I’ve been a professional philosopher for over four decades. I don’t usually try to pull rank over what look like philosophical claims made by people who aren’t trained in philosophy, but I am going to make an exception here. Why? Because I’ve had it with cliche-ridden “philosophical” drivel, which is offered by people trying to defend obviously unacceptable behaviors, desperately seeking a return to “normal” in the era of Covid. And it’s about to send me over the edge. I mean, if you were an engineer or a doctor or a nutritionist (plug in whatever field you like) and people were making obviously simple-minded pronouncements you knew were misleading at best, it would bother you. And presumably it would bother you a lot more if a lot of other people thought these pronouncements made a great deal of sense.*  So let’s see what pearls of wisdom we’re being offered.

When medical people point out that wearing masks in certain public places should be required during a Covid surge, this and other public safety measures are often dismissed as unnecessary with the response: “Well, life is full of risks!”  The champions of this piece of news present it as if it were a revelation, a deep truth about life, which they grok, but the rest of us don’t.

But really, is anyone unaware of the fact that life is full of risks? Of course not. Even very young kids know about risks. We calculate different kinds of risks all of the time. Every time we set foot in a car and put on a seat belt, we acknowledge there’s a risk. We are attuned to situations in which risks may exist and we heed warnings. When a lifeguard says that there are sharks in the water, most people get out, even if the probability of any one individual being attacked is relatively low. Risks are many and omnipresent. Walking in a storm carries risks. Going swimming caries risks. Sex carries risks. Getting pregnant carries risks. Going into the military carries risks. Going to school these days carries a risk. I’ll just stop there. The point is so obvious that I seriously doubt anyone would take exception to it.

So, if we all know this, and it has become something of a cliche, what’s the point of having someone, often in a haughty tone, inform us that life is full of risks? We already live our lives in the face of risks, and we calculate, often without much thought, how risky our actions might be, including in such commonplace matters as crossing a busy street. What we’re being offered here is not any kind of new insight, philosophical or otherwise. What we have instead is a cliche masquerading as insight, offered by people who think that they understand something the rest of us don’t, so we need to be taught or reminded.  Nay, we need to be scolded, because, you see, we are unwilling to take the risks that that they think—in all of their wisdom—we should be willing to take, and hence, we need a lesson in life.

When we raise concerns about whether enough is being done on public health front regarding Covid, we are met with this cliche about taking risks in one’s life. But leaving aside the absurdity of acting as if this is news to individuals, to state the obvious, this has never been only about risks that may have an impact on my individual life. It’s always been about my responsibility to others (whose risks may be greater than mine). Public health measures are there to prevent people who judge risks incorrectly from bringing harm to others, in this case by spreading a virus. If someone miscalculates about risks in their life, taking too much or too little, we can say, it is their business. But if someone’s risk-taking can lead to harm to others, it is not their business. It is a public health issue.

Focusing on one’s personal willingness to take risks is actually a red herring, deflecting from the main issue during a pandemic: our risk to others and the repercussions for society if everyone only considers their own personal risk. While we can talk about the ethics or immorality of self-harm, ethics primarily involves how we treat others. Don’t tell me about your personal tolerance for risk. Tell me why your risk-taking is beneficial, or at least not potentially harmful, to others.

The cliche about risks and life is often followed by another claim about life, namely, that we need to get on with our lives and live them normally. And what does this claim amount to?  I had certain habitual ways of doing things, and now you are asking me to modify them. If I have to modify them, I am not living my life normally. I don’t want to change. Normal is whatever I had been doing.

Approximately 2,500 or so years ago the philosopher Heraclitus taught that you can not set foot in the same waters twice, because the river is ever-changing. This was meant as a statement about change and life, and it too has become something of a cliche. Not only do we run risks, we know that change can’t be avoided. Does any “normal” life not entail changes, many of which aren’t temporary? We encounter a problem that an old habit can’t resolve, and we change, giving rise to a new habit, a new way of doing things. We get a new boss, and he or she wants us to do things differently. We can leave our job or accommodate. Either way, new habits. We go off to college. We move into a new neighborhood. We join the army. We get married. We get divorced.  We retire, etc. All of these require much greater challenges to our previous “normal” life than wearing a mask in certain public spaces. Do we typically say in response, this isn’t normal? Or are we more likely to say: this is a hassle, I like this, this is cool, this is not my cup of tea, how am I going to handle this, etc.? The term “normal” here is actually a cover for “I prefer the way things were. Leave me alone.” Okay, but things are not the way they were. There is this virus, see. It mutates. It has changed the game. Your desire to return to “normal” is actually a failure to come to grips with a world that is now different.

