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Bioethics Forum Essay

Masks, Values, and a Lesson for Democracy?

As mask mandates are rolled back and friends and neighbors debate the risks and benefits of masks and the merits or permissibility of mandating their use, we can catch a glimpse of the considerable extent to which values depend heavily on something other than pure reason. It’s a bit disappointing, perhaps. But it might be a useful lesson for democracy.

If it’s disappointing, that’s because the language we use when talking about values often suggests that they rest fundamentally on reason. Conversations about masks and mask mandates really bring that out. In my circle, people usually describe their own view as though it’s the only view possible for somebody who’s thinking right. One good friend has told me several times that not wearing masks at work is “totally bonkers.” Others think it is insane to insist on them.

Likewise with social distancing. A friend recently shared that it is simply not safe to relax social distancing requirements. Since March 2020, he and his wife, neither of whom have any known risk factors for Covid, had not been into anyone’s home, had anyone in their home, or gone to any bar or restaurant, and they did not foresee a time when any of those things would be possible. Another friend argues that the seclusion forced by Covid is emotionally unsustainable and that anyone with a clear-eyed understanding of the risks and benefits would start going to parties and hugging people again.

Just what is the role of reason in these different views? It’s certainly one part of the picture. Evidence about the likelihood of serious illness, death, transmission, the efficacy of vaccination, the consequences of measures to tamp down transmission, the likelihood that Covid will eventually go away or the inevitability of eventually having to learn to live with it are all important. Maybe my extreme social distancing friend is simply overestimating the likelihood that he’ll come down with a serious case of Covid, in which case maybe walking through the evidence with him could win me a dinner at his home. He’s very liberal, and liberals have tended to overestimate the risks (while conservatives underestimate them). Or maybe (though his language doesn’t suggest it) he’s acting out of desire to flatten the curve out of concern about the risks to other people, and a conversation with him could convince me to go into deeper seclusion.

My guess, though, is that he’s just more fearful of Covid than I am. How people feel about risk-taking varies, and they feel about different risks varies. There’s probably somebody out there who’s into base jumping but afraid of Covid. Researchers of risk perception have documented a number of ways in which people’s views about an outcome can seem to depend on features that may seem irrelevant to somebody else. People tend to dislike novel and mysterious risks more than familiar ones. They also tend to dislike lack of control, and to dislike uncertainty. Some risks are more highly associated with what researchers of risk perception call “dread,” meaning basically that the risk is creepy and tends to scare the bejesus out of people. Getting ripped apart by the Alien on board a spaceship is worse than getting crushed in a car accident on the way to work. Covid has all these things, of course—newness, unknownness, uncontrollability, uncertainty, dread.

What goes into the other side of the scales is also relevant. How we feel about being with friends, visiting family, traveling, and just maintaining the normal rhythms of life probably affects how we feel about the risks of Covid and the need for masks. Indeed, a vast swirl of psychological and social circumstances shapes our views. What we come to care about, our sense of our own identity and how we are related to the rest of the world, even how we perceive the world and what we think the world is, all depend not only on our own faculties but also on our upbringing, the conversations we’re part of, what we’re watching and listening to, and much else.

This is one aspect of what’s called a sociological imagination—the ability to understand how social circumstances shape one’s life and decisions. A sociological imagination lets us see that our education, job choices, and health could have been different than they are; I could have been a coal miner instead of an academic who worries about climate change. I would also, in that life, have different values. If I were a coal miner, growing up and living in a coal mining community, I would probably be contemptuous of the me who is an academic worrying about climate change. I might even think I am totally bonkers.

Recognizing that fact—and I take it to be an almost undeniable fact—doesn’t make me doubt the values I have, but it does makes me hold them a little differently. It gives me a sense of the contingency and constructedness of values, and a recognition that people who disagree with me morally are not necessarily totally bonkers.

Thinking this way—applying a sociological imagination to our values—involves a sort of mental gymnastics. Given that our values are central to our sense of our identity, thinking about having different values is a little like imagining existing in more than three dimensions. And we have ever less opportunity even to try to understand it because we interact ever less with people who have different values. People with diverging values are increasingly segregated, both geographically and culturally: they live in different neighborhoods, get their news and opinions from different sources, go to different restaurants, even watch different television shows.

But confronting and thinking about different perspectives is incredibly important for a liberal democracy. The core idea in a liberal democracy, after all, is that people with different values together contribute toward the governance of a shared country. A legitimate democratic government is one whose values, as enacted in law, are accepted or authorized by the people; a liberal state is one that encompasses or tolerates diverging moral views. Hence legitimacy in a liberal democracy is in constant tension with individual moralities—grounded in them yet also moving beyond them.

In the ideal world, arguably, there would have been a brief but strictly followed set of measures—lockdowns, distancing, masks—that vanquished the virus early on. In the real world, given our different values as well as the weirdnesses of our time—such as the overwhelming distrust of experts and political leaders and the difficulty of ensuring that good information wins out over bad in the media—the ideal world was probably a pipe dream as soon as one of the first hot spots of cases appeared in New Rochelle, N.Y., in spring of 2020. That’s the painful political reality of life in the United States today. The challenge, then, is both to deal with Covid over the long haul and to figure out how to have political conversations across our social and value divisions.

For me, that’s a silver lining in our wildly different views about masks. Normally, the people we see as having totally bonkers values are remote from us. They are in other communities or other parts of the internet. Now, if my friends and neighbors are any indication, we encounter wildly different views among people who are quite close to us, with whom we are used to being in agreement. Maybe, as that happens, it gives us a chance to work on our sociological imagination a little. And maybe that will help us develop a bit more tolerance toward others’ views and a capacity to reflect more critically on our own.

Gregory E. Kaebnick, PhD, (@KaebnickG) is a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report.

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  1. Thank you! These thoughts are both true and helpful. In a polarized world, we need to make efforts to communicate and try to understand others whose worldview assumptions differ radically from ours. My neighbor on one side posts large banners with conservative political messages that disturb the neighbor on the other side. I talk to both and can easily find topics on which we agree. I too have thought about the “me” that would exist if I had been born in different circumstances or taken a different path. As I’ve taught medical literature evaluation for years, I’ve been thinking about bias and its sources, some quite subtle. The extent to which I can alter my point of view by even brief travel surprised me several years ago, when I was in Vienna during a severe earthquake in northern Italy. Geographical proximity to the event increased my emotional reaction. Add to that the factors noted above, and you have the recipe for more discord.
    Making the effort to understand those who disagree with us is important. Often, their reactions are logical given their starting assumptions. The person that drives a car every day but is very afraid of flying may have lost someone close to them in a plane crash, despite the much lower relative risk.
    In a world where it is increasingly difficult to verify one’s input information, the resulting arguments are inevitable. Are the government scientists that issue mask mandates motivated by desire to control infection, or are they simply working for politicians that want to control us forever? I believe they are following the science and processing the uncertainties due to evidence gaps that always plague medical guideline authors, but I have no way of objectively verifying that. Neither does the person that thinks it’s politically driven.
    Like Dr. Kaebnick, I can explain some behavior by invoking principles of behavioral economics: risk aversion, overestimating small probabilities, etc. The average person is not aware of these factors. We badly need a return to true tolerance. If we are to live together peacefully, this is essential.

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