What Hath Virtue to Do with Vaccines? Putting Vaccine Mandates in Dialogue with an Ancient Ethical Tradition

Sometime in the modern age, ethics got off track. We stopped talking about virtues—character traits that are constitutive of human flourishing—and began focusing instead on the rightness or wrongness of actions, stripped of all relation to a worthwhile human life.

Virtue Ethics in the Ancient World

In the older tradition of ethical inquiry, whether among the ancient Hebrews, Chinese, Greeks, or early Christians, ethics was primarily about persons, and only secondarily about actions. Among the fundamental questions of moral philosophy were, “What kind of person do I want to become?” and “What does a flourishing human life look like?” When applied to individuals in the aggregate, this line of inquiry constituted the central political question: “What character traits in citizens will foster flourishing in the city?”

Within the ancient world, the answers to these questions always involved some account of the virtues: qualities like kindness, wisdom, courage, honesty, integrity, temperance, patience, etc. And while not everyone agreed on what constituted virtue (e.g. for Aristotle, humility is not a virtue whereas the church fathers see it as one of the highest virtues), there was a common consensus that through dutiful habits, educational formation, and proper spiritual practices, we develop the character traits necessary to become well-ordered and mature human beings. While this older tradition did concern itself with the rightness or wrongness of actions (what we would call moral duties), such concerns were situated in the larger context of a worthwhile human life (what Aristotle called eudaimonia), and consequently, the virtues.

In Daniel C. Russell’s introduction to the 2013 Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics, he points out that an advantage to this older tradition was its focus on the whole of a human life, and not merely individual actions considered in isolation.

“What sets virtue ethics apart is that it treats ethics as concerned with one’s whole life – and not just those occasions when something with a distinctly “moral” quality is at stake. For virtue ethics, the focus is not so much on what to do in morally difficult cases as on how to approach all of one’s choices with such personal qualities as kindness, courage, wisdom, and integrity. That difference in focus is an important one. People who may feel confident in the rightness of their actions can sometimes be brought up short when asked whether they are also being generous, or considerate, or honesty. Rightness is about what we’re doing; virtue is also about how we’re living. It resists compartmentalization.”

The Modern Quest for Virtue-Less Ethics

But as I said, somewhere in the modern age we got off track. Some date the problem back to Immanuel Kant, others to Hume, while still others lay the blame at the 14th century Franciscan friar, William of Ockham. But regardless of how you tell the story of intellectual history, everyone agrees that by the 19th century, ethics had ceased to be primarily concerned with becoming a certain sort of person but analyzing actions stripped of all relation to virtuous personhood. We began to ask “what is the best thing to do?” without first grappling with the prior question, “What is the best way to live?” and “What type of person should I want to become?”

The receding role of virtue in moral debates is most obvious in the type of top-down managerial ethical-style of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, or the social Darwinism of men like Francis Galton and Margaret Sanger. Yet even in religious communities where we would expect to find a robust tradition of virtue-based reasoning, ethical discourse is often tinged with a nominalism that, in the final analysis, can only conceive ethical behavior in terms of an action’s relationship to divine command.

Let us then look at how the perspective of virtue ethics might apply to vaccine mandates and religious exemption to vaccines. Whether you agree with my suggestions or not, I put this forward as an example of the type of contribution a virtue-based approach can offer to the present debate. My hope is that even those who find themselves in disagreement with my proposals can nevertheless find sympathy with the concern to situate these debates in dialogue with the virtue tradition.

A Virtue-Based Strategy to Religious Exemptions

Many countries in the world are using the strong arm of the state to enforce vaccine mandates. In response to actual or looming mandates, various religious practitioners have been scrambling to articulate the basis for credible “religious exemptions.” Often such arguments never rise above merely pointing to the tenuous connection between the development of mRNA vaccines with abortion. But at its best this argument merely situates objections within the context of divine command, while eclipsing the broader question of human and communal flourishing.

A virtue-based approach would use a different strategy for establishing religious objections to vaccine mandates. Such an approach would ask, “Do vaccine mandates foster the types of character traits constitutive to a worthwhile human life?” Moreover, the role played by mentoring and role models within a virtue paradigm would lead us to ask, “What would a virtuous person do in this situation?”

