Thinking morally about vaccinations: My turn!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 04, 2015

In two recent posts, Phil Lawler has ably summarized several important factors in the moral debate over vaccinations made from fetal tissue (see Conscientious objection to vaccinations and The vaccination debateS—notice the plural). In response, critics in some quarters have advanced moral counter-arguments that I find disturbing. I wish to address them here.

Remote Material Cooperation with Evil

Phil noted that the Pontifical Academy for Life (in a non-magisterial 2005 statement) had concluded, presumably correctly, that the use of such vaccinations constitutes only remote material cooperation with evil, and is therefore possible without sin. The PAL also underscored the requirement to oppose the evil and to press for untainted vaccines.

I suspect it is necessary to explain. Cooperation with evil can be formal (which means we intend or approve of the evil) or material (which means we participate in the evil in some way). Both are gravely wrong when this cooperation is “proximate” (that is, significant in terms of our particular responsibilities, our impact on the evil, and our opportunities to avoid it). But when it is “remote”, only formal cooperation (approving the evil) is morally impermissible. Remote material cooperation with evil is not sinful.

The reason is not hard to find. Consider paying taxes, paying for utility services, maintaining Internet access, signing up for a cell phone plan, shopping in grocery stores or drug stores, and so on. In all of these cases and many more, the money we spend will be used to promote a wide variety of evils, from providing electrical service to a gang of thieves to fostering the distribution of contraceptives and pornography.

Such remote material cooperation with evil is very difficult to avoid in any given case, and impossible to avoid overall in the course of life. As such, it is not sinful as long as we do not transform it into formal cooperation by intending or approving the evils involved.

Unfortunately, it seems that some respond to this moral analysis in a way that distorts its meaning. In the case of vaccinations, I have heard too many people assert something very like the following: “OK, this moral question is settled. Using these vaccines is not sinful. But those who decide not to use these vaccines are injuring many others by increasing the prevalence of disease. Therefore it is their actions that are sinful, and must be condemned.”

Permission is not Exclusion

This approach not only butchers the underlying moral principles but forges a suspiciously convenient alliance with the message of the dominant culture—the very same culture which really does approve of embryonic harvesting and many other evils. At the very least, all thought of resistance to the evil seems miraculously to disappear. I believe three additional considerations are necessary to unmask this rather serious failure of moral perception.

First, a judgment that a particular action is not sinful is very different from morally recommending it, let alone insisting upon it. The decision to take advantage of a moral permission does not in any way presume a condemnation of those who choose, after all, not to take advantage of it.

Second, the very concept of “remote cooperation with evil” inescapably depends on a prudential judgment. We can expect the Magisterium of the Church to uphold the doctrine that remote material cooperation with evil is not sinful; but we cannot expect the Magisterium to provide a definitive list of actions which unquestionably involve nothing more than remote material cooperation.

As with so many things, the classification becomes more obvious at the extremes. “Remoteness” depends upon and varies with the mediating circumstances. How distant/minor must the cooperation be to ensure the conclusion that it is, for purposes of assessing guilt, only “remote”? How easily available does an untainted vaccine have to be before choosing the tainted vaccine can no longer be considered “remote” cooperation with evil? What percentage of a store’s inventory and income must be devoted to abortifacient contraceptives, or contraceptives of any kind, before we are obliged not to patronize that store? What if no alternative store exists for something we desperately need?

Third, the fact that this classification of “remoteness” requires a prudential judgment actually leaves a person with two perfectly moral reasons for pursuing a different course of action. On the one hand, he or she may disagree with someone else’s judgment of “remoteness”. On the other, to be specific to our present purpose, he or she may decide that—even if using the vaccine is morally permissible—avoiding it is a morally superior course which he or she desires to follow.

Consequentialism

Finally, I believe we must be very wary of the arguments based on consequences which are used so flippantly to rebuke those who deserve our moral respect, even if they do not compel our agreement. I admit that we must not rule out a consideration of consequences. After all, various consequences may prompt us to examine a controverted question more carefully in the hope of avoiding a particularly painful course of action; moreover, consequential factors do influence the analysis of “remoteness”. (For example, are we reluctant participants in an evil because the measures necessary to avoid it are scarcely possible, or because we don’t want to bother with a perfectly viable alternative, or because of our desire to fit in?)

But we must beware of consequentialism. Various consequences may prompt the intensity of our moral analysis or bear upon the difference between proximate and remote, all of which involve prudence. But once we decide that for us a particular participation in evil is not truly remote, then we are obliged to avoid that participation. At this point in the analysis, it is completely irrelevant to stress the bad natural consequences that might follow upon our decision. Consequentialism is the moral standard of relativism; it creates a notoriously slippery slope.

Moreover, in this case the consequentialists do not even understand their own argument. The number of persons well-formed enough to consider refusing vaccines made with fetal tissue is, in our culture, vanishingly small. In reality, the significant decline in the numbers of people who bother with vaccinations began far before this particular moral question even arose. It is a simple result of our culture’s immense success in eradicating common diseases.

Huge numbers of parents understand that the chance of catching certain diseases now is exceedingly remote, and they judge that any theoretical improvement of the odds is insufficient to justify the risks inherent in vaccination (or perhaps even the nuisance of dealing with it). Could this judgment eventually cause a resurgence of certain diseases? Certainly.

But will this be caused by moral objections to the use of fetal tissue in the manufacture of vaccines? Not very likely in our time and place—and if the numbers of people who wanted moral vaccines were really that great, the market would solve the problem. So do not be fooled. It is time for a consequentialist reality check.

Note: I have further clarified one final textual point here: The Pontifical Academy for Life did NOT argue it is morally obligatory to use tainted vaccines.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ForOthers8614 - Feb. 09, 2015 12:03 AM ET USA

    The sad thing in this debate is the burden placed upon each parent to decipher and discern what is best for his child. After watching my son profoundly change immediately following vaccines, we began to research cause and effect. Unfortunately, it felt like stepping into a "nyu-uh," "y-huh" debate between the tinfoil hat crowd and global warming alarmists--and all I'm trying to do is be a good parent! It is astounding how little unbiased, solid research has been done on this question. JMJ!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 05, 2015 1:59 PM ET USA

    With regard to this issue and others many folks have been forced to become pseudo-experts on their own. This is dangerous. Unfortunately -at least anecdotally-frequently accompanying this "pseudo" expertise is an exaggerated self-assuredness. Vaccinations- despite some untoward effects- have made a difference in eradicating very serious diseases that routinely claimed many lives just decades ago. Unfortunately not all are morally defensible. Then speak up. Abandonment is not the answer.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Feb. 05, 2015 12:52 PM ET USA

    If we remove the *moral* objection to vaccination, the public policy debate can move to the scientific and political issues (which vaccines are necessary? is there really an autism link? parental rights absolutists versus public health absolutists, etc.).

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Feb. 05, 2015 12:45 PM ET USA

    As you state, the number of objectors who selectively vaccinate (i.e., only receiving non-objectionable vaccinations) on this basis is small, but it's so vital to eradicate the basis for *this* objection (and any objections) if we want to encourage vaccination among the broader "anti-vax" crowd, because vaccination undeniably furthers the common good. (Really appreciate the thoughts from you and Phil on this issue. I've been referring to them frequently in conversations in-person and online.)