How Not to Treat Human Beings as Moral Persons

by | Jul 16, 2021

How Not to Treat Human Beings as Moral Persons

by | Jul 16, 2021

immanuel kant (painted portrait)

Immanuel Kant, an eighteenth-century German philosopher, famously espoused the following maxim of morality:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity…never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

The terms of this principle, a formulation of what he calls “The Categorical Imperative,” are rather abstract, but Kant also provided a more practical test for determining whether a prospective action is morally permissible or not:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

According to Kant, violations of this formulation of the Categorical Imperative embroil one in a “practical contradiction.” It is not immediately obvious what he means by this, which is why his oeuvre continues to be a lively subject of debate among professional philosophers. Those sympathetic with Kant’s general outlook have sometimes drawn parallels to more familiar principles of the major religions, including the Golden Rule:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Even without having studied philosophical ethics, many people will nonetheless aver that when we talk colloquially about someone using another person, the implication is that it is immoral. Excellent examples include notorious “black widows” (and widowers), who murder their spouses in order to gain possession of their wealth. In fact, every case of mercenarily motivated murder would seem likewise to violate Kant’s Categorical Imperative—and The Golden Rule. The idea of not using people solely as the means to our selfish ends coheres rather well with commonsense morality and is embedded in the legal systems of modern western democracies.

Much ink has been spilled over the past few centuries by some scholars in rejecting Kant’s deontological theory in favor of more practical, teleological or consequentialist, approaches such as utilitarianism, according to which one should always act so as to maximize the happiness or pleasure (or “utility,” as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham termed it) of the greatest number of people. According to utilitarianism, no action is excluded from the outset, because one must determine what its consequences will be in order to know whether it is right or wrong. If a black widower donates his miserly wife’s estate to help people in dire need, then a strict utilitarian might in fact deem the murder (intentional, premeditated act of homicide) to be the right course of action. More generally, if by sacrificing one person or a small number of persons one will thereby save millions of morally equivalent others, staunch utilitarians will insist that the sacrifice not only can but should be made.

Quasi-utilitarian reasoning is found frequently among calls for wars of so-called humanitarian intervention, which promoters claim will save many more people than doing nothing, even though there will invariably be some “collateral damage” victims who die as a direct result of the bombing itself. The outcomes of modern bombing campaigns never reflect the sunny forecast of those who set the intervention machine in motion, but even if they did, this rationalization for “humanitarian intervention” assumes that killing and letting die are morally equivalent, a position which is rejected within the bounds of civil society. Except in rare cases, involving persons with special obligations of care, such as physicians and parents, we do not regard permitting people to die as the moral equivalent of killing them.

The ongoing mess in the Middle East shows how wrong the prognosticators were when they claimed that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would be swift and simple, ushering in an era of peace and democracy for Iraqis, who instead went from suffering under the rule of a despot to living in a chaotic and deadly environment in which their security and quality of life were severely degraded. The state of Libya a decade after the 2011 bombing campaign and the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi is another striking example of how wrong interventionists can be about the consequences of their “well-intended” programs of homicide.

One reason why hawks reach so facilely for utilitarian rationalizations for their wars may be that in this approach to normative morality there is no need to reflect seriously upon the plight of individual soldiers. The end justifies the means and, yes, that will include the sacrifice of some young persons in the prime of their life. In galvanizing support for invading and bombing other countries, the effects on soldiers—the thousands who may be physically maimed or killed, and the many thousands more who may be psychologically wrecked by the experience—are not mentioned at all because they are not recognized as real until after the fact, and then only by some. Indeed, the U.S. military itself has repeatedly and systematically denied responsibility for injuries to soldiers—caused by the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the bombing of chemical facilities in the First Gulf War, the use of burn pits during the occupations, etc.—even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the soldiers were harmed not by the enemy but as a direct result of their own military leadership’s callous disregard for the well-being of troops.

Utilitarian-esque reasoning is quite versatile and is readily invoked in debates on a variety of other military matters as well. Opposition to military conscription, for example, can be made on the purely utilitarian grounds that coerced soldiers are unlikely to fight as effectively as volunteers. Accordingly, whenever soldiers are forced to fight, rather than invited to do so, the outcomes will likely be worse than they would otherwise have been. In World War I, this problem was “solved” by sending wave after wave of young men to their deaths, effectively expending them as cannon fodder.

