Here’s something you don’t see every day: a newspaper piece that clearly identifies the philosophical dimensions of a policy dispute. Yesterday in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson wrote about the ongoing controversy over parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, in light of recent outbreaks of once-contained diseases like measles. Although the research linking vaccines with autism has been thoroughly discredited, “anti-vaxxers” who won’t be deterred by science also base their position on their rights as parents to decide what is and isn’t best for their children. It’s a line of reasoning that has made significant inroads in recent years, thanks in no small part to the home-schooling movement and its largely victorious argument that parents have a right to educate their own children however they see fit. (Almost 2 million American children are now home-schooled, most with very poor state oversight, and many with equally poor results. See this New York Times piece from January.)[gn_pullquote align=”right”]“Some Americans seem to believe that the mere assertion of a right is sufficient to end a public argument.”[/gn_pullquote]
In his column, Gerson points to a few examples in which individual rights are potentially at odds with greater social welfare, including tobacco and marijuana use, unhealthy foods, and prostitution. (A narrow slice of vice, but it’s a start.) “In all these matters,” he writes, “there is a balance between individual rights and the common good. This may sound commonplace. But some Americans seem to believe that the mere assertion of a right is sufficient to end a public argument. It is not, when the exercise of that right has unacceptable public consequences, or when the sum of likely choices is dangerous to a community.”
If Gerson is not spot-on, it’s only because he understates the problem. I don’t think the idea that there’s “a balance between individual rights and the common good” even “sounds commonplace” anymore. In fact, I would wager that most Americans—on the right and left, both—believe that rights trump other values as a matter of course. The primary hot-button issues of recent years—gun control, gay marriage, marijuana legalization—have pivoted largely on the matter of individual rights, and have fallen mostly towards the positions espousing them. The losing parties—the left with respect to gun control, the right with respect to gay marriage and marijuana legalization—have lodged arguments based on conceptions of social welfare, but these have been the losing arguments. This might be coincidence, but I suspect it is not. We have a clearly developed language of “rights” in American society, but we do not have a commensurate language for matters of communal responsibility and social welfare. We may intuitively know that social welfare is an important factor—and on occasion, as with Obamacare, we’re able to prioritize it in policy—but our capacity to grapple with it as a concept remains relatively vague.
So cheers to Gerson for providing some basic instruction on the fact that values exist in tension with one another, and the equally important fact that intelligent discourse begins by acknowledging that tension. Whether the anti-vaxxers are ultimately right or wrong about vaccines (who knows what future research might reveal), they are wrong to assume that their rights as parents automatically trump their responsibilities to their communities. That’s what debate is for: to decide what’s more important when.