This essay, by Oxford graduate student Miles Unterreiner, is one of the two finalists in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Miles will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, at the 12th March final.
May the state limit the free speech of individuals who advocate against vaccines intended to combat infectious disease?
“Freedom is the most contagious virus known to man.”
-Hubert H. Humphrey
Philosophical arguments concerning freedom of speech have traditionally focused upon which types of expression the state apparatus may justly limit, and under which circumstances it may do so. The state has therefore been the locus of history’s most celebrated works on the subject, including John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), chapter 20 of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), and perhaps most famously J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Mill’s argument in favor of the free exchange of ideas remains today the most lasting and the most relevant, and his formulation of the “harm principle” – that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” – continues to undergird significant components of law and policy in industrialized democracies today.
The modern state about which Mill wrote, however, now faces a peculiarly modern challenge that it is increasingly finding itself ill-equipped to handle: an admixture of infectious disease with a series of public campaigns intended to undermine the very vaccination programs designed to combat infectious disease.
Information spreads quickly now. So do viruses.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.