Ours is a tribal species, prone to racism and other forms of intolerance. Thankfully, racism is no longer accepted among “educated” people (although many don’t take the trouble to get educated about what to count as racism).
However, human tribalism will out, and in recent years a new form of us-versus-them thinking has taken the place of racism: intolerance of creed. By creed I mean the central beliefs people use to steer their own lives and to make important decisions on behalf of their children. These beliefs might be religious, scientific, pseudo-scientific, or whatever: all they amount to are beliefs. They issue in behavior, of course, as do all beliefs, but they remain mere beliefs.
Although disagreement is a valuable thing, and we should welcome attempts to rationally persuade others that their beliefs are mistaken, creed-intolerance takes the form of treating the offending beliefs not simply as false but as immoral, and indeed so severely immoral as to oblige the rest of us to overrule them. You can see the difference in the language used to condemn an offending creed: not the epistemological language of truth and falsity, knowledge and ignorance, reasons and evidence, but the moralistic language of shame and disgrace.
Racism and religious intolerance have always masqueraded as “concern for defenceless women and children”. White women supposedly needed protection from the advances (and allure, one suspects) of sexually voracious men of other races. Children had to be sheltered from the corrupting influence of various “great infidel” types, from David Hume to Salman Rushdie. And so on.
And today, creed-intolerance does the very same. For example, those who are sceptical of climate change catastrophe are not treated as simply having a different or factually erroneous opinion: they are condemned for committing future generations of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (etc.) to the fires of hell. Oh yeah, and climate change is going to be worse for women, we are given to believe. See the pattern?
Another classic example of creed-intolerance is the current “scientific” attitude to vaccination. Anyone with an inkling of science knows that vaccination is a good idea, that measles is a very unpleasant and possibly life-threatening disease with life-damaging complications, and that the MMR vaccine is very unlikely to do any sort of harm. You’d be doing your children and other people’s children a favour if you had them vaccinated.
Yet others think differently. Some people honestly – although erroneously – think vaccination may do more harm than good. By all means let us try to persuade them rationally that they are in error, but let us not make any attempt to overrule their judgement, even though we disagree with it.
Why? – Because we should encourage or at least allow “experiments in living”, and parents must have the final say in what is done in their children’s interest, unless it is obviously and very seriously harmful. But the science of vaccination is science: therefore it is attended by uncertainty, and some doubt is appropriate. If that surprises you, you have misunderstood the nature of science.
Many other practices might be considered harmful. For example, I consider the circumcision of boys to be harmful, but not so seriously harmful as to overrule parents’ decisions to have it performed on their sons. (The so-called “circumcision” of daughters is a different matter.)
It is often said that opting out of vaccination is harmful “to society”. To which I reply: there is no such thing as harm to society apart from harm to the individuals who constitute society. And as JS Mill argued, society (so understood) must be prepared to absorb a limited amount of harm for the greater good of individual freedom. In the present case, the harm occurs to those who do not have immunity, meaning mostly those who have not been vaccinated. As long as a significant proportion of the population do get vaccinated, or acquire immunity by actually getting the disease, there is little danger of an epidemic.
What is a “significant proportion”? – It depends how infectious the disease in question happens to be. Suppose the average carrier of a disease infects two other people: then a potential epidemic is in the offing. To ensure that that disease has a downwards trajectory, more than half of the population would have to be made immune. As long as this proportion is maintained, the disease will eventually become extinct. These proportions change with range of factors, of course, but no disease is so virulent that the entire population would have to be vaccinated.
Despite that, people often talk as if everyone had to be vaccinated to curb a disease, and about those who shun vaccination as if they were treacherous “fifth columnists” who let society down by making us all vulnerable. But nearly all of the vulnerable ones are those who avoid vaccination.
“But they expose their own children to risk!” is the next plea of the creed-intolerant. To which I reply: OK, but so what? We all expose our children to risk, knowingly or otherwise, as well as taking risks ourselves, knowingly or otherwise. It is up to us as individuals and as parents to judge whether the risks are acceptable. Most of us drive cars, and bring our children along as passengers. Some of us smoke cigarettes in houses where our children live. Personally, I wouldn’t take the risk of sending my own children to a Catholic school, but I accept that other parents deem this to be a wise decision or an acceptable risk for their own children. Fine, that’s (mainly) their business.
Let’s be honest. Most people don’t like other people to express different opinions from their own. Some don’t like others to even have different opinions from their own. And they tart up their own narrow-mindedness and intolerance to look like “concern for children”. As per usual.
I’m not religious, but one thing must be said in favor of religion. Anyone whose creed is honestly religious cannot but admit the simple fact that others have other creeds. I have my religion, and you have your religion, and we live in different ways as a result. Occasionally, an admirable pluralism springs up where these differences are routinely acknowledged and tolerated.