The Kantian reason for opposing military conscription, whereby unwilling persons are coerced to fight, kill and possibly die in wars over which they have no say, differs markedly from the utilitarian perspective. Efficacy, far from being morally decisive, is in fact irrelevant in the Kantian moral framework. What is wrong with conscription is not that it will have negative consequences but that such soldiers are treated merely as the means to the ends of political elites. Alongside draftees, many a volunteer soldier has been squandered as cannon fodder, but so long as he freely entered into the Faustian bargain of agreeing to kill and risking his own life in exchange for employment, benefits, etc., then he is not being used in the same sense in which every drafted soldier is.

Now, there are good reasons for thinking that war as a means to conflict resolution is at least irrational, if not intrinsically immoral, because no one should ever agree to kill complete strangers at the behest of war promoters, many of whom stand to profit from war—whether financially or politically, and often both. But as a result in part of the long-entrenched myth of heroic warriors who take up arms everywhere and only in the name of “justice”—so long as they are on our side!—wars do continue to be waged and fought, victims slain, and soldiers sacrificed. Relative to that world, delusional though it may be, forcing persons to take up arms is still worse than allowing them to do so.

As shocking as it may seem, twentieth-century soldiers were experimented on in a variety of contexts, under what appears to have been the assumption that they had already signed their lives over to the military, so why not? During the 1991 Gulf War and in the following years, U.S. soldiers were required to be vaccinated against Anthrax using a yet-to-be-approved (by the FDA) pharmaceutical product which caused significant bodily harm to some of the troops. As a result of the Anthrax vaccine fiasco, soldiers are no longer required to undergo experimental treatments, including the emergency authorized COVID-19 vaccines, which have yet to receive full FDA approval. Needless to say, the pharmaceutical and biotech companies involved are doing everything within their means to obtain an early approval so that the vaccines can be mandated by law in a variety of contexts, including the military.

More generally, the current COVID-19 crisis provides a refractive lens through which to distinguish the two very different ways of conceiving of morality, the deontological (as exemplified by Kantianism) and the teleological (as exemplified by utilitarianism). Human experimentation, such as the mass vaccination programs currently underway, is carried out under the utilitarian assumption that the sacrifice of a few will ultimately save millions of lives. Every medical treatment, even those which have received years of testing and full FDA approval, has negative outlier effects on a small portion of the population, and it is purely a matter of misfortune to be one of the persons who ends up being harmed rather than helped. No one has been singled out for harm, so the situation is similar to a lottery where most people win the prize—in this case immunity or, at the very least, better prospects for survival in the case of infection—but a small percentage do not.

The Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System (VAERS) dababase catalogues the reported harms caused by vaccines, and in the case of Covid-19, these have included myocarditis, severe allergic or immune reactions, and Bell’s Palsy, among other possible effects, up to and including death. That these vaccines are being distributed in an ongoing experimental trial is underscored by the fact that the specification sheets for recipients and caregivers were recently updated to reflect the incidence of heart disease as a rare but possible side effect. That risk was not recognized in the early, much smaller, trials, nor in the initial roll-out to elderly persons, but became clear only when younger persons began to be vaccinated, who would ordinarily not have heart troubles, as older persons sometimes do.

So long as patients are properly informed of the potential dangers, if ever so slim, to their health and well-being, then it is their prerogative to incur risks in exchange for the prospective benefits of vaccination, should they deem this to be the proper course of action for themselves. In other words, the case may be viewed as similar to a fully informed person who agrees to enlist in the military, even while knowing the risks involved. There are, however, some curious factors in the present case which together suggest that nothing like morality is driving the quest for universal vaccination. Most obviously, a heavy-handed and ubiquitous propaganda campaign is being used to persuade persons to believe that it is somehow wrongheaded, ignorant and/or selfish not to agree to serve as a subject in an experimental trial of a treatment for which many of them have no need, given their prospects for survival even without the vaccine.

Under normal circumstances, individual persons, so long as they are mentally competent, are deemed the appropriate authorities about which treatments to undertake in efforts to protect themselves and enjoy good health—or not. Free people are also permitted to smoke, eat junk food, avoid exercise, consume alcohol as they please, and engage in risk-taking activities such as rock-climbing at their caprice, even though each of these behaviors may result in premature death. In the current crisis, we have seen endless exhortations to universal vaccination from figureheads such as President Biden and Vice President Harris, both of whom recently emoted on Twitter: “Get vaccinated, or wear a mask until you do!” Such sweeping prescriptions on the part of persons with no information about the individual patients whom they are sternly enjoining to undergo treatment would be a clear violation of medical ethics, if in fact Biden and Harris were physicians, which of course they are not.

