The Ethics of Mask Wearing
Now that several states with hot spots for the spread of COVID-19 have decided to undo the openings of restaurants, bars, and other gathering places, it’s a good time to examine the moral responsibilities of individual citizens and the general public in combating the spread of the virus.
Is it ethical to require everyone to wear a mask when in the public domain or is it an infringement of constitutional rights? The CDC has recommended the mask wearing for some time and just last week the governors of states including California and Texas issued emergency orders for mask-wearing.
Opponents of mask-wearing state that the government mandates are not legal; they were not adopted by a legislative body. Even if that were true, just because something is legal (not having to wear a mask) that doesn’t mean it’s ethical.
The consensus of public health officials is wearing a mask protects our fellow citizens by reducing the chance the virus will spread to others. It also protects the person wearing the mask if everyone heeds the call and does the same.
There are those who believe it a personal choice whether to wear a mask. That’s true but the broader issue is to protect the public during the spread of the coronavirus. So, does the public good outweigh the individual’s right to go out into the public without a facial covering?
Wearing a mask can be said to be a moral expression of one’s position or virtue-signaling. Those who wear masks are engaging in a selfless act. They understand their responsibility to act in the common good.
Those who don’t wear masks because they object to being told what to do believe they have a right to do so and the government should not intervene to set that right aside. Even if we accept this position is justifiable, an ethical response could be: Just because we have a right to do so, that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Why? Because protecting our neighbors, friends, and family provide a public good that outweighs one’s self-interest behavior.
The lack of leadership on this issue and mixed signal-setting by President Trump and others is the main reason we’re having this debate. Like him or not, a lot of people look up to the President and if he doesn’t think mask wearing is essential, then those predisposed not to wear one can point to our top leader not believing it’s important to wear a mask.
Another way of looking at why mandates to wear a mask out in public should be accepted by those who do not wear masks is the fact that the government often has controlled our behavior through requirements such as wearing a seat belt, wearing a helmet when on a motorcycle, not texting while driving, not bringing certain liquids onto an airplane. No rational person can say they have a right to bring a gun or other weapon onto an airplane. In each case, the requirement limits our behavior for the good of society.
To me, wearing a mask when we venture out in the public is a logical step to help slow the spread of the virus. No one is arguing that a mask can increase our chances of getting the virus.
I wonder where we are as a nation when not everyone recognizes what is in the public interest and is willing to restrain their actions for the greater good. We have morphed into a divisive society these past few years and it doesn’t bode well for our ability to find common ground on an issue that should be a no brainer.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 7, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics.