The Philosophical Debate Over Masks and Vaccinations

Written by Barry Waldman
Statue: John Stuart Mill via LondonRemembers

At The Citadel, where mask use was mandatory for the first six weeks of classes this Fall, the number of active cases dropped nearly to zero (it was 9 on Oct. 4) and the mask policy was rescinded.

At the College of Charleston, where the active caseload declined throughout the semester to just 15 on Oct. 6, the mandatory indoor mask policy remains in place. The University of South Carolina and South Carolina State University also require masks. SCSU took it a step further, mandating weekly Covid tests for students living in the dorms. USC tests students, faculty, and staff monthly. USC, with 27,000 students and 14,00 staff, had 40 positive tests the week ending Oct. 2.

State law has prohibited mandatory vaccination policies. All four schools “highly encourage” vaccinations and have more stringent policies for unvaccinated campus community members who test positive or come in contact with the virus than for those who are vaccinated. CofC instituted random drawings with gifts of $1,000 and up for students and employees who upload their vaccination information. Unvaccinated individuals are not eligible.

That is the practical tightrope many institutions are walking in the context of a philosophical debate pitting personal liberty against social good. The libertarian-utilitarian tension, cogently described in the 19th century by John Stuart Mill, pits our personal liberty to live as we like against other people’s personal liberty or even the greater good of the community.

Personal Liberty and Vaccinations

In a nutshell, Mill believed, and the U.S. Supreme Court validated in a 1904 case, that, as the saying goes, one person’s right to swing their arms ends at the tip of the next person’s nose. “There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good,” the Court wrote. “On any other basis, organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy.”

From a philosophical standpoint, the formula for weighing the case comes down to one person’s liberty against another’s, says Dr. Larry Krasnoff, chair of the philosophy department at College of Charleston.

“If you come unvaccinated or unmasked to a public event, you are using your liberty to come to that event. But the other people are also using their liberty to come to the event, and if you get them or their relatives sick, then they won’t be able to come to events like this any longer. You are using your liberty in a way that thwarts the liberty of others. So, for the sake of liberty, the community gets to make rules to prevent that,” he said.

He likens the philosophical arguments to the debate over bans on smoking in public places. “It’s your personal choice whether to smoke. But it’s also others’ personal choice not to smoke. If you can smoke in a public place, then others are going to be inhaling your smoke, which means they are smoking now, even though they might well have chosen not to. So the right way to protect the liberty of everyone to smoke or not to smoke is to ban smoking in public places. Pretty much everyone agrees on that now.”

Others might frame the debate a little differently, as the tension between personal liberty and the common good. That framework leads to the same conclusion.

So, for example, even a communitarian would agree that bans against smoking in one’s own home, though likely beneficial to society as a whole, is too great an infringement on individual liberty to live as we like. Conversely, even libertarians agree that the people do not have the personal liberty to kill others indiscriminately, or even to drive their cars through red lights. In the case of murder, that is a greater infringement on others’ liberties and in both cases, civil society could not exist without rules – constrictions on personal liberty.

Freedom from vaccination and masks, not fundamental rights

Dr. Krasnoff notes, as many non-philosophers do, that people’s lives are at stake in the COVID discussion.

“The right to life is what American law considers a fundamental right, while the right not to wear a mask or not be vaccinated is not a fundamental right. There is really no serious debate about whether the government can restrict non-fundamental liberties to protect public health, and therefore individual life. That’s an easy call, and American courts have been consistent about that for a long time. Public smoking bans did inspire a similar debate, so that is a kind of precedent. But no court ever struck down a public smoking ban as fundamentally unconstitutional or illegitimate. And ultimately, public smoking bans proved popular. Vaccine and mask mandates are popular, too,” he said.

It is worth noting that the very existence of the more transmissible Delta variant is directly the result of the nation’s inability to reach herd immunity through vaccination. That is, those who refused to get vaccinated are responsible for COVID’s continued intrusion into our lives.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The real risks of COVID

At the same time, it is important not to overstate the risks. While nearly three-quarters of a million Americans have died of COVID, most were old and ill. Forty percent of pre-Delta variant deaths occurred in nursing homes. Vaccinated people remain at low risk, even if around others who refuse to wear masks. Getting into an automobile is vastly more dangerous than talking to a stranger indoors without a mask.

Let’s consider mask mandates in schools. Deaths and serious illness among children have been rare; indeed, children are more likely to die of drowning, vehicle accidents, homicide, cancer, cardiovascular disease, the flu, suicide, and suffocation than of COVID. And while the Delta variant’s lethality has been much more egalitarian than the original version, children under 18 remain at extremely low risk. Considering the impact on teachers and staff, they can protect themselves by getting vaccinated.

Nonetheless, many school districts mandate mask-wearing. It would seem to be a case of a low level of infringement on personal liberty (wearing a mask to protect others) in order to protect a low level of someone else’s liberty (the very low likelihood of them getting seriously ill.) Perhaps it’s not worth all the sturm und drang it has engendered.

With the larger issues of mandating adults to get vaccinated and protect others by wearing masks at indoor public gatherings, Krasnoff says the philosophical principles are clear. “We can certainly talk about which liberties are harder to give up for the sake of other liberties and come to different conclusions. But in this case, it’s not a hard call to balance either of these against your ‘liberty’ to infect and kill others.”

Mill and the COVID debate

What would Mill himself make of today’s debate? Krasnoff says there is no doubt he would side with efforts to vaccinate and mask the population. “He certainly would be comfortable with trade-offs that lead to better overall outcomes,” he said. “Inconveniencing people with masks and vaccines to prevent hospitalizations and deaths certainly looks like one of those.”

Read more on COVID and its impact in our world!