scorecardresearch Skip to main content

On freedom, face masks, and government

What would John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of individual liberty, say about face-covering requirements during the coronavirus pandemic?

John Stuart MillPhoto illustration by Globe Staff; Getty

It’s time to consider face masks and liberty, a pairing that’s likely to become a charged topic as more and more states begin reopening their economies.

A national consensus on when and how to reopen is obviously too much to hope for. But in these times of dangerous contagion, can’t we at least agree that everyone should wear a mask when out in public?

I don’t mean when hiking in the woods or well-separated from others at the beach or in a public park. But mask-wearing or face-covering should be standard practice when people are in shared inside spaces — think grocery stores or pharmacies — where the coronavirus can be easily spread. The same should be true on public transit and at times when they are frequently close to one another on sidewalks and crosswalks.


Yet mask requirements are already fostering grievance and rebellion. Saying people simply wouldn’t accept it, Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio recently reversed a requirement that masks be worn in stores. In Michigan, a store security guard was shot to death subsequent to an encounter over that state’s mask rule. Elsewhere, store employees have been threatened, harassed, and subjected to behavior that could transmit the virus.

Sadly, in some quarters, mask requirements are being viewed as an unacceptable infringement on individual liberty. No rights are absolute, however, and personal freedom comes with a well-established philosophical superstructure.

Consider how John Stuart Mill, the preeminent philosopher of liberty, elucidated the idea of individual autonomy — and what he would probably say about face-mask requirements in a time of public health crisis.

Mill was adamant that individuals could do whatever they wanted as long as those actions affected them alone. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign," he wrote.


But even this fervent proponent of individual liberty carved out an exception when one person’s conduct could hurt someone else, writing 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.”

Where would face-mask requirements, whether imposed by states, cities, or retail businesses, fall? Clearly on the side of justified infringements, since by not wearing a mask, a person can easily spread highly contagious COVID-19 to others. That’s all the more true when you consider that an estimated 56 percent of coronavirus infections come from pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers — and that for some who catch it, the disease will be a death sentence.

Thus the notion that these requirements are unwarranted or illicit or outrageous or unbearable by free people clearly doesn’t pass the test enunciated by the West’s great apostle of individual liberty.

A second great thinker, political philosopher John Rawls, also merits mention here, both for the helpful clarity his reasoning imparts and for a tragic aspect of his biography: When he was a boy, two of his younger brothers perished from diseases (diphtheria and pneumonia) they had contracted from him.

One of Rawls’s signal contributions is the “veil of ignorance,” a way of thinking designed to overcome the bias imparted by one’s own circumstances in life. To wit: As you consider what’s just or fair, assume that you don’t know your own sex, race, socio-economic status, abilities, and so forth.


In the matter of face masks, the veil of ignorance means not knowing whether you hold (or are likely to have) a job that requires you to interact frequently with the public or, say, are in circumstances that require your use of public transportation. Nor do you know whether you face a greater or lesser chance of death should you contract COVID-19.

From behind that veil, ask yourself this question: Do you favor or oppose the wearing of masks by everyone in the public circumstances outlined above?

All of this can be distilled to an exhortation not much more complicated than the Golden Rule. If the case for masks were presented by the president and governors and mayors and religious and community leaders as treating others as we’d like to be treated if in their place, I like to think people would overwhelmingly come to see them as an inconvenience all patriotic Americans can accept in these terrible times.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.