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Public obligation and individual freedom: how to fill the gap? The case of vaccinations


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[page 58] [Journal of Public Health Research 2016; 5:732]

Journal of Public Health Research 2016; volume 5:732

Public obligation and individual freedom: how to fill the gap?

The case of vaccinations

Giovanni Boniolo

Department of Biomedical Sciences and Surgical-Special, University of Ferrara, Ferrara,

Italy; Institute for Advanced Study, Technical University Munich, Germany

As is known, in Italy some vaccinations are mandatory and some others are recommended. But always more frequently there are par-ents who, when asked their children participate to the vaccination campaign, answer with: Sorry, we have decided not to vaccinate our

child, we have the right to choose.

It is not here the right place to investigate the reasons (if any) under this choice, but to understand whether there is a right to the individual’s choice or a right to the state’s coercion and whether the state could be legitimized to be coercive and by whom.

In order to set correctly the matter, it is worth recalling that the con-temporary father of the theory of liberty, that is, John Stuart Mill, in the introduction of his 1859 masterpiece, famously claimed that The

liberty of the individual must be […] limited: he must not make him-self a nuisance to other people. This statement is better clarified from

the following two apparently contradictory sentences: […] the only

purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant, and […] in the part, which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the indi-vidual is sovereign.1 That is, one is free to decide everything about his

life provided that his actions do not to harm others (it is the harm

prin-ciple) even though there are cases in which a state can infringe such

a right if the common good is in danger.

Thus, on the one hand there is the individual who can claim that he is free not to vaccinate his child since over his child’s body he is the only one who can decide what to do. But on the other hand there is the state that can claim that it has the duty/right to mandatorily vaccinate that child since that action could avoid jeopardizing the heath of other children (but also the health of that child) and thus create a collective danger.

Up to now, the state behaviour had been based on a strong form of

paternalism (the intentional overriding of one individual’s known

preferences or actions by the state, on the basis of the idea that it knows better what individuals should do in order to avoid harm to themselves and to the collectivity, and thus it arrogates to itself the right to override individual deviant choices). Unfortunately, paternal-ism, in particular state paternalpaternal-ism, is considered unacceptable, espe-cially whenever it is related to health choices: Why should I accept

state paternalism concerning vaccination? Who legitimized it to act in such a way? And why?

These are the questions at issue. And a right answer might allow a different way of conveying the benefits of a vaccination campaign. Concerning this point we should not forget that citizens are now more (mis)informed than in the past decades and that now they are more willing to be free to decide their own lifestyles without any real or apparent coercion by the state.

Thus, how to do with the gap between the right of the individuals to ask to be free and not to accept state paternalism and the duty/right of

the state to protect all the individuals? Probably a good way out, which might help in rethinking the vaccination campaigns, could come from

libertarian paternalism and from deliberation.

Libertarian paternalism is a decisional approach based on the

assumptions that: i) it is false that individuals always (or usually) make choices that are in their best interest; ii) in many situations, some authority (i.e. the state) must make a (more or less) mandatory policy that will affect individuals’ choices and life styles; iii) not always paternalism involves coercion. Thus, according to libertarian paternal-ism, an authority should introduce positive rules related to proper lifestyles or health choices. Of course, these positive rules should be limited to decisions that are difficult, complex and infrequent, and when individuals have poor feedbacks and few opportunities for know-ing and learnknow-ing. In such cases an authority (the state) has the duty/right to intervene.2-4

Such libertarian paternalism is a variant of the so-called weak

pater-nalism (an authority intervenes on ground of beneficence or

non-maleficence only to prevent substantially bad consequences of actions made by individuals without a proper capacity of analysis, without ade-quate knowledge or information, or under irrational or false motiva-tions). This means that the authority should not brutally force individ-uals to act in the way it thinks to be the best one, but it should study and provide nudges to encourage individuals to act in a certain way. Said differently, such an authority should be a sort of choice architect who designs apt decisional scenarios, where nudges have a preemi-nent role, so that individuals choose better.5

The libertarian paternalism approach is having a great success, especially in the USA, and it has been the conceptual basis for many institutional campaigns regarding correct lifestyles and the implemen-tation of health policies. For example, concerning tobacco, it has been proposed to sell it only to adults who have purchased an annual per-sonal permit (this is the nudge); concerning salt in food, it has been proposed to produce unsalted foods (this is the nudge) so that con-sumers must deliberately add salt if they wish; concerning correct nutrition, it has been proposed an agreement with supermarkets for the prominent display of healthy foods and visible warnings for those that are potentially harmful, free distribution of fresh fruit in primary schools and the involvement of firms in similar schemes for their employees (these are the nudges).

This idea could be also at the basis of new vaccination campaigns according to which an authority (the state) studies and designs a cor-rect apt scenario with the right nudges so that individuals are gently

induced to act positively regards both mandatory and recommended

vaccinations.Yet, at this point a problem arises: even if it is a weak form of paternalism, libertarian paternalism is always a sort of state paternalism and who has legitimized the state to act in such a way and why? If we were not able to give a plausible solution to this problem, we would be in the same situation as before: the state tells us (more or less gently) what we should do and this could not be accepted by






individuals thinking that their will comes first.

