Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Conception of the Social Contract is Trash

Tyson begins his explanation referencing the ‘social contract’ as such;

“There is a public health contract that you have signed implicitly as a citizen of a country where in part we depend on each other for our health, welfare, security, and the like. That contract is: In the best scientific evidence available at the time, if you do not get vaccinated, you will put other people in this organization at risk, and that organization does not want to take that risk, so you do not have this job anymore if you decline it.”

This misuse of the much regarded ‘social contract’ concept is widespread today. It is particularly abused by utilitarians, special interest factions, and advocates for technocratic top-down government. Variations in this concept are many, but this particular iteration is essentially an ‘argument from authority’ fallacy presented as practically justified moral principles. It is the authoritarian bastardization of the relevant concepts. Mixed up is the notion of an objectively-derived ‘social contract,’ necessary for moral and ethical consideration (discussed below), with the practical application of a preferred policy based on a specific ends. The order of operations is backwards and the relevant judgment is therefore open to bias. Objectively-derived moral imperatives, consent/free will, and the fundamental inalienable rights based upon them are sacrificed for “the greater good” of achieving the specified goal. The problem with this interpretation is the maxim at its heart cannot be universalized and the attempt to do so undermines and contradicts the supposed authority upon which it is based.

What do I mean by this? We must start with deriving moral principles objectively from reason alone, separate from biased desires. There is a lot to this, but generally it starts with recognizing that beings capable of reason are inherently part of a mutual moral community and that by our rational nature we are equally worthy of dignity and respect as free decision-makers. From this, the concept of fundamental, inalienable rights is derived. Logically, no coercion by one member on another contrary to their free will and rights is justified- unless it is to stop said member from willfully and directly acting to infringe upon the rights of others. Collectively, a limited amount of coercion is also necessary to maintain systems and structures that facilitate the upholding of this mutual moral community as well. Such coercion must be logically and objectively derived, the least amount necessary, and applied universally to all members who must consent to it by their nature as rational beings bound by the duty to uphold the universal moral law. This mutual moral community and duty to abide by it is what can properly be called the ‘social contract’ and it is a fundamental moral ideal upon which we base practical policy in society, opinions of which may vary considerably.

The ‘social contract,’ properly understood, does not allow for a policy proposal to be universally mandated that would in itself violate the moral imperatives and fundamental inalienable rights of any of its members, regardless of whether or not the policy proposal is arguably good, useful, or preferred by an authority or a majority. Rights and respect for the moral law must come first, a policy that fits it and addresses a relevant problem comes second. There is a built-in limitation on action by an individual or group that would be contrary to the legitimate interests and rights of other members. This is necessary for the entire concept to work; for if we disregard this, or we allow some members to make exceptions when they feel it is prudent, then the entire concept is a charade and we are still ultimately in a lawless state of nature ruled not by reason and respect for a universal moral law, but by the most powerful force in the equation (or one simply crafty enough to fool enough of the community). People like Tyson simply hope to maintain the upper hand in this regard. It is unlikely he would easily submit to the same standard by others if it were his consent and rights being violated for the supposed “greater good.”

Patrick Bet-David interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson, PBD Podcast, January 9, 2023

In the case of vaccine mandates (putting aside the debate over the validity/utility of any specific vaccine, vaccine science in general, and industry corruption – all of which Tyson displayed a woefully ignorant understanding in the interview) we have the idea that a fundamental right of individuals to bodily integrity/autonomy can be infringed or coerced in the pursuit of a preferred end. As explained above, this is completely backwards. The way Tyson framed his justification, it is the existence of the actual state (government) that determines the ‘social contract,’ not objectively-derived reason, and citizens must submit to the will of this state when it comes to important matters such as “heath, welfare, security, and the like.” If you really consider this, you may recognize this loose criteria encompasses practically everything of importance. Tyson is making a critical and dangerous error when he equates the ‘social contract’ more with a contract of Man rather than a metaphor for the mutual moral community upon which we later base our worldly affairs.

The second half of the above quote is equally troublesome and dangerous. According to Tyson, the arbiter of truth and the judge of whether or not fundamental inalienable rights will be respected on the subject of vaccine mandates is “the best scientific evidence available at the time.” Putting aside the inconvenient fact for Tyson that these so-called “experts” were embarrassingly wrong on so much related to COVID, we can extrapolate out from this that “experts” and bureaucrats in other fields pertaining to the important aspects of society Tyson mentioned in his quote would also be the arbiters and judges in those areas as well. So much for limited government, so much for “We the People,” so much for individual responsibility and securing fundamental inalienable rights from infringement. Furthermore, his criteria for judgment for determining the justification for potentially coercive policy appears to be the subjective and vague notion of ‘risk.’ But life itself is a risk. Tyrants and autocrats of all stripes have been using such sophistry to promise people safety from ‘risk’ in exchange for submission since the beginning of human civilization. This usually does not turn out well. But we do not need to appeal to historical failure or point out this notion is contrary to the intent of our particular Founders to discredit his criteria for judgment here.

