Remember When Socrates Got the Covid Vaccine?

Hippocrates, the Greek physician whose oath all new physicians must recite, knocks on the door of his good friend, Socrates.
When Socrates answers, Hippocrates enters with excitement.

Socrates! You won’t believe this!
Protagoras, the great teacher of philosophy,
is not getting the Covid vaccine.
And he’s telling all his pupils
that a person should not have to
get a vaccine if they don’t want to.

Be careful, my friend.
Just because Protagoras is famous
and known all over Greece and the Ionian Sea,
does not mean he has knowledge of
the physical sciences, too.
You, Hippocrates, are destined to be a great physician,
and know the care that one must take
about what one puts in one’s body.
But you should take no less care
about what you put in your mind,
as you are about what you put in your body.
On the contrary, you should take more care.
For what you put in your mind will determine
the care that you take with your body.
If you only put in your body
what your reason concludes is good,
then you will never put in your body
what your reason concludes is bad.
But if you put un-reason in your mind
it will become mixed with your reason
and you will no longer be able to tell
if what you put in your body is good or bad.

Come then with me, Socrates.
And maybe Protagoras can convince you.

The two friends go to the house of Protagoras.
They are led into the living room,
where Protagoras and a dozen of his students
are seated. A silent television in the background
shows the Olympics.
Protagoras recognizes Socrates and Hippocrates
and welcomes them.

Welcome, my young friends.
You are in time to hear my latest wisdom,
that I will give you both as a free trial.
Here is my teaching:
A person can decide not to get the Covid vaccine
and still be a good person.

Is that so? And is that just people with medical conditions
that make the Covid vaccine riskier than not?
Or is this teaching for all people, whether they
have such a medical condition or not?

My teaching applies to all.
No one should have to get a vaccine
if they are not comfortable getting it.
And that does not make them a bad person.

And can one be ignorant towards something
and still be honorable towards it too?

PROTAGORAS (exhales loudly)
No, Socrates, one cannot
be both ignorant towards something
and honorable towards it too.
I believe that was settled the last time we met.
You do not have to rub it in.
We all know how smart you are,
and how well you did on your SATs,
and what a great college you got into,
and how proud your parents must be
of their brilliant son’s achievements.
But this time I’ve got the upper hand.
For my reluctance to get the Covid vaccine
is based not on lack of information
but on lack of trust.
I do not trust the long term effects.
I do not trust the government.
I think that this vaccine was rushed (you can’t deny it).
And the marginal benefit from the vaccine
is not that much greater than the risk from Covid.
If I get Covid, I will probably survive,
and be fine the rest of my life.
But if I get the vaccine, I’ll live my whole life worrying
about the long term side effects from the vaccine
and I might still get Covid. You’ll admit, Socrates,
that the vaccine is not one-hundred percent effective.

That I will agree.
If the Covid vaccine protects against 95% of its hosts,
then 5% of its hosts got sick.
You have done your research, and reasoned well.
At least on that point. That the Covid vaccine
was made in record time, and lacks FDA approval,
and is not 100% effective against Covid, and that
we do not know what the long effects of it are
because we have been using it for not even a year
— on all these points no one could call you ignorant.

Thank you.

But if I can show that allowing your distrust in the Covid vaccine
to prevent your getting it is solely just lack of knowledge
and nothing more, will you get the vaccine?

I will take it under advisement.

Fair enough.
Now — the question of whether to get the Covid vaccine
is a difficult one.
And difficult questions are usually made easier by breaking
them up into smaller questions.
So let me begin. Would you agree, Protagoras,
that getting Covid is serious to one’s health?


And would you further agree,
that if one is a caregiver to others,
such as small children or elderly parents,
getting Covid would impair the care
they rely on for their daily living?

Uh, sure. Yeah, I guess so.

And does the probability of getting Covid
either with or without the vaccine
decrease as each new person gets the vaccine?

The probability marginally decreases
with each new vaccination.
I wouldn’t say it decreases a lot.

But a marginal change multiplied by many people
will no longer be in the margins.
And so if no one else got the vaccine,
wouldn’t your odds of getting Covid be much higher?


In addition to the outcome of your health
and the necessary care that your health gives
to your loved ones, there is also the outcome
of your family’s health and your friends
and anyone you come into contact with.
Should the risk your non-vaccination
pose to others be placed on the scale
next to the risk it poses to you alone?

Yes, I suppose the risk of my giving Covid to others
must be placed on the scale along with
the risk of Covid to my health,
and the risk of Covid to my caregiving.

And so if no one else had gotten the vaccine,
and your odds of getting Covid were much higher,
and the weight of those risks that much greater,
would the vaccine then become more attractive to you?

Yes, I suppose it would given those parameters.

So if your reason for not getting the Covid vaccine now
is because your chances of getting Covid are not that high,
then why did you not run out and get the vaccine
when fewer people had gotten vaccinated?

How could I?
I was not eligible to sign up for the vaccine until late March.
And when I tried to register the wait was weeks long.

So you would have gotten the vaccine,
had you been eligible when the infection rate was higher.
But because you had to wait until others got the vaccine,
the Covid rate is low enough that the prophylactic benefit of the vaccine
isn’t worth the long term risks of the vaccine to your health.

Yes, you have stated it correctly.

And what are the long term risks of the Covid vaccine?

Who knows, Socrates? We may not find out for years.
And maybe the government is hiding the information.

But didn’t private companies, not the government,
develop the Covid vaccine?

Socrates, you know those drug companies
and the government are all the same.
They’re all friends, and all corrupt.

So I have heard.
Forgive me, but I think it would be best
if Rumor did not participate in this discussion.
I take it from your silence that you agree.
Now, Protagoras, do you drive a car?

Of course. There is no other way to get around.

And does your car have brakes?

There is no other way to stop a moving car safely.

I quite agree.
Did you install those brakes yourself?

Are you kidding? Of course not.

Did you test the brakes?

I test drove the car before I bought it
and the brakes worked.

But did you design, manufacture, and calibrate
the brakes yourself?

You know I did not. Engineers did.
And they tested the brakes, and I test drove the car,
and the brakes worked perfectly,
and have every day I drive the car,
including today.

There was some scattered chuckling in the audience.

I am glad to hear that your car’s brakes work so well.
I wish you and your family only health.
And so I am worried about the long term
health of your car’s brakes.
Is it possible that the brakes have some
defect that did not show in the tests,
but that will surface only after 100,000 miles?
Or perhaps the car manufacturer knows
about a long term defect, and has conspired
with the government to keep the defect a secret?

I suppose anything is possible.

And yet you continue to drive on those brakes
given the risk that you have just acknowledged?

Ah, Socrates, I see what you are doing here.
You think that you are so clever.
There is a difference between vaccines and cars.
I need to drive a car to go to work,
to pick up my kids, to take my wife on a date night
— you know, living life, and not just talking about it.

There was a round of applause from the audience.

Yes, I know what you mean.
It is nice to go out with loved ones.
Especially now that it is safer to do so,
than it was when Covid first arrived.
But, Protagoras, I see that the infection rates
are going up, mainly from the Delta variant.
And there is an Epsilon variant, too.
Did you see that?

Yes, I think I did.

Tell me, when the rates get high enough,
so that the odds of getting Covid without
a vaccine are back at the levels they were
when you said you would have gotten a vaccine
had you been eligible, will you then go out
and get the vaccine?

Protagoras pauses, and then says:

But Socrates, getting Covid isn’t even that bad.

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