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The Moral Dimension of Face Masks

Although the President refuses to set an example, it is now an official CDC recommendation to wear face masks, usually homemade, whenever leaving our homes. Most of us are improvising- in our case, construction masks were given to us by a neighbor, with vacuum cleaner filters inside.

The scientific message that homemade masks are less likely to protect you than other people has gotten out, even though masks do make it less likely that you will touch your eyes and nose. What hasn’t been highlighted is the moral dimension that this implies. If we protect others, and others do the same, we are also protected by them. And that means that we do receive protection, directly, from their decisions. In the late 18th Century Emmanuel Kant grappled with this when he wrote: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, if everyone wore a mask we would all be more protected from the virus. We have to amend Kant, however, because, by all indications this COVID19 pandemic will not last forever. Perhaps wearing masks will become a “when needed” example of Kant’s “categorical imperative” should another pandemic strike in the future.

“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” wrote John Heywood in 1546. This might be true only temporarily during the present pandemic, but fish and dolphins have returned to the canals of Venice and global CO2 emissions have plummeted. Just as these positive side effects have the potential to increase environmental awareness, so also does wearing masks have the potential to increase our moral sensitivity. Most of us will escape the worst consequence of the current pandemic, but none of us will get out of this life alive and meanwhile, we must support each other and our planetary home.