And let’s not even get into the obvious cultural blinders: what you consider non-normal is quite normal to a billion plus people living in Asia. But no doubt at some point it wasn’t normal, that is, when masks were first introduced. Then it became normal. Things change.

But there is an additionally galling aspect to this “normal” business. When our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had to change their way of life during WWII, do you think society would have looked kindly on people who said “I don’t want to participate because this isn’t normal?” Of course it’s not normal compared to what existed before. It’s different. And you know what, after the war things won’t be normal again, if you mean by normal what it was like before the war.

There are historical events that transcend our little, relatively parochial, spheres of normalcy. We can choose to deal with them or retreat. But if you choose retreat, don’t dare suggest, as these people often do, that I am risk-averse and unable to live my life. Au contraire, my friend. It is you who are running from reality and life. There is no permanent normal, not it this world, not in this life.

* A word about my criticizing individual behaviors and remarks. The problems we have faced in grappling with Covid are obviously not solely due to ill-informed individuals. People are misguided for various reasons, and in this case, one of them has been the concerted effort to return to business as usual, for the sake of business, orchestrated in large measure by politicians who have been captured by business interests. And this went hand-in-hand with a degree of incompetence and political maneuvering that made the public distrustful of the government. But this is a topic for another piece.

** Do we really have to highlight that public health measures are one of the great success stories of the modern world, helping, for example, to increase longevity? This should not be news. We are made aware of public health measures daily. For example, we are continually warned about the dangers of tobacco, and we are prohibited from smoking in public spaces, because we know that it increases the risk of health problems for non-smokers through second-hand smoke. People are warned not to drink and drive. We require vaccinations for school children, not only to protect the children who are vaccinated, but their community. Recently, we have been asked to mask to prevent the spread of a virus that not only can kill, but can leave people debilitated for months or years. The list could go on and on.


12 thoughts

  1. A well-written article, but it seems like you’re trying to normalise hypochondria. We only live once – do you want to waste it fearing an inevitable virus?

  2. Of course risk is everywhere, and of course we have to think about others, but some of us feel that Covid has led to an unhealthy level of risk aversion. People have become less tolerant of risk than they were before the pandemic. What’s more, the most risk averse are dictating the terms of living for the rest of us: we all have to live with masks, testing, social and cultural restrictions because one group finds it most comfortable to live that way.

    Those of us who favor a “return to normal” believe that normal life (meaning life without masks or constant focus on “risk reduction”) benefits us all. We believe society has become mentally disordered and we would like to see it restored to health.

    As for “obviously unacceptable behaviors,” wow. This sounds like Trudeau and his “unacceptable views.” Not everyone shares your world view about what behaviors best support human flourishing.

    1. I not sure where you are talking about, but the so-called risk averse are hardly dictating the terms in the USA. There are few mandates in place. The virus is being allowed to spread. (And many people at greater risk for health reasons feel abandoned.)

      Society is not “mentally disordered” because of mask requirements or people talking about risk reductions. The virus and the economy have seen to that, so with or without masks, things have changed, both politically and socially. The “normal” fantasy is dangerous in this situation.

      How so?

      Society is behaving unethically in the face of an unacceptable amount of death and illness. (Long-covid is real, and its risks should not be downplayed.)

      Here’s yesterday’s 7 day average of deaths in the US, according to the NY Times, along with the per cent increase and total number.

      Deaths 491 +12% 1,029,108

      Averaged over a whole year that’s nearly 180,000 deaths. Not acceptable and shameful.

      It’s obvious that not everyone shares my views about human flourishing. But I look at this figure, and think about all of the long Covid cases, and it’s difficult to see how this is a recipe for societies and their members to flourish.

