In general terms a vaccine passport is proof that a person has been immunized that allows a person access or entry that would otherwise be restricted. The use and requirements of these passports varies greatly from place to place. New York has tested an app version of a passport to allow access to professional sports games. The governors of Florida and Texas have, as one would imagine, signed executive orders banning the government from issuing them and using the coercive power of the state to forbid business from requiring them. As such, the situation is effectively chaos.
While Fox News and others on the right have used hyperbole and falsehoods to make vaccine passports into a firestorm political issue, there are rational ethical concerns about such passports. While one might wonder why the right does not rationally advance such moral concerns, the easy and obvious reasons are that these generally do not match up with the espoused values of the right and most this sort of moral reasoning extremely dull when compared to the engaging and enraging power of hyperbole and outright lies. Now, to the moral issues.
As noted above, New York has been testing an app version of a vaccine passport. This raises a clear moral concern about access to such passports. A person would need to have a phone capable of running such an app. While many will assume that everyone has easy access to such phones, this is not the case. There are people who prefer to use basic phones that do not run such apps and there are even people who lack phones. If the scope of concern extends beyond the United States, the matter becomes even more serious. Fortunately, there is an easy way to address this issue—physical proof of vaccination can be issued. This does lead to other problems, such as the practical matter of integrating all the various methods of proof in an effective way. But this is on par with identifying documentation from diverse sources and could be managed. But to even have a legitimate vaccine passport, a person must be vaccinated.
While there is a worldwide roll-out of the vaccine, the process is still underway. While the vaccines vary, a person getting the two-shot vaccine can need to wait over a month after their first shot before they are considered fully vaccinated. Since access to vaccines has been extremely limited in many areas, imposing vaccine passports now would lock many people out of access for a while. If the scope of concern is extended beyond the United States, the disparity becomes even greater in terms of ready access to the vaccine. As such, requiring vaccine passports would impose greater restrictions on people who have yet to be fully vaccinated. This concern can be countered by a utilitarian argument: while the disparity of access will cause some harm, this is offset by the harms prevented by requiring vaccine passports. And this disparity will be addressed as more people are vaccinated. But this leads to the concern about people who do not want to get vaccinated.
People are refusing the vaccine for various reasons. Some have rational reasons based on concerns about the rapidity of the development of the vaccines and the lack of information about possible long-term harms. Others are driven by irrational fears about vaccination in general or by repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories. There will presumably also be a few people who cannot get the vaccine because of real health issues. These people will, of course, not be able to get a vaccine passport and will thus be denied access to certain things.
One reasonable reply is to make the usual utilitarian argument: while these people will suffer some harm by being denied access, this is offset by the harm it will prevent. In this case, the inconvenience of not having a passport is weighed against people risking getting and spreading COVID because they are not vaccinated. The ethics of requiring people to have vaccinations to access certain goods and services is well-established, so the main question is what access should be limited to those with proof of vaccination. To illustrate, travelling abroad often requires proof of vaccination. Adding COVID vaccination to the list would not seem to impose an undue burden on travelers. As another example, proof of vaccination is required to attend schools in the United States—this is because the potential harm an unvaccinated student can suffer or inflict morally outweighs concerns about the right or freedom to not get vaccinated. If one considers getting vaccination to be a negative, then it is easily cast as the price that one must pay to receive the benefits of being in a society—such as public education. Giving up some freedoms to allow society to function safely is well established in moral philosophy; one can turn to philosophers such as John Locke and even Thomas Hobbes for these arguments. If one wants to live in a state of irresponsible and dangerous freedom, then they do have that option: they can abandon civil society and live in the wilds of the state of nature far from others who prefer having civilization. A sensible reply to this is to note that my argument is based on very limited requirements for vaccination.
I agree with this sensible reply: the existing and clearly warranted vaccination requirements are limited to cases where close contact with others (or exposure) is likely, such as in schools. As such, arguments would be needed for broader requirements and these would probably need to be made for each general sort of requirement, such as requiring them for access to sporting events or stores.
One morally reasonable approach would be use vaccination passports to allow people access to venues that should remain closed without the vaccinations. These would, of course, be non-essential goods and services. For example, crowded sporting or entertainment events are not essential like grocery stores and they are risky. As such, granting “early” access to people who have been vaccinated would allow these venues to reopen safely. This could also incentivize people to get vaccinated. Once herd immunity is established, then the vaccine passports could be discontinued—they would no longer be needed. The practical problem is, of course, that the right has already made vaccine passports into a battleground in their endless war against social responsibility. One could, perhaps, criticize others for not doing a good job selling the idea of vaccine passports as a tool to speed getting back to normal; but the weight of the blame must fall on Fox News and their fellows who made the pandemic a political battle rather than a national health crisis. While the opposition to vaccine passports often focuses on choice and freedom, there is also the question of the choice and freedom of others.
When it comes to any freedom, a core debate is over the extent to which one person’s freedom can impose on another person’s freedom (and rights). In some cases, the answer is obvious: my freedom to drive my truck does not extend to running over you or driving around inside where you live. In the case of vaccinations of any kind, a person does have the freedom to refuse the vaccination. But this freedom can be offset and limited by the right of other people to not be exposed to disease. To use an analogy, while I do have the freedom to urinate as I wish, I do not have the freedom to urinate on you or your stuff: my right to do as I please with my body has clear limits when this right can cause harm to others.
As a counter, one can point out that there are many diseases circulating that we are not required to get vaccinated against to go about our daily lives. For example, there are vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, but we were (in the before time) able to go about our business without getting them (in general). As another example, the flu vaccine is generally not required (there are exceptions for certain workplaces). The easy and obvious counter is that these diseases are rarer than COVID, or less infectious than COVID, or far less severe. As a rule, imposing on people is less justified in cases where the possibility of harm is less—this is a principle that applies broadly.
In the case of businesses, there is the moral concern that denial of services to people who refuse to get vaccinated might harm those people. On the one hand, it can be argued that they made their choice: if I insist on going to a business naked and urinating on people there, then it would be reasonable for the business to ban me. It would be my fault, for example, that I cannot get Krispy Kreme donuts because I was naked and urinated all over the store. Likewise, if someone does not want to get vaccinated, they can be justly banned for being a danger to others. On the other hand, one could argue that businesses do not have the right to deny service to people, even when it is a matter of preventing harm (or a matter of belief). As an aside, it would be interesting to see a business owner bring a religious liberty lawsuit to allow them to refuse people who are not vaccinated on religious grounds. After all, a religion can be just about anything and have almost any belief.
I think that vaccine passports are morally acceptable, but my practical view is a bit complicated. As noted above, requiring COVID vaccination proof in cases which already require proof of other vaccinations (such as school, certain workplaces, and certain travel) is morally uncontroversial. Since the right has turned vaccine passports into yet another stupid battle in their deranged war on social responsibility and ethic, then using them to provide incentives for vaccination and to increase public safety in the short term will be difficult if not impossible. For example, Florida has already killed the idea of these passports. That said, some other states might be able to use them correctly and effectively, thus fueling the rage of Fox and friends.