These shouldn’t be hard questions to explore since mainstream discussion about mRNA vaccines has already positioned the discourse in terms of appeals to private and public virtue. Let’s have a look at what they’re saying.

How the CDC Claimed the Virtuous High Ground

Consider, the CDC, FDA, OSHA, HHS, and numerous other governmental agencies have suggested that widespread vaccination is the way to improve our collective quality of life. The blizzard of commercials advertising the vaccine—with joyful looking men and women sharing stories of how getting vaccinated enabled them to achieve wellbeing—frame this question explicitly in terms of human flourishing, both at the level of the individual and the community.

The government’s National Center for Biotechnology Information adds to this discussion by itemizing some of the population-wide benefits of COVID-19 vaccinations, including “improved social equity” and “societal economic well-being” and “positive intergenerational effects.”[1] They even state that “the economic impacts of vaccination may also be felt at the macroeconomic level” since “a healthy working population is also able to attract more foreign direct investment.”

This appeal to communal well-being comes with an assumed subtext that promotes character traits constitutive to flourishing, including traits of compliance and cooperation. And who wouldn’t want to be compliant given the projected benefits?

It all sounds great. But at what cost?

Throughout their website (www.cdc.gov), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published a plethora of information about the thousands of deaths and life-limiting diseases that have resulted from vaccine adverse reactions. For example, in the August 13, 2021 edition of the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” published on the CDC website, the organization provided an update from their Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.[2] In this update, they acknowledge the occurrence of “Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) and thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) after Janssen COVID-19 vaccination and myocarditis after mRNA (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) COVID-19 vaccination.” This sounds concerning, yet in the next paragraph the CDC assures us that “the benefits outweigh the risks for rare serious adverse events after COVID-19 vaccination.” Elsewhere in the same paper they reiterate the same point: “the benefits of vaccination for individual persons and at the population level outweigh the risks.” Similar statements can be found in all the official documentation about vaccine safety. The argument is simple: people are dying from the vaccine but this is a small cost given the benefits to society.

Pause for a moment and let that sink in. The CDC is saying that the price we must pay for a majority to achieve a better quality of life (what they call “population-level benefits” and “societal economic well-being”) is that a minority must suffer, and must suffer involuntarily to the degree that vaccines are mandated and enforceable through social and economic pressures.

The True Cost of “The Greater Good”

The CDC has essentially conceded that vaccine mandates, together with calls for cooperation, forces the entire population of compliant individuals to play a deadly game of Russian Roulette. If you believe their numbers, the odds are always in favor of your family benefiting, even though you know some families will inevitably suffer misery. The benefits for the majority of the population come at a cost to a minority.

Haven’t we heard this type of reasoning before? Or have the horrors of the 20th century now receded into such distant memory that we are willing to go along with policies that sacrifice a minority for the wellbeing of the majority?

In essence, the CDC’s reasoning repudiates traditional virtue ethics for something more akin to the calculating quasi-autistic imagination of Jeremy Bentham. They have offered us a cold utilitarianism that treats people like figures on a spreadsheet that can be organized or deleted according to whatever produces the greater good.

A Virtue-Based Resistance

If ever there was a time for religious traditions in general, and the theistic faiths in particular, to lead the charge in a return to virtue ethics, it is now. All the major religions have strong virtue traditions that offer the faithful ways of becoming mature and well-ordered human beings. Yet the specific contours of wellbeing and human maturity are not neutral categories that religious practitioners can allow secular governments to define on our behalf.

If our religious commitments mean anything at all, we cannot passively consent to group behavior or mandates which assume a view of flourishing in which the good of the many is parasitical on harming the few. To collude with such projects would put us on the trajectory to becoming the sort of people our faith traditions warn us against: people who are calculating and utilitarian, people who are willing to achieve our desired society at any cost, people who have exchanged gentleness, sensitivity, and tolerance to complexity for a Benthamite utilitarianism that is cold, calculating, and algorithmic.