  3. Maybe, just maybe, instead of whining about people wearing or not wearing masks, maybe just maybe, instead of spouting nonsense, learn to read and find proper scientific (medical) publications regardings masks 😉


    > The instanteneous particle concentrations measured within the field of view in Fig. 7(a) show large temporal variations in local concentrations when masks are used, which consistently exceed those seen for the no-mask case. The instantaneous magnitudes of particle concentrations reach up to 1.6% of the single breath concentration in the case of blue surgical mask, roughly 40% above the saturation concentration reached in the no-mask case. These maximum excursions in the cases of the KN95 and R95 masks are lower; however, the instantaneous spikes in concentration surpass the average no-mask concentration in the first hour of the test. These excursions in the local particle concentrations are attributed to the presence of dense particle clouds that frequently pass through the field of view, as illustrated in Fig. 7(b). The figure shows representative concentration maps of the particle clouds in the blue surgical and the KN95 mask cases. Peak concentrations reach up to 3% of the particle breath concentrations in the blue surgical mask case, which are localized within the core regions of the clouds and indicate a much higher threat than that perceived based on the averaged results in Fig. 6. 

    > The results show that a standard surgical and three-ply cloth masks, which see current widespread use, filter at apparent efficiencies of only 12.4% and 9.8%, respectively. Apparent efficiencies of 46.3% and 60.2% are found for KN95 and R95 masks, respectively, which are still notably lower than the verified 95% rated ideal efficiencies. Furthermore, the efficiencies of a loose-fitting KN95 and a KN95 mask equipped with a one-way valve were evaluated, showing that a one-way valve reduces the mask’s apparent efficiency by more than half (down to 20.3%), while a loose-fitting KN95 provides a negligible apparent filtration efficiency (3.4%). The present results provide an important practical contrast to many other previous experimental and numerical investigations, which do not consider the effect of mask fit when locally evaluating mask efficiency or incorporating mask usage in a numerical model



    1. [I am going to provide a longer answer here than I believe this comment warrants. Why? The strategy used by this commentator is one that I have seen over and over again. Pick and choose a few studies that appear to support their case, not read them carefully, ignore many others, and then claim that masks (or other public health measures) don’t work.]


      I would take your insult about not reading more seriously if it were coming from someone who had done his or her homework. You are misunderstanding the point and conclusions of the article you quote, “Experimental investigation of indoor aerosol dispersion and accumulation in the context of COVID-19: Effects of masks and ventilation.”

      It is not saying that masks don’t work. It is saying that proper ventilation can be even better than masks, which is not a problem for those of us who support multiple fronts to improve public health. Regarding masks: it focuses on the problem of the fit of masks, using a CPR manikin to run tests.

      But in addition to missing the point of the study, your quotation stops right before the authors of the study endorse the use of high efficiency masks! Leaving this part out is unacceptable by any standards.

      Here’s where you end your quotation:

      “….while a loose-fitting KN95 provides a negligible apparent filtration efficiency (3.4%). The present results provide an important practical contrast to many other previous experimental and numerical investigations, which do not consider the effect of mask fit when locally evaluating mask efficiency or incorporating mask usage in a numerical model.”

      You stop here. The next sentence states:

      “Nevertheless, if worn correctly, high-efficiency masks still offer significantly improved filtration efficiencies (apparent and ideal) over the more commonly used surgical and cloth masks, and hence are the recommended choice in mitigating the transmission risks of COVID-19.”

      NOTE: “recommended choice in mitigating the transmission risks of COVID-19.” This is clearly not an anti-mask position.

      You then pick and choose a handful of articles/studies that you believe support your case and offer links, but even here you appear to be unaware of their limitations or that you are rigging the game by citing so few. Let’s take perhaps the most famous example in your list, the DANMASK-19 study. This keeps coming up as proof that masks don’t work, but this wasn’t the conclusion of the study. It was misinterpreted. Don’t believe me? Here is what the authors of the study said:

      “[the study] should not be used to conclude that a recommendation for everyone to wear masks in the community would not be effective in reducing SARS-CoV-2 infections, because the trial did not test the role of masks in source control of SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

      You can find the quotation here “Do face masks work? Here are 49 scientific studies that explain why they do” https://www.kxan.com/news/coronavirus/do-face-masks-work-here-are-49-scientific-studies-that-explain-why-they-do/

      I recommend looking at this article because it provides a much more comprehensive list of studies than the handful you link.

