Sunday, July 19, 2020

Mask Mandates and Politics


People should wear masks to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. If you don’t wear a mask, and you give someone COVID-19, then you might have violated their bodily rights (assuming they couldn’t consent to the risks). That’s wrong. So you should wear a mask.  


If it’s wrong to refuse to wear a mask, should it be illegal to refuse to wear a mask? It depends.

Most things that are wrong shouldn’t be illegal. Even if refusing to wear a mask is risky, so is prohibiting mask-refusal. Public officials should weigh the risk of mask-wearing against the risk of enforcing a mask mandate.


Depending on the severity of the virus in a place, it might make sense to enforce a temporary mask-mandate, but this should usually be a last resort. As it stands, public officials haven’t invested enough in less prohibitive ways of reducing contagious transmission, such as contact tracing and expanded testing, so mask mandates are probably unjustified in a lot of places.


Mask mandates can also backfire if people view them as illegitimate. In which case, public officials shouldn’t enforce them because they won’t be effective and they may be counterproductive. Elsewhere, mandates may be unnecessary if almost everyone wears a mask voluntarily and private businesses require them. And mask mandates may be enforced in ways that are discriminatory or inegalitarian. In these contexts, mask mandates are especially morally risky.


So while it’s possible that public officials can justifiably enforce temporary mask mandates in some contexts, that doesn’t mean that everyone everywhere should be required to wear a mask throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.


When it comes to the ethics of mask mandates, there’s not an easy, one-size-fits-all answer to the policy question. Even if people have enforceable rights against being infected with COVID-19, in some contexts, officials will lack the authority or the ability to enforce these rights in a morally acceptable way.


These answers don’t make for good politics because proponents of mask mandates have political incentives to discount the risks of unjust enforcement and opponents of mask mandates have political incentives to discount the risks of contagious transmission.


But contagious transmission and law enforcement are both morally risky, and in both cases the risks are sometimes distributed in inegalitarian and disproportionately harmful ways. Public officials should balance the moral risks of enforcing a mandate against the moral risks of not enforcing a mandate. If they did, then they’d find that there’s not a yes or no answer to questions about mask mandates—it depends.