photograph of groups of people walking on busy street wearing protective masks

The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon that has disrupted people’s lives and the economy. Currently, the United States leads COVID cases in the world and as of this writing, the United States has the largest amount of confirmed deaths, and ranks eighth in deaths per capita due to the virus. There are a number of factors that might explain why the numbers are so high: the United States’ failed leadership in tackling the virus back in December/January, the government’s response to handling the crisis once the virus spread throughout the United States, states’ opening up too early — and too quickly — in May and June, and people’s unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously by not social distancing or wearing face masks. Let us focus on the last point. Why the unseriousness? As soon as the pandemic hit, conspiracy theories regarding the virus spread like — well, like the virus itself. Some are so fully convinced about a conspiracy theory that their beliefs may be incorrigible. Others seem only to doubt mask-wearing as a solution.

Part of the unwillingness to wear face masks is due to the CDC and WHO having changed their positions about wearing masks as a preventative measure. From the beginning, the U.S. Surgeon General claimed that masks were ineffective, but now both the CDC and the WHO recommend wearing them.

Why this reversal? We are facing a novel virus. Science, as an institution, works through confirming and disconfirming hypotheses. Scientists find evidence for a claim and it leads to their hypothesis being correct. As time goes on, scientists gather new evidence disconfirming their original hypothesis. And as time continues further, they gather more information and evidence and were too quick to disconfirm the hypothesis. Because this virus is so new, scientists are working with limited knowledge. There will inevitably be back-and-forth shifts on what works and what doesn’t. Scientists must adapt to new information. Citizens, however, may interpret this as skepticism about wearing masks since the CDC and WHO cannot make up their minds. And so people may think: “perhaps wearing masks does prevent the spread of the virus; perhaps it doesn’t. So if we don’t know, then let’s just live our lives as we did.” Indeed, roughly 14% of Americans state they never wear masks. But what if there was a practical argument that might encourage such skeptics to wear a mask that didn’t directly rely on the evidence that masks do prevent spreading the virus? What if, despite the skepticism, wearing masks could still be shown to be in one’s best interest? Here, I think using Pascal’s wager can be helpful.

To refamiliarize ourselves, Pascal’s wager comes from Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, who wagered that it’s best to believe in God without relying on direct evidence that God exists. To put it succinctly, either God exists or He doesn’t. How shall we decide? Well, we either believe God exists or we believe He doesn’t exist. So then, there are four possibilities:

God exists God does not exist
Belief in God
  1. +∞ (infinite gain)
2. − (finite loss)
Disbelief in God 4.   −∞ (infinite loss) 3. + (finite gain)

 

For 1., God exists and we believe God exists. Here we gain the most since we gain an infinitely happy life. If we win, we win everything. For 2., we’ve only lost a little since we simply believed and lost the truth of the matter. In fact, it’s so minimal (compared to infinite) that we lose nothing. For 3., we have gained a little. While we have the truth, there is not infinite happiness. And compared to infinite, we’ve won nothing. And finally, for 4., we have lost everything since we don’t believe in God and it’s an eternity of divine punishment. By looking at the odds, we should bet on God existing because doing so means you win everything and lose nothing. If God exists and you don’t believe, you lose everything and win nothing. If God doesn’t exist, compared to infinite, the gain or loss is insignificant. So through these odds, believing in God is your best bet since it’s your chance of winning, and not believing is your chance of losing.

There have been criticisms and responses to Pascal’s wager, but I still find this wager useful as an analogy when applied to mask-wearing. Consider:

Masks Prevent Spreading the Virus Masks Don’t Prevent Spreading the Virus
Belief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus (1) (Big Gain) People’s lives are saved and we can flatten the curve easily. (2) − (finite loss) We wasted some time wearing a piece of cloth over our face for a few months.
Disbelief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus (4) (Big Loss) We continually spread the virus, hospitals are overloaded with COVID cases, and more deaths. (3) + (finite gain) We got the truth of the matter.

 

For (1), we have a major gain. If wearing masks prevents the spread of the virus and we do wear masks, then we help flatten the curve, lessen people contracting the virus, and help prevent any harms or deaths due to COVID-19. (One model predicts that wearing masks can save up to 33,000 American lives.) This is the best outcome. Suppose (2). If masks do nothing or minimally prevent the spread of the virus, yet we continue to wear masks, we have wasted very little. By simply wearing a restriction over our face, it is simply an inconvenience. Studies show that we don’t lose oxygen by wearing a face mask. And leading experts are hopeful that we may get a vaccine sometime next year. There are promising results from clinical phase trials. And so wearing masks, having a small inconvenience in our lives, is not a major loss. After all, we can still function in our lives with face masks. People who wear masks as part of their profession (e.g. doctors, miners, firefighters, military) still carry out their duties. Indeed, their masks help them fulfill their duties. The inconvenience is a minor loss compared to saving lives and preventing the spread of the virus as stated in (1).

Suppose (3). If (3) is the case, then we’ve avoided inconvenience, but this advantage is nothing compared to the cost (4) represents. While we don’t have to wear a mask, celebrating the riddance of inconvenience pales in comparison to losing unnecessary lives and unknowingly spreading the virus. Compared to what we stand to lose in (4), in (3) we’ve won little.

Suppose (4). If we decide (4) is the strategy, we’ve doomed ourselves by making others sicker, we’ve continually spread the virus, and hospitals have had to turn away sick people which leads to more preventable deaths. We’ve lost so many lives and caused the sickness to spread exponentially, all because we didn’t wear a mask.

Note that we haven’t proved that masks work scientifically (although I highly suspect that they do). Rather, we’re doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to determine what the best strategy is. Wearing masks would be in our best interest. If we’re wrong, then it’s a minor inconvenience. But if we’re right, then we’ve prevented contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 virus which has wreaked havoc on many lives all over the globe. Surely, it’s better to bet on wearing masks than not to.

Shaun Miller is a researcher and philosopher focusing on ethics and applied ethics. He received in PhD in philosophy from Marquette University in 2019 and wrote his dissertation on the moral assumptions of sex education curriculum in the United States. As of now, he is continuing his research in furthering equality in sex education, the ethics of sex robots, and issues of moral talk in public arenas. He currently lives in Washington DC.