CURRENT EVENTS – VIRTUE AND THE COVID-19 VACCINE (continued)

We ended last time recognizing the ethical calculus on receiving the Covid-19 vaccine  applies at three levels of reality – individual, proximate, and societal. The simplest of these is the first or reality at the level of the individual where the decision is both simple and less urgent. If your fear of contracting Covid-19 infection, of suffering temporary symptoms (such as loss of smell and taste), of the small risk of hospitalization, and of the even smaller danger of death (say 1 in 200) is less than your concern of unknown but unlikely dangers of the vaccine (not yet seen after hundreds of millions of doses), you might come to the subjectively sound if objectively dubious decision to hold on vaccination. At this level, the best case against vaccination could be made for children and young people who are at least natural risk.

At the level of proximate reality (those around you and with whom you have contact), your ethical responsibility is not to serve as a conduit for direct spread of the virus to other, possibly more vulnerable, persons particularly family and friends. This too is a risk/benefit decision – i.e. the risk of unintended harm to others including their possible death versus your anxiety about an apparently safe vaccine. While to me it seems selfish for you to risk the health of others for unproven fears, a case might be made to delay vaccination if you have limited or no contact with people (other than those already vaccinated) or if you are willing to commit to vigorous protection by double masking, maintaining distance, and limiting interactions to outside. Perhaps phobic persons might justify this approach.

The crux of the ethical issue however is at the level of society. The body of a person infected with Covid-19 produces billions of new copies of the virus. In the copying process errors are made – called mutations – just as would happen if you were to make billions of handwritten copies of a poem or essay. While most of these mutations are harmless, rarely the mutant virus is more infectious or more virulent (likely to kill). In fact a mutant copy of the virus might not be prevented by the vaccines already available and thus could lead to a new epidemic.

Here I would like to point out that most of us have homes, cars, cell phones, food, clothing, medicines, and so forth that we would not have if not for modern civilization. There are tremendous benefits to living in society. In return don’t we have a duty not to be the source of another pandemic? There is no excuse imaginable for declining a generally available, extremely safe vaccine knowing your own body could be the factory for a new, even more deadly virus that could kill millions of your fellow human beings. Therefore, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories must be rejected; all of us have a categorical duty to be vaccinated until the pandemic is over…period. (Sorry!)

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CURRENT EVENTS – VIRTUE AND THE COVID-19 VACCINE

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.” – Albert Camus,  The Plague.

In seven earlier posts1 I addressed some of the philosophical issues attendant to the Covid-19 pandemic just then starting and since dominating 18 months of our lives as a species. Starting in late December of 2020 the first of four vaccines was approved for emergency use by the United States FDA and by similar agencies in most other Western countries (Russia and China have also developed their own vaccines). Without getting into the details of the amazing effectiveness and remarkably limited danger of these vaccines, as a physician who has thoroughly reviewed the clinical trials and FDA panel review and monitored the continuously reported data, I can assure readers that these vaccines are every bit as safe and perhaps more effective than any of the other vaccines they have received during their lifetimes. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are, in my opinion, scientific advances that will lead to Nobel Prize awards within ten years.

Our emphasis today however is on the ethics of a decision to receive or to decline vaccination. Before we address that, a little review is in order. Covid-19 is a member of the coronavirus group which includes some minor longstanding cold viruses. In 2002 a dangerous form, SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appeared in China, infected about 8000 persons and caused 774 deaths. In 2012 MERS or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome appeared in Saudi Arabia and infected about 2500 patients causing 886 deaths.2 Covid-19 which appeared in China in late 2019 was thus the third of these mutated coronaviruses, but this time was much more infectious striking over 178 million people and killing nearly 4 million worldwide. This translates into about a 2.1% mortality, though it likely lower due to underreporting of mild and asymptomatic cases. However the mortality rate varies dramatically by age from less than one in ten thousand for children to perhaps 10-15% in octogenarians. Full vaccination reduces the number of identifiable cases by 95-99% and essentially prevents all deaths. Minor side effects from the vaccines are common, but serious harm or death are less than one in one million, and to my knowledge, no vaccine related deaths have been attributed to the mRNA vaccines.

So what is the ethical calculus on receiving the vaccine or having your child vaccinated? We have seen virtue in general applies to four levels of reality – internal, proximate, societal, and cosmic – of which the first three pertain here. We will explore these next time.

(continued next post)

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1See Suffering – The COVID-19 Pandemic – Parts I-V on this site 4/8/20, 4/10/20, 4/13/20, 4/15/20, 4/17/20, 4/20/20, and 4/22/20.

2See SARS Basic Fact Sheet and MERS Basic Fact Sheet at www.CDC.gov.

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CURRENT EXPERIENCE – HELPING THE HOMELESS (continued)

Last time I recounted my experience of traveling with a faith-based group to provide mostly nonfood necessities to homeless people in my home town. Today I would like to consider some philosophical issues which arose from my outing.

