Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of states and cities require customers who enter a store to wear a mask. Yet there is resistance.  Some view these rules as an attack on their freedom and may even assault store employees in response.   When a Target security guard in Michigan asked a family to wear masks, one of the family members shot him dead.  The mayor of an Oklahoma city had to rescind a mask-wearing order one day after it was enacted due to threats against store proprietors.   There are many other incidents like this.

While we can agree that assaulting employees is wrong, do the resisters have a point?  They see mask rules as just one example of government oppression that freedom-loving people must resist.  One letter to a Pennsylvania newspaper refers to mask-wearers as submissive “sheep,” a sentiment that many share, particularly in conservative regions of the country.  Are they right?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    Thomas Jefferson apparently never said that “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” which he is often quoted as saying, but it is profoundly true nonetheless. There are times when I wish we would put up more resistance against government, as for example when it carries out excessive surveillance, unnecessary ICE detentions, abusive TSA searches in airports, and suppression of dissidents through a compliant FISA court. But before we criticize a government policy that appears to restrict freedom, we must understand what freedom is.*

    The government won’t let us steal our neighbor’s car, but we don’t regard this as restricting freedom, and rightly so. The government doesn’t want us to murder security personnel in a Target store, and we are OK with this as well, except for at least one person in Michigan.

    A law against car theft or murder is no restriction of freedom because it prohibits what we shouldn’t do anyway. If we are behaving unethically, there is no freedom to restrict. One of the deepest insights of ethics is that freely chosen action must be ethical action. Someone who murders a security guard is not exercising free choice, but only exhibiting animal behavior. Just laws don’t restrict freedom. They remind us what we must do to be free.

    True, laws that prohibit unethical behavior can sometimes be unjust, particularly if enforcement is difficult or oppressive. A law against cheating on your spouse couldn’t be enforced without rather intrusive police surveillance.

    So we must ask whether a mask law prohibits behavior that is already unethical, and whether enforcement would be oppressive. As for enforcement, it should not be a problem. Violations are obvious and require no state surveillance. Offenders who refuse to wear a mask or leave the store could simply be given a citation, much like a traffic ticket.

    The issue boils down to whether we have an ethical obligation to wear a mask in a store. We must remember that the main purpose of a mask is to protect others, not the wearer. Health officials initially changed their tune on masks, which created understandable skepticism about their value. But now we know that sneezing, coughing, and even talking can propel contagious particles over a wide area. Many if not most Covid-19 infections are spread by asymptomatic individuals who may see no need to wear a mask. We don’t have solid data on the effectiveness of masks, but common sense tells us that they probably help when we are indoors or unable to practice social distancing. Since there is little downside to a face covering, the utilitarian principle tells us to just wear the damn mask.

    Customers who refuse to wear a mask are also free riders on the good behavior of others. They benefit from the fact that masked customers are not propelling their contagious spit into the air, but they refuse to do their part. So they risk running afoul of the generalization principle as well.

    So, given what we know now, a reasonable mask requirement appears to be a just law that does not compromise liberty. The “sheep” who wear masks to benefit others are exercising their freedom rather than bowing to an oppressive government.

    But there is another angle. Some may regard a compulsory mask as identifying them as one of those sheepish liberals who do anything the “experts” tell them to do. It forces them to endorse a detested ideology. It’s like forcing a Democrat to wear a MAGA hat.

    Well, a mask is not like a MAGA hat, because there is no ethical obligation to wear a MAGA hat. Requiring people to do what is ethically obligatory, simply because it is ethically obligatory, doesn’t force them to endorse any ideology except ethics. Enforcing ethics doesn’t make a law unjust. It’s the only way a law can be just.

    *Some people distinguish liberty from freedom, but I use the two terms interchangeably.

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