Mandatory vaccines: The debate continues – Matthew Kruger

Earlier in the week BizNews published a piece (read here) by Research Fellow Matthew Kruger, which argued that it’s a “shared, narcissistic disgust of others” that is motivating the move towards mandatory vaccines. Originally published by the Helen Suzman Foundation, Kruger opined that it is not vaccination that he takes issue with, but ratherthe framework through which we’re considering this question.” Something he told Alec Hogg he finds “extremely worrying” for numerous reasons. Below are two eloquent responses to Kruger’s article – along with a reply from Kruger himself. – Jarryd Neves

This brief provides for concluding remarks and responses on research fellow Matthew Kruger’s previously published brief entitled “A life of freedom: Mandatory vaccines and mocking the dead” in which he argued that it is a shared narcissistic disgust of others that motivates the present move towards a policy of mandating vaccines.

Comment by Andrew Donaldson

Dear Matt,

I read your HSF piece on vaccine mandates. You have covered a considerable body of philosophy with some eloquence.

Despite careful reading, I still haven’t got a clue why you think that vaccine mandates are wrong. Governments have, for centuries, imposed restrictions or mandates on people for public health reasons. This is an important part of what we call civilisation. Without these intrusions in “freedom” life would be very nasty and for most people short. I cannot see where, in your written paper, you assess the unavoidable tension between choice and compulsion in the promotion of public health.

But that is not why I am writing. I don’t mind if you think vaccines should not be mandated, I don’t have particularly strong views on this.

I am writing because you characterise the views of those who favour mandates as motivated by a “disgust for the unvaccinated”.

This is a profoundly offensive view, and the offence is not tempered by the associated academic reference. Let’s examine the words you use. Narcissism is a clinically diagnosable personality disorder. Disgust is an emotional response to something reprehensible. Vaccine advocacy is a public policy position founded on scientific evidence. To conflate these things, as you have done, is a category mistake.

You might care to read the recent public comment of Graeme Meintjes, who as a WC Dept of Health public doctor speaks of the “daily reality” in Covid wards of people who are desperately ill and dying, most of whom would not be in hospital if they or their acquaintances had been vaccinated.

That he, and many others, regard vaccine mandates as sensible, has nothing to do with disgust, it is because they care about others.

With regards and respect,

Andrew Donaldson

Response by Matthew Kruger*

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for your email, and for your kind words.

When I write, I never mean to offend. I regret that you feel that way. But, my writing is intended to make (the very few) people who read my work uncomfortable. To the extent that some of what you characterise as offensive is actually discomfort, then job done.

Now to the two main objections of substance:

1) The piece is not about whether vaccines should or should not be mandated. It is about the discourse and attitudes that seem to be driving members of our elite, who are otherwise violently opposed ideologically, to collectively support it. The blurb specifically makes this point: “Whatever the cold wisdom…” That same phrasing is used in the main text itself. This choice of wording was deliberate. But in retrospect, perhaps I should have been clearer.

Asking after discourse and attitudes is not an idle enterprise. Questions of policy and law are structured by a complex of concepts, categories, attitudes and emotions. The particular, prevailing complex of these opens up horizons of possible judgment. They make certain options seem obviously true, and others appear obviously false. Sometimes, they obscure options entirely. My aim was to try to disclose one aspect of this complex. This is important, I think, because it is only when the structuring complex is clear that we can meaningfully address the tension that you rightly identify. Until then, the field of evaluation is distorted. And consequently the judgments and actions that follow are illegitimate – or, at best, coincidentally right.

This is why, with all due respect to the extraordinary work that they do, a doctor’s view on this issue has no unique or higher authority than my own. Or any person’s. Doctors are experts in healing people. That is the limit of their authority. And even then, their job is only to inform us of the probable consequences of certain actions. Their views as doctors, as opposed to ordinary citizens, have no special weight when we, as a democracy, are deciding what to do.

2) Regarding disgust, I do cite academic authority for my claims. Obviously, the authorities do not concern Covid-19 itself. That is all too new. But look at the footnotes. Martha Nussbaum is cited. Even if you remain opposed to me, I could not recommend this book more highly. 

In the book cited, Nussbaum explains that emotions are “intelligent”. What she means is that they have built in them evaluative judgments about objects or persons. Disgust is one such emotion. It is grounded, she argues, in narcissism, which on her account is rooted in the failure to overcome the infantile desire to control or dominate the world. But since this total control is impossible, she explains, life for the narcissist is characterised by two related emotions: shame and disgust. Shame is directed inwards, at the self, with the narcissist judging herself for her failure to effect the control that she thinks all-important. Disgust is directed outwards, at others or objects. For example, excrement is disgusting, she says, because it reminds us that we’re part of nature and therefore vulnerable (and so not in control). But likewise the narcissist can experience disgust of people, when these “others” threaten the narcissist’s sense of control. Given our country’s history, this claim by Nussbaum hardly needs much argument to be persuasive. 

