From Masks to COVID Apps: The Moral Duty not to Infect Others

As physical distancing and masks are becoming the new normal, Canada’s COVID Alert application is an additional measure to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. While there is no legal duty to install the application, there might be a moral duty. A moral argument for physical distancing and wearing masks can be made based on the duty not to infect others, and this argument can be expanded to include installing COVID tracking applications.

The moral duty not to infect others can be wide ranging: preventing transmission of the flu to preventing transmission of HIV, for example. Marcel Verweij frames the issues as to “what extent do individuals have a moral obligation to avoid spreading disease?” He is particularly interested in the duty to accept influenza vaccines to protect the vulnerable, like the elderly or the chronically ill. It is easy to see how this argument applies to our current situation; our physical distancing and wearing of masks helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reduces the potential risks of harm to others. Even if a disease is not harmful to us – say, we happen to be asymptomatic – we would still have a moral duty to mitigate harm to others. We can understand this duty in terms of beneficence. This arguably includes a duty to get vaccinated, physical distance, wear masks, and install COVID Alert.

Still, as John Harris and Soren Holm suggest, what is required by morality is not absolute, and there are other considerations to take into account. One trivial example of this is the common cold: “unless there is reasonable financial compensation, such as illness allowance, one cannot expect a sick person to stay at home for the sake of her colleagues.” This general picture of morality, which understands morality in terms of “prima facie duties”, is most famously expounded by philosopher W. D. Ross. The basic idea is that different moral duties (e.g. a duty of beneficence, a duty of justice, a duty of non-maleficence, etc.) can conflict with one another given our varied circumstances, and one single duty is not absolute. For instance, if the Kantian is faced with a murderer who inquiring about the location of your friend, the Kantian must obey the moral duty to tell the truth to the murderer; however, according to Ross, the duty to save your friend might “override” the duty to tell the truth. There are certainly problems of “over-demandingness” (or morality asking too much of us) if we understand our moral duty as mitigating any and all risks – even driving a car poses significant risks of harm to others, but risk-to-reward weighs in favour of driving. Nevertheless, the slight inconvenience of physical distancing, wearing masks, or installing COVID Alert is insignificant compared to the potential harm that it is preventing.

Lawrence Gostin (et al.) provides an excellent analysis of the legal and ethical issues with the previous SARS outbreak. He frames the issue as a conflict between “the duty to protect the public, which is a collective good, and the individual rights of privacy and liberty,” particularly with regards to surveillance, isolation or quarantine, and restriction of movement. On the ethical side, we might turn to T. M. Scanlon’s contractualism and ask how actions could be justified such that nobody could reasonably reject them. We could use voluntary measures rather than coercive ones, take “softer” approaches to paternalism, or make use of “nudges.”

On the legal side, these issues around COVID-19 laws are a live question for constitutional jurisprudence. I foresee many academic articles around this topic, especially in the Canadian context with respect to balancing legitimate public health purposes with Charter rights and freedoms. In any case, we have an individual moral duty to physical distance, wear masks, and, in my opinion, install the COVID Alert application. As Douglas Adams said, “The single raindrop never feels responsible for the flood.” It is important to be a good moral citizen and to do our part to contribute to our community, nation, and world.

(This blog post draws on a presentation given for a graduate seminar on Applied Ethics with Professor Claudia Emerson at McMaster University in 2017.)

Written by Dan Choi, a second year JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and an IPilogue Contributing Editor.

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