First is the impetus for the mission of my hosts – the words of Jesus to his apostles as how to show their love for him – “Feed my sheep.”  In their mission we see the actualization of the great teaching of Jesus and enduring legacy of Christianity, virtually unrecorded prior to his teachings  – the principle of charity – the selfless helping of strangers in need. It does not appear prominently in ancient India, with Buddha or Confucius, in Taoism, in ancient Egypt, Babylon, or Persia, in the Old Testament, nor even in Greek and Roman philosophy. Whatever the future of Christianity, this legacy is enshrined forever in civilization and elevates Jesus to the pinnacle of human thought and achievement.

Second, as much as I respect the concept of charity, my pragmatic side has misgivings regarding the specific service of bringing necessities to people living on the streets. Are we enabling such individuals to subsist in hopelessness and ennui? Shouldn’t our goal be to extricate the unfortunate from their lot and aid them in moving on with meaningful lives? My friend correctly points out we have no right to prod others on a course we approve, arguing the ethical course is to help them survive each day until they awaken to the choice of a different and better future. Still I can’t help feeling badly that I left someone’s beautiful, young daughter living on the streets the day after she was dropped off by an inconsiderate man. If I could go back I would try harder to extricate her from her circumstances, perhaps by connecting her to a drug treatment center if necessary.

Third is the larger question of homelessness itself – why in a wealthy society do some find themselves living in such pitiful circumstances? If the answer is mental illness and drug addition, the question then is whether it is ethical for a civilized people to allow others to sleep outside on the bare ground under tarps in the cold while looking the other way. I think the answer is no, thus societal duty must extend to the provision of food, clothing, safe shelter, and social services to the unfortunate. While I believe one logic tenet underpinning ethics is that no obligation exists where no solution exists, it is unclear the problems of the homeless are insoluble.

The last philosophical theme is whether some homeless persons are in fact modern Cynics. In an earlier blog I discussed the ancient Greek Cynics under the subject of suffering/asceticism. 1 The cynics renounced worldly desires believing in a simple life of just enough food, clothing, and possessions to survive. Since the gods want nothing; men most like the gods will want next to nothing. Virtue for them was self-sufficiency, freedom, detachment, and moral toughness and endurance. Poverty becomes the paradoxical avenue to peace and contentment. Happiness is found by strength of mind to want nothing and to lack nothing. For them philanthropy is serving as models of virtue for others and spiritual hope to the poor and oppressed. When I asked my hosts about our homeless, they guessed that not more than 10-15% choose homelessness as a simplified way of life, and most of these decline offers of help.

I conclude the practical philosopher  should be a person of action in the cause of the homeless in whatever way possible while devoting attention to the ethical dimensions in the quietude of contemplation.

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1See Suffering – Asceticism – Part IV – The Cynics on this site – April 24, 2020.

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CURRENT EXPERIENCE – HELPING THE HOMELESS

“But now how is it possible for a suffering which is not mine and does not touch me to become just as directly a motive as only my own normally does, and to move me to action?… although it is given to me merely as something external…I nevertheless feel it with him, feel it as my own…” – Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality.

I thought I would take a break on the long path of virtue and the meaningful life to stop and describe my reflections on a recent outing to help the homeless. Last week I joined a small group of faith-based philanthropists on their weekly Saturday morning ‘mission.’ We were 4 people (three men and one woman roughly ages 40 to 67) in three vehicles, visiting three aggregates of homeless individuals (‘tent cities’).

In my friend’s pickup truck were the precious, mostly nonfood supplies – he tells me there are many sources of food for these unfortunate people, but for little else. The supplies we provided included small propane tanks (about 6 hours heat, but also good for cooking and heating up coffee), bottled water, protein drinks, canned tuna, gloves, socks, toilet paper, wet wipes, soap, hygiene kits, batteries, and feminine products. We also had a limited supply of pillows, tents, blankets, shoes, and stoves several of which he brought at the request of specific individuals the week before. There were also hot meatless burritos he had made that morning starting at 5:30 AM, which were very much appreciated by our patrons. Perhaps 40-50 persons total accepted our wares – I would guess ages 20-70 with an average of about age 40 and about 70% male. Persons of color were surprisingly few – apparently they choose local shelters over the streets.

Before we left on our mission, there was a very brief sermon by a clergyman done remotely by speaker phone. His emphasis was not only on helping the unfortunate, but also on the reason – the command of Jesus to the apostles to “Feed my sheep!” He reminded us this is not mere community service as for example one does in a fraternity or social club, but fulfilling the wishes of the divine. Other than this there were no religious linkages. None of the party proselytized or even mentioned Jesus, God, or the bible on our rounds, nor were there any prayers. The supplies were given completely unconditionally – it was truly touching!

Also noteworthy was the unexpected discipline of the patrons who lined up in front of the table of goods and waited their turn, asked permission to take things they needed, and offered genuine gratitude. I am told that these camps have their own ethics; for instance, he who steals from another may find his tent and possessions burned to the ground. We saw at least one instance of a couple taking in a newly homeless young woman. And I must confess I was surprised that I never felt the least bit in danger. We learn that civilization survives even extreme poverty and homelessness.

I will take up a few philosophical matters related to my experience in the next blog. Join me then.

(continued next post)

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