May 17, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Moral people don’t draw attention to their virtue, but amoral people spend a lot of time sending signals
You don't need a reason to wear a mask, but there are plenty.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that it was safe for people who have been fully vaccinated to go about their business without wearing a mask outdoors as well as indoors. That sparked controversy of the kind I want to talk about today, the kind that is very, very important to the reputations of a select few members of the pundits corps but that has almost no bearing on normal people. In brief, virtue-signalling is what a few pundits talk about when they’re signalling their virtue, which isn’t virtue so much as ordinary self-centered professional ambition.
I’ll explain but before I do, let me say I’m going to wear a mask indoors (and outdoors in crowds) for the foreseeable future, because I can catch the covid even though I have been fully vaccinated. I’m going to wear a mask because my wife and I have a kid at home who is not yet eligible for vaccination. Children can get the covid, too. The last thing I want to do is catch it before giving it to her. That’s a dad’s nightmare. When will I stop wearing one? The only answer I have is this: When I feel it’s safe to stop.
This pundit is the kind for whom making the argument is much more important than whether the argument is right or wrong, good or bad. This pundit is the kind for whom simple and ordinary morality is too simple and ordinary.
In this, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I see plenty of mask-wearing in my part of New Haven.1 I see masks inside as well as outside, even though Connecticut’s governor has lifted the requirement for wearing them outside. I see them at the grocery store. I see them as the gas station. I see them at the dog park. I see people wearing them in their cars. Nearly everyone was wearing a mask recently during Westville’s outdoor arts festival. No one required or asked us to. We just did. Mask-wearing is a normal part of life. When will it stop? Well, it’s obvious. When safety is again a normal part of life.
Every grownup I talked to at the arts festival I just mentioned had been fully vaccinated. The topic of conversation was about feeling safe without a mask. Some did, some didn’t. That, to me, was the context for the CDC’s latest announcement. That, to me, made the CDC’s latest announcement seem reasonable. The more people are vaccinated, the less likely it is for the covid to spread. The less it spreads, the less risk the public is going to face. Those who are more risk-averse, like me, can keep doing what we’ve been doing without much inconvenience. After all, mask-wearing is so internalized some expect it to return periodically, as the flu season comes and goes.
Which brings me to those select few members of the pundit corps who are compelled to comment on the CDC’s latest announcement. This pundit is the kind for whom making the argument is much more important than whether the argument is right or wrong, good or bad. This pundit is the kind for whom simple and ordinary morality is too simple and ordinary. To make his mark, he must work against the grain of virtuous social behavior. He must take good personal conduct and make it look bad. If you insist on wearing a mask after the CDC’s latest announcement, you’re not being risk-averse, this pundit says. You’re showing off your superiority. Here’s Yascha Mounk:
It’s time to stop. Over the past year, we have had to make all kinds of adjustments to our everyday lives to combat a deadly pandemic. The reason to take these actions was to save lives, not to adopt a superior lifestyle or show off our virtue. For those of us who are fully vaccinated, those actions are—at least until the situation changes, as it one day might with the emergence of new variants—no longer necessary. If a restaurant or coffee shop requests that you wear a mask, do so. But when and where possible, it is time to resume normal life. … Go watch that movie. Meet your friends and give them a long hug. Eat inside the restaurant if it’s a little chilly out. Take off your mask. Stop the hygiene theatre, and don’t feel bad about it for one moment.2
Wearing a mask, even when you’re fully vaccinated, is morally justified in that you’re not hurting anyone in the process of wearing one. You might have reasons for wearing one, but you don’t need them. You can wear a mask simply because you feel like it. For some people, though, that moral justification is nearly impossible to see because they do not have a moral core with which to see it. For them, there are only incentives that either advance or do not advance their self-interest. Therefore, wearing a mask post-vaccination isn’t just a sign of risk-aversion, as it is for me. It’s a sign of “virtue-signaling.” I wear one to show off my superior lifestyle and my superior virtue (ha!).
That’s ridiculous, but being ridiculous doesn’t matter. It would only matter if the pundit of the kind I’m talking about had a moral core. He does not make arguments, however, with concern for them being right or wrong, good or bad. He makes those arguments for the purpose of getting attention, which is the metric by which he measures the advancement of his self-interest. People who wear a mask don’t make a big deal about it. Those who refuse to wear one, however, often do. Moral people don’t draw attention to their virtue. Amoral people are the ones sending all the signals.
Westville, the best neighborhood, because it’s mine.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.