photograph of syringe and bottle of antiobiotics
"A bottle of antibiotics and a syringe" by Marco Verch is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

While every state in America has legislation requiring vaccinations for children, every state also allows exemptions. For instance, every state allows a parent to exempt their child from vaccinations for legitimate medical reasons: some children with compromised immune systems, for example, are not required to be vaccinated, since doing so could be potentially harmful. However, many states also allow for exemptions for two other reasons: religious reasons, and “philosophical reasons.” While religious exemptions are standardly granted if one sincerely declares that vaccinations are contrary to their religious beliefs, what a “philosophical reason” might consist in varies depending on the state. For example, Ohio law states that parents can refuse to have their children immunized for “reasons of conscience”; in Maine a general “opposition to the immunization for philosophical reasons” constitutes sufficient ground for exemption; and in Pennsylvania “[c]hildren need not be immunized if the parent, guardian or emancipated child objects in writing to the immunization…on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief” (a complete list of states and the wordings of the relevant laws can be found on the National Conference of State Legislatures website).

Of course, not all states grant exemptions on the basis of any reason beyond the medical: California, Mississippi, and West Virginia all deny exemptions on the basis of either religious or philosophical reasons. And there seem to be plenty of good reasons to deny exemption except only in the most dire of circumstances, since vaccinations are proven to be overwhelmingly beneficial both to individuals, as well as to the community at large by contributing toward crucial herd immunity for those who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical reasons.

At the same time, one might be concerned that, in general, the law needs to respect the sincere convictions of an individual as much as possible. This is evidenced by the fact that many states provide religious exemptions, not only for vaccinations, but in many other different areas of the law. Of course, while some of these exemptions may seem reasonable, others have become the target of significant controversy. Perhaps most controversial are so called “right to discriminate” conditions that, for example, have been appealed to in order to justify unequal treatment of members of the LGBT community.

While there is much to say about religious exemptions in general, and religious exemptions to vaccinations in particular, here I want to focus on the philosophical exemptions. What are they, and should they be allowed?

As we saw above, the basis for granting philosophical exemptions to vaccinations seems to simply be one’s sincere opposition (how well-informed this opposition is, however, is not part of any exemption criteria). In practical terms, expressing philosophical opposition typically requires the signing of an affidavit confirming said opposition, although in some cases there is the additional requirement that one discuss vaccinations with one’s doctor beforehand (Washington, for example, includes this requirement). In general, though, it is safe to say that it is not difficult to acquire a philosophical exemption.

Should such exemptions exist? We might think that there is at least one reason why they should: if sincere religious conviction is a sufficient basis for exemption (something that is agreed upon by 47 states) then it seems that sincere moral or philosophical conviction should constitute just as good of a basis for exemption. After all, in both cases we are dealing with sincere beliefs in principles that one deems to be contrary to the use of vaccinations, and so it does not seem that one should have to be religious in order for one’s convictions to be taken seriously.

The problem with allowing such exemptions, of course, is the aforementioned serious repercussions of failing to vaccinate one’s children. Indeed, as reported by the PEW research center, there is a significant correlation between those states that present the most opportunity to be exempted – those states that allow both religious and philosophical grounds for exemption – and those that have seen the greatest number of incidents of the outbreak of measles. Here, then, is one reason why we might think that there should be no such philosophical exemptions (and, perhaps, no exemptions at all): allowing such exemptions results in the significant and widespread harm.

The tension between respecting one’s right to act in a way that coincides with one’s convictions and trying to make sure that people act in ways that have the best consequences for themselves and those around them is well-explored in discussions of ethics. The former kinds of concerns are often spelled out in terms of concerns for personal integrity: it seems that whether an action is in line with one’s goals, projects, and general plan for one’s life should be a relevant factor in deciding what ought to be done (for example, it often seems like we shouldn’t force someone to do something they really don’t want to do for the benefit of others). When taking personal integrity into account, then, we can see why we might want there to be room for philosophical exemptions in the law.

On the other hand, when deciding what to do we also have to take into account will have the best overall consequences for everyone affected. When taking this aspect into consideration, it would then seem to be the case that there almost certainly should be only the bare minimum of possibility for exemptions to vaccinations. While it often seems that respecting personal and integrity and trying to ensure the best overall consequences are both relevant moral factors, it is less clear what to do when these factors conflict. To ensure the best consequences when it comes to vaccinations, for example, would require violating the integrity of some, as they would be forced to do something that they think is wrong. On the other hand, taking individual convictions too seriously can result in significantly worse overall consequences, as what an individual takes to be best for themselves might have negative consequences for those around them.

However, there is certainly a limit on how much we can reasonably respect personal integrity when doing so comes at the cost of the well-being of others. I cannot get away with doing whatever I want just because I sincerely believe that I should be able to, regardless of the consequences. And there are also clearly cases in which I should be expected to make a sacrifice if doing so means that a lot of people will be better off. How we can precisely balance the need to respect integrity and the need to try to ensure the best overall consequences is a problem I won’t attempt to solve here. What we can say, though, is that while allowing philosophical exemptions for vaccinations appears to be an attempt at respecting personal integrity, it is one that has produced significant negative consequences for many people. This is one of those cases, then, in which personal conviction needs to take a backseat to the overall well-being of others, and so philosophical reasons should not count qualify as a relevant factor in determining exemptions for vaccinations.

Ken Boyd is currently lecturer in philosophy at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com.