Why we need to reduce our moral certainty (and stop moralising about face masks)

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I’m guessing that most of you, readers, wouldn’t even question that it is morally imperative to wear a face mask during the pandemic.

The logic of this moral certainty is clear and obvious: We are in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately affects and kills elderly people. What easier way to show our solidarity than for younger people to wear a face mask for a few more months to protect those at risk?

I sympathise deeply with this moral argument. But at the same time I feel deeply uneasy about the fact that face masks have become something of a sacred object. If you worship the mask, you’re a good person and if you don’t, you’re a bad person. As soon as quasi-religious behaviour comes into play, expressing any doubts becomes blasphemous.

Such dogmas are never a good idea, but even less so when we’re dealing with complex issues. What if our moral dogma is based on a one-dimensional perspective? What if, once we take into account the full complexity of the issues at play, things aren’t so obvious anymore and we come to very different conclusions?

I believe that most people have good intentions and most activists dedicate their lives to creating a better world, but unfortunately good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes, and in fact often have the opposite effect.

Once we realise that things are rarely black and white, and that it is often far from easy to determine which actions (or non-actions) actually lead to morally better outcomes, we should become more humble about our views, allow for doubts to be raised and be open minded about alternatives.

There are many examples showing that righteous activism might be on the wrong track and that humility would be much better than moral certainty and dividing people into good and bad. At this moment in time, when we’re struggling with the effects of the pandemic and the questions about how to deal with it, let’s use the example of the face mask to explore how we should deal with moral questions in our complex world.

How clear is the moral case for wearing a face mask?

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities around the world including the WHO weren’t recommending face masks as a way for the general public to reduce the spread of the virus. In fact, until recently the WHO argued that there was “no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.” As late as April 2020, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (an EU agency) said: “It is not known how much the use of masks in the community can contribute to a decrease in transmission [of SARS-COV-2] in addition to the other countermeasures.”

What happened was that people voluntarily started to wear masks. Struck by the TV footage from Bergamo, many people were very scared of catching the virus. As a result, as early as March, the demand for masks for private use was skyrocketing. Later in April and May, campaigners in many countries were pushing governments to make face masks mandatory. Face masks became the latest way to signal one’s virtues. Governments ultimately gave in, but not likely because of sudden realizations about the effectiveness of masks, or new evidence that shifted the scientific consensus previously based on decades of research. More likely, face masks are a relatively easy way for everyone to “do” something about the pandemic while starting the economy back up, getting schools up and running, and generally preventing further damage that lockdown measures cause. To dispute the measure, or even worse, to refuse wearing a face mask, became a mark of evil, almost synonymous with murdering your granny. It became entirely a question of morality rather than a discussion about the most reasonable ways of dealing with the pandemic. For many, face masks became a sacred object.

I’m not sure if the use of face masks (in real-life settings as during this pandemic) does or does not reduce the risk of infection and therefore reduce the spread of the virus. The research seems to be inconclusive. Some systematic reviews do see a significant reduction and others don’t see any clear evidence. What does seem clear to a layperson like myself is that when we look at the countries that introduced mandatory face masks at different points in time, there is no apparent effect on the infection and deaths curves. On the contrary, many countries that introduced mandatory masks early on (including Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia) still saw huge spikes in infection rates later in time. Most strikingly, Sweden, where the population is not obligated to wear masks and where in fact few people wear them, has had low infection and extremely low death rates since June.

Nevertheless, one could argue that even without a demonstrable positive effect, the mere possibility that we might save some lives means that it’s worth it. Every life saved is worth it.

Yes, maybe. But even the first principle laid out in the WHO’s constitution states: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.“ Thus, a narrow focus on the infection and death rates from Covid-19 is insufficient. We need to take into account how each measure affects our lives as a whole. For example, it is obvious that our capacity to communicate with others when we wear masks is severely constrained. We often can’t hear what people say and we don’t see their facial expressions. Also, face masks make breathing more difficult, and for some people intolerable. Could face masks possibly even weaken our immune system if they overprotect us from the normal daily exposure to microbial influences? When children have to wear masks in school, as is the case in Spain, what does it do to their psychological wellbeing? What are the long-term effects on children’s lives? I don’t know the answers to all these questions, but I suspect that there are many undesirable effects stemming from hygiene measures that we’re yet to be aware of.

I’m not arguing here that mandatory face masks are not justified under any circumstances during this pandemic, or to prevent any other infectious disease. However, I’m convinced that we’re dealing with a complex matter with a broad range of trade-offs and a high degree of uncertainty. It can’t be right in such a context to immediately condemn people who have doubts or disagree with a measure. There is no certainty about who has the moral high ground.

