‘Liberty is at stake, but not just the liberty of the unvaccinated’: An interview with Arthur Schafer

Arthur Schafer is an accomplished philosopher at the University of Manitoba who considers requiring the use of vaccine certificates to be ethical. He has weighed in on this subject in various forums, both as an expert consultant to a panel of the federal government that studied vaccine mandates and as a commentator in the press. We interviewed him about his stance on this issue, and what follows is a transcript of this interview, edited for length and clarity.

Why do you consider the use of vaccine certificates to be justifiable?

Given the empirical evidence, vaccine certificates seem to be probably the most effective and efficient way of protecting the most vulnerable people in society, saving our health-care system from collapse, and enabling society to return to at least a semblance of normal functioning. Without vaccine certificates, I think that economic activity, cultural activity and educational activity might remain severely restricted for the indefinite future. Protecting the health-care system from collapse is probably at or near the top of the reasons justifying vaccine passports.

There is very strong evidence that the vaccine is safe and effective. Those who are unvaccinated run a much higher risk of ending up in hospital or dying. Opposition to vaccine passports is completely unsupported by persuasive arguments.

That said, what arguments against the vaccine certificate do you find the most persuasive? Where do you feel the most torn?

The certificates are justified if the vaccine is comparatively safe and comparatively effective; but if we were to discover based on new scientific data that the adverse side effects of vaccination outweigh the benefits, then of course I would change my mind. That’s point one. Point two: If the vaccine were shown to be ineffective at saving lives, protecting our health-care system and enabling us to reopen society, then requiring people to be vaccinated would be a restriction of liberty that was unwarranted.

Some people argue that vaccine certificates effectively coerce the unvaccinated into undergoing medical treatment. Do you consider them a form of coercion, and if so, do you consider them a justifiable form of coercion?

Let’s imagine a spectrum of voluntary action gradually blending into coercive action. I think that some vaccine mandates would be heavily coercive, and others would be on the very mildly coercive end of the spectrum. So, if you have to be vaccinated to keep your job, I would consider that as falling towards the significantly coercive end of the spectrum. On the other hand, if you have to order a takeout restaurant meal instead of dining in, that restriction of your liberty would strike me as only mildly coercive.

Living in society involves, almost by definition, some degree of coercive interference with our liberty. Some laws and regulations are necessary to prevent our interactions from becoming mutually destructive. Our liberty is restricted in thousands of ways, small and large, to protect others and to protect society. You can smoke yourself to death or drink yourself to death, but you can’t be alcohol-impaired while driving a car and you can’t smoke in public. Vaccine certificates are coercive. They should only be imposed when they are necessary to protect others. In every circumstance, where individual liberty can be reasonably accommodated, it should be.

In an essay you wrote for CBC, you said that “every liberty limitation requires justification,” and determining whether such a limitation is justified entails asking: “Is the least coercive means being used?” You said vaccine certificates appeared to answer this question in the affirmative.

But in some jurisdictions around the world, people can either provide proof of full vaccination, a negative test, or proof of prior infection. Do you think that the exclusive requirement for people to provide proof of full vaccination is the least coercive means possible? Would a system that permitted alternatives be more ethical?

It depends. Good ethics require good facts. How protective is naturally acquired immunity compared to vaccine-acquired immunity? If they’re equally effective, or if natural immunity is more effective, then it would be wrongful discrimination to restrict the liberty of  those who have naturally acquired immunity. Instead of vaccine passports we should then have immunity passports. I’m neither a vaccinologist nor a public health official. At the moment, public health officials are insisting that everyone, including those who have naturally acquired immunity, should be vaccinated. If natural immunity is later discovered to be as good as or better than vaccine immunity, then immunity passports should treat them as equally good.

What do you think of the argument that vaccine certificates further marginalize people who already face barriers to full participation in society, such as homeless people, people with mental illness, and so on?

Every reasonable effort should be made to prevent vaccine passports from having harmful and discriminatory effects on the poor and disadvantaged. So, for example, if you’re going to require vaccine passports to gain access to certain services and venues, then special efforts should be made to enable marginalized people to be vaccinated and the passports should not require that someone own a smartphone.

Living in society involves, almost by definition, some degree of coercive interference with our liberty.

Having said that, the people in our society who are most likely to be infected by the virus and most likely to become seriously ill or die as a result are the poor and otherwise marginalized. They’re employed in meat-packing plants. They’re employed as farm workers and housed like sardines in bunkhouses on the farm. They’re in service jobs that require them to be exposed to the public. So, we owe it to them to take whatever measures are necessary to enable them to have genuine opportunities to be vaccinated.

You wrote in your essay that vaccine passports are justified in part because they increase protection for the vaccinated in high-risk indoor settings by excluding the unvaccinated, who are more likely to become infected and carry the virus. You give the example of barring an unvaccinated student from staying at a university residence to protect the other, vaccinated students. How do you respond to the argument that the fully vaccinated are already adequately protected and that the cost of excluding the unvaccinated outweighs the benefit of securing extra protection for the vaccinated?

The fully vaccinated are at comparatively low risk from the unvaccinated. That’s true. They’re at risk, but it’s comparatively low. The main reason for restricting the liberty of the unvaccinated to dine indoors at restaurants, or to attend concerts, gyms, or university campuses is to protect our health-care system from being overwhelmed, and dare I say to protect the unvaccinated themselves. It’s comparable to requiring that everyone on a construction site wear a hard hat. It’s a blend of paternalism – protecting people for their own good – and preventing harm to others. Vaccine passports are necessary to protect the unvaccinated from exposing themselves to significant health risks and to protect our health-care system from being overwhelmed. By means of vaccine passports and other public health measures, such as masking and social distancing, we may be able to bring the rate of infection, serious disease and death down to a point where everyone’s liberty can be restored. Liberty is at stake, but not just the liberty of the unvaccinated individual not to be vaccinated. If we can successfully reduce the harms of the pandemic to the point where COVID-19 is a minor problem, then all of us may be able to enjoy once again something resembling normal life.

The comments section is closed.

  • Tracy Turner says:

    To be honest, people are skeptical about getting the jab. The vaccine rules are also getting modified. In the start, it was said that there need to be a gap of 45 days between two doses, later they said there need to be a gap of 85 days. Now with omicron being detected, it is said that you also need a booster shot.

    • Daisy Morgan says:

      I completely agree that people are hesitant to take vaccines, especially in low-income groups. Promoting the uptake of vaccines will require understanding whether people are willing to be vaccinated. The world shares a collective responsibility in fighting this pandemic; therefore, continued research on COVID-19 vaccine acceptance and hesitancy should be a priority.


Max Binks-Collier

Digital editor and staff writer

Max Binks-Collier is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Intercept, The Walrus, the Toronto Star, and Maisonneuve, among other outlets.


Arthur Schafer


Arthur Schafer is the founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. He has published widely in the fields of bioethics, moral, social and political philosophy.

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