It is logically inconsistent to not support COVID-19 vaccination mandates?

Protesters lined up at Duke Health in Durham to demonstrate their objection to vaccine mandates for employees. August, 2021. Photo by Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal
Protesters lined up at Duke Health in Durham to demonstrate their objection to vaccine mandates for employees. August, 2021. Photo by Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal

Argument: If you are for the school system requiring students to be immunized against diseases, and COVID-19 is just another disease for which a reliable, safe vaccine is readily available, then you should not be against mandatory COVID-19 vaccines in schools.

Readers may recognize that this is a syllogism—that is, it is an argument consisting of premises and a conclusion which follows from the premises. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of syllogism that posits a conditional, whereby something is true if something else is true. If you consent to mandating immunization for diseases (the antecedent or the “if” clause), then you should not be against mandating COVID-19 vaccination (the consequent or the “then” clause). This is the argument purported by many who are pro-mandatory vaccinations.

Is it a valid argument? The Editorial Board of the News and Observer and Rob Schofield with NC Policy Watch seem to think so. However, I do not believe it is a valid argument.

Aside, I have received the COVID-19 vaccine, and I am a huge supporter of individuals getting vaccinated. So, this is not a rebuttal for getting vaccinated but rather a rejection of the argument that one is necessarily being illogical for being against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

What is essentially being claimed to support the argument is that we have a history of mandating vaccinations plus other mandates like wearing seatbelts and traffic laws at the detriment of individual liberty. So, one is behaving inconsistently when they do not consent to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Now, it is easy to dismiss the support for the argument because it intuitively doesn’t square. Becki Gray from the John Locke Foundation correctly pointed out that a mandate to wear a seatbelt, for instance, is different from a vaccine mandate. Intuitively, this makes sense to most people.

However, in discourse, one tends to indulge in things that don’t appeal right away to intuition. Hence, claims are generally taken seriously to show goodwill to our interlocutors as well as to keep an open mind to the possibility of being wrong.

In the spirit of good faith discourse, I will take seriously the argument and the support presented. In doing so, I will demonstrate that one is not being logically inconsistent when consenting to some mandates and rejecting others.

When I hear the argument from an antecedent consent, it almost sounds like the pro-mandatory crowd is maintaining it is necessarily the case that you must consent to the same thing considering changing circumstances. I don’t think this kind of rigid continuity across changing circumstances reflects the quality of being philosophically consistent, but rather the state of not thinking.

For example, say we have the situation of choosing an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert for your child at a restaurant. Your child asks you if she can have any dish she wants. You say yes. She follows up, asking if she can have ice cream. You say yes, thinking that she is referring to the dessert. Then she says, “I want cheesecake,” and you respond, “You can only pick one for dessert.” And your daughter being the clever clogs that she is, responds, “Ice cream is for dessert, but the cheesecake is for the entrée.” You marvel at her wittiness but say no to having cheesecake as an entrée. But your daughter is logical and responds, “If you already consented to me having any dish that I want, and cheesecake and ice cream are dishes, then you should not be against me having one for dessert and one as an entrée.”

Indeed, no respectable parent will concede to the child and let them have cheesecake as an entrée, albeit the child has made a fair point. So, consenting to something in one circumstance (ice cream for dessert) and rejecting something in another circumstance (cheesecake as an entrée), even though you have provided an antecedent consent (you can have any dish you want), is clearly appropriate at times.

The argument presented by pro-mandatory vaccinators would be an ad concessum fallacy. That is, it is necessary for someone to consent to A in one circumstance when they have consented to A in a different circumstance.

From here, they may change their tune to say it’s not necessary but a reasonable expectation since what one is consenting to now is not dissimilar from prior consents. This argument would seem to equate a consequence of consenting to the act of consenting. For instance, I don’t recall consenting directly to traffic laws. Still, I did consent to take ownership of a vehicle, which means I indirectly agreed to adherence to traffic laws and other things pertaining to the ownership of a vehicle. Accordingly, I don’t think we can say that indirect and direct consent are logically equivalent.

You consent to purchase a car. Apart from that, you indirectly agree to paying the property taxes, keeping up with registration, getting car insurance, and adhering to traffic laws. However, it could be the case that you do not consent to purchasing the car. In which case, none of the consequences of owning a car would apply.

Accordingly, it would make no sense to purchase car insurance if you do not have a car. And what the revised argument would have us believe is that buying a vehicle is logically equivalent to buying car insurance without owning a car. It is not. Hence, we cannot say indirect consent to something because of directly consenting to something else is logically equivalent to direct consent to something.

Likewise, when you directly consent to enroll your child in public school you indirectly consent to the requirements of doing so; otherwise, you just choose not to enroll your child in public school. The required immunization for public schooling is an indirect consent. Getting a COVID-19 vaccination would be a direct consent. Thus, we cannot say they are logically equivalent. And if they are not logically equivalent, then the consent of one does not entail the consent of the other, despite them not being dissimilar.

I believe I have made a case for why the argument from an antecedent consent is inadequate to claim one is logically inconsistent for being for some mandates and against others. I also showed that school systems requiring students to be immunized are not logically equivalent to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. Accordingly, the argument used by pro-mandatory vaccinators is invalid.

Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.