What should we think of people who flatly refuse to wear masks in any situation? Some pundits give an unequivocal answer: “Failure to wear a mask [is] an incredibly selfish act that puts other people’s lives at risk.” “Being against masks is a selfish personal choice that impacts others.” One even describes skeptical attitudes about masks (including President Trump’s) as a sign of a broader “cult of selfishness.”
Is stubbornly refusing to wear a mask really “selfish”? That depends on what you mean by the term.
The conventional view is that selfishness means doing whatever you feel like, regardless of its effects on others. By that standard, people would be considered selfish if they don’t want to wear a mask because it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient, even though it can save the lives of other valued people.
But if selfishness also means the dedicated pursuit of one’s self-interest, how does a disregard for others help in this pursuit? It doesn’t.
There is also the obvious short-term benefit of the social effect of good will. I want other people to wear masks so that I won’t get infected. One way to signal this to them is by wearing a mask myself as a gesture of respect. It communicates “I’ll protect you if you’ll protect me.” Gestures of respect generally open our lives to the good things others offer. As someone concerned with his self-interest, this is the kind of “virtue signaling” I’m happy to do.
If you don’t care about how others affect your own interests, do you really care about your self-interest? The broader point is that pursuing self-interest isn’t just doing whatever you feel like. I never feel like wearing a mask: they are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and ugly. But not liking them doesn’t mean they’re not good for me. I almost always feel like eating donuts, but I know that wouldn’t be good for my health. By the same token, inconvenient masks may still be good for my health.1 There’s also some evidence that those wearing a mask who still get infected are more likely only to have asymptomatic cases that induce immunity (because masks reduce the viral load).2
This latest evidence is far from conclusive. But there is very conclusive evidence that Covid is very dangerous (with a significantly higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu).3 So when you compare the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask to the chance of guarding against the (admittedly unlikely) prospect of a terrible outcome, isn’t it a rational bet to wear a mask at least in the riskiest situations — like a form of insurance?
There’s no justification for government mandates about masks: private institutions should be the ones to decide about the rules for entering their premises, which we are then free to enter or not. A government dedicated to the protection of individual rights should play a role in combatting the pandemic by testing, tracing, and isolating infected people (there should be no mandatory lockdowns). But the reason to leave individuals free to choose is to allow them to think rationally about what choice to make.
There are some who wear masks in situations where there is no clear risk to protect against, like when they are outside exercising all by themselves, or even on Zoom calls. If they do this only because they think it’s expected of them, this is the flip side of the same error as the people who refuse to ever wear masks simply because they want to defy other people. Neither of them is thinking rationally about their own interests, independently of what others expect.
Ayn Rand, who famously defended “the virtue of selfishness,” had this to say about the importance of thinking rationally: “Reason is the most selfish human faculty: . . . its product — truth — makes [one] inflexible, intransigent, impervious to the power of any pack or any ruler.”
This is why Rand rejected the common view that being selfish means doing whatever you feel like regardless of its effects on others. What achieving your own selfish interests fundamentally requires is love for the truth.
Not everyone cares about the truth, or about their own best interests. If only there were a mask we could wear to protect ourselves from all of the other ways their destructive behavior affects our lives.
A version of this article was originally published by the Southern California News Group.
- Derek Chu et al., “Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” The Lancet, 395 (June 27, 2020): 1973–87.
- Monica Gandhi, et al., “Masks Do More Than Protect Others During COVID-19: Reducing the Inoculum of SARS-CoV-2 to Protect the Wearer,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35 (July 31, 2020): 3063-66.
- “Listicle of ‘facts’ about COVID-19 contains numerous inaccurate and misleading claims,” HealthFeedback.org, August 26, 2020.