Does Mandatory Mask-Wearing Restrict Individual Freedom?
Among the debates that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has sparked, one that has inflamed public opinion is whether policies implemented to slow down the Covid-19 outbreak restrict people’s freedom, as witnessed by protests against lockdown measures in the US and in European cities such as Berlin and London. The aim of this article is to analyse the effects on freedom of one such policy: mandatory mask-wearing. More specifically, the article aspires to show that there is no freedom-based objection to mandatory mask-wearing, and that there is even a freedom-based argument in favour of it.
Obligations to wear masks have sometimes been met with great support. For example, Joe Biden signed an executive order to mandate mask-wearing on Federal property on his first day as President of the United States, and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte similarly underscored the importance of mandatory mask-wearing. But mask-wearing has also been met with great scepticism, if not downright opposition. Donald J. Trump has repeatedly voiced scepticism about the efficacy of mask-wearing, and only started wearing masks in public in the summer of 2020. Former Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has taken a sceptical stance as well. In addition to political leaders, protesters in different parts of the world, from Calgary to Berlin, have voiced their opposition to the obligation of wearing masks.
One worry that underpins the scepticism about mandatory mask-wearing is that the mandate infringes on people’s freedom. Even a respected intellectual such as Russ Roberts, who repeatedly acknowledged the efficacy of masks and encouraged their use, is reluctant to endorse a mandate, for reasons of freedom (his position on the efficacy of masks and mandatory mask-wearing can be inferred from this and this podcast)
Infringements on freedom can be alarming. Whether and to what degree they are depends on a variety of factors, such as the extent to which freedom is cut back, and whether freedom reduction is outweighed by other values (like equality or well-being). However, most would agree that individual freedom should not be curtailed in democratic societies unless there are weighty moral reasons for doing so (Sen, 1970).
If mandatory mask-wearing indeed infringes on our freedom, it is important to ask whether the infringement is justified, and what could plausibly justify it. I believe, however, that the reasoning process can be cut at the first stage: compulsory mask-wearing restricts a person’s specific freedom to (not) wear masks, but it is not a restriction of a person’s overall freedom (in fact, it increases overall freedom). And overall freedom is the freedom that matters morally (since, as I will explain below, it subsumes all the specific freedoms that one can enjoy).
[C]ompulsory mask-wearing restricts a person’s specific freedom to (not) wear masks, but it is not a restriction of a person’s overall freedom (in fact, it increases overall freedom).
Before explaining why a freedom-based argument against mandatory mask-wearing does not hold water, let me first elucidate what I mean by a person’s specific and overall freedom, and how the two concepts relate to each other.
My freedom to do something indicates my freedom to "perform a specific action". It concerns, for instance, my specific freedom to go for a walk, or to sip an espresso. My overall freedom is the "total" freedom I enjoy. It is a function of the specific freedoms available to me.
To know how free I am overall, I need to know how many specific freedoms I have, how valuable each of them is, and how they connect with each other. In fact, having one more specific freedom to do something does not always increase our overall freedom. It might make us less free overall. How?
Let me give an example to illustrate the relationship between specific freedoms and overall freedom. Imagine three countries, "Anarchy Utopia", “Extreme Free Speech”, and "Polka-dot Dotty".
In Anarchy Utopia, everyone has the specific freedom to kill gratuitously. As citizens, people in Anarchy Utopia are unfree to seek legal assistance if someone threatens to kill them (it is legal!). As consumers, they are unfree to complain about service providers, since the latter can retaliate by killing the complainer overnight. As employees/service providers, they are unfree to complain about their bosses or clients – better biting the bullet than a bullet in their stomach. And so on.
Obtaining the specific freedom to kill gratuitously deprives citizens of a number of other specific freedoms (seeking legal assistance when threatened, filing a complaint, and so on) that they would otherwise enjoy. These otherwise available specific freedoms are much more valuable than the freedom to kill gratuitously (which, plausibly, has no value). Hence, the availability of the specific freedom to kill gratuitously makes people less free overall.
To know how free I am overall, I need to know how many specific freedoms I have, how valuable each of them is, and how they connect with each other.
Extreme Free Speech grants individuals unrestricted freedom of speech. This means that people are free to share fake news, voice discriminatory comments, and so on, which deprives them of other specific freedoms, such as the freedom to access reliable information. However, in contrast to what I said about the freedom to kill gratuitously in Anarchy Utopia, it is not straightforward that having the unrestricted freedom to speak also makes people less free overall. Whether it does depends on how valuable freedom of speech is compared to the freedoms that citizens loose as a result. Many readers would probably agree that the aggregated value of the specific freedoms lost as a consequence of the availability of unrestricted freedom of speech outweighs the value of the latter, thereby decreasing people’s overall freedom. They would also contend, however, that, in democratic countries, freedom of speech should be largely (though not completely) unrestricted, even if it makes other specific freedoms unavailable. This is because freedom of speech is valuable, and its value may trump even the aggregated value of the freedoms that it makes unavailable. If this is true, then there are cases in which having (largely unrestricted) freedom of speech makes one freer overall, even if it curtails some otherwise available freedoms.
Lastly, imagine Polka-dot Dotty, which is equal in every respect to a well-functioning liberal democracy, except for one detail: by law, citizens must get invisible polka-dot tattoos all over their bodies. The tattoo is innocuous. Yet, it seems that the citizens’ obligation to get the tattoo, or, to put it differently, their lacking the specific freedom to not have invisible polka-dots all over their body, decreases their overall freedom. Citizens get deprived of one specific freedom (not getting the tattoo) with no other freedoms in return.
