I am vaccinated, I was back teaching in person in the Spring, and most of my regular in person activities are back to normal(ish). So, it is easy for me to forget that a pandemic is still raging. My usual reminders are the news reports on the preventable cases and deaths among the unvaccinated. Because of the ongoing threat of the pandemic, some organizations have mandated vaccination. Others are considering the matter, no doubt consulting their lawyers. While the legality of mandatory vaccinations is a matter for lawyers and judges, there is also the ethics of vaccine mandates.
As always, much depends on the context. In the case of schools, there is already the well-established precedent for requiring students to be vaccinated. The moral justification is usually a utilitarian one: while there is some cost and possible harms arising from mandatory school vaccinations, this is outweighed by the harms that these vaccinations prevent. Students are in relatively close contact in closed spaces for long periods of time, putting them at risk of various transmissible diseases. As such, allowing students (or, rather, their parents) to opt out of vaccines would put themselves and others at greater risk. Exemptions can, and should, be granted in cases where a person would be medically harmed by vaccination; but these are extremely rare cases. On the face of it, adding the COVID-19 vaccination to the list would seem undebatable: it is a dangerous virus for which safe and effective vaccines exist.
In terms of rational moral objections, the main one is that the long-term effects of the vaccines on children and teens are not known. As such, one could claim that possible harmful effects of the vaccine might outweigh the harms of being unvaccinated. While this is always a legitimate concern, it is not unique to the COVID-19 vaccines: all past vaccines have raised the same concern. So far, the benefits have consistently outweighed the harms of vaccination—so unless there is evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines present a special problem, then it is as morally acceptable to require them now as it was, for example, to require the polio vaccine when it was developed. This is not to deny that things can go wrong, but that we always must make such decisions without knowing the future with certainty.
Employers requiring vaccination is rather more controversial. While some professions, such as healthcare workers and military personnel, are required to get vaccinated these are exceptions rather than the rule. For example, while my students are required to provide proof of vaccination to attend the university, I am not so required. Most professions, even those that involve working closely with other people, do not require vaccinations. Part of the reason might be that employers can often assume that their workers were vaccinated as children. There are also moral questions about what employers can compel their employees to do.
In general, the American right tends to favor giving employees considerable power over their employees. One primary manifestation of this is at will employment. With few exceptions, employers can fire employees at will. For example, if an employee refused to stop smoking (when not working), then they could be fired. As another example, if an employee expresses political views on their own time that their boss dislikes, they can be fired. Thus, it would seem that the right would accept that employers could mandate vaccination on the pain of being fired. The worker would be free to refuse, so the employer’s power does have that limit. However, few people can afford to quit their jobs—so companies have considerable coercive power. However, many on the right have decided to make the vaccine part of the political war. While they would normally favor employers imposing what they wish on their employees, the anti-vaxxers on the right would presumably oppose this mandate. They have shown that when corporations do not go along with their culture war battles, they are willing to turn against them. This, one infers, is because they believe that the political points they score will outweigh getting into a conflict with those who fund their campaigns.
While the right professes to be anti-vax because of their love of freedom, this is a bad faith claim. The right has been busy passing restrictive laws to “solve” problems that do not exist. For example, the right has been busy limiting access to voting on the basis of their “big lie” about the election. If they cared about freedom, they would not be doing this. They have also been busy passing laws aimed at trans people, claiming that strict restrictions must be in place to protect people from dangers that do not exist. Again, if they believed that freedom is so important, they would not be passing such laws. And if they really believed in protecting people from real harms, they would not be anti-vax.
The left generally favors workers’ rights and seeks to at least reduce the power disparity. As such, it would make sense for the left to generally hold that workers could refuse to be vaccinated without being fired. That said, the left also has concerns beyond the workplace, so some leftists would favor mandatory vaccination imposed by the state. This would typically be morally justified on utilitarian grounds: the state is supposed to use its coercive powers to protect citizens, and this might include requiring vaccinations. Because the right has made this into a bizarre political fight, the federal and state governments are going to be reluctant to impose a vaccine passport, let alone mandate vaccination.
My own view is, to state the obvious, that this is complicated. On the one hand, people do have the moral right to control their bodies. This provides a moral foundation for arguing against vaccine mandates. On the other hand, all rights are limited by concerns about harming others. To use a silly example, I have the right to run as fast as I wish. But I do not have the right to charge into other people and knock them down. This is because my actions could hurt them. As another example, while I do have the right to remove the brakes from my truck, I do not have the right to drive it that way. This is because I would be likely to hurt other people. In the case of COVID-19, the pandemic has proven so harmful that mandatory vaccination can be morally justified. It is unfortunate that evil people have worked so hard to create opposition to ending the pandemic—I had hoped enough people would act sensibly (or at least from rational selfishness) and get vaccinated. But we are now in a split world: those who are vaccinated can enjoy moments in which they forget we are still in a pandemic. Those who have decided to not get vaccinated are putting themselves and others at risk and dragging out suffering that could be over. If they would only make the right choice.