In the case of this particular virus, there is even a good chance that the best strategy would be to let the virus spread among younger people while protecting the elderly. In this scenario, mandatory face masks wouldn’t be useful. Herd immunity has become something of a toxic phrase, but the question is not whether we’ll arrive at herd immunity. The issue is how to get there with a minimum number of casualties. Whatever strategy we use for Covid-19, we will eventually reach herd immunity, either with a vaccine, through natural infections, or a combination of the two. Only the most optimistic scenarios anticipate a highly effective vaccine available widely early next year. It’s likely that social distancing measures are only delaying the inevitable herd immunity through natural infections.

No doubt, some people are acting on purely egoistic grounds and don’t care about the wellbeing of others. So, for example, young people who have a low risk of dying from Covid-19 might be motivated by pure self-interest and not care about the lives of the elderly. However, it is difficult to know the motivations behind other people’s actions. For example, the Swedish case looks like a paradox. Sweden hasn’t gone into full lockdown like most other European countries. So, for many people it looks like the Swedes, motivated by selfishness and to keep their personal freedom, didn’t do what was needed to protect the lives of the vulnerable, and therefore many people had to die. But in reality, this cannot be true because Sweden has a far less individualistic culture than, for example, the UK or the US. I think journalist Freddie Sayers is right when he argues that “it is precisely because the Swedes want to preserve the common good and are proud of their shared way of life that they have been reluctant to infringe it.” The Swedish approach is based on a more holistic version of morality, which is one that attempts to find a balance between the wellbeing of society as a whole and the avoidance of harm done to individuals.

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has researched the nature and origins of morality across nations and cultures. He saw that what often looks like a fight between good and bad people in reality is a conflict between different types of moralities. He found out that in highly individualistic Western societies we often focus on avoiding the harm or discrimination of individuals as our highest moral aspiration. However, the majority of cultures around the world value both helping victims and preserving the wellbeing of the group, its institutions, traditions and moral capital. In short, Haidt argues: “You can’t help the bees by destroying the hive.”

Face masks on their own may not be what destroys our societies. But the analogy is still valid. If we look at the social distancing measures as a whole, we could expect severe damage to our societies for many years to come due to the economic decline and the long-term effects on physical and mental health. Humans are inherently social, but we have been told for many months now to stay apart, to keep distance, to not mingle. We are shopping more online, many high street shops are closing, and those who can now work from home in front of their screens instead of meeting others in the office. Loneliness and social isolation were already a problem before the pandemic and are being exacerbated by the social distancing policies of the last few months.

The obsession with the idea that during this pandemic we need to do everything possible to prevent people from getting infected and possibly dying has turned this into a conflict between the apparently morally good people and those who are evil, or at least morally deficient. Instead, we should realise that the issues we are dealing with are too complex to be able to determine which measures will do less harm. Morality itself is complex — there is no one straightforward moral way of doing things.

When we arrange our worldview around sacred objects — in this case the mask — we filter out facts and arguments that don’t fit into our scheme, just like religions do. Haidt says:

“Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

Too much moralising puts everybody into tribal mode and ultimately increases polarisation and hate in our society. It is not a good strategy for improving things, be it finding good outcomes for all in this pandemic, or, in other situations, improving fairness and justice for all.

A better approach to moral progress

The alternative approach is to develop and cultivate an intellectual curiosity for the matter, and to continuously improve our understanding of reality and how to navigate it for the wellbeing of everyone.

Foremost, we need to learn that morality can never be one-dimensional. We can’t ignore that we’re always dealing with complex systems and we need to consider all relevant perspectives and facts that might be morally relevant. As a matter of reality, we will encounter many trade-offs to be navigated and compromises to be reached. A 100% perfect world is not possible.

All of this is of course far from easy, and even less so in the current, social-media-dominated world where algorithms determine which side of reality we see. In fact, social media might be a major cause of our increased moral certainty and outrage about other people’s actions and views. We literally see a very different reality to the one that our neighbours might see (through social media). For the first time in human history we don’t have a shared understanding of reality and we’re biologically unprepared for this situation. In fact, social media brings out the worst of human nature.

The only way out of this mess, out of our ideological bubbles and echo chambers, is to develop awareness about our own cognitive biases and build capacity for seeing issues from multiple perspectives. We need to learn how to step back from our ideological frames and allow a much broader set of ideas of good faith into our discussions, including from people who hold different values from us. There are practical ways to do this, like purposefully redesigning our social media environment and diversifying sources of information, but most of it will be hard work for all of us.

We need a step change in our cultural evolution and to learn new ways of making sense of reality and cooperating across humanity successfully.

The case of Covid-19 and the face masks is one example that (hopefully) shows that we urgently need to reduce our moral certainty and learn new ways to advance moral progress. The same discussion could also be had about many other moral certainties that many of us hold, for example, about Black Lives Matter or the refugee problem or climate change. But I leave these for another occasion.

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