Mask Up, Save Lives—But How Many?
Many practices save lives at a small price. Doing them all, though, would make life unbearable.
With the surge of the Delta variant of Covid-19, we are told that we should mask up to save lives in-doors, even if we’re vaccinated. One of the primary arguments used to justify this public health nuisance is the claim that masking up is a minor inconvenience. After all, even if wearing a mask is a pain, it is a minor inconvenience; it is annoying to wear a mask, sure, but if it slows down the rate of transmission, lives will be saved. And even if it will only save a handful of lives, it is better overall for most of us to mask up, since it is only a minor sacrifice on our part for a huge gain on the part of others whose lives will be sparred. Or so the argument goes.
There is an infamous argument in applied ethics with a similar structure. In the early 1970’s, the ethicist, Peter Singer, argued—in his now infamous article, Famine, Affluence, and Morality—that we, in the first world, should donate more of our disposable income to the desperately poor who are dying, around the world, from lack of food, shelter, and basic medical care. He defended this point by appealing to a relatively simple thought experiment:
On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy.
Singer argues we are morally required to save the child drowning in a shallow pond, even if it would ruin our shoes—saving the child would be a minor inconvenience, and nice shoes don’t morally compare to a child’s life. He then argues there isn’t a moral difference between ruining a nice pair of shoes to save a drowning child, and donating the amount of money one would have used to purchase the shoes, to save the life of a child starving in a poor country. In both cases, we are morally mandated to undergo a minor inconvenience to save a life. Since we agreed that, morally, we should save the drowning child, we should save the starving child too by donating.
One problem, though, with this argument is that it ‘proves’ too much. If we are morally obligated to save the drowning child as it only be a minor inconvenience, we could say the same of saving yet another child. Saving the second child would be a minor inconvenience too. And so would saving the third child, and a fourth child, and so forth. Saving each individual child would be a minor inconvenience, so by the line of argument, we have a moral obligation to save him. Each time a child needs to be saved from a shallow pond, we can always run Singer’s argument:
A: ‘I’ve already saved four children today; I have things to do’
B: ‘Well, it is only a minor inconvenience to save the child, and, surely, a nice pair of shoes that the time that it takes to save the child doesn’t morally compare to the life of a child!’
A: ‘But this evening I wanted to watch a football game and have some beers!’
B: ‘You could take the money you spent on ESPN, and the beers, and donate it to a charity that prevents poor children from starving in poor countries—the fun you would have from watching a game doesn’t morally compare to the life of a child, and forgoing it would be but a minor inconvenience’
Taken to its logical end, having to save a child when it would only be a minor inconvenience would, eventually, become a serious inconvenience, and looks like it would be morally too demanding—but at each step, saving the child would only be a minor inconvenience.
And the same logical flaw applies to the minor inconvenience argument for wearing masks, even if it would only save a handful of people. By that logic, we should never stop wearing masks to keep people safe from diseases across the gambit—not just Covid-19—since doing so would only be a minor inconvenience, and it would save some lives. There is a deep problem, though, with this line of argument that extends beyond the implication that we should wear masks most of the time, apart from the pandemic: there are many minor inconveniences’that we could undergo that would save lives wholly apart from communicable diseases and masks. As a society, we could, to give some examples, require that,
—Everyone has a breathalyzer in their car
—Every citizen must vote in every election
—Speed limits anywhere cannot be higher than 55 mph
—Citizens consume no more than three alcoholic drinks daily
—Citizens do ten hours of community service annually
—Every citizen must forgo meat five (5) meals a month
These are just a few examples of how we could use an appeal to minor inconveniences, that would arguably make the world a better place—e.g. eating less meat may help the environment—but when taken to their logical conclusion, without a limiting principle, would require practices that, when taken together, would simply demand too much of us morally. We wouldn’t agree with Singer, say, that we should save the child drowning in a shallow pond if the result was that we would be forced to forfeit our life doing so. And by a similar line of reasoning, we shouldn’t rely on a moral principle that we have a moral obligation to do something if it (a) will benefit others, but is only (b) a minor inconvenience to us. A moral principle like this will be overdemanding. Even if it doesn’t demand too much from us on any particular issue—like saving a child drowning a shallow pond or wearing a mask—there is no obvious limit to the applicability of the principle to the whole of our lives, and when applied across the board, the principle will demand too much of us. Sometimes morality can imposes costs on us, sure, but not if it requires too much of us.
(Even if you doubt some of these examples would make the world a better because they would have unintended consequences—e.g. restricting the sale of alcohol would produce a violent, black market—the point is that even if we assumed, for the sake of argument, there wouldn’t be seriously negative unintended consequences, taken together, they would still be too morally demanding).
It is important to understand that the argument isn’t against mask wearing—I do not take a stand on that issue—but to critically examine the minor inconvenience argument for mask wearing. The point is that arguing something is a minor inconvenience doesn’t show that one cannot reasonably object to it. There are many things we could do that would be minor inconveniences and save lives taken individually; but if we did everything that would be a minor inconvenience, but saved some lives, we would live a morally overbearing existence.
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