The Thomistic Typhoid Mary

Note: This is the current installment in the series ‘bashing right-wing Christianists’. Today, I am bashing Gil Sanders. Yes, that Gil Sanders. The one who propagates the Big Lie. The bigot who spreads vile homophobic propaganda targeting LGBTQ+ people, propaganda for which he could very well have employed as a template similar propaganda directed against Jewish people in 1930’s Germany. The other two right-wing Christianists whom I usually bash, John Schneider and Paul Manata, will have to wait their turn.

May I suggest that the appellation “The Thomistic Typhoid Mary” is appropriately applied to Gil Sanders?

In his September, 2021 contribution to his blog, ‘The Thomistic Thinker’, young Gil Sanders opines that one is not morally obligated to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s see how his arguments hold up if we put in the terms of trolley car thought experiment. The trolley is barrelling down towards a juncture. If Mr. Sanders, the conductor, does nothing, the car will run over five people tied to the track on the right. But Mr. Sanders can, with no trouble at all, direct the trolley to go onto the track at the left, with the result that no one will get killed. Does Mr. Sanders have a moral obligation to shunt the car onto the track at the left?

Any sane, reasonably non-evil person would definitely think so. One is under the obligation to flip the switch because doing so saves lives and not doing so will result in killing people. One is, one would think, under the obligation to get the shot for the same reason. Getting the shot saves lives — one’s own and that of other people, and prevents the crippling effects of the virus on those who do survive it. It helps break the causal chain in which I get sick, then transmit the virus to five other people, each of whom then spreads it to five other people….

But the same argument Mr. Sanders advances to show one is under no obligation to get the shot would also show that one is under no obligation to flip whatever switch to to shunt the car to the left rail. Let’s look at his argument.

“…if we want to say that the vaccine is morally required, we also have to say that driving slower is morally required.”1 Mr. Sanders specific example is driving 25 mph.

For driving slower would also save lives. So if one is under a moral obligation to save lives, one is under a moral obligation to drive slower. Mr. Sanders seems to regard this as a reductio ad absurdum or an instance of modus tollens. Keep in mind, as you go through the following two paragraphs, that Mr. Sanders does not say why the proposition ‘one has a moral obligation to drive no faster than 25 mph’ is false.

Modus Tollens: “If one is obligated to get the shot | flip the switch to shunt the car to the left then one is also morally obligated to drive no faster than 25 mph. But one is not morally obligated to drive no faster than 25 mph.. Therefore one is not morally obligated to get the shot | flip the switch to shunt the car to the left track.” QED.

Reductio ad absurdum: Or: Suppose that one is morally obligated to get the shot | flip the switch to shunt the car to the left. That doing this things saves lives is the property that makes these actions morally obligatory. But driving no faster than 25 mph would also save lives. It follows then that one would be under the obligation to drive no faster than 25 mph. But this is absurd. Therefore the proposition ‘one has a moral obligation to drive no faster than 25 mph’ is false. Therefore the proposition this follows from ‘one is morally obligated to get the shot | flip the switch to shunt the car to the left.’ is false as well. QED.

To which confused sophistry the best response is:

Huh?

and:

Something does not compute here.

If I undertook to drive at 25 mph on Highway 5 in Los Angeles because I mistakenly thought I had a moral obligation to do so in order to save lives, I would be almost certain to cause an appalling amount of carnage by not driving at approximately the same speed as everyone else. If I could wave a magic wand and make the speed limit, even on Highway 5, 25 mph, and if I my wand could accomplish something even more miraculous by making sure that speed limit was enforced effectively, what I would be doing would be a lot more than just creating an inconvenience for me and for other people. I would be upending an entire way of life and an entire civilization. I don’t think I need to spell out the details. But we needn’t go there anyhow. I will never be in possession of a magic wand that will accomplish these things.

Now as a matter of fact I loathe this entire car-dependent way of life. The carnage on the roads is just the half of it. But given that this way of life has set in rather firmly, the thing is to do what one can (for example, vote for responsible leaders) to steadily and incrementally (engaging in kaizen) reduce the risk of people getting killed on the road. One has a moral obligation to do what is possible to save lives.

Note that I said ‘do what one can’, ‘do what is possible2‘. One cannot be obligated, cannot be required, to do what is not possible, where “not possible” can be interpreted as “not possible without causing carnage”, or “not possible given that there aren’t any magic wands”. My suddenly deciding to drive 25 mph on Interstate 5 in Los Angeles is not truly possible. Not if I want to avoid causing a number of gruesome accidents as everyone else zooms along at 75 mph. Nor is it truly possible that all at once everyone on Interstate 5 would suddenly decide to limit their speed to 25 mph. Nor is it truly possible that I can wave a magic wand and get the legal speed limit down to 25 mph and get that limit actually enforced. Since one cannot have a moral obligation to do what is impossible, one has no obligation to do anything of these things. Yet, idiotically, lacking in common sense, completely ignoring all the constraints imposed by human nature, human perceptual limitations, society, steel, concrete, physical inertial forces, freeway systems, traffic flows, institutions, legal systems, history, and God knows what else, Mr. Sanders says “It’s very easy to drive slower.” — He may as well have said ‘it’s very easy to jump across Highway 5 when one wants to get to the other side.’