At this point deliberation enters the scene. By deliberation is meant any system of political (or ethical) decision based on some tradeoff of consensus decision-making and representative democracy. In contrast to the traditional theory of democracy, which emphasizes voting as the central institution, deliberative democracy theorists argue that legiti-mate policies can only arise from the public deliberation of the citizen-ry. Very briefly, deliberation is the procedure through which people, starting from different initial positions, try to reach a shared decision

via a debate based on rational arguments and counter-arguments.6-8

This deliberative approach has been used many times in the field of political and ethical public decisions concerning health and biomedical research policies. For example, it was used by the Health Services Commission of Oregon to involve citizens to decide which health plan should be adopted,9 or by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology

Authority of UK to decide whether the research on cybrids (cytoplasmic hybrids) was ethically plausible,10and in many other cases.11-15

Summing up, by means of a deliberative process citizens, who have been previously properly informed about the science (medicine) in play and about its ethical and social implications, can propose their view about heath policies and in this manner they legitimate the state to act consequently. In such a way, a strong state paternalism is over-come and the citizens concede to the state the right to act for the ben-efit of many and, thus, to be weak paternalist and to propose nudges to efficaciously implement the health policies, that have been deliberat-ed. Note, and this is the central point of the question, one thing is a top-down approach to health policies: the state decides to be (strong or weak) paternalist and mandatorily forces the citizens to adopt a cer-tain health policy (e.g. vaccination). Yet a totally different thing is a bottom-up approach that legitimates the top-down: the citizens delib-eratively decide to lose a small percentage of their autonomy and to give to the state the permission to be weak paternalist since they accept that in certain cases (e.g. vaccination) the state can do better. If what above sounds, all the vaccination campaigns so far imple-mented in Italy have been based on a wrong assumption: the state knows better and the citizens have to obey. But on the basis of a liber-tarian paternalistic approach inside a deliberative context, we could and should rethink the vaccination campaigns so that the citizens, once scientifically, ethically and sociologically informed, have the chance to decide to attribute to the state the task to provide nudges for properly implementing scientifically correct vaccination policies for the benefits of the entire population. Of course, this is an ethically praiseworthy result but even an extremely good public health strategy.


1. Mill JS. On liberty. New York: Dover Publications; 2002.

2. Thaler R, Sunstein C. The Winner’s curse: paradoxes and anom-alies of economic life. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1993. 3. Sunstein C, Thaler R. Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron.

University of Chicago Law Review 2003;70:1159-62.

4. Thaler R, Sunstein C. Libertarian Paternalism. Am Econ Rev 2003;93:175-9.

5. Thaler R, Sunstein C. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press; 2008. 6. Boniolo G. The Art of Deliberating. Democracy, Deliberation and

the Life Sciences Between History and Theory. Heidelberg: Springer; 2012.

7. Boniolo G. Il pulpito e la piazza. Democrazia, deliberazione e scien-ze della vita. Milano: Raffaello Cortina; 2011.

8. Boniolo G, Schiavone G. Deliberation and Democracy. In: James D. Wright ed. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nded. Oxford: Elsevier; 2015. pp. 61–67.

9. Bodenheimer T. The Oregon Health Plan. Lessons for the Nation. New Eng J Med 1997;337:651-5 and 720-3.

10. Human Fertilisation and Embriology Authority. HFEA statement on its decision regarding hybrid embryos. Available from: www.hfea.gov.uk/455.html.

11. Abelson J, Blacksher E, Boesveld S, et al. Public deliberation in health policy and bioethics: mapping an emerging, interdiscipli-nary field. J Public Delib 2013;9:1.

12. Boniolo G, Rebba V. Cancer, obesity and the legitimation of sug-gested lifestyles. A libertarian paternalism approach. Ecancermedicalscience 2015,9:588.

13. Boniolo G, Schiavone G, Mameli M. Moderate epistocracy for delib-erative bioethics. Camb Q Healthc Ethics 2015;24:1-9.

14. Boniolo G, Schiavone G, De Anna G, et al. Libertarian paternalism and health care policy: a deliberative proposal. Med Health Care Philos 2014;17:103-13.

15. Boniolo G, Di Fiore PP. Deliberative ethics in a biomedical institu-tion. An example of integration between science and ethics. J Med Ethics 2010;36:409-14.

[Journal of Public Health Research 2016; 5:732] [page 59]


Correspondence: Giovanni Boniolo, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Surgical-Special, University of Ferrara, Via Fossato di Mortara, 64A, 44121, Ferrara, Italy.

E-mail: giovanni.boniolo@unife.it

Conflict of interest: the author declares no potential conflict of interest. Received for publication: 3 August 2016.

Accepted for publication: 3 August 2016.

©Copyright G. Boniolo, 2016 Licensee PAGEPress, Italy

Journal of Public Health Research 2016;5:732 doi:10.4081/jphr.2016.732

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 License (CC BY-NC 4.0).





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