      If you want to see more on the limitations of the Danish study, which used surgical masks, check out this summary: “Danish Study Doesn’t Prove Masks Don’t Work Against the Coronavirus”

      Okay, another example. One of the articles you cite compares cloth and medical masks, finding issues with cloth masks. But this wasn’t meant as an attack on all masks. First, look at the title: “A cluster randomised trial of cloth masks compared with medical masks in healthcare workers.” It was a comparative study. The authors appended this note to their study:

      “The authors of this article, published in 2015, have written a response to their work in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We urge our readers to consider the response when reading the article. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/5/4/e006577.responses#covid-19-shortages-of-masks-and-the-use-of-cloth-masks-as-a-last-resort”

      And here is a quotation from this response:

      “Health workers are asking us if they should wear no mask at all if cloth masks are the only option. Our research does not condone health workers working unprotected. We recommend that health workers should not work during the COVID-19 pandemic without respiratory protection as a matter of work health and safety. In addition, if health workers get infected, high rates of staff absenteeism from illness may also affect health system capacity to respond. Some health workers may still choose to work in inadequate PPE. In this case, the physical barrier provided by a cloth mask may afford some protection, but likely much less than a surgical mask or a respirator.

      It is important to note that some subjects in the control arm wore surgical masks, which could explain why cloth masks performed poorly compared to the control group. We also did an analysis of all mask wearers, and the higher infection rate in cloth mask group persisted. The cloth masks may have been worse in our study because they were not washed well enough – they may become damp and contaminated. The cloth masks used in our study were products manufactured locally, and fabrics can vary in quality. This and other limitations were also discussed.”

    2. It’s not a binary. It’s about harm reduction.

      Massive study of the effectiveness of mask-wearing in preventing #SARSCoV2 infection concludes:
      – overall, masks cut infection risk 7-fold
      – the probability of getting #COVID19 for mask wearers was 7% versus 52% for non-mask wearers.
      The Efficacy of Facemasks in the Prevention of COVID-19: A Systematic Review

  4. Thank you very much for this very good Text! It’s the same here in Germany, over 3000 people have died of Corona, alone in July. Only few people still wear masks. Sometimes the Busses don’t drive because so many people are sick with Covid-19. Hospitals, schools have problems because of the many sick people. But it doesn” interest the politicians or the society. They want to “live normal” it is exactly like you wrote in that article. It desperates me deeply. Sorry for my fractured English.

  5. Thank you Mitchell for your honest and powerful insight. The majority of people are uneducated and selfish, but mostly selfish. That is my personal conclusion…

  6. Yes! For me this goes hand in hand with the climate catastrophe. Our refusal to adapt and take on board the actions needed to halt climate change is to be our total downfall – yet again money rules the rules. Covid is now the touchpaper that has lit the inferno it seems.

  7. Interesting. I am not remotely Libertarian! Do you not see a link in the government public health response that has encouraged the dominant attitudes you are encountering? Or the disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theory peddlers ideas re Covid and their attitude to climate catastrophe? The idiotic arguments about risk and living now are the acceptable messages from far right campaigns, and have entered the mainstream in our consumer/instant gratification society.

    Growth at all costs is the unspoken name of the game, it is now also being seen in world economies isn’t it?

    Why would Biden declare the pandemic over when it isn’t? Why would masks and testing be removed from hospitals? Whose interests are being served? Not most people’s that is for sure.

    The far right is on the rise across Europe. This emergence is no accident, it is the product of well funded and resourced campaigns to break the liberal consensus.

    Here in the UK the majority of the public want to keep the NHS, ban fracking, develop green energy solutions and properly fund state education amongst other things. Yet our idiot government chooses to fund tax breaks for wealthy, lift the moratorium on fracking, allow water companies to pollute our rivers and seas with sewage, and hand over 100’s of billions to energy companies putting the public purse in debt for years to come. It has basically collapsed our economy.

    The Covid situation is another symptom, a red flag that looking back will perhaps be seen as a symbolic moment beyond the pandemic in itself. The people suggesting you are risk averse or living in fear are the pawns, the willing and unwitting consumers of the messages. The people who recognise we are up to our necks in deep **** are accused of being neurotic, or maybe Libertarian?

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