Conscientious Objections to the COVID Vaccine Should Be Honored
As employers and governments have become more stringent with COVID vaccination requirements, many are no longer honoring conscientious or religious exemptions to the vaccine. Several states have dropped or are in the process of dropping these exemptions. Some hospitals and health departments, such as the New York Department of Health, have eliminated religious exemptions. In the private sector, United Airlines has announced that employees with religious exemptions to the vaccine will be placed on unpaid leave.
Even if vaccination is a wise idea, removing these exemptions is morally wrong and unjust. The rights of conscience and religious liberty must be respected as a precondition for responsible decision-making of all kinds.
Why Conscience Matters
Why should conscience matter at all? Many people think that appeals to conscience (religious or non-religious) are just convenient excuses to get around the rules. But this is a grossly unfair way of characterizing what conscience is and why it matters. Let me explain.
Good decisions are responsible decisions. In order for a decision to be responsible, it must proceed from a position of confidence. We must be convinced that what we are doing is right. After all, it would be reckless to make decisions -- especially about important matters -- if you don’t bother to check that what you are doing is right or have sincere doubts about it.
Even if things turned out in your favor, it would still be reckless because you made the decision carelessly without proper consideration of its merits. You did not make the decision for the right reasons. What makes a choice reckless isn’t a matter of whether that choice is harmful, but how it is chosen. For that reason, we can still make reckless decisions about things that are good and beneficial.
As such, it would be wrong to coerce someone into making a decision that they are not confident about, even if that decision ultimately ends up beneficial. What makes it wrong isn’t merely the fact that you’re overriding their autonomy -- although that is certainly relevant -- but the fact that they are being compelled to act recklessly. They are not acting from a position of confidence, but fear and doubt.
That, in a nutshell, is why the right of conscience is so important. There are many good ideas that are worth acting on. To avoid making reckless decisions about these ideas, one’s decision to act on these ideas must proceed from a position of confidence. This is what conscience provides us with. Conscience is confidence, trust, or assurance that what one is doing is the right course of action. This confidence, trust, or assurance is what allows us to act in a responsible manner. The importance of conscience pertains to how we make decisions, not what we end up deciding.
Put another way, conscience isn’t a “still small voice” in our heads that guides us, but an attitude of conviction about one’s actions. Protecting conscience is a matter of protecting the ability to make responsible decisions. Forcing people to act against their conscience (even for the sake of something good) is wrong because it means that they are being compelled to act from a position of doubt and fear, which is reckless behavior on the part of the person doing the coercing.
If people do not have a clear conscience on an issue that one thinks is important, then the proper thing to do is not to violate their conscience but to convince them to freely act for the right reasons and with a clear conscience.
One might worry that this view of conscience is far too permissive. Wouldn’t it imply that the right of conscience can be used as a universal permission slip for anything we don’t like?
No. This objection is based on a misunderstanding of what conscience is. As John Henry Newman put it, “conscience has rights because it has duties.” Conscience matters because we have an obligation to make responsible decisions. It serves to illuminate our obligations by giving confidence to our decisions. Conscience is thus a judgment of reason, not a reflection of emotion or preference. It identifies obligations, not permissions. Thus, conscience is not a version of autonomy, desire, or will; it cannot be used as an excuse for allowing us to indulge in our personal preferences.
Vaccine Mandates Without Conscience-Based Exemptions are Unjust and Immoral
Suppose that COVID vaccination is a wise choice and that individuals should choose to be vaccinated. However, some individuals are not entirely convinced of this and have doubts. If vaccinations are going to be mandated as a matter of policy or law, then the doubtful conscience of these individuals must be respected. They must have the right to refuse on grounds that they are not confident that what they are about to do is right. Removing conscience-based exemptions compels these individuals to act in reckless ways.
The reasoning is straightforward. In order to make responsible decisions, we must make them from a position of confidence. But one cannot act from a position of confidence about a medical decision if he is coerced into it. Vaccine mandates are an example of medical coercion since they involve penalties of various kinds. So, vaccine mandates conflict with the obligation of each person to make responsible decisions. In the absence of conscience-based exemptions, these mandates are unjust and immoral.
If one is convinced that COVID vaccination is a wise choice and that individuals should choose to be vaccinated, the right thing to do would be to simply work to change the minds of those who are unconvinced. This is done through reasoning and education, not threats. One can be pro-vaccination without having to resort to coercive mandates.
One might object on the grounds that refusing vaccination can be risky. Even if correct, this objection misses the point. The value of conscience is not a function of its benefits or risks, but rather has to do with its being an essential part of one’s personhood. If we deny someone the right to make responsible decisions, we deny him the very thing that makes him a unique human person: his rationality. The right of conscience is a basic right that comes with being human. As such it cannot be overridden simply because it would reduce risk.
Note that risk is not the same thing as harm. The right of conscience cannot be used to justify activities that are intentionally harmful, i.e. damaging or injurious. This is because conscience functions to facilitate responsible decision-making, and decisions that intentionally cause harm cannot be responsible. Thus, conscience does not protect activities such as human sacrifice. By contrast, risk is simply the likelihood that an action might lead to harm. Everything we do generates some non-zero probability of risk, whether it be commuting to work, shaking someone’s hand, or just opening a window.
While refusing vaccination might be risky, it is not harmful. Someone who refuses vaccination might have a greater chance of becoming ill or spreading illness to others. However, it is the illness that causes actual harm, not the refusal to be vaccinated. For that reason, vaccine exemptions do not fall outside the scope of conscience protections. Although refusing vaccination may increase risk, there is not a moral obligation to reduce risk as much as possible. Otherwise, we couldn’t drive to coffee shops, build campfires, or give hugs.
The right of conscience is an integral part of responsible decision-making and must be recognized and protected. Individuals who cannot in good conscience submit to vaccine mandates should be granted exemptions. At the same time, conscience has rights because it has duties: the importance of having a clear conscience means that we ought to continue examining the evidence. Whatever one ends up deciding, appealing to conscience does not provide an excuse to remain in ignorance, nor does it function as a permission slip that lets us get out of anything. We ought to align our consciences to what is true.
Tim Hsiao is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grantham University. His website is http://timhsiao.org
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