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The Real Problem with Vaccination Mandates

Autonomy is lost when governments deem us incapable of reasoned choice.

Key points

  • Autonomy is a universal psychological need bounded by choice architecture.
  • Mandates presume irrationality is present and beyond redress.
  • Those who oppose mandates must abandon conspiracy theories as they can be used to justify the removal of choice.

A young Australian woman’s suicide is alleged to have been connected to backlash for refusing to get a Coronavirus vaccine. Recently, tens of thousands of people in cities like Belfast, Brussels, Rome, Rotterdam, Vienna, and Zagreb have protested mandates and restrictions aimed at managing the coronavirus. Should these protestors be condemned and labelled anti-vaxxers and sceptics or could it be that they are simply upping the ante against similarly harsh manoeuvres imposed by those in power?

Governments worldwide have resorted to extreme control tactics which raise important questions about autonomy, which is defined as “a state of independence and self-determination…the experience of acting from choice rather than feeling pressured.”

Consider three questions:

  1. How autonomous do you consider yourself to be?
  2. Is this autonomy essential to your psychological well-being?
  3. If autonomy is essential, is it okay for someone to take it away to preserve the greater good, or to sacrifice mental health for the sake of physical health?

Most people in the Western world consider themselves to be autonomous. This is a good thing generally, but I am about to present information that suggests true autonomy might be more of a fantasy than a reality as authorities, markets, and the media lead us to internalise a specific type of autonomy, a type that creates an illusion of choice but really represents a form of conformity that operates without your awareness. I’m not saying this type of autonomy is any less essential to your mental health than ‘real’ autonomy, and I’ll explain why below.

Few if any of the motivations or values underlying your choices are truly your own. This is because we mostly adopt the motivations and values of others through learning. These ‘others’ are often family, friends, and people with power like celebrities or politicians. We take on others’ values to be like them because we rely on the support of the group to survive.

Psychologists call the process of internalising others’ values interpellation, and most would agree that it makes us vulnerable to being directed by external influences over our internal motivations. Because autonomy is a value that we internalise via interpellation it is possible that we have internalised a specific type of autonomy, one that serves society’s interests above our own. Stable or true autonomy gives you freedom of choice, whether it works for society or not, so what type of autonomy do you have when it comes to deciding whether to have a vaccine?

When you choose to not have a vaccine, you cease to be autonomous and get hit with a mandate.

I’m not saying vaccination is wrong. I understand the imperative of safeguarding public health. For the record, I have had my double shot of AstraZeneca. I am, however, questioning if you can be autonomous when higher powers remove your choice if your choice doesn’t align with some objective. Maybe we are autonomous ‘with conditions.’

Why would society seek to instil a value like autonomy if we can’t really express it? Let’s think about this for a minute.

The Central Bank wants you to spend your money on a certain thing, say, property, to help prevent an economic crisis. What’s the easier option: imposing penalties on keeping your money in the bank, which might be met with resistance, or lower interest rates raising inflation, making you ‘choose’ to spend your dollars, which will be worth less if kept in the bank?

Are you able to see yourself switching places with the beautiful people in advertisements so much that you ‘choose’ to buy the brands they’re wearing?

Surely, it is easier for those in charge to propagate a value for autonomy and tweak the environment in which choices are made to coerce or direct your actions, and at the same time, make this coercion or direction sufficiently subtle to protect your perception that your choice comes from you.

A whole field—behavioural economics—is dedicated to the practice of influencing choices by organising the context in which people make decisions. Society might have been better served had heads of state stuck to insights from behavioural economics to achieve the goal of herd immunity in place of resorting to mandates.

Source: Twitter/nygovcuomo

The image above—and example of the state of New York’s appeal to financial incentives—certainly suggests that its leaders knew how to do so.

Outside of the pandemic, financial incentives have effectively promoted vaccine uptake. Vaccination against hepatitis B among opioid injectors increased sevenfold following incentivisation, for example.

Mandates are put in force when it is accepted that people’s decision-making is flawed beyond rectification, rendering them in need of guardianship.

This is why the onus of opposing mandates falls upon individuals. Individuals must demonstrate the capacity to make rational choices to delegitimise the removal of their choices if they want to preserve their autonomy and public freedoms. Fanciful stories of Bill Gates’ microchips monitoring biometrics through injections will not convince regulators that the choice to not vaccinate is driven by sound judgment. Those who oppose mandates for the sake of autonomy must offer ethical arguments and evidence of risks to their psychological safety, while showing consideration of available statistics that support vaccine efficacy because leaders interpret extraordinary machinations as signs of fear, scepticism, or outright absurdity that justify correction.

Deci and Ryan developed and tested Self-Determination Theory, showing that autonomy is a basic psychological need related to things like positive affect (emotional state), perceived meaning in life, subjective personal growth, and wellbeing, making me doubt that it was ever okay to sacrifice people’s belief in being free for some other cause, even if that cause was physical health en masse.

Self-Determination Theory might offer a more substantial case against mandating vaccinations. How can we justify mandates as means to an end when the end involves jeopardising autonomy, one of our basic psychological needs, particularly with the availability of other means for promoting vaccinations, like behavioural economics, that maintain the misperception that we have unbound choices?

The answer to this question is yours to decide.


American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.