Uncertainty, Vaccination, and the Duties of Liberal States

In Matthew Dennis, Georgy Ishmaev, Steven Umbrello & Jeroen van den Hoven (eds.), The Values for a Post-Pandemic Future. Cham: pp. 97-110 (2022)
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It is widely accepted that a liberal state has a general duty to protect its people from undue health risks. However, the unprecedented emergent measures against the COVID-19 pandemic taken by governments worldwide give rise to questions regarding the extent to which this duty may be used to justify suspending a vaccine rollout on marginal safety grounds. In this chapter, I use the case of vaccination to argue that while a liberal state has a general duty to protect its people’s health, there is a limit to the measures this duty can be used to justify. First, I argue that since every available option involves different risks and benefits, the incommensurability of the involved risks and benefits forbids the prioritisation of a particular vaccine. Second, I argue that given epistemic limitations and uncertainty, policies that favour certain vaccines are not only epistemically ill-founded but also morally unacceptable. I conclude that in a highly uncertain situation such as the unfolding pandemic, the duty a liberal state ought to uphold is to properly communicate the knowns and unknowns to the general public and help people decide which option to choose for themselves. I call this duty the duty to facilitate risk-taking.



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Pei-Hua Huang
University of Adelaide

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