Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released revised directives on April 3 suggesting everyone should practice physical distancing and don a facial covering when out in public to help contain the spread of COVID-19, the mask has come to symbolize a political divide between citizens who believe they are answering to society and citizens who proclaim the practices infringe on their personal rights.
It begs considering ethics and morality, questioning: what obligations do people have to their neighbors, family and strangers during this pandemic? Does a social contract demand we cover up and stay distant or does individual freedom supersede the collective need?
Southwestern College Philosophy Professor Peter Bolland said he believes the argument that wearing a mask is merely a ‘personal choice’ is a juvenile misunderstanding of what liberty really means.
“Liberty does not mean doing whatever you want as if you exist in a bubble. No right is absolute. Rights are always married to responsibilities,” Bolland said.
He takes issue with politicians who frame the practice of wearing a mask as being done out of fear and said he is “baffled” that a question of science could be converted to an argument on whether wearing a mask is a personal choice.
“One of the themes that has been a through line in all this: we’ve seen an erosion of faith in expertise. There’s this sense that we’re not to trust educated people, that there’s no difference between One America News and the New York Times and I don’t know how to combat that because you can’t offer evidence to conspiracists,” Bolland said.
His concern is that “once we start insisting it’s all fake, it’s all fake, it’s all fake— that infects the debate about masks. It’s frustrating that we aren’t relying on the best scientific evidence,” Bolland said.
Grossmont Philosophy Professor Leila Parello is less worried over whether asking people to wear a mask has legal weight and is more concerned with what the directive to distance might mean for the nation.
She is especially concerned that the practice of education is being rapidly and negatively affected by mandating student distancing and relying on distance tools for learning.
“If students are kept away from each other indefinitely, it could grow to be an enormous handicap— learning and knowledge have a great deal to do with being able to coordinate yourself amongst the objects in space and time, not just looking at a screen and dealing with a representation of a representation,” Parello said.
Because learning online is done primarily through the use of a program that she said “is in itself a filter,” online learning requires students to behave and respond a certain way, removing the freedom to interpret or imitate reality like they would do in person.
Imitation is required to truly learn, Parello hypothesized, a concept she says “philosophically goes all the way back to Plato and the imitative art”. She worries the ability for people to independently think and develop is going to be curtailed if students cannot interact in person.
“If you can’t imitate writing you can’t write a sentence; if you can’t write then you can’t read; if you can’t read you can’t interpret things in the world around you. Language is the root of everything, the genesis of everything. Without language, we don’t have the ability to approximate the truth of anything,” Parello said.
Like Bolland, she is concerned the American public does not distinguish between science and hyperbole. She personally questions whether the American public is being given the entire truth but says the fact that there is widespread mistrust is in itself concerning.
“We’re mandating behaviors that insert mistrust into civilization and once we do that, how do we get rid of it? Once you change the structure of civilization and communication, it is hard to undo those changes, to go back to trusting,” Parello said.
Secular Humanist Jason Frye leads a group of about 30 to 40 philosophers in a weekly talk. He said his background in Political Science coupled with a humanist outlook provide for a nuanced answer.
“The more libertarian perspective would say we have to place individual freedom above everything else. The idea is ‘If I don’t want to wear a mask, nobody should force me’ but that’s incredibly short-sighted because basic cost analysis would suggest that even if you don’t catch it yourself, the virus is going to be running rampant and from a public health standard there will be shutdowns. So, if you don’t participate in wearing a mask, it will take longer to get back to normal. Therefore, if you want your life back, wear a mask,” Frye said.
He then pivoted and approached the question from a social science standpoint.
“To say it’s just ourselves against everyone else is a rather impoverished way of looking at the world, impoverished in the regard that we know from psychology, from philosophy and from our own experience that we find our greatest meaning in relationships with other people and we want to have our friends and family around us in great health for a long period of time. Therefore, if we want to see our friends and family members safe, not catching this virus, wear a mask,” Frye said.
Finally, he approached the question as a political one.
“In terms of patriotism, if we want to consider ourselves patriotic, we have a duty to be good community members and to maintain our parks and civic resources, a duty to influence good behavior on younger people and a duty to do our part and secure a better future for our country together. Part of that duty is to help the health of our nation, therefore wear a mask,” Frye said.
Ultimately, he said, a society only works when everyone keeps everyone else in mind. Like Parello, he said suspicion and mistrust lead to the downfall of society.
“If you want to place a value on everything, which we as people do inherently, a society with trust and volunteerism and care is far more valuable than a society with suspicion and anxiety because that is not a world anyone values enough to want to live in,” Frye said.
Regardless of how one gets to the endpoint of their reasoning, Frye said, all the paths come back to the fact that we’re far less likely to contract COVID-19 or pass it on to others if we are masked from doing so.
Where Parello made the distinction that “there is a difference between dying from COVID or with COVID,” Frye said the death factor is low but the trauma to survivors is high. He steps aside from philosophy and said he is worried for the number of people who have long-lasting physical and physiological effects, whether it is the person who had COVID or those who love them.
“One of the things we don’t talk about too much is the six year old girl who had to say goodbye to her grandma without seeing her, or the individuals who have ongoing cardiovascular problems and might eventually need a lung transplant,” Frye said.
Referencing 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, Frye said if we are to consider the needs of the many over the needs of the few, a consequentialist way to pose the situation suggests ‘everyone should go back to work to keep the economy going so wear a mask and that way we can get back to work sooner’ and that will likely produce the greatest amount of happiness and benefit the greatest number of Americans.