Is It Ethical to Scold People for Not Wearing a Mask on the Street?

Whose business is it if I don’t wear a mask? A short lesson in coronavirus conduct by Haaretz’s ethics adviser

A bar in Jerusalem.
A bar in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

Readers ask Haaretz

Is it ethical to chastise a stranger for not wearing a face mask in public? I encounter many nasty comments on the street from people I don’t know, for not wearing a mask. I find this inappropriate. It’s important to note that in places of business and in closed spaces, I do wear a mask out of respect for the proprietor, because I don’t want him to be fined on my account. But not in the street. I don’t believe in the mask’s effectiveness. On the other hand, I know that my aunt doesn’t leave the house because of people like me.

My question isn’t about the mask, but about whether it’s other people’s business to reproach me, or whether this is a matter for my conscience alone. I’ve been to many places abroad, where people simply don’t intervene in others’ affairs, certainly not if they don’t know the person.

Dear Unmasked Ranger,

Remarks made to strangers on the street are a common theme in letters to this column, and generally my advice is to avoid crudely butting in to others’ affairs. However, previous queries dealt with comments regarding matters that don’t entail potential harm to anyone else, such as body weight, body hair and tattoos.

Wearing a face mask during a lethal epidemic is one of the few cases in which exercising your freedom could indeed be harmful to others.

Accordingly, before weighing in on the reproaches, we first need to examine your decision not to wear a mask. You explained that this is not the subject of your question, whereas for my part, I hoped that I would not have to answer any more questions about the pandemic. So we have something in common: Neither you nor I will get what we wanted in this column.

Science does not yet know enough about the coronavirus; research about it constantly develops and changes. As of now, most scientists seem to agree that face masks are effective to a certain degree in curtailing the spread of the virus. At the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization maintained that masks were unnecessary, but we know now that this declaration was partly motivated by the fear that the public would snap up the available supply, leaving medical teams with no protection.

Since then, the WHO has revised its position and, like the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, has begun recommending the use of cloth masks in public places when it’s not possible to maintain a reasonable social distance.

In the meantime, considerable evidence has started to accumulate about the effectiveness of masks. Diverse studies have proved that they greatly reduce the amount of virus that is released during coughing and sneezing. Other research has shown a decline in the rate at which the coronavirus spreads in places where wearing a mask is obligatory.

Two additional findings have illuminated the importance of the extensive use of masks. First – and contrary to initial opinion – it appears that individuals who have contracted the disease can infect others even if they are asymptomatic or presymptomatic. Second, many scientists now believe that infection with COVID-19 can be caused not only by large respiratory droplets but also from aerosols: tiny particles that can remain airborne for long periods. In that case, in poorly ventilated spaces it’s not enough to keep your distance and wash your hands – a mask is needed to reduce the emission of the aerosols.

People wearing masks in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

The coronavirus is also new for the world of ethics, but we are already familiar with the demand to protect others from infectious diseases from the debate about the anti-vaccine movement. Both issues relate to the tension between personal liberty and the public good.

As Italian philosopher Alberto Giubilini notes in his 2019 book “The Ethics of Vaccination,” “ethics is, among other things, about whether and under what circumstances we should make choices that are not (only) in our self-interest but also and even primarily in the interest of other people.”

Giubilini deals with vaccinations in part within the context of negative and positive rights. Negative rights are rights that obligate others to refrain from taking action, whereas positive rights obligate others to act. For example, the negative right prohibits others from hitting us, and the positive right to health care entails the obligation to provide us with medical treatment. In moral philosophy, a negative right is more easily justified than a positive right: causing harm by means of action is considered more serious than causing harm by refraining from taking action.

Giubilini returns to a well-known thought experiment presented by the philosopher Peter Singer, according to which, if a child is drowning in a pond and saving him does not pose a significant threat to you, it is your obligation to rescue him. Following Singer, Giubilini defines the “duty of easy rescue,” writing that, “when the actions required to avoid possible harm to others are sufficiently easy and costless, positive duties become morally equal to negative duties.” The risk entailed in vaccination that protects others, particularly vulnerable groups that are unable to be vaccinated, is very low. Refusing to be vaccinated without medical justification is therefore equal to actively harming others and cannot be justified.

Of course, there are substantial differences between vaccinations and face masks. On one hand, the likelihood that vaccination will cause harm is indeed negligible, but the possible harm is certainly more significant than the discomfort of wearing a mask. On the other hand, the effectiveness of vaccinations is currently better grounded than the effectiveness of masks. Masks are apparently effective in certain circumstances, but it is still early to know for sure. In this context, some scientists have urged the WHO to adopt the “precautionary principle”: As there is considerable evidence that the virus is also airborne, it is best to instruct the population to wear face masks in public, even without definitive proof.

What we do know with certainty is that the possible harm from not wearing a mask far outweighs the harm that comes from wearing a mask that might be ineffective. First, the risk of infecting others increases significantly without a mask, especially in light of possible airborne infection. Some of those who have contracted COVID-19 recover from it easily, but others suffer terribly and at length, and some die.

Second, if people without a mask do indeed increase the spread of the virus, they contribute indirectly to the imposition of harsher restrictions on the public. The economic consequences of such restrictions are disastrous and affect many people. In addition, such behavior has an immediate psychological effect: A person without a mask induces others to act with similar selfishness and also causes anxiety and distress to many of those who encounter him (among them your aunt, who is compelled to stay home).

When the possible harm is weighed against the temporary discomfort of wearing a mask, there is simply no comparison. You have every right “not to believe in masks.” But, as long as you do not have a relevant medical or mental restriction, that is not sufficient justification for not wearing a mask in public places.

Because the possible damage is not entirely certain, chiding a person without a mask falls in the gray area between nasty meddling and essential intervention. Like you, I don’t want to live in a society in which people feel the need to regiment each other. On the other hand, I also don’t want to live in a society where people are heedless of the health and fears of others, and expect those around them to submissively accept this.

The framing of your question forces us to choose between one or the other, but there is another possibility: Instead of imposing on others the burden of staying silent, simply put on a mask. At the moment, that’s the right thing to do.

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