But I am morally required to save lives when this is possible. I do have a moral obligation flip a switch to shunt the car to the rail on the left | get the shot because, as is shown by the ease of these actions, they are truly possible. If anything is a matter of intuition in Michael Huemer’s sense of the term, this is it.

Now clearly my saying that I have a moral obligation to save lives when this is possible does not commit me to saying that I have a moral obligation to save lives when this is not possible! My being under a moral obligation to flip the switch | get the shot does not mean I am under a moral obligation to wave a non-existent magic wand and have all cars on Interstate 5 drive no faster than 25 mph or to drive at this speed myself when everyone else is doing 75.

Sanders wants to elide the obvious difference between having a moral obligation to flip the switch | get the shot and having a moral obligation to drive 25 mph on Interstate 5. Eliding this difference would let him say that if one affirms the first one is committed to affirming the second. Clearly he sees this as a reductio, though, as I said, he does not offer any reason why he regards the second as false. He does not say, for example, that one cannot be obligated to do anything impossible. Perhaps he regards the proposition ‘one has a moral obligation to drive no faster than 25 mph’ as false because, in his estimation, only a dfh (dirty fucking hippie) would say something like this.

But Sanders entertains in his imagination a critic who, instead of placing the difference in the distinction between what is possible and what is impossible, places it in the distinction between what is not at all an inconvenience and what would be a massive inconvenience. Now the proposition ‘one should save lives when doing so is not too inconvenient’ does sound a bit less noble than ‘one should save lives then doing is possible’. But at least it would provide a speed bump slowing down the progression from ‘one is morally obligated to flip the switch | get the shot’ to ‘one is morally obligated to drive no faster than 25 mph’. Sanders’ reductio would be threatened. So Sanders feels he must answer his imaginary critic.

The critic may pushback and say, “That’s like comparing apples and oranges. There’s a clear cost-benefit difference. The quality of life if we drove at 25 MPH would be much lower. We all got jobs and responsibilities; driving at 25 MPH would affect us negatively. By contrast, no great cost results from getting a vaccine.” But how would personal inconvenience (a secondary cost) outweigh saving a life (a primary cost)? Or if we think in terms of global warming, we should ban driving! The secondary costs of the vaccine may be next to nil relative to the secondary costs of driving 25 MPH, but that’s mostly irrelevant because our moral obligation comes from the primary costs. No one really thinks, “If something makes life harder for me, then it’s immoral.” But they do say “if saving someone’s life makes life harder for me, that’s okay because it’s my moral duty.” 

So if we want to say that the vaccine is morally required, we also have to say that driving slower is morally required. Both invoke the same primary costs, both are relatively easy to do, and both have a similar risk of causing death. 

Gil Sanders, https://thomisticthinker.com/are-we-morally-obligated-to-take-the-vaccine/#more-444, last accessed 11/17/2021

In response to his imaginary critic, Sander’s correctly asks “But how would personal inconvenience (a secondary cost) outweigh saving a life (a primary cost)?” And the correct answer is “it doesn’t”. Were Mr. Sanders (to take Peter Singer’s thought experiment) to see a toddler drowning in a pond, we would not think that getting his new Italian shoes muddy and being late for work would outweigh the moral necessity of saving the toddler’s life, which could be done easily and without much risk. Unlike many situations involving drowning people, there is not much risk the toddler would cause both themselves and their would-be rescuer to drown.

At least in his own mind, Sanders has refuted his imaginary critic. But what this does is remove the speed bump slowing down the move from ‘one has a moral obligation to get the shot | flip the switch’ (a) to ‘one has a moral obligation always to drive no faster than 25 mph’ (b). As for me, I place a brick wall between those two. You can’t get to b from a because of that little phrase in a ‘where possible’. So we remain in a, savoring the sweetness of a hard and fast moral intuition. Basking in the balmy warmth of its trade winds. However, perhaps because my own imagination is limited, I fail to see what makes b false other than the fact that one cannot be obligated to do what is impossible. Either Mr. Sanders must advance a reason for asserting the falsity of b that is better than ‘no red-blooded right-winger can accept something so airy-fairy, something so California‘, or he must accept that the impossibility of always driving no faster than 25 mph is the factor that makes b false. But it is this same factor, this impossibility, that prevents b from following from a and therefore nixes Mr. Sanders’ attempt at a reductio ad absurdum (reductio ad Californium?). You cannot derive ‘one is morally obligated to save lives even when this is impossible’ from ‘one is morally obligated to save lives when doing so is possible’.

That the cost of getting the vaccine | shunting the car to the left is so low greatly adds to the moral turpitude of refusing to do either. Either refusal would be depraved, a wicked action. One’s moral cognition would have to be severely deficient not to recognize this.

Mr. Sanders tries to persuade us that we don’t have much to worry about regarding the refusers anyway: “This is because at least half in America are vaccinated, many have developed a natural immunity, and out of those who are unvaccinated, most of them are not at risk because those at risk are far more likely to get the vaccine.”

