What do anti-vaxxers mean when they talk about freedom?

First they refused to wear masks to protect themselves and prevent the transmission of the deadly coronavirus. Now they’re refusing to take a vaccine that will both protect them and reduce transmission of the disease.

Why do they refuse?

They’re talking about decision rights.

– In part it’s conservative Republican political motivations and the desire to signal loyalty.
– In part it’s ignorance.
– In part it’s Dunning Kruger; those who know the least often imagine they know the most.
– In part it’s betrayal anxiety, making them fear the minuscule risk of side effects more than the much larger risk of the disease.

But anti-vaxxers themselves, particularly conservative Republican anti-vaxxers, often describe their refusal in terms of freedom. But is no “freedom” to refuse to wear a mask in a public health emergency just like there is no “freedom” to demand service in a restaurant when not wearing the appropriate attire. There is no “freedom” to refuse vaccination in a massive, deadly pandemic just like there is no “freedom” to refuse to stop at stop signs when driving.

What are they talking about if there are no such “freedoms”?

I believe they’re talking about “decision rights” or to put it another way, they’re talking about the very real freedom to decide for oneself.

As Bartling et al explain in The Intrinsic Value of Decision Rights:

Social psychologists argue that human needs constitute a source of the intrinsic value of power and autonomy… Frey et al. argue that independence and autonomy at the workplace are sources of procedural utility that raise happiness. In economic philosophy, the capabilities approach by Sen and Nussbaum advances a related argument. They emphasize that not only outcomes, but also the freedom of choice, are important for a person’s quality of life …[I]n moral and political philosophy, John Stuart Mill argues that liberty is “one of the elements of wellbeing”, and individual autonomy is regarded as a basic moral and political value.

It isn’t merely about the decisions made, it’s about the right to make decisions.

As Ferreira et al note in On the Roots of the Intrinsic Value of Decision Rights:

…[D]ecision rights carry an intrinsic value beyond their instrumental value either due to a desire to implement one’s decision (a sense of self-reliance) or a preference for independence from the interference of another person. An alternative reason is a preference for power associated with holding the decision right.

When anti-vaxxers, particularly Republican anti-vaxxers, complain about mask and vaccine mandates, it’s about more than masks and vaccines. It’s about personal autonomy, a concept highly valued in both political philosophy and medical ethics.

Doesn’t everyone have both the freedom and the right to make decisions about their own bodies? Who would contest that freedom?

Ironically, the group that has done the most to eviscerate the concept of decision right is conservative Republicans themselves.

Surely if you have the purported right to be served in any restaurant regardless vaccine status, you have the right to order your wedding cake in any bakery regardless of whether you are gay or straight.

Not according to conservative Republicans. The same people who insist that restaurant employees should be forced to risk their health and perhaps their lives to serve anti-vaxxers insist that bakers can’t be forced to risk their moral scruples to serve gay couples.

But they can’t have it both ways.

If there is no freedom to order a wedding cake for a gay marriage, there is no freedom to demand access to venues without a vaccine.

Surely if you have the right to decide for yourself about masks and vaccines in the face of a deadly, world-wide pandemic, you have the right to decide your own gender.

Not according to conservative Republicans.

The same people who feel no allegiance to “science” when it comes COVID, invoke “science” when insisting that transgender persons cannot be allowed to use the restrooms in which they feel most comfortable.

But they can’t have it both ways.

If there is no freedom to choose your own gender, there is no freedom to ignore COVID science.

Surely if you have the right to decide whether or not to protect yourself and others from coronavirus, you have the right to decide to terminate a pregnancy.

Not according to conservative Republicans. The same people who insist that their rights supersede the wellbeing of children who are too young to be protected by vaccination are vociferous in their belief that abortion must be banned because it harms unborn babies.

But they can’t have it both ways.

If there is no freedom to terminate a pregnancy, there is no freedom to refuse masks and vaccines.

What’s it to be, Republicans? Freedom for everyone or just freedom for you?

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