So why have we not been seeing this type of virtue-based resistance? Why are not religious spokesmen, even those who are known as vaccine hesitant, raising these important questions? I submit that up until now there have been a number of obstacles that have mitigated against such questions being integrated into the vaccine debate. One is the eclipse of virtue reasoning that I opened this article by bemoaning. Another obstacle is that the corporate interests that have been super-charging the pro-vaccine side of the debate have vested interests in downplaying vaccine adverse reactions, and thus tend not to make explicit that their reasoning hinges on sacrificing a minority for the benefit of the majority.

Ironically, even those on the anti-vax side of the debate will not readily concede (in my view, with good reason) that vaccines actually benefit the majority, and thus hesitate to address their opponents’ reasoning on their own terms, even in the context of exposing the implications involved in sacrificing a minority for the wellbeing of the majority. Thus the opportunity for a virtue-based perspective to the vaccine debate has been caught in the pincer movements of these two sides.

See Also

A Shift in the Public Debate

There is some evidence that the public discourse is beginning to shift in the direction of virtue-based questions. On December 15th, Dr. Peter McCullough went on Joe Rogan’s show to discuss a variety of issues related to the COVID pandemic, including the health and efficacy of vaccines.[3]

During the interview, Dr. Peter McCullough explained that under normal circumstances five unexplained deaths from any product results in the black box warning “May cause death.” Once you get to 50 deaths (regardless of the size of the pool), it’s pulled off the market for a safety review. (For example, when the swine flu vaccine was correlated with three deaths, it was immediately halted.[4]) But the deaths from the COVID vaccines are now in the tens of thousands, and the vaccination program continues to be rolled out. Why is this?

At 1:26:38 in the discussion, Dr. McCullough offered a chilling answer to this question. He shared that after raising biomedical concerns about vaccination policies, people have replied that thousands of vaccine deaths are “a small price to pay” given the promised benefits these shots supposedly bring. But Dr. McCullough believes that such a notion, namely that an entire segment of the population is expendable for the greater good, puts us on a trajectory towards Fascist-type reasoning: “I continue the thought in my mind: a small price to pay for the Aryan race.”

The Challenge of Virtue

Here religious traditions with a strong virtue tradition (including but by no means limited to Christianity) can be the conscience for all society, drawing our ethical discourse back to the older tradition of virtue ethics. We can raise questions such as the following:

  • Do we want to live in a society where any human life, let alone thousands, is expendable as a means for increasing others’ quality of life?
  • Do we want to become the types of men and women who treat human life as a type of cost-benefit game?
  • What type of people will we become if we are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of people for supposed “population-level benefits”? [5]

In the bioethical questions that will likely be on the horizon later in this decade (including difficult issues of transhumanism, technohumanism, and the creation of designer humans for the purpose of organ transplantation) it is crucial that we get the answers to these questions right.

In short, it is time to return the question of virtue to the debate over vaccine mandates.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8101582/

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7032e4.htm

[3] https://rumble.com/vquadu-joe-rogan-1747.-peter-mccullough-dec-13-2021-covid.html. The discussion of vaccine safety started at 1:22:22.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/1976/10/13/archives/swine-flu-prograrm-is-halted-in-9-states-as-3-die-after-shots.html

[5] Notice that these questions are not the same as the types of dilemmas communities faced when deciding whether to allow businesses to remain open in areas badly implicated by the pandemic. The omission of action may often indirectly lead to death. For example, we could do a thought experiment where an individual’s failure to wear a mask, or a city’s failure to go into lockdown during a COVID-19 outbreak, resulted in people dying from the pandemic. While an ethics of prudence can inform the moral legitimacy of these actions of omission, most of us know intuitively that these are categorically different to acts of commission that are known to directly cause death. It is the difference between the fatal injuries resulting from not lowering the speed limit vs. the fatal injuries resulting from putting a car on the market known to kill 3% of drivers from brake failure. If someone were to justify the deaths caused by such a vehicle on the basis that there was a benefit brought to the 97% who experience no problems, we would rightly call such reasoning perverse. If for some reason there were population-level benefits in mandating that everyone must drive a car that kills every 97th driver, we would rightly categorize this as not merely perverse but evil. But that is precisely analogous to the nightmare we are sleepwalking into during the era of vaccine mandates.

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