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Why celebrities have a moral responsibility to help promote lifesaving vaccines

The Joe Rogan Experience podcast on Spotify displayed on a phone screen, with medical syringes and Spotify logo displayed in the background.
Many celebrities have expressed concerns about bodily autonomy while refusing COVID-19 vaccination. Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the heated debate about vaccine mandates, celebrities have not hesitated to raise their voices. Most prominently, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic has stated he would rather not participate in tennis tournaments than get the vaccine required to play. And Joe Rogan has used his highly popular podcast to spread vaccine misinformation, saying the vaccine could alter one’s genes.

While some resistance is based on misinformation or distrust of the vaccines, some is rooted in concerns about bodily autonomy. In January 2022, actor Evangeline Lilly attended a rally protesting vaccine mandates in the name of bodily sovereignty, claiming she was “pro-choice” and stating, “I believe nobody should ever be forced to inject their body with anything, against their will.” Comedian Rob Schneider echoed this reasoning, proclaiming “My body, my choice” in a tweet. Actor LaKeith Stanfield expressed in a now-deleted Instagram post that vaccines should be solely a matter of “personal choice.” These celebrities oppose the state’s or other institutions’ requiring them to get the vaccine and claim that it should be up to individual choice.

This claim is of particular interest to me as an ethicist who has recently co-authored an academic paper assessing the anti-vaccine mandate activists’ appropriation of the “my body, my choice” argument from the abortion-rights movement. In that paper, I argue that those who oppose vaccine mandates for reasons of bodily autonomy have yet greater reason to oppose abortion restrictions, because they entail far greater impositions on bodily autonomy. Thus, being against vaccines for reasons of bodily autonomy but opposing abortion is not a coherent position.

The celebrity claim to “my body, my choice” in opposing vaccination is another matter. Celebrities have great influence over others, that can have consequences that go beyond their own health.

‘Do no harm’ principle

Anyone can get infected with COVID-19 and risk transmitting the virus to others. Spreading COVID-19 risks causing them severe harm, including death, hospitalization, or long-term sickness and disability.

Indeed, celebrities themselves have been the victims of COVID-19. The disease has taken singer and songwriter John Prine, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and, reportedly, the legendary entertainer Meat Loaf.

While liberal societies such as the U.S. generally privilege the freedom to make individual choices, even if ill-advised, they also endorse a prohibition on harming others. According to philosopher John Stuart Mill, people are allowed to do as they wish except when they could harm one another.

There are two components to Mill’s harm principle. First, there is a duty not to harm others. But second, Mill claims that enforcing this duty is the only legitimate reason to limit people’s liberties.

The first part, the duty not to harm, is not contentious. It is in people’s rational best interest to endorse a mutually respected rule of not harming one another. The second part is controversial. The political libertarians endorse it; other liberals reject it.

But even if one thinks, as Mill and the libertarians do, that the government prerogative to interfere with individual liberties is restricted to enforcing the duty not to harm, vaccine mandates can still be justified. In other instances, people endorse the state’s right to limit liberties that risk imposing harm on innocent others. Driving with worn brake pads greatly increases the risk of causing an accident and injuring or killing someone. The government can rightly restrict people, by threat of fine or other penalty, from driving with a car in disrepair.

Likewise, someone who is infected with COVID-19 risks spreading it to someone who could die or be seriously ill from it. While vaccination does not guarantee that one will not become infected or transmit the virus to others, a three-dose course of vaccines greatly decreases the odds of infection and thus reduces transmission rates. Further, vaccines are low cost or free and very low risk. For the same reasons as above, the government can rightly deny people access to certain activities if they refuse to get vaccinated.

The “my body, my choice” claim fails to recognize that some people’s choices, such as failing to get a low-risk, effective vaccine against a deadly disease, impose unjustified risk of harm on others that the government has a right to prevent. Even libertarians should by their own commitments agree. This requirement applies to all individuals, whether famous or not.

Promoting good

When it comes to what the state can do, celebrities are not special. But some celebrities seem to be overlooking the possibility that they have special moral responsibility in light of their stature. For better or worse, many people look up to celebrities as people to admire and to emulate. Celebrities can influence others to also get vaccinated.

A mural on a building depicts a man with a tennis racket, with writing in Cyrillic script across the top.
Tennis player Novak Djokovic has refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Vladimir Zivojinovic/Getty Images

There is strong reason to think that in some circumstances we do have the responsibility to help others and promote the good. That is, morality is not limited to just not causing harm. Philosopher Peter Singer famously argued that someone who walks by a shallow pond and finds a child at risk of drowning in the pond is morally required to wade in and pull the child out. After all, the risk to the rescuer is so minor – perhaps ruining some nice shoes. But the benefit to the child is life itself.

Thus, people have some duties to do good for others in addition to the duty not to harm. As Singer argues, when so great a thing as life itself is at stake, people have a moral duty to do what they can to save lives if the cost to them is not overly burdensome.

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The situation with COVID-19 is similar in morally relevant ways. Encouraging others to get vaccinated and setting an example by doing so oneself is low cost, given the low-risk profile of the vaccine. But in doing so, one can literally save lives.

Celebrities are uniquely positioned to do this promotional lifesaving work at low cost. Singer’s principle suggests they are obligated to do so. Celebrities claiming “my body, my choice,” in my view, are mistaken on both these fronts.

The well-accepted duty not to harm is the ground for justified vaccine mandates. Celebrities are well positioned and thus morally responsible to help promote lifesaving vaccines.

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