A Hegelian Case for Vaccine Mandates

I was pleased to see that Douglais Lain hosted Richard Wolff on a recent podcast in order so he could discuss his opposition to vaccine mandates. Wolff came up with some defenses I didn’t find very convincing.

Wolff echoed a false claim that the unvaccinated are less likely to spread the virus. I don’t know where he got this information but it’s not true. Before even getting into the ‘science’ of it all simply take that the vaccines reduce the amount of time and the severity of the virus. If this is the case then in order for the virus not to be more contagious it would have to spread independently of both the severity of its infection and the time it infects an individual. I say this because Wolff accepted that the vaccine reduces these two factors, just not the third (contagiousness).

Wolff was making a larger philosophical point here. Basically while the unvaccinated only oppose a risk to themselves for the most part it is therefore not our right to police them. Fair enough but we have to be honest about the dangers they pose to everyone, relatively speaking. I of course would agree that the far greater danger is the ruling class’s unwillingness to universally vaccinate the globe. This is a far more deadly practice than the middle class spreading propaganda against the vaccine.

Wolff used Noam Chomsky’s stoplight analogy in regards to the vaccine. However, he argued against Chomsky’s case for vaccine mandates by saying the vaccines weren’t like stoplights because individuals take in vaccines differently.

But what did Wolff mean by this? Was he referring to the side effects of vaccines? To stay true to the analogy adverse side effects of the vaccine are rare than say someone being too blind to see a stoplight, for example. While we should be concerned about those with disabilities, to act like the vaccine is causing side effects for a significant amount of people is to play into a right-wing talking point for no reason. Everyone agrees there should be alternatives for the very few who can’t take the vaccine for medical reasons just as people support a sound aid for blind people crossing the street. This doesn’t mean stoplights are oppressing blind people.

Wolff was personally passionate about vaccine mandates because a mayor he helped get elected (Bill de Blasio) went too far in his opinion. But isn’t New York the best case for vaccine mandates? New York was so overwhelmed by COVID that coolers of bodies lined the streets. After strict vaccine rules the new wave still brought lots of cases but far less death.

To make matters more clear it was Andrew Cuomo’s policy of pushing the sick into nursing homes that amounted to a targeted cleansing of a particular group (the elderly) that really was fascist. This strategy led the liberal media to cheerlead for Cuomo as the only man who could stop Trump. Trump might be old enough to qualify for Cuomo’s program but he’s not poor enough. My point in bringing up Cuomo though is that in order to get the pandemic under control politicians and companies would resort to all sorts of cruel measures. Cuomo’s treatment of the elderly was far worse than any vaccine mandate.

Wolff also claims that there is no absolute freedom. There would be some breaking point in which the virus would become more dangerous than the threat of freedom to not get vaccinated. Wolff noted the hospitals being too overcrowded to deal with other life-threatening diseases as a factor that could change his mind.

Wolff then takes an unorthodox centrist approach to the coronavirus pandemic. For him, it’s neither the end of the world nor small potatoes and he says we simply haven’t crossed the threshold and which we need mandates. He may be right that in the face of mass biodiversity death there are far worse pandemics coming and that soon enough this one will feel quite small.

Even so, what sort of precedent do we want to set for the future? One where we accept mass amount of poor people dying in the name of liberty for the working class? It feels like a double standard as all the ruling class, and even most of the vocal middle opponents of the vaccine, are you guessed it, vaccinated.

On a related note, Wolff cited Hegel as a justification for vaccine mandates (in a worse pandemic). Wolff said we must sacrifice freedom (vaccine mandates) in order to get greater freedom (healthy and economically robust society). This is not how I understand Hegel though.

The point of Hegelian dialectics is not to process from one stage to another. We cannot throw away our freedom to not get vaccinated in order to have a more healthy future. Rather, Hegel believes that only the truth is whole. The mainstream reading of Hegel, which sees him as progressing from thesis to antithesis to synthesis is wrong. Rather than processing from a stage of mandates to a virus free world, or a stage of freedom from vaccines to herd immunity, we need to ask as Hegel does, what is the whole?

Martin Luther King saw his principle of non-violence as Hegelian: “The third way open to oppressed people in their quest for freedom is the way of nonviolent resistance. Like the synthesis in Hegelian philosophy, the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites—acquiescence and violence—while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both.”

What King practiced was impossible. To oppose both acquiescence and violence wasn’t a compromise, but rather an acceptance of the impossibility of his mission to change a violent society through non-violence. It was violence that killed King and it was a society that was changed. To accept a dielectric is to accept contradiction which is to accept two things simultaneously that cannot exist at once. To be a Hegelian is to always be whole.

So what does this mean in regards to our individual freedom and our freedom as a collective society? The most radical thing to do would be to as MLK did and live two things at once that cannot be squared. Just as King balanced non-violence and opposition to violence we too must practice freedom and opposition to the violation of others’ freedom. We feel most free when we don’t consider others and yet our freedom is nothing without the freedom of others.

What King’s Hegel looked like in practice was a struggle. Just because two things can’t be done at once without contradiction doesn’t mean we don’t try. King could only see society as a whole. He was not naive. He knew the parts of society begged to be chosen and pitted against one another in the process. King refused to live for a compromised truth. A compromised truth is a partial truth that crowds out one truth just because it doesn’t fit with another.

Is there a Hegelian case for vaccine mandates then? The very mandate that violates the bourgeois freedom of the working class is what protects the working class from the bourgeois. It is not as if the mandate will open up the possibility for the working class to one day have more freedom, or at least that isn’t the point. The point rather is that the mandate is freedom itself. There are other definitions of freedom that will butt heads with this freedom yet it can’t be denied that a vaccine mandate is a form of freedom in and of itself.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com