Without a doubt, wearing a mask is inconvenient, uncomfortable and often annoying. As a matter of public health and safety, however, experts agree that covering one’s face when in the company of others will help contain and diminish the spread of the coronavirus.
There’s more at stake here, however, than public health. Some significant portion of our society—a word I want to return to—believes that somehow requiring people to wear face masks in public violates their individual rights as Americans.
Rights, however, as anyone who took a high school civics class knows, are not unlimited. As Americans, we have the right to vote; we have the right to worship in the church, mosque, synagogue or other place as we choose; we have the right to speak our mind. Some people believe they have a right to own and carry firearms. But we don’t have the right to do a lot of other things that some might like to do. We don’t have the right to drive on the left side of the road, for example. We don’t have the right to pollute public sources of drinking water. And, famously, we don’t have the right to falsely cry “Fire” in a crowded theater.
The fundamental principle involved here is the obligation each and every one of us has to the society as a whole not to willingly and unnecessarily endanger the life, health and general well-being of others. The limits put on our behavior obviously vary from one locale to another. What’s permissible in the vast expanse of Montana or Wyoming may not be in the overcrowded streets of New York or San Francisco.
Nor are the rights—and the restraints—we’re talking about here derived from the Constitution. What’s involved is more basic, a matter of the social compact that we implicitly enter into as members of a civil society. Where a consensus exists on what is permissible and what isn’t we have laws prescribing what we must do and laws proscribing what we mustn’t.
We aren’t necessarily obligated to protect or come to the aid of a fellow citizen who is endangered in some way; but we are obligated not to endanger our fellow citizens regardless of our desires. We may be required to obtain a license before we drive a car. We may be required to attend some kind of school to obtain an education. And, in some cases, we may be required to be conscripted into the service of our country, perhaps losing our lives in the process.
There’s also a matter of reciprocity. If I ask you not to endanger me, don’t I have an obligation not to endanger you? And even if you’re indifferent to the risk of illness or perhaps even death to yourself, don’t you still have that same obligation to me? And if the answer is no, where does that leave us as a society when one’s actions harm the well-being of others? And what happens if everyone around us becomes indifferent or even contemptuous of our well-being?
That is the state of nature Thomas Hobbes wrote about—where life is nasty, brutish and short—the war of all against all.
We are paying an obvious price for the refusal of many to wear a face mask. The virus is spreading; more people are contracting Covid19 and the deaths continue. That’s the obvious cost. The less obvious cost is the spread of another virus—the notion that each of us is free to determine what reasonable steps we are willing and not willing to adopt in the face of a threat to our community. By refusing to submit, by refusing to voluntarily give up their perceived “right” to go barefaced, the resistors are undermining the foundation of civil society.
Now, who you might wonder, would be the inspiration for that kind of thinking in the first place?