The sheer stupidity of this is jaw-dropping. At a time when the virus is raging through the throngs of the unvaccinated, saying that most of the unvaccinated are not at risk when precisely those people are the current fuel for the fire … words fail me. What can I say other than Mr. Sanders has yet again proven himself to be dumber than a rock? I know that saying this is a bit harsh, but it is important to pierce through the veil of facile argumentation that may be impressive to some. Lives depend upon showing that the underlying reality is much less impressive.

As if trying to outdo himself in the obtuseness department, Sanders goes on to say: “Most of those who are unvaccinated are unvaccinated by choice. They consented to the risks, and like any other medical decision, they should be allowed to take those risks. We allow people playing sports to take the risk of hurting each other. Why not here? So if the vaccinated or the unvaccinated pass the virus to an unvaccinated person who dies from it, that person who died consented to the risks and all moral responsibility is removed.”

Obviously the unvaccinated pose a risk not just to themselves, but to other people as well: the immuno-compromised, the immuno-senescent, those among the vaccinated who, owing to the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, will get sick from the virus again. Does Mr. Sanders really think he can get away with pretending not to know this?

And do I really need to point out that these “medical decisions” INCREASE THE RISK THAT A VACCINE-RESISTANT virus may evolve? The vaccinated person definitely did not consent to this risk, and moral responsibility is definitely not removed from the unvaccinated. The self-pitying Mr. Sanders thinks that he and the anti-vaxxers with whom he sympathizes are being discriminated against and held in contempt. Interestingly enough, Typhoid Mary had a similar reaction to attempts to prevent her from killing those who hired her as a cook and their children. I would suggest that Mr. Sanders refrain from encouraging the anti-vaxxers if he wants to avoid getting labelled as the Thomistic Typhoid Mary.

Sometimes utter scorn is the appropriate response to egregious stupidity and egregious irresponsibility, and this is one of those times. Richard Chappell put it best, except I would add anti-vaxxers and anti-vaccine-mandate people to the list of those who tend to make revealingly bad arguments:

Further, I think insults aren’t always inappropriate. Creationists and homophobes, for example, tend to make revealingly bad arguments. In critiquing these arguments, we first aim to show why the conclusion doesn’t follow. But we are also in a position to draw a conclusion about the character of the person advancing the argument. Many arguments are so bad that they could not be honestly made by any informed rational person. Thus anyone who makes them must be either stupid, ignorant, or dishonest. In the course of criticising such an argument, a partisan may wish to point this out, just to emphasize how incredibly bad the argument really is. I don’t think it’s necessary wrong to do so. Some positions are so lacking in rational warrant that they deserve our scorn.

Richard Yetter Chappell, at https://www.philosophyetc.net/2005/09/attacks-and-arguments.html, last accessed 11/15/2021

But given Gil Sanders’ previous displays of homophobia and bigotry, he is already in the cohort of those likely to make “revealingly bad arguments”. His attempt to remove the moral opprobrium from the vaccine refuseniks is merely just another example of the gross defectiveness of his moral cognition.

********

Facepalm 0

Facepalm 1

1Gil Sanders, https://thomisticthinker.com/are-we-morally-obligated-to-take-the-vaccine/#more-444, last accessed 11/17/2021. All quotations from Mr. Sanders will be from this source.

2I will rely on an intuitive sense of ‘possible’ instead of doing a deep dive into the modes of possibility, i.e., logical possibility, nomic possibility, epistemic possibility, and so on. I do so on the Aristotelian grounds that demanding a level of precision this high when no such precision is necessary reveals a certain simple-mindedness.

About Cliff Wirt

I created this blog as a means of getting my thoughts in order about whatever topics I am interested in at the moment. These are always topics for which getting my thoughts in order is a bit of a challenge, so I expect most of my attempts to fail. (I keep trying, though.) I am not responsible for any brain damage the reader may incur from these posts. They (intentional use of 'they' as the epicene singular pronoun) are hereby warned. . . . Who am I? I am a banking DBA with various and sundry interests, including art, poetry, philosophy, music, languages, relational algebra, database administration, and blueberries. Don't forget the blueberries. Some of these interests tie in in surprising though usually tangential ways with database theory. Even the blueberries. I have published one article in a Philosophy Journal, and I have one painting in a corporate collection (housed in what used to be the Amoco building in Chicago). According to 23andMe, my paternal haplogroup is I2 (40% of the male population of Sardinia has this haplogroup, though I believe that my particular variation originated further north in the Baltic area. The Basques are apparently close cousins.), my maternal is H5. The Neanderthal percentage of my ancestry is 3%. (Let no one impugn my knuckle-dragging bonafides!) My most famous ancestor is William Wirt (from whom I get my last name, though possibly not my Y chromosome), who defended the rights of the Cherokees before the Supreme Court, and ran for President in 1832, carrying one state. My homepage is at http://www.cliff-engel-wirt.com. My FaceBook page is at https://www.facebook.com/cliffengelwirt. My LinkedIn page is at https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=4298877&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile_pic. View all posts by Cliff Wirt

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