The example of the three imaginary countries supports my claim above, that the addition of a specific freedom does not always enhance one’s overall freedom. Specific freedoms interact with each other: adding (or subtracting) a specific freedom to someone’s set of freedoms can increase or decrease overall freedom depending on how the addition (or substraction) of that freedom affects the other specific freedoms available to the person. It increases the person’s overall freedom if (i) it leaves the other specific freedoms available to her unaltered or (ii) reduces some of the specific freedoms available to her but is so valuable that it outweighs their loss. It decreases a person’s overall freedom if it reduces the specific freedoms open to her without “compensating” for their loss.
Having elucidated the concepts of specific and overall freedom as well as the relationship between those concepts, I now return to the issue of mandatory mask-wearing. Anti-maskers are right when they say that the obligation to wear masks infringes on our freedom: it infringes on our specific freedom to decide for ourselves whether to wear a mask. Arguably, anti-maskers contend that this restriction of their specific freedom to (not) wear masks also restricts their overall freedom. Since protests against mandatory mask-wearing in the name of freedom are not spelled out in a philosophical fashion, this is not an explicit position, but it is a plausible “translation” in the language of philosophy. If this translation holds, there are two main readings of this position. Under the first, anti-maskers assume that the restriction of a person’s specific freedom necessarily coincides with a restriction of her overall freedom. This first position can be ruled out straight away as untenable. I argued above that specific and overall freedom are distinct concepts, and the lack (addition) of a specific freedom need not coincide with a decrease (increase) in overall freedom. There is, however, a second reading of anti-maskers’ position, which is that the infringement on a person’s specific freedom to (not) wear a mask incidentally leads to a decrease in her overall freedom. This second position has more bite. However, it does not stand up to scrutiny either.
[T]he freedom to (not) wear a mask makes less readily accessible a number of specific freedoms, such as the freedom to access an ICU bed if needed, to access offline education, to socialise, to get on a plane or a train, or to go to the gym.
Does the lack of freedom to (not) wear masks resemble (1) the lack of freedom to kill gratuitously (freedom that, if available, reduces the other freedoms a person otherwise has, thereby decreasing overall freedom), (2) the lack of freedom to (not) get a polka-dot tattoo (freedom that, if available, leaves the other freedoms available to a person unaltered, thereby increasing overall freedom), or (3) the lack of (largely unrestricted) freedom to speak (freedom that, if available, reduces the other freedoms available to a person, but is so valuable that it outweighs the loss of the other freedoms otherwise available, thereby possibly increasing overall freedom)? If anti-maskers want to substantiate the claim that the lack of the specific freedom to (not) wear masks makes a person less free overall, then they must argue that the freedom to (not) wear masks resembles either (2) or (3).
The first analogy – between the freedom to (not) get a polka-dot tattoo and the freedom to (not) wear a mask – is untenable. While the availability of the freedom to (not) get a tattoo leaves other freedoms unaltered, this is not the case for the freedom to (not) wear a mask. Masks are effective in preventing the spread of the virus (as preliminary evidence – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - seems to show), so a person’s freedom to (not) wear a mask restricts the other specific freedoms available to her. Not wearing masks helps spread the virus, with an increase in new infections and stricter lockdown measures as a result. In this way, the freedom to (not) wear a mask makes less readily accessible a number of specific freedoms, such as the freedom to access an ICU bed if needed, to access offline education, to socialise, to get on a plane or a train, or to go to the gym. While it is true that wearing masks is not sufficient to make all of these freedoms available, it helps make some available that would otherwise not be (e.g. wearing masks allows planes to fly at their full capacity, thereby granting more people the specific freedom to fly). Mask-wearing also makes certain specific freedoms more readily available than they would have been otherwise. It slows down the spread of the virus, thereby granting people the specific freedom to move or gather for longer periods of time.
What about the second analogy? Anti-maskers may as well concede that the freedom to (not) wear masks curtails other freedoms, but they could still claim that it is a freedom so valuable that the goodness of its availability outweighs the loss of the freedoms that it restricts. What could make this freedom so valuable? Its value might be located either in the value of not wearing a mask itself, or in the value of the additional specific freedoms it opens up. If one adopts this latter understanding, it seems that the freedom to (not) wear a mask is not valuable. It does open up some freedoms (e.g. the freedom to smile, eat, or kiss one’s partner in public places), but restricts many more (see above). Those that it restricts seem far more valuable than the ones it makes available. The option left to anti-maskers is that specific freedom is valuable because not wearing a mask is valuable. Let’s assume it is: it is a way to represent one’s political stance. The important question is whether this value is outweighed by the value of the freedoms that (not) wearing a mask makes more readily available. It is hard to deny that it is. The specific freedoms that become more readily available as a result of infringing on the freedom of (not) wearing a mask are at least as valuable as the latter (and, plausibly, more valuable).
Anti-maskers should concede defeat. Lacking the freedom to (not) wear a mask seems analogous to lacking the freedom to kill gratuitously. By being deprived of this specific freedom, we do not become less free overall. In fact, lacking the freedom to (not) wear a mask makes us freer overall: it makes other, more valuable freedoms available to us. So, if we really care about freedom, then the obligation to wear masks should come as welcome news. It makes all of us a bit freer.
 Whether one’s overall freedom can be fully reduced to the specific freedoms one has available is debated (see, e.g., Carter (1995) and Kymlicka (2002)). My argument does not hinge on this issue.
Carter, I. (1995). "The Independent Value of Freedom". Ethics, 105 (4), 819-845.
Kymlicka, W. (2002). Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. (1970). "The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal". Journal of Political Economy, 78 (1), 152-157.
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