‘The only purpose for which  power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ J.S.Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’

Curiously, this fundamental liberal principle is on occasion used to justify human rights violations, rather than to defend liberalism.

This is happening now in regard to the call for Covid-19 vaccinations to be made mandatory. This implies that the people who do not wish to be vaccinated should either be forcibly held down and injected, or alternatively, that their freedom of movement should be severely limited. Both these proposed actions obviously violate democratic human rights constitutionally protected in civilised and democratic societies. Specifically, they violate the basic rights to bodily integrity and to freedom of movement.

The fundamental human rights recognised today by all civilised and democratic societies, and specified in national constitutions, were identified in the 18th century as being the minimum political rights required if the freedom of the individual citizen from domination and abuse by either governments or other individuals or groups was to be feasible. The particular constitutionally protected human rights were identified at the time by highly intelligent and competent men, taking into account millennia of political abuse and exploitation of the masses by their rulers. Accordingly, anyone proposing to violate them needs to think very carefully before presuming to do so.

Those who call for mandatory vaccination or vaccine passports assert, as does J.S. Mill, that the political protection provided each of us by the concept of human rights is conditional on those rights not resulting in harm to others, or to society as a whole. This is a rational, if loose assertion, particularly as the concept of individual political human rights was conceived of specifically in order to protect the mass of people, or society as a whole, from predatory individuals. (Its genius being that it foresees that the best way to protect the mass of people is, in fact, by protecting the individual’s political rights.)

A major problem

While the assertion is rational, it creates a major problem. Who exactly is to decide or define whether the particular action or condition of individuals constitutes harm to society as a whole, sufficient to warrant the violation of their and society’s basic human rights? Clearly, there could potentially be a very high political cost to people’s freedom if their constitutional human rights are open to violation by the state. And if the state is free to annul all human rights because it, or its small group of medical experts leading the herd, deems unvaccinated individuals to be currently harmful to society as a whole, what is to stop it in future, once the precedent has been set, from annulling all human rights for any reason that it declares to be harmful to society? This is not a power that the state should ever be accorded, as human rights vest in  the individual citizens themselves, and not in the state.

There would in all probability be a very high cost for the people of any nation whose government was free to annul their political human rights for any reason. Accordingly, the benefits that the violation of any human rights were calculated to bring about should clearly have to be overwhelming to justify such a risk. If 75% of the population were almost certainly going to die, then obviously it would be worth the risk. If 20% were almost certainly going to die, it might be worth it. If 5% might die, it possibly wouldn’t be worth it. This is not a calculation that it would be easy to make rationally. It is highly doubtful, however, that saving the 0.1% of the population – about 85,000 people – that Covid-19 has killed in South Africa would be worth the risk of putting the government into the position where it could potentially annul the basic human rights enumerated in the Constitution. And it’s very unlikely that J.S.Mill would have thought so.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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