly impossible to hold people accountable for differences in luck.

Some people resolve the problem by acknowledging that luck plays a role in determining moral responsibility but subtly accepting that moral blame isn’t wholly determined by intentional acts. On the surface, this position makes sense. People accidentally do things all the time. However, this stance is fundamentally flawed, and it is inconsistent with the standard moral intuitions we have that motivate the position in the first place.

It’s so superficially appealing that I even believed it for some time. Last July, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family came up to Utah from California. As a student at the University of Utah, I was getting tested for the virus weekly. So, when they wanted to get together at my grandma’s house for dinner one night, I justified my desire to go hang out by appealing to the low chances that I would pass the disease on to my diabetic sister, immunocompromised mom, middle-aged dad, and elderly grandmother—not to mention the rest of my extended family that would also attend. Even back then, I understood that there were risks in showing up, but I decided to go anyway. Luckily, I did not have the virus and did not pass it on to the rest of my family. Unluckily, another member of my family notified us after meeting up that she had received the results of a COVID-19 test she had taken earlier that day, and they were positive.

The potential for tragic fallout is at its peak here, but I’ll tell you the end: we were lucky again, no one else was infected and no one died! Because there were no brutal consequences of our getting together despite public health guidance indicating the dangers of doing so, my family (including me) walked away from that event thinking that we didn’t bear any moral blame for our actions. But imagine if someone had died because I had accidentally brought the virus to my at-risk family members. I would have blamed myself in an instant. “Had I just followed public health guidelines," I would have thought, “my family wouldn't be suffering.”

Why did I treat myself as innocent concerning the actual outcomes of my actions? Why do I want to treat Vinson as guilty even though the actual outcomes of his actions are comparable to my own—harmless? And which is the correct approach?

Rather than accepting the existence of moral luck, as I had done, Jonathan Bennett offers a different solution: that moral luck doesn't exist. Bennett argues that wherever we find luck influencing the way we assess moral responsibility and blameworthiness, we're only finding varied outcomes of equal risk-making acts. He says that we should not judge immorality by consequential damage. Instead, “actual harm serves only to make vivid how wicked the behaviour was because of the danger it created." In reality, we shouldn't judge my actions or Vinson's actions according to the outcomes they produced. We should judge them according to the amount of danger they create for others. Both Vinson and I are guilty of putting others’ lives at risk.

Far too many Americans believe that because their actions haven’t tangibly caused harm to the people within their lives, they aren’t to blame for any of the present tragedies occurring in the United States. In reality, they are just as blameworthy as the people who infected the hundreds of hospitalized patients on their deathbeds begging for the vaccine. We need to recalibrate the way our society evaluates the influence of moral luck. We need to appropriately assess the moral responsibility that falls on the shoulders of many individuals that console themselves by appealing to their fortunate circumstances.

If you’re not vaccinated but you could be, you are—as I was—drunkenly careening your potentially virus-ridden body through a minefield of catastrophic consequences for others, emerging on the other side believing you’re blameless. You are not. You are gambling on how lucky you’ll be—whether you'll be the cause of a man losing his entire family, the cause of a family of four losing their single mother, or the cause of nothing at all.

Your fortunate circumstances do not absolve you of the wrongdoing committed by ignoring public health guidelines and going on unvaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy is to drive under the influence. Hopefully, you won’t hit anyone.

The Weekly Phil is a publication exploring social, political, and individual issues through the lens of applied philosophy.

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