Now, this is what I think is driving much of the left and right. Over 18 months, our elites have instilled in Covid-19 an almost mystical power, possessing it with the ability to “engulf or destroy us all” (as the editor of News24 editor put it right at the start). But with effective vaccines available, they are transferring that fear from “the Virus” to “the Unvaccinated”. The term is not a coincidence: it serves to dehumanise a class of people. This class, we have been told, constitutes an existential threat. Because the nature of the threat is biological, the emotion accompanying their fear is disgust. 

Lastly, again, these are not idle, merely philosophical, speculations. For the policy to mandate vaccinations, when structured by narcissism and fear and disgust, is very different to one structured by your no doubt more tempered, humane standpoint. This matters. Because what happens when, to quote Biden from just last night, those with power “lose patience”? Will the “War on the Virus” become a “War on the Unvaccinated”?  My fear, perhaps overwrought perhaps not, is simply this: Whereas the natural response of the person who is ashamed is to hide from the world, the natural response of the person who is disgusted is to cleanse it.

Thank you again for taking the time to read my piece, and to write so thoughtfully in reply.



Comment by Anwar Suleman Mall

Dear Matthew,

I read your piece in the HSF newsletter with much interest, decrying the global hegemony of the USA. or the ambiguity in the pronouncements of President Ramaphosa which, when carefully unearthed, seem to you to be a mere collaboration or capitulation to big business, with respect to the matter of mandatory vaccination.

You took this matter of the question of a mandatory vaccination policy and set it very nicely against the larger context of global attitudes and their influence in the way we do things. Such analyses have their value and create spaces for much intellectual discussion and debate in our institutions and public spaces. In fact, they are necessary to engage those destined for or who are in careers where policymaking is of crucial importance. Public education, in this regard, is important too.

Whilst we deal with the theoretical aspects of such issues, we have to be realistic and remember that the situation on the ground here in South Africa and the world is dire. Theorising and philosophising at this moment is not of much benefit! Your analysis seems to suggest that individuals have the freedom to make choices for themselves and to suffer the good or bad consequences, whatever they may be, and take responsibility for those choices. But freedom of choice in this instance could result in harm to others; our infectious diseases experts regularly remind us that the occurrence of a high level of infections in a large cohort of unvaccinated individuals will undoubtedly cause more dangerous variants to arise. Apart from maintaining the pandemic, there would be all kinds of deleterious effects on society at large through the focus on very many sick or dying Covid-19 patients, plus the continuing economic harm affecting large numbers of marginally surviving people.

People are dying daily from Covid-19, and an already severely battered South African economy is being further threatened, with consequences too horrible to imagine. The spectre of hunger, poverty, joblessness, and the vulnerability of a large sector of our (poorly literate or illiterate) population to misinformation, especially through social media, about the pandemic, are factors that must drive us to seeking practical solutions in the eradication of this pandemic. In fact, misinformation, and even outright stubbornness (should I say stupidity) has sometimes even overtaken those considered to be ‘educated’. Here I refer to a court application against the President in the early days of the pandemic by a group of professionals of a particular religious persuasion on the grounds that the lockdown regulations were violating their rights to congregational prayer! Perhaps we are also following the Americans in our ignorance, anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitudes?

As a scientist, I celebrate the prompt response of the Western world in creating vaccines in so short a space of time. I am utterly grateful to those frontline health workers who have risked their lives and the well-being of their loved ones to serve the sick and dying. I support all efforts to get the proper information about this pandemic to all sectors of our society.

In the light of this I find your criticism against Ivo Vegter and Pierre de Vos to be in the extreme and unwarranted. All efforts to have at least the majority vaccinated is absolutely necessary. For those of us who have experienced the brunt of this pandemic through the loss of close relatives and friends, what we can hope for is a more efficient and faster vaccination rollout, and perhaps even mandatory vaccination, in specific instances and institutions, if found to be constitutionally sound, would be acceptable.

I would rely on the expertise of constitutional experts to guide me here.

Anwar Suleman Mall, Emeritus Professor, University of Cape Town

  • Matthew Kruger is a Research Fellow. The views of the Research Fellows do not necessarily represent those of the HSF but are published under our auspices in order to enhance and broaden public debate, which is part of the mandate of the HSF.

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