Conformed to Mask?

Dear Aristotle,

Should I wear a mask outside in public? I walk my dog every day and am seldom within 20 feet of another person. Yet I feel like society would frown upon me for not wearing a mask in this situation. I don’t mind wearing one if it would make others feel more comfortable, but this pressure to conform feels irrational. What is your take on this thought?

– Eric

Dear Eric,

According to the best scientific evidence, walking outside and never coming within 20 feet of another human is extremely low COVID-19 risk. So, just looking at things from a public health perspective, or a “bad health consequences” perspective, you have no obligation to wear a mask. However, there are other aspects of being a good person unrelated to the spread of COVID-19, and unrelated to public health. For instance, kind and sensitive persons care and feel badly about about causing pain and distress to others, even if that pain and distress is a bit irrational.  Imagine that Tom knows that his wife Emily is terrified of spiders. When Emily sees a spider, it causes her terrible distress and reminds her of the time her sister was bitten by a brown recluse, having to be immediately rushed to the emergency room. Emily has this emotional reaction even when she knows that a particular spider is not dangerous at all. Despite being aware of his wife’s feelings toward spiders, Tom decides to get a pet tarantula because he thinks tarantulas are “cool.” Well, Tom is clearly being insensitive to his wife, even more, it seems that between the two of them, Tom is the one displaying worse moral character. Yes, perhaps his wife could work on overcoming her irrational fears, but it is much more important to someone’s character that they show traits of being a caring and empathetic friend. The point is this: sometimes being a good person demands doing things that are, in one sense of the term, irrational. However, they are not irrational insofar protecting others from unnecessary suffering is often a perfectly rational, ethical, decision.

As you might know, in the Nicomachean Ethics I argue that having virtuous character means having traits that find the right middle ground between too much and too little. A generous person is someone who shares and gives enough of their money away that they could never be called greedy, but they are also a person that refrains from recklessly giving their money away to the point of financial irresponsibility. While it might seem that someone who gives all their money away is very generous, on closer inspection, it means that the “extreme giver” will fail to do other things that being a good person requires, i.e., paying their bills on time, purchasing thoughtful gifts for their loved ones, etc. Hence, what might seem like extreme generosity is really not generosity at all.

Re your question involving masks and social judgement, we might ask this: what is the proper middle ground between showing sensitivity to the feelings of others, while not also going so far that you are willing to change your behavior for the flimsiest reasons? Someone who is so sensitive that they go out of their way to NEVER cause others discomfort would not be acting virtuously. We should be sensitive to the feelings of others, but only up to a point. Imagine, for instance, that Gavin is very sensitive to his wife’s feelings, so sensitive, in fact, that he makes all of the following life changes:

  1. He wakes up every day at 5am to drive his wife to work (even after he worked late the night before) because she is scared of being in the car alone. He leaves so early because she is scared of being late (her work starts at 8am, and they live 20 mins away.)
  2. He shaves 3 times a day because his wife is very sensitive to the slightest sign of facial hair, claiming that facial hair makes her “uncomfortable.” 
  3. He rehomed his dog of 7 years, who he loved very much, because his wife asked him to do so. She asked not because she is allergic, but because she claimed to “not like the smell of dogs.” 

The above examples are examples of going too far and showing oversensitivity to the feelings of others, not virtuous behavior. Not only are his wife’s demands unreasonable, but the demands show disregard for Gavin’s own needs and desires. Perhaps one sign of being overly sensitive is when we completely give up our own preferences.

So would wearing a mask be a sign of a good character, i.e., would it show proper sensitivity to the fears of your neighbors? Or, on the other hand, would it just be an example of going too far and showing sensitivity when a decent person wouldn’t bother? This is not an easy question to answer. It would depend on a few things, for instance, how much distress does it cause you to wear a mask outside? The more hardship it would bring upon yourself, the more reason you have to go without a mask despite your neighbors’ fears. The less hardship, the less reason. Next, how much distress would it really cause your neighbors? Are you sure that most of them would feel uncomfortable with the situation, or are you just guessing? One answer might be to try walking your dog without a mask, and to see what type of reaction follows. That might help you judge the best choice in your circumstance. 

One last point: your question also suggests that you were worried about not wearing a mask not merely because of pain you might cause others, but because of ensuing social judgement. Should a good person care about that kind of irrational social judgement? Probably not – or at least not that much. A good person cares about actually being a good person, not about being viewed as a good person. That said, a good person does care about hurting or causing others unnecessary pain, regardless of the reputational consequences. 

Yours,

Aristotle

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