The Corner


Mask-Wearing and the Common Good

A couple wearing face masks walk by a wall with graffiti after health authorities reversed reopening following the increase in cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in San Jose, Costa Rica, July 13, 2020. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

Much fuss has been made in recent months about the question of facial coverings, and it isn’t worth recounting in detail what has been said on all sides of the subject. To my mind, the perspectives at either extreme (the hyper-partisan, unflinchingly pro- and anti-mask perspectives) are obviously wrong and not worth responding to.

But the debate over whether, when, and why we ought to cover our faces, in the hopes that doing so will at least mitigate the risk of transmitting or contracting coronavirus — and the related question of mask-wearing policies — is a helpful occasion to revisit how we talk about the common good in a policy context.

There are plenty of understandable reasons why one might dislike wearing a mask or facial covering, and to those objections, the best response is some form of an appeal to the needs of those who are more at risk. A younger person, for instance, might have relatively little reason to worry about his own health if he chooses not to wear a mask in the grocery store, and it places a certain limit on his autonomy that he is required to do so. But the policy demanding that he wear a mask isn’t primarily aimed at his own good; it is aimed rather at the good of those more at risk than he is — the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.

It’s a simple enough idea. Even those of us who are less at risk from this disease assume the burden of mask-wearing to protect those among us who stand to lose their lives. To most people, this seems like a relatively innocuous and comprehensible notion. Our actions affect those around us, even if they first and foremost have to do with ourselves, our bodies, and our own choices.

Though Americans of all political stripes have by and large embraced masking policies, there’s an aggressively pro-masking contingent on the Left, composed primarily of the sorts of progressives who likely have been glowering at you for sitting several feet away from a couple friends in your backyard or for failing to wear a mask while walking from the grocery store to your car.

By and large, these are the same progressives who loudly defend legal elective abortion — what they call “the right to choose” — relying heavily on euphemistic slogans such as “my body, my choice.” Utterly forgotten is the second body, that of the unborn human being, which must be mutilated and discarded to accommodate the wishes of the first.

If we can understand the importance of mask-wearing policies that impose on some of us for the good of the whole — policies that infringe on some aspects of our individual autonomy so as to prevent harm to others — surely we can understand a policy that curbs autonomy at the point where it involves taking another human being’s life.


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