Leon County in my adopted state of Florida has mandated the wearing of face coverings in indoor, public spaces. There are numerous exceptions to the requirement, such as while exercising (at a distance) and for health reasons. Those who violate the ordinance face an initial $50 fine which increases to $125 and then up to $250. As would be expected, this ordinance has been met with some resistance. For example, there have been posts on social media encouraging businesses to post signs that encourage people to dishonestly use the health exception to avoid wearing masks. As would also be expected, this has been labeled as tyranny by some. This provides an excellent context in which to discuss tyranny and liberty.
One obvious challenge in discussing whether imposing a mask requirement is tyrannical is agreeing on a serious definition of “tyranny” that is more than “something I don’t like.” Since American political philosophy is based heavily on John Locke, he is my go-to for defining the term.
Locke takes tyranny to be the “exercise of power beyond right.” For him, the right use of power is for the good of the citizens and a leader’s use of power for “his own private separate advantage” is exercising that power “beyond right.” Locke also presents some other key point about tyranny, noting that it occurs when “the governor, however entitled:
- Makes his will and not the law the rule
- Does not direct his commands and actions to the preservation of the properties of his people.
- Directs them to the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.”
Does the ordinance, and similar impositions, meet the definition? On the face of it, it does not. After all, the aim of the ordinance seems to be for the good of the citizens: it is aimed at reducing the chances that people will get infected. It is also aimed at allowing businesses and other public places to operate. That is, it is aimed at the preservation of the properties of the people. There is no evidence that those in office are using the ordinance for their “own private separate advantage” or trying to satisfy some “irregular passion.”
It could be argued that while the objectives of the ordinance are not tyrannical, the ordinance involves exercising power “beyond right.” That is, the ordinance oversteps the legitimate limits of the power of the governing body. Since I am not a lawyer, I will let the legal aspect of this matter be addressed by those who are experts in this field. I will focus on the moral aspect: do authorities have the moral right to impose a mask requirement on the people?
While people tend to answer such questions in terms of their likes and dislikes, I will follow J.S. Mill and make use of principles that I consistently apply in cases of liberty versus safety. As in all such cases, my first area of inquiry is into the effectiveness of the efforts at safety. After all, if we are giving up liberty to gain nothing, this would be both foolish and wrong.
While there is some debate over the effectiveness of masks, the consensus of experts is that they do help prevent the spread of the virus. There is also the intuitively plausible argument that face coverings will reduce the spread of the virus because they help reduce the volume and distance of expulsions as well as helping block some of what is incoming when you breathe. Wearing a mask is not without its costs. Aside from the possible cost of buying or making masks, they are uncomfortable to wear, they interfere with conversations, and it is hard to look good in a mask. While breathing does require a tiny bit more effort, this is generally not a significant factor for most people. Those with pre-existing conditions impacting their breathing are more likely to be severely impacted by the virus—but they will need to rationally weigh the relative risks. Anecdotally, I do not find the masks problematic—but I used to run wearing a face mask during the Maine winters so perhaps I mastered mask breathing long ago.
Weighing the effectiveness of the masks against the harms, they seem to have a clear safety advantage: by enduring some minor discomfort for short periods of time you can reduce your risk of being infected with a potentially lethal disease. You also reduce the risk of infecting others if you are already infected. The second issue to address is whether the gain in safety warrants the imposition on liberty. After all, some people do not want to wear masks and it is an imposition to require this under the threat of punishment. A good guide to liberty is the principle of harm presented by J.S. Mill.
Mill contends that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” I will rely on Mill’s arguments for his principle but certainly agree that it can be criticized, and alternative principles can be advanced.
During the discussion of his principle Mill argues that we (collectively) have no right to infringe on a person’s liberty because doing so would be good for them or even to prevent them from harming themselves. As long as their actions impact only themselves, their liberty is absolute. Applying this to the masks, if they only served to protect a person from infection, then Mill’s principle would forbid the imposition of masks: people have a liberty of self-harm. If this were the case, I would agree with those who see mask impositions as tyranny: they have the moral right to put themselves at risk if doing so does not harm others. As they say, their body, their choice. To use an analogy, If I want to go shooting without any eye protection (and I have medical insurance), I have the right to be stupid and risk losing an eye. But the masks do more than protect the wearer—they also protect other people. If I go out without a mask and I am unaware I am infected, I am putting other people in greater danger—I am potentially harming them. As such, it is no longer just my business—it is their business as well.
Going back to the gun analogy, I do not have a right to fire my gun around the range whenever and wherever I want—doing so puts other people at risk of injury and death and I can be rightfully prevented from doing so. To use another analogy, while I think a person has the moral right to turn off their airbag in their car and thus face a greater risk of injury or death, they do not have the right to drive without brakes—they are now putting everyone at risk.
The obvious conclusion is that the imposition of masks is not tyranny. In fact, it is an excellent example of how the state should exercise its power: for the protection of the citizens on the basis of the best available evidence.