Must I Mask?

Is wearing a mask a moral obligation or a mark of conformism?

By Alexandra & Uriel

To Mask, or not to Mask, That is the Question!


A long walk home is about to reach its end, 2am in front of an empty crosswalk; no living soul, nor vehicle, on the horizon. But the walk sign is red - do you stop?

Sunset, you walk maskless in the park, few people around, one of them, maskless too, approaches you. You’re now close enough to look at each other - do you put your mask on?

I don’t, or at least haven’t, in both cases, which somehow I deem comparable. Am I a terrible person? Do I betray my fellow humans - and my fellow liberals?

The walk sign is red, at night, no vehicle in sight, do you stop?


It does seem selfish. Putting on a mask is neither a great burden nor particularly onerous considering how potentially severe the outcome may be. What ethical value, or principle, or aspect of individualism does mask-wearing so severely undermine, and how is putting the safety of others at risk, even a relatively low risk, justifiable? I see no strong principle here that outweighs putting on a mask for five minutes, or even half an hour.


It’s mighty onerous, mentally, for me! Why else would we have this conversation? Well, we can get into that later. For now, I guess you meant why I find it “particularly onerous” physically. And I do, somewhat. I don’t like how the mask feels, and I have tried quite a few. It’s harder to breathe, especially if I’m on a long walk, which, for me, is essential. Almost all the best ideas I’ve had came to me while walking - and comfortably breathing! Which obviously explains why I’m so clueless in this post. So ok, I admit, in the grand scheme of things, putting on a mask is a marginal discomfort. But so is carrying your shopping bags all the way home, instead of bringing them by car, causing environmental damage. Should I stop driving to the supermarket?


From that perspective, yes, ideally you probably should! However, in the case of climate change it’s clear we need a systemic shift, and that individual choices alone aren’t sufficient to stop it. In the context of Covid, the possibility of infecting another person is much more immediate. Cases like superspreader events. It’s not something that is evenly distributed or necessarily easy to predict.

Admittedly, when one is outside and at a distance, the risk factor is less clear, and likely less pressing. On a personal note, I also find wearing masks quite uncomfortable (and the glasses-fogging effect is terrible). Still, the relatively minor discomfort of the mask pales in comparison to the discomfort of actually falling ill, or the horrible sensation of infecting someone else. (This is my polite native-Seattleite manner of putting it; as the exasperated governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy said, "You know what's really uncomfortable and annoying? When you die.”)

the relatively minor discomfort of the mask pales in comparison to the discomfort of actually falling ill, or the horrible sensation of infecting someone else


The distinction between “a systemic shift” and individual choices” with “immediate” effects is interesting. I agree it’s harder to intuitively link one’s action to climate change, the micro-macro gap is simply too wide, probably wider than the micro-microbe gap (which isn’t negligible too, after all we don’t really see the virus, and more easily behold climate change). Still, this is more technicality than morality - in both cases, one affects the wellbeing of others.

The balance you mention between the two discomforts - or rather discomfort for one, risk for another - is, I think, at the heart of it. If risk to others trump all selfish comfort considerations, why drive cars at all? After all, every time you do, you put other peoples’ lives at risk. Still, people haven’t stopped driving, including the many who would put on masks in open spaces with very little interaction with people, or even when no one’s around. This, for me, is disconcerting, much more than the physical discomfort of wearing the mask. But I agree, dying can be quite annoying - afterlife even more so!


Fair enough. Individual risk calculation is bound to vary some (of course, it doesn’t help that most of us aren’t very good at understanding statistics…..though I forget what percentage of people this is true of). For example, I’ve read of safety experts who believe that the daily risk of driving a car is not worth it, and prefer to take the bus instead. That approach suits me, but it’s not for everyone. As with the example of driving and climate change, society is currently configured around automobiles, and it’s difficult to completely divest from cars.

However, wearing a mask doesn’t interfere with carrying out most of one’s daily activities and necessities, like going to work, buying groceries, or, these days, even going to the dentist with masks and face-shields! Here, the mask functions as a reasonably good form of social harm reduction - even simple cloth masks have proven to be considerably more effective than going about bare-faced and fancy-free.

It seems there is something more personally disconcerting to you about people walking at a distance from others or wearing masks while riding bicycles, fishing, or engaging in some other kind of already distant solitary activity. What’s at stake seems as much metaphysical as physical. What kind of circumstances - or are there any? - would compel you to embrace such principles of social distancing (or physical distancing, as some prefer to say)? Do you object to such precautions on principle - because they hinder intimacy, or transparency, or personal expression - and, if so, what kind of risks would counterbalance those concerns of yours?

The mask functions as a reasonably good form of social harm reduction


I don’t know if what “society is currently configured around” is a good moral argument. Society was once configured around slavery. Would that mean - at the time - that one should have simply accepted that? I guess not. And so, are we left with weighing personal discomfort (bad!) against risk of causing “discomfort” to others (evil!)? How are we to judge, publicly, which is “the lesser evil”? After all, both are largely subjective. Suppose that wearing a mask causes me unbelievable agony, physical and mental - should I then stand on a sound moral ground to refuse putting it on? Worse: living, almost innately and nearly constantly, involves both discomfort and risk to others. Everyday I find some discomfort in my life, and by interacting, however slightly, with other people I’m somehow putting them at risk - potentially causing them discomfort, or even worse. Should I then kill myself?


“Society is currently configured around,” is a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one….

A prescriptive one, for example, might be: Oy vey, man, enough with the drama. Just put the frickin’ mask on.

To be continued...