Skip to content

Cross Post: Should You Stop Wearing A Mask Just Because the Law Gives You Permission To Do So?

  • by

Written by Maximilian Kiener

On December 1 1955, in Alabama, Rosa Parks broke the law. But Parks was no ordinary criminal trying to take advantage of others. She merely refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person and was arrested for this reason alone. Parks is a hero because she stood up, or rather sat down, for the rights of black people.

Among other things, Parks taught us that we shouldn’t take the law too seriously, since a legal prohibition does not always imply a moral prohibition. In fact, there can be cases where we should actually do what the law forbids.

But we can extend Parks’ lesson and add another scenario where we shouldn’t take the law too seriously. Just as legal prohibitions (such as not to occupy seats reserved for white people) do not always determine what we should do, legal permissions, or rights, cannot determine what we should morally do either.

Consider the UK government, which now permits its citizens to visit public places without wearing masks, despite surging COVID infection rates. Does that permission mean that people in England now have good reasons to abandon their masks?

I think not. Just as Parks was not morally prohibited to do what she was legally prohibited to do, people are not always morally permitted to do what they are now legally permitted to do.

“Having” a right and “doing” right are quite different things.

Often, the law’s permissions are unable to give us good reasons for doing things because the law is a very blunt instrument. It creates only broad rules and is unable to be sensitive to the specifics of individual situations. The law cannot be precise enough to account for all aspects of our individual and fast-changing environments. Even if the permission granted by the UK government on “freedom day” in July was good overall, people should still think carefully about whether they need to go, at least sometimes, beyond the call of their (legal) duty.

Common sense

By way of illustration, suppose you are on a crowded train. Some of the passengers will be especially vulnerable to COVID, but it may be very hard to see who is. We cannot see whether a person has a chronic illness, such as diabetes, or is not vaccinated, or would suffer a severe infection for other reasons. Wearing a mask in situations like these could save lives without causing any significant discomfort to ourselves, and this should give us very good reasons to wear them.

Portrait of Immanuel Kant
German philosopher Immanuel Kant wanted people to think for themselves.
Wikimedia Commons

To get through the pandemic, we need to apply common sense and sometimes not exercise our legal rights. If we think that referring to our legal rights can settle the matter, we succumb to rules that were not designed to guide us fully in the first place. We become gullible. We may fail morally. And, most importantly, we might even fall back behind Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment maxim of sapere aude, the moral and political imperative to think for ourselves.

But to think “for” ourselves does not mean to think just “of” ourselves. We need to look out for each other, show solidarity and make a contribution to overcoming the pandemic. Governments alone cannot solve this crisis.

For this reason, it is now a civic virtue not to take the law, or your government, too seriously, in the sense that neither law nor government can provide the final word on what we should do in the specific and constantly changing contexts of our private and professional lives. Sometimes, we are morally required to go beyond the call of our legal duties.

So, let’s step away from merely considering what we have “a” right to do and start thinking about what it would “be” right to do.

Maximilian Kiener, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
The Conversation

Share on

2 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks Max, this is very interesting. I made similar arguments about vaccination in the past (you could prevent infection (to yourself or to others) at a relatively small cost to you). However, I think the case of a moral (or legal) obligation to wear masks is somehow different, because it is about a habit rather than a one-off thing like vaccination. Habits have a societal impact that one-off (and not-visible) decisions do not have. I am interested in your phrase ‘to get through the pandemic’. When we will be through and out of the pandemic also depends on how and how quickly we learn to live with endemic COVID-19. It’s not just about epidemiological factors, since COVID-19 is very unlikely to go away. It is about how we organize societies in a world with COVID-19 and we learn to live with it. Thus, wearing masks is not only a habit we adopt as a response to a situation of emergency, but at the same time, it contributes itself to making the circumstances exceptional and perpetuates the idea that we are still in the pandemic (which at some point will cease to be true, although there will be disagreement about when that moment arrives). After all, hospitals are not overwhelmed at the moment, and the fears/expectations of hospitals becoming overwhelmed in winter months are related not only to COVID-19 infections, but also to all the other respiratory conditions that normally overburden health care systems in winter months (and for which we never thought of masks as a possible solution). So I wonder if when you say that “to get through the pandemic” we need to wear masks on public transports etc., you are actually arguing for a societal arrangement that itself perpetuates the exceptionality of the current situation – that is, a situation that makes it impossible in principle to get through and out of the pandemic as societal phenomenon (as opposed to a merely epidemiological one). Maybe in that scenario masks will really become ‘the new normal’, we will wear them forever and we will stop perceiving them as an exceptional measure linked to exceptional circumstances. But I don’t know how likely that is. And maybe that will be an acceptable cost even in the long term. Or maybe not: this is up for discussion I suppose.
    So I guess my question here is: by the logic of your argument, given that COVID-19 will always be there and that it really is not clear that the situation will ever be much better than it is now – with the vast majority of people vaccinated, relatively high number of infections but relatively low numbers of deaths and hospitalizations, and seasonal big waves – how long do you think a moral (or perhaps a legal) obligation to wear masks would apply? Or what is the criterion we should adopt? It seems to me you’re committing yourself to the idea that we should wear masks forever. Which, again, maybe is an acceptable cost, or maybe it’s not. But it would require some discussion.

  2. The problem is that you determine the AIM. The aim according to you is “To go through the pandemic”.
    But it is very tragic for all people. Because the society cannot be ruled by the fixed aim.
    The aims can be various and at the first sight thay even can sound very nicely. The communists always claimed that they want all good for the people and they rule in the interest of all. Their AIM was to reach the society without classes in which all people will be equal. But the reality of communist regimes was that there was strict limitation of freedom and massive economic decline. These regimes prosecuted their enemies in the interest of the AIM. So the next real result was the VIOLENCE.
    Because our will is too weak to reach any aim. We cannot change the world. That is why that any political regime that determines in advance the AIM (however nicely the regime call it) one day will start to support the violence.
    You mention Kant. But his philosophy is very dangerous in that sense. He absolutizes the „inside freedom“. It is not the freedom in the classic constitutional sense, i. e. that the individuals are free from the state infringements.
    According to the Kant’s conception even the prisoner could be free in the jail (because he can feel so) while the citizen who lives in a real democratic society that guard his individual rights can feel not being free….
    The inside freedom or freedom as self-fullfilment has no inner limits and can lead to the weird consequences (like wearing masks just for ordinary winter respiration diseases). But just all these lockdowns and masks are based on THE AIM. That is why we should follow them, „They are in the interest of all of us“, the state power based on THE AIM tells us…… By the AIM you can claim anything, even murder included.

Comments are closed.