Immanuel Kant (1724-2804) is well-known for his moral philosophy which argues that we have certain duties towards ourselves and others that must be performed, regardless of extenuating circumstances. Chief among these duties are not lying and not committing suicide, or what can be seen respectively as duties to preserve the moral, reasoning person and the natural, human creature.
It seems obvious that if Kant were alive today, he would endorse wearing a face mask during pandemic conditions. First, doing so would involve preserving one’s own physical being. Second, it would help to protect the physical being of others as well as respect others as moral, reasoning persons who would recognise the same obligation towards you. Finally, recognising the first two obligations and fulfilling them would be a form of respecting yourself as a moral, reasoning being.
But apart from this curious historical intervention, is there much more that can be gained from Kant?
Yes. The way Kant understands morality and freedom distinctly from typical modern notions can help make sense as to why the view that mask-wearing is a form of “tyranny”, to quote American anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, is confused at best.
Morality v. Legality
Kant understands morality in terms of duties that we owe to ourselves and others. Recognising when a duty is salient involves the use of reason to grasp a moral law that might guide our action.
By way of illustration: following the duty not to lie does not occur because of fear of punishment; rather, we use reason to discover that if we did not have such a constraint on speech, we could never know when the truth was being spoken. Allowing for an exception to this duty can create a slippery slope where the truth-asserting role of speech risks becoming impossible.
This distinction is important. The use of reason, for Kant, is a way of individually determining what we ought to do based on necessarily or universally true moral laws (what he terms “necessitation”). In fact, in apprehending the moral law, legal and conventional rules prohibiting lying become redundant. For example, if we understood why it is important to help those in dire medical need, we would not require Good Samaritan laws. Conversely, we often find that even when there are legal laws, the person abiding by them may not understand the reason for their existence and may be acting out of fear of sanction.
So how might this conception of morality and reason help us to better understand the controversy over mask-wearing?
You Say “Freedom”, I Say “Freedom”
Opponents of mask-wearing tend to cite the protection of the individual against unnecessary or coercive restraint, or what political philosophers call negative liberty. So these opponents allege that mandates on mask-wearing constrain an individual’s action.
One problem with the negative conception is that it lacks any content that might help us determine for what ends our freedom might exist. This absence tends to reduce freedom to trivial motives relating to preferences or desires; and one has to do a lot of work to include ends that benefits both oneself and others. To compensate for this lack one can add a proviso: freedom of action should be allowed in so far as it does not disadvantage or harm others. But can those who insist on their right to not wear a mask take this proviso seriously? Probably not.
By way of contrast and criticism, we saw that Kant understands what it means to be human in terms of the capacity to reason and recognise certain obligations we have towards ourselves and others. This is significant for how Kant conceives freedom.
Kant does not take the absence of restraint on action to be the essence of freedom, largely because such freedom can contradict our capacity to reason. We might act in a way that causes us harm due to questionable influence, though it might have seemed to our benefit at the time—e.g. a rash action motivated by lust. Instead, Kant conceives freedom as acting in accordance with what is rationally necessary (in terms of duties) or permissible (in terms of the absence of a duty to others). While this view may seem constraining at one level—because we realize that we have to act in one way and not another—it presumes freedom is not predicated on the individual alone, but the individual in relation to others who share the ability to reason.
So where does this put the view that decries mask-wearing?
If I am accurate in my characterization of Kant’s moral philosophy, those of a mind similar to Ammon Bundy confuse what it means to be a capable human. To be a capable human involves being able to regard others and workout how we should act towards others by way of our capacity to reason. The end of Kant’s notion of freedom is respect. In contrast, the negative view of freedom, in lacking in this quality, is nascent at best. Its end is self-absorption.
This is apparent even if we grant that one has a right not to wear a mask; for one person’s freedom is another’s tyranny, as for someone with underlying conditions. Yet if we can follow Kant on capability, matters start to become less uncompromising and intractable since we realize there is a founding obligation to respect others just as we would respect ourselves.
This blog has been published in a revised format at Philosophy Now.
I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.
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