Johannesburg – The Covid-19 pandemic is making me wonder whether to rethink aspects of personal autonomy.
It is always easier to articulate principles at a general level, including mechanisms for working through clashes of important principles, than it is to apply it all to a particular scenario. Covid-19 is one such scenario that demands our ethical attention.
I see the media isn’t tiring of the question: “Can you force someone to get vaccinated?” And they approach it mostly through labour law.
That is understandable since many employers may be tempted to compel their staff to undergo vaccination even when they don’t want to. Well, they can’t literally force them to get vaccinated but one could easily create a situation making it untenable for someone who did not wish to be vaccinated to take a decision that contradicts their most deeply held views.
That is why labour experts are then trotted out to guide workplaces about the very careful constitutional and other rights at play here that cannot be violated, and to work out what would be lawful policies.
But I want to pivot from law to ethics instead. Personal autonomy is a cornerstone value to be cherised and respected in any decent society.
Although we are embedded within social structures like our family and friendship networks, and society more widely, each of us is inescapably journeying through this world as individuals. And, as individuals, we are best and uniquely placed to know who we are, what matters to each of us at that deeply personal level, what life we choose to live, what values and principles we want to give expression to as the embodiment of our deepest sense of self.
That just is what personal autonomy safeguards.
It is a value that safeguards your space to be you inside a community of other beings in the world.
That is why, in policy and law debates, we protect your personal autonomy maximally and must have deep overriding reasons to justify any restrictions on your autonomy. And so the impulse to protect you from a compulsory vaccine jab, for example, is an impulse that is founded on a deep level of moral respect for your individual autonomy as a free individual within a society of many individuals with a huge variety of beliefs and principles.
We recognise diversity.
We enable it.
We don’t undercut it willy nilly.
That, at a high level and in a nutshell, is the ethical instinct against top-down policies on especially matters involving bodily integrity.
You do not get more intimate a decision of what should happen to you than with regards to your physical body.
And so we land up relatively easily with a pro-choice position of vaccines then. Each to his own. But the problem with the principle is that it doesn’t always do justice to the complexity of the case at hands.
That’s why I cautioned that a general formulation of a principle can be niftier to articulate than to apply. We are not either atoms floating around disconnected from others or so connected to one another as to lack any individuality.
Those are false depictions of our lives.
We are individuals implicated within a community. We cannot frame the choice to not get vaccinated as merely being about individuals giving expression to their autonomous desires.
That is incomplete as a description of reality. What you do with your body does affect others and not just yourself. You should take account of the consequences of your actions on others precisely because you are a member of society.
So as we try to get more people vaccinated, we must improve our public discourse on why and how people must think about their rights.
We need not bypass complexity.
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