Whenever there is an argument about vaccine mandates, inevitably the pro-mandate side will bring up the supposed risk unvaccinated people pose to others in society. Tyson is no different. Regarding said risk he says;

“It’s not about you, it is about the people you interact with, and that is the social contract of public health. We’re saying the system in place to test vaccine, there is an entire system that is in place, with review boards and all of this. You can say you have a better idea than all these review boards… OK, you can put forth that idea. But what I’m saying is, in a case where you can contaminate someone else, it is not about you. It is about the collective health.” He later added, “You don’t have the right to contaminate someone else.”

Tyson is himself deluded.

What Tyson is also doing by attempting to promote the idea it is immoral to not submit to a preferred medical intervention and therefore coercion and social ostracization is justified to nudge compliance is to universalize his policy conclusion instead of considering the actual intent of the policy. This is improper and it often causes more trouble than that which it was intended to prevent. If we properly identify the intent of the policy (to protect vulnerable populations, to ensure adequate resources are available in an emergency, to provide protection from disease, etc), we can then recognize a true maxim to universalize for our acts. We can also recognize other possible avenues for achieving the same preferred results, identify the opportunity costs, and avoid unintended consequences. Tyson brought up the example of a threat of job loss being used as a nudge to coerce people into accepting the COVID vaccines. That didn’t work out too well and was a massive injustice. So were the lockdowns and the forced business closures (some of which were later even tied to vaccine uptake rates). Instead of attempting to avoid unwarranted fear, assisting with aid, giving helpful advice, and working to get through the pandemic without infringing upon rights, the top-down government fearmongers made things many times worse with their heavy-handed response and actually ignored a lot of potentially helpful opportunites. It would have been far more appropriate and in line with the proper duty of government to protect citizens from medical discrimination and provide businesses with immunity from lawsuits than to attempt to control everything and promote discrimination the way they did in the name of mitigating risk and falling back on the vaccine as the primary answer.

Back to improperly universalizing Tyson’s preferred solution. “Science” also indicates healthy people are far less likely to contract COVID, far less likely to be symptomatic if they do, far less likely to transmit the pathogen to others, and far less likely to require hospitalization/use of limited resources. Assuming Tyson’s process of assigning moral culpability and justifying coercion to achieve a preferred ends is valid, this would open up everything from banning junk food to mandating vigorous exercise as a means of limiting one’s risk of exposing another to a potentially dangerous pathogen against their will. It certainly would warrant social criticism the likes of which we would normally consider extremely rude. When put like this, the absurdity is more obvious, but there is little difference between this mitigation effort and that of mandated vaccines as a means of promoting the public health and reducing negative impacts on others. All of the above choices an individual may make have potential impacts on others, but all of them also are devoid of willful and direct harm to others. None of them therefore can be justly coerced. Interestingly, despite the health circumstances in which one may find themselves, there are also other mitigation efforts one can make that would reduce potential exposure to others. For many pathogens, simply self-quarantining upon becoming symptomatic and gaining natural immunity is likely far more effective than a hide and vaccinate strategy for most people. It would take another several articles to go into all the potential choices other than vaccination for COVID that could help mitigate risk to the self and others, but I bring this up simply to illustrate the futility of attempting to universalize and force one of many potential mitigation efforts, especially one with so many negative unintended consequences that requires willful disregard for the fundamental inalienable rights of individuals, which is an injustice in itself.

One final note about Tyson’s mentality with these coerced shots. He undermines his own message regarding the importance of using government to force compliance. Again regarding losing one’s job for not complying Tyson says;

“With any public health decision, there has to be a consequence to you not participating in that social contract. Is it your job? In some cases it was. But no, we’re not going to have the army burst into your home and put a needle into your shoulder… We’ll only put your job at risk, yes.”

This quote reveals the cowardice of the vaccine mandate advocates. If a true injustice was taking place that would warrant coercion contrary to one’s fundamental rights, then the government absolutely would have a right and a duty to prevent and/or remedy the injustice. But there isn’t an injustice being committed by people refusing vaccines (technically, there isn’t even an act being committed, as remaining unvaccinated is the natural default position). Instead, government is committing an injustice itself when they seek to make it difficult for employers to operate unless they act as a proxy force for the pro-mandate advocates by threatening the livelihood of employees contrary to their fundamental rights to medical freedom and bodily autonomy/integrity. The “social contract” in which he thinks the unvaccinated are not “participating” is really an illusion, nothing more than a euphemism for his version of a Petty Little Dicatorship. There are of course a plethora of Petty Little Dictators out there these days all trying to coerce people into their preferred policies and thought structures. It is ironic that those most willing to slam others for a supposed violation of the ‘social contract’ are the ones most likely to be taking unwarranted exceptions for themselves to the real one – the one representing the tenets of the mutual moral community.

Perhaps Tyson ought to stick with astrophysics and Bill Nye-esque pop science. When he attempts to opine on moral and political matters he comes off as the equivalent of a flat-earther. Medical freedom and vaccine choice are THE liberty issues of our time. Liberty and rights advocates have a lot of work to do to fix unjust policy and change minds on these issues because special interest money and fearmongering has long been heavily applied. Talking heads like Tyson muddling up fundamental moral concepts and parroting pharmaceutical industry talking points are not helping one bit.

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