Search This Blog

Jul 20, 2021

Life, dignity, and the vaccine

Yearning for respect fuels irrational thinking. Someone propelling an “alternative” reality is simply telling us: “my opinion is just as valuable as yours.” Our disagreement does not make the yearning to go away. If you wish to convince these people, address their unspoken underlying message, not what they are actually saying.

Our politicians and health officials often unreasonably assume that all people value human life above everything else, especially the lives of others. That is a manifestly false assumption. Millions of people sacrifice their own lives and lives of others for dignity or another higher goal. The culture of solidarity differs from the culture of dignity. I know how generic it sounds, but there is some truth to it. People may belong to the culture of dignity because they have been experiencing lack of it for whatever reasons – real or imagined. And not everyone belongs to the culture of solidarity, that much we know for sure.

In the debate about masks or vaccines, it is not certain death that is being considered, but a risk of disease and death. In this probabilistic version of the dilemma, even people who value life in general, are willing to take some risk if on the other side of the scale is something very important to them. People like me accept science without giving up a shred of my dignity. To the contrary, we take pride in the ability to weigh in and accept evidence. However, assuming others are like you is the cardinal ethical failing. If you were told all your life that you are stupid and must listen to scientists who know better – who knows, you might have developed a thing about it. The insecurity about dignity may have colored your perception. The power-laden context of convincing is not indifferent to the matter about which we try to convince. Those who believe that truth is independent of power relations have slept through their philosophy classes.

From the public policy standpoint, throwing more and more evidence at antivaxxers will not work. The more of it you present, the more defensive mechanisms will be activated. Incentives are a much more promising approach. If you cast vaccination into transactional terms, it removes some of the challenges for the dignity culture. The transaction is voluntary: I still do not believe in your stupid vaccine, but I will take the incentive. Paradoxically, the direct mandate may work better as well: I do not believe in your stupid vaccine, but I need my job. It is the gentle persuasion based on facts that does not work. Or, to be more precise, it may have worked until we encounter the group of resisters strongly motivated by the culture of dignity. Some of them will never budge. Others may be swayed.