Giving Government Shots of Utility

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. This paper was one of the many I wrote about ethics. This class was about ethics in science. But interestingly, this paper was a great prelude to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was making an ethical argument for greater vaccination outcomes for influenza and it was far before anyone had ever had to give proof of vaccination to enter a restaurant.

Dalhousie University


October 1st, 2018

The CDC has concluded that in the 2017-2018 flu season there were eighty thousand deaths in the United-States alone(1) from a single disease that happens to be oddly thought of sometimes as a harsher common cold. A disease of which a convenient yearly vaccination already exists and is especially encouraged for the youth and elderly as their immune systems are the most vulnerable. As well as those in densely populated areas. Yet there are parents in densely populated areas who chose not to get their child vaccinated from the flu, be it by activism or simple negligence. Nonetheless, that resulted tragically in a hundred and eighty children dying in that season alone. Perhaps it is time we bring some utilitarianism to government to solve this problem.

A figure such as eighty thousand puts it in the range of around seventh on the death cause list. The factor of note here is that those higher than the flu almost exclusively tend to affect the elderly. The usual suspects are heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease etc.(2) As far as children dying from those diseases in the United-States, it isn’t hard to argue that genetics play the most significant factor. What separates the flu from those other six causes above it, is the fact that it is a virus that infects and causes an illness such as influenza. So in that respect, it generally comes down to a luck of the draw that is less predictable than genetically created illnesses. As well as above all else, it appears to be the most preventable.

We are all most likely more horrified at the prospect of children being taken to the grave as a result of the disease than adults who are well within their capabilities to chose to get vaccinated. When it comes to children, they do not have that ability and are merely guided at the whims of their parents. Now, assuming that all humans are rational may be useful in economics, but it is hardly a meaningful way of examining real-life behaviour. It is much of the same with regards to assuming all parents are rational actors. Which is why we end up in a situation where possibly hundreds of children in a modern western nation are robbed of life only because their parents were negligent enough to forego an annual vaccination. So how should we apply ethics to solve this dilemma?

Many in the scientific realm fancy the idea that we should be maximizing utility and minimizing disutility at all turns. In that philosophy, complacency is wholly unacceptable as it is a refusal to act to mitigate the disutility even in a situation where one must pick a lesser of two evils. Otherwise known as utilitarianism. A person who holds this ethical framework would suggest, with regards to children dying from a lack of flu immunization, that letting it happen by not putting into place some incentive mechanism is refusing to minimize the disutility. Perhaps we ought to incentivize immunization against flu strains by giving the parents tax credits for doing so, or the opposite by finning them for not doing so.

There are those who hold a different ethical framework in which immediately maximizing utility or minimizing disutility is not the goal. Instead, it is about protecting the individual and universal rights. That is referred to as deontology or Kantianism. Somebody who holds this view while also maintaining the belief that parents ought to have the right to decide which immunizations are best for the child might argue that the freedom is essential and freedom can be messy. If you want the grand scheme and long-term goal of freedom, there will be some disutility though that sort of complacency along the way.

That view is hindered by the reality that the side effects of the flu vaccination appear to be exponentially less than the flu itself with regards to disutility.(3) And also that vaccinations are not one hundred percent effective, so the parent who chooses not to vaccinate is also putting kids who are vaccinated at risk. Which brings to mind the possibility that a child who isn’t vaccinated puts the life of a child who is vaccinated in danger. The parent who decided not to vaccinate is then almost directly responsible for the death of somebody else. Which, unfortunately for the Kantians, is far worse than simple complacency.

1 - Fox, Maggie. "Flu Killed 80,000 People This past Season. Someone Infected All of Them." September 27, 2018. Accessed October 01, 2018.

2 - Holland, Kimberly. "12 Leading Causes of Death in the United States." Healthline. August 24, 2017. Accessed October 01, 2018.

3 - "Flu Vaccine Safety Information." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 05, 2017. Accessed October 01, 2018.