The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 15, 2020 1:00 am

Let respect lead choices over risk acceptance

Abe Schwab

I have some friends in Chicago who are very risk-averse about COVID-19. Since March, they have rarely left their home and have almost everything delivered. Many others are risk-tolerant and don't wear masks in shared workspaces, go into public settings and gather with large groups without any attempt at physical distancing.

Ideally, we would encourage that risk-tolerant individuals and risk-averse individuals do what they want. However, we can't do both.

When risk-tolerant individuals expose themselves to the risk of COVID-19, we thereby increase the spread of the disease and the risk for everyone. The risk-averse individual cannot avoid risks as they would like because of the activities of the risk-tolerant individuals.

And yet, favoring the risk-averse individuals and their desire to avoid COVID-19 and its manifest expressions and harms requires prohibiting the risk-tolerant individual from taking on exactly those risks they wish to. They will not be allowed to eat in restaurants, get their hair cut, etc.

We cannot allow both groups of individuals to achieve what they want. So what should we do?

Part of what it means to live in society is to accept a limit on our own activities.

We have speed limits not only to protect individuals themselves, but because cars going at higher speeds create more accidents, which increases the risk to other motorists on the road. We have no-smoking policies because the smoke not only increases the risk to the individual smoking, but subjects other individuals to risk as well.

I'm glad I don't have to make and enforce policy decisions about how to navigate this line between risk-tolerant and risk-averse individuals. But what I can do, and what anyone who believes that individual choices should be respected should do, is follow a couple of simple rules.

First, if you encounter someone who is obviously risk-averse because they're wearing a mask in public and obviously exercising physical distancing, then you should not get close to them. You should respect their attempt at physical distancing, not because you personally believe physical distancing is important, but as a sign of respect for them as an individual.

Second, any time you enter a business that requires face-to-face interactions, you should wear a mask. Again, not because you think it's important, but because that's the only way to ensure you're respecting the individuals who work there. The individuals working there may or may not be risk-averse, and only by wearing a mask can you be sure you're respecting their choices. If they are risk-tolerant, the mask is unnecessary but only a mild annoyance; if they are risk-averse, you're demonstrating your respect for their decision.

The way we behave in public in this time of crisis demonstrates the level of respect we have for others. We don't all agree on the acceptable level of risk, but we can still demonstrate respect for the decisions of others.

Abe Schwab is professor of philosophy at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics. His column appears every other week.

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