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Individualism in the Time of COVID: The Rights and Wrongs of Face Masks

By John Hacker-Wright
14 Jul 2020
photograph of large crowd walking through strip mall
“Lyon France, 16 May 2020 …” by Keitma (via depositphotos)

There are many ways of understanding individualism. On one understanding, it is equivalent to selfishness or egoism. Those who refuse to wear masks have been labelled, perhaps rightly, as individualists in this sense. Yet some anti-maskers claim to be exercising their rights in refusing to wear a mask. In doing so, they appeal to a more profound understanding of individualism in which we are each owed protection against intrusions by the government or other persons. In the words of philosopher Philippa Foot, rights protect a “kind of moral space, a space which others are not allowed to invade.”  That moral space includes a literal area around our person as a zone of privacy. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson argues “if we have fairly stringent rights over our property, we have very much more stringent rights over our own person.” Here ‘stringent’ means that it would take more to override those rights: what provides sufficient reason to do something that violates your property rights might not provide sufficient reason to override your rights over your person.

If our rights over our person are more stringent than our rights over our property, then it would seem to follow that we should have stringent rights over what we wear. Of course, there are laws regarding what we wear, such as public decency laws, but these are, to most of us, unobtrusive. Most of us aren’t inclined to stroll naked through the local shopping mall, and so laws forbidding that activity don’t strike us as an imposition on our rights. Norms regarding such matters are moreover reasonably stable. So, it should be understandable even to those who disagree with anti-maskers that it could feel like an intrusion for the government to dictate our wearing something like a mask over our faces: as some anti-maskers label it, they feel “muzzled.” But is there a moral right not to wear a mask?

First, we have to ask, in virtue of what do we have any rights at all? This is a difficult philosophical question that has exercised philosophers and legal theorists, resulting in some of the most challenging works in those disciplines. But there are some simple ideas at play that have an intuitive appeal and are easily grasped. The first basic idea is that there is an intrinsic value to each individual. We are not valuable only because of our usefulness to others, but just in virtue of something like our humanity, rationality, or having been created by God. Here accounts diverge, and challenging issues arise. Suffice to say that whatever account is given, at least anyone considering the question of whether to wear a mask certainly has this sort of value.

The second basic idea is that this intrinsic value demands consideration or respect in our thinking and action that takes the form of rights. The individual has a value such that their life cannot be disposed of because it inconveniences me: individuals aren’t fungible and have a certain inviolability. Philosopher Ronald Dworkin put it this way: “rights trump utility.” This means that rights prevent us from doing things to an individual (such as killing them) on the grounds that doing those things would promote overall happiness. There is vagueness to this idea that philosophers and legal theorists work hard to dispel: how much utility does a right trump? Can we kill one to save five? If not, then ten, or one hundred? Again, we need not settle this question to answer the question regarding masks.

Third basic idea: when I violate someone’s rights deliberately, I do wrong. Often this idea will receive a great deal of nuance, delimiting the nature of the wrongdoing and exceptions that may arise in various circumstances. The important point is that rights define a moral space within which I can make choices, even choices that lower my expected utility or that of others, provided that I am not violating their rights in doing so. So the moral space defines a domain of autonomy for individual decision-making and choice but not an unlimited one. To see that it cannot be unlimited requires only a moment’s reflection. If we both claim to have rights in this sense, we must recognize each other’s inviolability at the risk of these claims being meaningless. Instead, we must realize that the assertion of rights imposes obligations on us: we must limit the exercise of our autonomy, taking other bearers of rights into account. Our claim to an unimpeded pursuit of happiness must recognize the claim of others to the same, and so my pursuit of happiness must be framed in a way that takes them into account. The kind of individualism that supports rights claims is grounded in the recognition of the value of the individual and imposes obligations that others take that value into account as they act. This is why anti-maskers are acting inconsistently with the ideas they claim to act on. The notion of rights that they invoke seems to have come uprooted from the moral ideas that ground it and become a merely legal notion. It is possibly a nod to constitutional rights, but one that fails to account for why those constitutional rights were a good idea from a moral point of view.

Those who refuse to wear masks on the grounds of exercising rights seem to have decided that their minor discomfort outweighs the lives of others in wearing a mask. Imagine that I have an exceedingly comfortable shirt, but for whatever reason, it kills one out of every thousand people who look at it. Presumably, I have a moral obligation not to wear that shirt anywhere but away from the view of all onlookers. Others would be within their rights to force me not to wear that shirt or to take on the discomfort of wearing it covered, assuming it won’t have its fatal effect when concealed. I cannot object to these requirements by saying, “but my shirt is so comfortable!” or “covering my shirt makes it less comfortable!” because these questions are put out of consideration by the rights of others. If each of our minor discomforts provides grounds for subjecting others to risk of serious illness and death, then, effectively, none of us have any moral rights. The French theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal put it concisely: “Respect means: inconvenience yourself.”

John Hacker-Wright is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Ontario. His research is in 20th-century analytic moral philosophy. He is the author of Philippa Foot’s Moral Thought, editor of Philippa Foot on Goodness and Virtue, and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Value Inquiry.
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