Vaccine mandates can result in people losing their jobs. Does that make them unethical?

By Maxwell J. Smith. 

Consider: Kelly is a nurse who has been employed by her city’s general hospital for nearly thirty years. She is single, has two kids preparing to go to university, and a mortgage to pay. Her job is threatened when she is told that, as a condition of continuing her employment, she must be vaccinated against a novel pandemic virus. Kelly is unwilling to get the vaccine and is fired as a consequence.

Recognizing there are many considerations that should inform the ethical assessment of vaccine mandates, is it sufficient to simply point to the harms associated with Kelly losing her job to show that the vaccine mandate is unethical?

No, it’s not, because terminating someone’s employment can be justified irrespective of the harms that may be associated with their termination. In other words, failing to meet certain employment conditions, including health and safety conditions, can be considered disqualifying irrespective of the harms visited upon those unwilling to meet them. This is important to emphasize because objections to vaccine mandates grounded in the harms resulting from people being fired do not necessarily entail the claim that vaccination is unnecessary for the effective and safe performance of their jobs. If this were the case, the objection should centre on the baseless nature of the requirement, not (only) the harms that may be experienced by existing employees who are unwilling to be vaccinated. Yet, commentators frequently point to such harms as sufficient reason to object to vaccine mandates: “It’s not right that Kelly lost her job because of the vaccine mandate. She has two kids to feed and a mortgage to pay.” Alternatively, some argue the harms outweigh the benefits: “The harms to these people losing their jobs outweigh the harms they are apparently trying to prevent with the vaccine mandate.”

Instead, the pertinent question (which may in fact tacitly underlie objections to vaccine mandates grounded in the harms experienced by those fired as a result of them) is whether the mandate is justified in the first place. If a mandate is not justified (e.g., if it is useless, arbitrary, etc.), then firing people for failing to comply with it is clearly wrong. While this may seem rather obvious, what it reveals is that the locus of scrutiny shouldn’t be on the magnitude of harms associated with people losing their jobs as a result of mandates, but rather on whether such mandates are necessary and justified in the first place. If they are, then the harms employees may experience as a result of being unwilling to get vaccinated should not on their own be dispositive of whether or not such mandates are ethical. We should therefore be sceptical of arguments that simply count the harms experienced by those who are unwilling to be vaccinated as a sufficient reason to think vaccine mandates are unethical.

Now, this argument says nothing about the overall justification of vaccine mandates. And nothing I’ve said here should be taken to suggest we shouldn’t attempt to limit the negative consequences experienced by employees affected by vaccine mandates, for example, by offering reasonable and available alternatives, like remote work, or by providing reasonable accommodations to those for whom vaccination is medically contraindicated or in accordance with human rights obligations, or that we should be indifferent to the consequences of vaccine mandates for existing employees. What I have argued is more narrow, i.e., that the fact that people can lose their jobs as a result of vaccine mandates, and that these harms may be rather severe, is not on its own sufficient to tell us that vaccine mandates are unethical.


Paper title: The ethics of firing unvaccinated employees

Author: Maxwell J. Smith

Affiliations: Faculty of Health Sciences and Rotman Institute of Philosophy, Western University

Competing interests: None declared

Social media accounts of post author: @maxwellsmith

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