Do We Have a Duty to Wear a Mask?
What Is Morality?
I can’t help but laugh when I’m told that wearing a mask during COVID-19 is the moral thing to do. That’s not to say that there might not be good reasons to wear a mask, or that I don’t care about the lives that were lost because of the virus. Rather, we modern day people don’t know what we’re talking about when we mention morality.
Suppose for a moment our fictional person, Karen, was not wearing her mask in public. Should we tell Karen to put on a mask?
Why should we? Doesn’t Karen, like all people, have bodily autonomy? Isn’t that what some of the “political experts” tell us? Instead of telling Karen to wear a mask, wouldn’t it be more consistent to say to her, ‘It’s your body, your choice’? Are we really going to tell a woman what she should wear? Come on, it's 2020.
Furthermore, wouldn’t it be judgmental to tell Karen that she’s not being moral by not wearing a mask? I’ve always been told that it’s not okay for someone to impose his or her moral compass on to someone else. Do we just pick and choose when it’s okay to impose a view and not to impose a view? If imposing a view on someone is always wrong, then to tell Karen that she is doing something immoral requires those who impose their view to do something immoral.
Putting all my passive aggressiveness aside, a question must be raised. By what standard are we to say that wearing a mask is moral? Should each and every person follow his or her own personal moral compass? Or, is there an objective moral compass that we should all follow? The two previous, possibly offensive, paragraphs merely show that if morality is something subjective, then we have absolutely no basis to tell someone what he or she should do.
Suppose one says to Karen, ‘Hey, maybe you should put on a mask because that will help save lives.’ Saving lives is a good thing right? Definitely! But it cannot be denied that wearing a mask and social distancing does not put an end to the spread of COVID-19; it merely reduces the probability of giving the virus. If one were to wear a mask, social distance, and yet still spread the virus to someone, then are we to blame the person who wore a mask for giving the other person the virus? Absolutely. Perhaps in this view then, wearing a mask isn’t enough. Maybe we would all have to start wearing those hazmat, astronaut-looking, suits. Maybe then, the person wearing a mask wouldn’t have spread the virus to another.
Either way, wearing a mask and social distancing would not be enough, and therefore would not save lives. Thus, merely wearing a mask and social distancing is not moral. (Saying that wearing a mask and social distancing is not moral differs from saying that wearing a mask and social distancing is immoral. For example, drinking water after a run is neither moral nor immoral.)
We as a society have no basis to say that we have a moral duty to wear a mask. This does not mean that wearing a mask is bad, or that it might actually be immoral. All I’m arguing is that we don’t know what we’re talking about when discussing morality. To claim that there is just so much that we don’t know about the virus and yet also claim that wearing a mask helps stop the spread is an awkward position to take. Even if it were true, not all masks are equal. For example, my SMC cloth mask is inferior to an N95. Perhaps if we are to take this COVID-19 thing seriously, we would all be wearing N95 masks and Hazmat Suits. But who am I to judge? It’s your body, your choice.
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Ryan Ford '23,