Bioethics Forum Essay
Public Reason, Public Schools, and Mask Mandates
As a philosopher, I am committed to the importance of supporting beliefs with good arguments.
As a parent of an 11-year-old who is not yet eligible for a Covid vaccine, I am concerned about the lack of good arguments being offered by those resisting Covid protocols and social mitigation efforts.
As a philosopher who is a parent, facilitating awareness of the importance of public reason and the dangers of faulty reasoning is part of how I care for my son.
In South Carolina, where I live, we are not just ignoring good arguments, but actually legislating on the basis of bad ones. The budget rule, Proviso 1.108, threatens the funding of schools that require masks. This stands in direct violation of the recommendations of not only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but also the state’s own Department of Health and Environmental Control. Those calling for the repeal of this budget rule range from the American Civil Liberties Union to the South Carolina Parent Teachers Association. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether South Carolina and four other states that prohibit mask mandates in schools are violating the rights of children with disabilities or compromised immune systems to have equal access to public education.
It is heartbreaking that my son goes to a school where requiring masks is prohibited. He sits in science classes and learns about the importance of experimental data from unmasked teachers whose actions contradict their lessons. His school day is marked by fear of catching the virus from people who refuse to follow the evidence and fear of reprimand if he speaks up about it. This is not only a tragedy of the commons, but also a failure to appreciate the importance of public reason. We are equivocating between the “rights” of parents to willfully refuse to do what the data says is best for children and the rights of parents to try to keep their kids alive. Similarly, we are ignoring the inconsistency of encouraging STEM opportunities while rejecting scientific expertise.
Bans on mask mandates and the public acquiescence to them are based on arguments that depend on fallacies in reasoning. Let’s look at two of the most common arguments that are being offered.
The first argument is that requiring masks restricts freedom because wearing masks is a personal choice. But this argument ignores that the schools are public spaces marked throughout by restrictions on some freedoms in the name of protecting the more basic liberties guaranteed to everyone. Parents do not have the freedom to just come and go at the school: they have to check in at the office to visit, show ID to pick up children, provide immunization records to enroll their children, and ensure their children adhere to dress codes. Schools do not allow smoking; they ban weapons. Rather than restricting liberty, such measures provide the conditions for its possibility. What you believe to be true is a private matter, but if you act on those beliefs in public spaces in ways that threaten the lives of others, then it is no longer a personal choice, but a matter of public concern.
Importantly, this point about freedom should not be a political matter. Small government conservatives and socially progressive democrats agree that unrestricted freedom undermines the idea of the social contract. They are unified that there must be a balance between commitments to freedom and equality. The political disagreement lies in exactly how that balance is best achieved. To suggest, as so many do, that masks are matters of personal choice is correct only if that choice has no bearing on the lives and liberties of others. But since viruses do not respect personal liberties, not wearing a mask in a public space violates the equality of the freedoms of all within that space.
The second argument is specific to school boards and local leaders who claim that they are not able to require masks because of state laws. This argument assumes that the contingent legislation yields actual necessity. It does not. Part of the public charge to leaders is to stand against injustice—even when perpetrated by those in power. Yes, standing in this way will come at some cost, but people cannot excuse immoral behavior by claiming that they are simply following orders. Indeed, I am sure that we all wish many leaders and school boards in our history had found the fortitude to stand against the provisos that supported segregation.
Flourishing societies depend on courageous leaders like Baron Davis, the superintendent of South Carolina Richland 2, who instituted a mask mandate and risked losing 30% of his state funds. Sadly the South Carolina Supreme Court sided with the Proviso over Davis’s objection. In South Carolina, public reason has been abandoned in the name of politics.
True confidence requires genuine humility. Far too many state leaders are refusing to show such humility as the Delta variant surges. It is a public duty to stand against the injustice facilitated by power and stand for the basic liberties of health, safety, and well-being that public educational spaces must guarantee to all. To do anything less would be unreasonable in light of the evidence and unthinkable in the face of the vulnerable.
Epistemic failures lead to moral failures. Poor reasoning invites false beliefs and poor decisions, but during a pandemic, it is resulting in preventable suffering and death. Both our bodily health and the health of our democracy depend on a commitment to reason-giving and responsible social critique. We should expect our leaders to make better decisions, but in order to do so we need to hold them accountable when their arguments are flawed.
J. Aaron Simmons, PhD (@JAaronSimmons) , is a professor of philosophy at Furman University, President of the Søren Kierkegaard Society (USA), and author or editor of numerous books including Kierkegaard’s God and the Good Life, God and the Other, and Christian Philosophy.