The Lost Socratic Dialogue on Vaccines

SOCRATES: I walked to the mall yesterday with Rory, son of Bill Gates, to make my prayers to the God of Christmas. As this was my first celebration of his festival, I wished also to see how the ceremony would be conducted. Along the way we encountered Apple, daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow. On our way we discussed the current pandemic. I mentioned that I was pleased that a vaccine had finally made it through testing.

APPLE: By the dog, Socrates! Don’t put those toxins into your body. It’s not natural! You are much better off boosting your immune system with unregulated supplements.

SOCRATES: Apple! You put your case admirably. You seem to know quite a bit about vaccines and health. May I ask you a few questions? I would like to learn more.

APPLE: Most certainly. I would be happy to answer your questions.

SOCRATES: In avoiding vaccines, is your aim to protect and preserve health or is it something else?

APPLE: The aim is to protect and preserve my health…duh!

SOCRATES: I see. Now suppose you were locked in a prison and every 2nd Tuesday you were given a choice between two things:

A: The prison guard taps you with one finger on your shoulder or

B: the prison guard punches you 5 times in the face. Supposing that you are motivated to protect and preserve your health, which would you chose?

APPLE: How is this even a serious question? Of course I would choose A.

SOCRATES: Yes, of course. But why?

APPLE: Because protecting and preserving health means choosing the least harmful alternative.

SOCRATES: Very good. Now, is choice A more health preserving because you chose it or did you choose it because it is more health preserving?

APPLE: What the heck are you talking about? Of course I chose A because it is more health preserving. My choosing it or not doesn’t affect whether it is health preserving or protecting.

SOCRATES: I see. So, can we agree that we ought to choose things according to whether they are health persevering and protecting relative to alternatives?

APPLE: Certainly.

SOCRATES: May I ask another question? Suppose while in prison, every second Tuesday you are presented with two pills. The prison guard does not tell you what is in each pill but you must swallow one or face torture then death. Your choice, however, is not completely blind. The prison guard who has been alive for eternity can tell you the statistical risk of each pill. Of the 1 million people who took the red pill, none died but 10% had stomach aches for a day. Of the million who took the blue pill 10 000 died and 30% were severely sick for several weeks. Which pill would you take?

APPLE: You must be pulling my toga, Socrates. I would take the red pill. Only a fool would take the blue pill.

SOCRATES: Yes, and I assume you would take it because, relative to the blue pill, the red pill is more health preserving and protecting. Am I correct? And if someone said that they chose red or blue for any other quality other than its ability to protect and preserve health (relative to alternatives), this person would be be making a mistake.

APPLE: Yes and yes. What’s your point?

SOCRATES: I’m getting there. Just one….more…little…question: Suppose again you find yourself in a situation where you must choose two options. Option 1: You will be injected with an unknown substance (to you). But you do know that of the 2 million people who have had the substance injected into them:

  • No one has died from the injection. The most common solicited adverse reaction (i.e. what we were expecting) were mild to moderate: injection site reactions (84.1%), fatigue (62.9%), headache (55.1%), muscle pain (38.3%), chills (31.9%), joint pain (23.6%), fever (14.2%)
  • The chance of getting a severe adverse event was low (0.5%). A severe event is more likely in the second dose than the first and were less frequent among older adults compared to younger participants.
  • An unsolicited (i.e. not expected) adverse event that came up more in the vaccine group was swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy). 64 people in the vaccine group compared to 6 people in the placebo group. This could be related to the vaccine.
  • Links: FDA documents, Phase III trial

Choice B is to be infected with a virus. You don’t know which one but you do know the following:

  • 1 in 1000 people will die.
  • 10-15% of people will experience severe symptoms often requiring hospitalization. 5% will require treatment in the ICU and/or intubation.
  • The following symptoms may last for 14-21 days: Fatigue 65% of people, cough, congestion, and shortness of breath for 50% of people, headache for 20% of people, body aches for 25% of people.
  • Some people experienced longterm damage to their heart, lungs, and brain and nervous system. (LINK)

Supposing that Choice A is a vaccine against B, which one would you choose?

APPLE: Oh, that’s easy. I would choose B. I’m not injecting a vaccine into my body!

SOCRATES: Um, I don’t understand. I thought we agreed that we should choose the option that is more health protecting and preserving?

RORY: Verily, we did.

APPLE: Yes, but in this case it’s a vaccine so I choose the virus.

SOCRATES: By Zeus! What does it being a vaccine have to do with anything? If we are concerned with protecting and preserving health and the vaccine is a lower risk relative to the virus, then by your own lights you should choose the vaccine. We both agree that we ought to choose the thing that is more health preserving and protecting given a choice between two options. The fact that it is a vaccine is irrelevant. Do you not see that this choice is no different than choosing the finger flick over the punch to the face?

APPLE: Yes, but vaccines aren’t natural.

SOCRATES: I don’t understand why it matters here whether something is natural or not. If we are concerned with protecting and preserving our health, the only thing we should care about is its effects on our health relative to our other alternatives. We already agreed to this when we discussed the red vs blue pill.

APPLE: Well, maybe the vaccine is fine for you but I only put natural things in my body.

SOCRATES: Ok, here is a hemlock smoothie. It’s all natural. Enjoy.

RORY GATES: Excellent! Father will be very pleased.

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