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  • Reverend James Squire


I am indebted to NPR journalists, Rachel Treisman, Joe Hernandez, and Selena Simmons Duffin who wrote about the decision of Judge Kathryn Mizelle to cancel the mask mandate across the nation in their April 19 articles. I have merged the substance of their articles with my understanding of the ethics or, I should say, the lack of ethics of this decision.

First, you must know that Judge Mizelle was appointed to the federal bench by Donald Trump. She had limited experience and was thought to be too inexperienced by the American Bar Association to be a judge. She spent too short a period of time conducting trials in a courtroom. The ramifications of her actions have had an immense ripple effect across our nation.

Ironically, she used the same ploy that Bill Clinton used during his impeachment trial regarding what he allegedly did with Monica Lewinsky. When he responded to a question, he indicated, “It depends on what the meaning of is, is.” He wanted to have people enter into a long, involved discussion on the meaning of the word “is” so that the people would get bogged down in semantics.

Mizelle has done the same thing by questioning the meaning of the word, sanitation, which is at the heart of the Public Health Service Act to defend the mask mandate.

The CDC argued that the mask mandate is in place because sanitation refers to “infections that are dangerous to human beings, and other measures of judgement that may be necessary.”

Mizelle opted for a very narrow interpretation of the word that she got from Webster’s Dictionary of all places and not from previous law cases. She concluded, “Masks don’t sanitize anything. They don’t clean anything.” The law reads that “sanitation was just the old way in public health parlance of taking traditional public health steps to prevent the spread of disease.”

One law professor said that, “her opinion reads like someone who had decided the case and then tried to dress it up as legal reasoning without actually doing the legal reasoning.”

There are at least three ethical dilemmas here. First, we have the slippery slope argument that if her decision remains in place, it will become a huge problem when the CDC and government need to have the ability to control future outbreaks. Masks were part of the response during the Spanish flu epidemic at the turn of the century. Hence, there is precedent.

Second, there is also use the teleological suspension of the ethical argument where this decision could have long term effects of the virus that is affecting more people each day. Her decision also raises issues of short-term thinking having long term effects.

Third, is the issue of autonomy vs. beneficence and utilitarianism should be considered which espouse the greatest good for the greatest number. One person (autonomy) is affecting (beneficence) the greater good. Scientists predict that this decision will have catastrophic effects on rising Covid rates of people getting the disease and the result that more people will die from it. Should one unelected official decide what is right for the entire country? The reasonable person standard would offer a rousing “no” as a reply.

There is an additional ethical thought that needs to be raised. It is something that we can learn from the Ukrainians. This thought was captured by two segments on the evening news. The first was people in an airplane told that there was no longer any mask mandate. There were cheers from the passengers that you would see if people were let out of prison. This was followed with a segment that featured a mother on the west coast who had purchased tickets to take her four years old son to see his grandparents on the east coast. She no longer felt comfortable flying with him. Another interview focused on an immune suppressed person who was now afraid to leave her home.

The message from the horror of Ukraine is that they take care of one another as they face the prospect of destruction and death. They have common values and a common goal to live in freedom from the Russians. We still view wearing a mask as a limitation on our freedom as opposed to how wearing a mask protects the vulnerable.

I can’t in my wildest imagination think that a person in Ukraine would be moaning and groaning about wearing a mask. The mask says, “I care about you because I never will know when I am meeting with someone who is vulnerable to the Covid virus.” Ethically it is not about me. It is about we. In ethics we call it the “golden rule.” I will do for you what I hope that you will do for me. In the discipline of evolutionary morality, this ethical stance is the simple reason that we became civilized in the first place.

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