Do Individual Rights Trump Social Responsibility?

There has been a lot of very interesting and often heated discussion of late, both throughout the security industry and across the broader community, on the ability of the government to mandate vaccinations, the authority of governments to do so, and the right of individuals to refuse.  At the risk of aggravating some and placating others, the following observations are made.

The scope of this brief column is limited.  Whether a government can mandate vaccination and the philosophical definitions of “society” and “individual” will not be discussed.  Nor, will conspiracies related to government tracking of the vaccinated, sterilisation of the masses, or control by a cohort of mega-rich pederasts.  This column seeks to provide historical context that may flow into moral considerations.

The argument as to whether governments should mandate or require vaccinations seems to hinge on the interpretation of the fundamental responsibility of the government to protect the population.

Some of us are old enough to remember when governments required and provided vaccinations against Smallpox, Tuberculosis, and Polio.   It is acknowledged there are differences between those vaccines and the COVID vaccinations.  The COVID jabs will not eradicate the disease, only reduce the likelihood of infection, and the effects of the disease should infection occur.

The reason we no longer have dedicated infectious diseases hospitals in our cities is we that eradicated highly-contagious and debilitating diseases, or at least limited them such that TB is restricted to the Torres Strait and northern Queensland.

For those of us who are old enough to remember receiving our Polio shots, images of wards full of children in iron lungs are still strong and stirring memories. Many of us read Alan Marshall’s “I can jump puddles” as a contemporary story and we grew up around friends and acquaintances who needed to use crutches because their legs were crippled by Polio, and they often considered themselves ‘the lucky ones’.   Tuberculosis (TB) no longer runs through the community because, as high school students, we all underwent the Mantoux test and if needed got the jab.

We, along with our parents, were compliant.  It was not that we were duped by the government due to our gullibility.   Rather, there were several factors.  We could see the effect of the diseases and understood and agreed with the desire to control and eradicate them and, selfishly, to minimise our chances of being infected.

Our parents came from a generation that had survived World Wars and a depression. They understood and had instilled in us a concept that there exists a responsibility to protect and help others, even if you don’t know them.

We lived under the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (thanks to the proliferation of nuclear weapons), we were enmeshed in a land war in Asia, the liberal left was rising and conflict with the conservatism of the previous half-century was loud and sometimes violent.   These were the sixties and seventies, the protest years, and we did protest for those things we thought needed changing.  There was no desire to protest against protecting the health of the people, reducing suffering, or eradicating disease.

There were, quite possibly, similar concerns about vaccinations due to religious beliefs or existing medical conditions.  However, if there were, we were not aware of them.  It is assumed they were raised and assessed on an individual basis.

A major factor that has changed is communication.  It was possible to communicate before the Internet took off in the mid-1990s’.  Major protests were organised and the usual spread of views and range of people attended.  Possibly the main difference was there was a lot of self-censoring, where extreme, unrealistic, and improbable opinions were binned by the majority.  Radical elements did try to dominate protests but were often relegated to the fringes.

Modern, immediate communication systems allow coordination of those of common mind, which was more difficult when we had to rely on postal mail and when telephones required knowledge of individual phone numbers and multiple, long-distance calls were expensive.

Today, the “Echo Chambers” of social media and the online world only serve to reinforce one’s views, negating the need for individuals and ideas to be exposed to a broader audience and scrutiny. Furthermore, this has meant that many people in our society are no longer exposed to contra views and on the rare occasion when this does happen, those same people are often unwilling to consider information that runs counter to his or her beliefs.

The ability to communicate widely has increased the opportunity for a broader audience to be reached and for some to be influenced.  The current research into radicalisation addresses this in considerable detail.

Much has been written on the balance of rights and much more will be written.  There is a relationship between the responsibility of the State to protect its citizens, and for the citizens to participate in that protection.  As individuals, we have a basic right to be safe and protected from harm, including minimising contagious diseases.

People have a right to express their beliefs and concerns. The issue remains, however; At what point does an individual’s right to object to and reject a government-mandated or recommended vaccine override the broader responsibility to the larger community?

For those who, for whatever reasons, do not want to participate in vaccinations, there is the option to remove themselves from the process but there are, in risk management terms, both Likelihood and Consequence considerations for themselves and others.  To openly reject a risk mitigation treatment should be to bear the consequences, including the effect on others – an act that used to be termed living by the “courage of their convictions”.

For those of us who have seen the benefits of government-provided vaccinations in reducing or eradicating Smallpox, TB and Polio, there is an inescapable belief that the greater good to the community outweighs a sense of individual entitlement to be exempted from social responsibility.


Don Williams CPP ASecM is a recognised thought leader in security and related disciplines.  He was at university in the 1970s and participated in protests.  He has not suffered from Smallpox, TB, or Polio.

Don Williams
Don Williams MIExpE, IABTI, CPP, RSecP is convenor of the ASRC Explosives 2014 forum. Don is a member of the Institute of Explosives Engineers, the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, the venue managers Associations, ASIS International and the Australian Security Research Centre’s Activities Committee. He is the Author of “Bomb Incidents – the manager’s guide” and numerous other publications relating to explosive and bomb safety and security.