The Ethics of Wearing a Face Mask in a Pandemic
A nationwide mandate to wear face masks does not infringe on the liberties of the individual because of the more prescient obligation to not cause harm to citizens.
But let me show you how.
The cost of allowing for freedom outweighs the benefit of preventing harm.
The problem with liberty, as many thinkers have addressed, is that providing liberty to some may infringe on the liberties of others.
It is difficult to find a place of compromise in order to satisfy everyone.
In other words, the individual can feel threatened by the desire to meet the needs of the collective.
One example that testifies to this reality is the protests to nationwide mandates for wearing face masks in response to the global pandemic of 2020.
Why Protestors Are Protesting
Protestors who argue against face masks are reasoning in line with many classical liberals such as John Locke, Herbert Spencer, and F.A. Hayek who argue for variations of negative liberty.
Put simply, negative liberty is the view that the government should be as limited as possible in the constraints they issue over our lives. According to this negative view of liberty, wearing face masks may go against individual freedoms. This critique, however, does not address the needed cost-benefit analysis of harm that comes along with providing liberties to individuals. In fact, there are good empirical reasons to think that the minor inconvenience of wearing a face mask prevents harm to citizens. Correspondingly, we must constrain liberty in cases that would cause harm.
John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle
This view of preventing harm whilst providing liberties was originally popularized with John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” which states that it is just to act against an individual’s will if it is “to prevent harm to others.”
‘Harm’ here constitutes an action that is “injurious” or one that imposes on the “interests” of citizens that are their fundamental right.
Under this definition, the use of face masks can and should be enforced by the government because of the documented harm the pandemic causes on the interests of citizens.
The Limits of the Harm Principle
One obvious objection is that Mill does not clearly outline this project or the “threshold” that must be reached for an action to do harm. This ambiguity comes across when Mill discusses education, poverty, and the role the government has in providing education to impoverished citizens.
Mill argues that every citizen of the state should be granted an education and that the state is obligated to provide an education to citizens if the parents fail to do so.
Mill’s understanding of “harm” clearly allows for government intervention in a way that many would describe as an infringement on our liberties.
In my view, many justly argue that face masks infringe on personal liberties in the sense that the government is coercing citizens to act in a certain way and penalizing them if they do not conform.
However, as I argue above, the cost of allowing for freedom outweighs the benefit of preventing harm.
Similar government mandates are sometimes called external restrictions. External restrictions, such as traffic lights and seatbelts, are necessary in providing safety to citizens.
One can argue that traffic lights and seatbelts take away from our enjoyment of driving and our liberty to do as we please. Clearly, however, the benefit of safety outweighs any temporary satisfaction from not needing to take precautionary measures whilst in traffic.
If we accept the premise that wearing face masks will save lives and prevent hospitalizations, then it follows that we ought to act in a way that would prevent harm.
Do Face Masks Threaten Individualism?
One other possible objection can state that the mandates to wear face masks threaten individualism by the desire to provide collective good to citizens.
I view this as a valid response and something that must be considered when weighing the costs and benefits to providing the freedoms the collective deserve over that of the individual.
However, due to a cost-benefit analysis, we see that individual liberties cannot outweigh the potential of harm caused to citizens.
In the 20th century, we saw that the desire for collective good can get carried away if the rights and needs of individuals are not a priority as well. We must find the balance between the two.
We need not go from one extreme to the next. If urging citizens to be cautious because of a global pandemic that harms citizens is taking away freedoms, then we might easily suspect that any restrictions on potentially harmful activities, such as wearing seatbelts when driving, should also be thought of as taking away from our liberties.
We might be in a dystopia by expecting citizens to take precautions for the collective good; nonetheless, if we agree with Mill’s ‘Harm Principle,’ we have a good enough reason to be morally obligated to wear face masks.
In this brief analysis, I defined liberty as the ability to do as we wish freely without harming citizens.
I looked at two objections to this view (1) that the threshold for harm is ambiguous and (2) that the rights of the individual may be thwarted by the desire for collective good. I acknowledged that both these responses are valid concerns.
Nonetheless, external restrictions are necessary in order to keep citizens safe. If face masks are merely precautionary measures such as seatbelts and traffic lights, then it follows that they should be used in order to prevent harm to citizens.
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