Competent medical professionals do not issue blanket prescriptions to be followed uniformly and mindlessly by all possible patients. The particular circumstances of particular patients call for particular treatments to be undertaken—or not. Sound medical advice derives from a licensed professional who is familiar with the condition and circumstances of the patient in question. There is no prescription applicable simultaneously to infants, toddlers, adolescents, young adults, pregnant women, middle-aged persons, and nonagenarians, because their bodily conditions are completely different. Moreover, even within each partitioned category, a wide range of variation exists. Some people (whatever their age) are obese, while others are not. Some people have smoked or continue to smoke, while others do not. Some persons suffer allergies, while others do not. It is nothing short of incompetent to suggest that any treatment should be applied in a one-size-fits-all fashion, as is being done in the propaganda campaigns for the COVID-19 vaccines. Far worse than offering people incompetent (because ill-informed) medical advice, however, would be to force them to comply with mandatory edicts derived from incompetent medical advice.

An overzealous judge (Richard Frye) in Ohio recently sentenced three persons convicted in his court of law to COVID-19 vaccination, which would seem to be a flagrant violation of civil rights. Certainly the punishment cannot possibly be said to fit the crime, because it is completely irrelevant to it—to any crime, as a matter of fact. The judge explained his decision in the following terms, “It occurred to me that some of these folks needed to be encouraged not to procrastinate,” demonstrating only that he has no business residing over any court of law, for he has decided to use the courtroom as his personal pulpit, legislating from the bench in the most obnoxious of ways. One of the criminals, Sylvaun Latham, was offered the choice of COVID-19 vaccination plus a one-year term of probation or else a five-year term of probation. In other words, his liberty to conduct himself as he pleases was tethered by the judge to his willingness to serve now as a subject in an ongoing experimental trial of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is not scheduled to end until 2023.

To require convicts to serve as subjects in experimental trials for drug treatments for which they may or may not have any need (see The Imitation Game for the tragic story of Alan Turing in Britain) is tantamount to making them the property of the state and their lives the prerogative of the state to risk and even sacrifice. This is a very different scenario from voluntary conscription, whereby fully informed persons agree in exchange for remuneration to risk their own lives and well-being. But soldiers who volunteer to fight for their country do not simultaneously agree to serve as pharmaceutical company guinea pigs, which is why forced experimentation on soldiers, too, is wrong. As difficult as it may be to believe, we have now entered an era in which so-called public health experts who support mandatory vaccination are galvanizing judges to conduct themselves in the manner of the officials of the Third Reich. During that deplorable episode of history, judges regularly sentenced persons to sterilization, and many persons were used in human experimentation against their own will.

The most important conclusion of the Nuremberg court regarding human experimentation was this:

The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.

Extorting convicts to undergo experimental vaccination in exchange for shorter prison or probation sentences clearly violates this Nuremberg court finding. Indeed, every case of “force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion” to undergo medical treatment is also a violation.

Going even farther than the Ohio judge who imposed vaccine sentences upon convicted criminals, the government of France is effectively criminalizing those who refuse to participate in the vaccine trials. On July 12, 2021 (ironically two days before Bastille Day), President Emmanuel Macron announced that proof of vaccination will be required in social venues, on public transport, and in some cases to remain gainfully employed. By denying persons the right to use public transportation, or even to work, the French government is especially targeting poor people, for wealthy people have private cars and do not need to work. But all “non-compliant” French citizens are being punished as though they committed crimes when in fact they have every right in the world to decide which medical treatments to undergo and which to decline. These measures effectively transform French society into an everted prison in which everyone who refuses to offer his body for use in an experimental trial has his liberties curtailed as though he were an incarcerated criminal who has been convicted of a crime. In effect, everyone who declines the experimental vaccine is being put under house arrest.

In the United States, some businesses are requiring vaccination of their employees, and quite a few universities are requiring vaccination of both employees and students, even though the chance of deleterious, life-changing or even deadly, vaccine side effects may for some cohorts (such as young males) be greater than the chance of death should they become infected with COVID-19. It is nothing short of extortion to threaten people with extremely negative consequences should they not volunteer to serve in an experimental trial for a drug/device of which they have no need. You want to finish your college degree? You want to remain gainfully employed? Then roll up your sleeve! And yet a disturbing number of otherwise apparently rational people support these initiatives, at least judging by their comportment on social media. (Note that there are many bot farms operating on this front as well, and whether they are being paid for by governments or the companies who stand to profit is unclear.)

On July 6, 2021, President Biden announced his administration’s intention to send vaccine promoters door-to-door to persuade those who have not already complied to change their mind. The assumption behind this “folksy” approach of “community outreach” is that anyone who declines vaccination is ill-informed, and with the appropriate amount of friendly banter they will recognize the error in their ways. The problem, however, is that, pace Anthony Fauci, “The Science” has not spoken yet. Information censored and dismissed as disinformation by the media and those who parrot its every proclamation includes hypotheses, theories and bald facts which do not support the reigning narrative and suggest that it may well be false. While appealing to a “community outreach” spirit, Biden also likened this initiative to a “war-time” effort and called willingness to be vaccinated “patriotic”, the insinuation being that declining vaccination is unpatriotic.

Preposterously, given the thousands of breakthrough cases of persons fully vaccinated but who contract COVID-19 anyway, the so-called vaccines may not effectively prevent transmission but only mitigate symptoms—which is what they were designed to do. The shots offer a very slim risk reduction (ARR or absolute risk reduction of ~1%) to most people, because most people are not vulnerable to COVID-19, making it far from obvious that there is any reason for them to undergo an experimental treatment. Yet facts appear incapable of slowing the propaganda machine set in motion more than a year ago, and vaccine proselytzers persist in haranguing even the millions of already recovered persons to roll up their sleeves.

The global propaganda campaign has been so relentless and vast that those who decline vaccination, as in France, stand to have their liberties severely curtailed by government bureaucrats the world over who cling tenaciously to disinformation about the supposed superiority of vaccine immunity over natural immunity, despite numerous studies demonstrating the robustness of the latter and mountains of evidence that social mitigation measures have no effect on outcomes from place to place. Strikingly, if the vaccines do not prevent infection but only diminish symptoms, then millions of vaccinated persons should be expected to fall into the supposed class of “asymptomatic carriers” and considered more likely to transmit the virus to other people once they stop wearing masks and practicing social distancing—at least according to the religious tenets of the Branch Covidians.

As in every other case when quasi-utilitarian rationalizations have been trotted out in support of policies which will destroy some persons’ lives, no one has any idea what the longer term effects of the vaccination programs will be. To pretend otherwise is to lie and, in Kant’s view, to deceive and thereby treat the persons in question merely as means, not as ends in themselves. To treat people as moral persons is to grant them the dignity of being able to inform themselves, assess the facts, and come to their own conclusions about how best to conduct their own lives, up to and including which medical procedures to undertake. Anyone who agrees that it is wrong to use people solely as a means should be wary of pseudo-utilitarian propaganda, above all when the self-styled utilitarians have nothing to lose and something to gain. That there exist today people who are rallying for forced vaccination by the government of the very people whom the government supposedly serves reveals, once again, as many historical episodes attest, how frightened people can be persuaded to support objectively abhorrent policies, sacrifice their fellow human beings and even renounce their very own rights.

When Biden’s Pfizer minions show up at your doorstep, let us hope that they do not in their missionary fervor undertake to vaccinate you without your consent. Just as the cases of President Macron and Judge Frye illustrate, for fanatics convinced of their intellectual superiority and moral righteousness, the end always justifies the means. The danger of this political climate for free people cannot be overestimated. Given the length and range of the COVID-19 vaccine propaganda campaigns, which have completely saturated the mainstream media, there is some reason for suspecting that readily available forms of forced vaccination may be nearer than we think, given the willingness of state authorities such as judges and presidents to criminalize the refusal to serve as a subject in a pharmaceutical product trial.

That Biden has claimed to be on a “wartime” footing vis-à-vis COVID-19, and the Pentagon itself recently held a “war game” specifically addressing the COVID-19 crisis certainly does not bode well for the future of free people. The technology already exists to be able to vaccinate the unwilling using aerosol sprays which could be delivered by automated drone swarms. As horrifyingly dystopic as that possibility may sound, we already know from their many military misadventures abroad that government officials are ready and willing to use any and all of the implements in their arsenal in achieving their aims, and they have no problem ignoring altogether the moral personhood of their victims.

About Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is the Senior Fellow for The Libertarian Institute. She is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, Theodicy: A Metaphilosophical Investigation, You Can Leave, Laminated Souls, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic's Critique, in addition to many essays and book chapters. Questioning the COVID Company Line: Critical Thinking in Hysterical Times will be published by the Libertarian Institute in 2023.

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