What does people’s refusal to wear face-masks during a pandemic tell us about the possibility of Kant’s self-governing humans?

Arguably the founder of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that the power of reason would lead to universal self-governance. Today, it seems laughable to claim that if people were left to their own devices that they would form a society in which all members strive towards virtue and happiness. Indeed, much of modern education is predicated on the idea of developing people’s self-control. However, this self-control is much different to the kind of autonomy Kant envisioned, rather this should be called, according to philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), discipline.

In early 2020, the covid-19 pandemic was declared and national governments around the world put in place various levels of restriction of movement and assembly. Not only were members of the public (and governments) restricted from meeting each other, even in private, but businesses were forced to close, workers made to work remotely or be furloughed, and everyone was told only to shop for necessities. The goal of this was supposedly clear- reduce close-contact with each other so as to reduce transmission of the virus.

Obviously, some businesses and services needed to remain open, and those working for such businesses were suddenly lauded as “essential workers”. These were now the economy’s heroes and the public owed it to them to reduce their risk of contracting covid-19 by following the government’s instructions to stay at home, only go out when necessary, and when doing so, following “social distancing guidelines”. Here in the UK, that meant keeping at least 2 metres away from people outside of your household, washing your hands more often, only buying essentials, and, eventually, on top of various confusing and contradictory rule changes, wearing face-masks on public transport.

Around the world, to various extents and according to various guidelines, people followed the new rules. However, not everyone did and the reasons for this can give us some insight into the ideas of both Kant and Foucault.

Foucault observed that the methods of the state, through institutions like healthcare and education, people are acted upon with disciplinary power in order to increase their “rational self-control”. This rational self-control is constantly improved through examinations and produces what Foucault called “docile bodies”. Unlike the Kantian rational subject that understands her own interests as interconnected with the self-interest of others and overall collective interests of humanity, Foucault’s docile bodies are disciplined towards socially acceptability and obedience.

The idea that the state, with its economic interests particularly, wants a docile population that does what it’s told, is a good worker that won’t complain about poor conditions or waste time, is nothing new. And it’s this fact, along with our entry into the so-called “post-truth” epoch (basically the amount of fake news tipping the masses towards skepticism of all media), that leads us back to Kant.

For Kant’s autonomous subject to be moral, obedience to the rules is not enough- it is our understanding of these rules- our knowledge that following them is reasonable which makes them moral. For the state however, only immediate consequences are understood, and only obedience is demanded. Due to this, in spite of scientific arguments which should appeal to our rational nature, we see widespread refusal to follow government “guidelines”.

Does the refusal of so many to follow what seems to so many others as rational rules which benefit us all individually and collectively then disprove the Kantian hope of self-governance? Does Foucault accidentally provide the state with an argument for more disciplinary power, given new evidence of people’s apparent inability to follow their rational self-interest? The answer to both questions is a resounding maybe.

As much as the mainstream media, doing nothing to discourage them, disparages those who refuse to wear masks, we might be tempted to pessimistically conclude: people cannot be trusted to self-govern- Kant was wrong. Moreover, we might be tempted to argue that, just as Foucault saw the productive effects of power (power being in his theories, an epiphenomena- product of collective action that isn’t necessarily good or bad), this situation gives the state a further mandate to act upon the population with disciplinarian power. It’s for our own good that we do as the state says.

However, this thinking ignores that the subject who refuses might just as well be acting in their own rational self-interest against the state. Indeed, the bloody history of the 20th century shows us how dangerous blind obedience to a state can be. And, with the public disillusioned by the mainstream media, perhaps naively so albeit skeptical of the news, does choosing to disobey really go against one of Kant’s most famous prompts: “Dare to know!”?

Furthermore, what kind of disciplinarian powers has the state wielded over the masses to inculcate such obedience and discipline? Are those who follow the government orders out of fear following their own rational self-interest, or like when they obey the factory foreman, the middle manager, the over-prescribing physician, are they simply obeying out of fear and/or docility?

Of course while Foucault comments on the more negative aspects of disciplinarian power in education- examinations, detentions, and back when Foucault was writing, corporal punishment was still common- he also saw the benefits and how disciplinary power in education could help produce, instead of docile bodies, rationally self-interested humans.

To some, it might seem as though Foucault kills the Kantian dream and covid-19 is the proof. The pandemic shows that people cannot be trusted to act in their own self-interest through something as simple as wearing a face-mask which is why, as Foucault explains, the state must discipline the population- for its own good.

But, there is still hope as Foucault also sees the potentially positive uses of disciplinarian power in creating those rationally self-interested humans Kant dreams of us becoming. The obvious answer, as has been quite often on CleftHabitus, is prioritising education. Moreover, the mainstream and state governed media must be held more accountable for poisoning public trust in state institutions. This is further complicated by another topic beyond the scope of this article- the state versus Black Lives Matter. For now, the answer to whether people’s refusal to obey pandemic rules disproves the possibility of Kant’s universal democracy, in which people follow the rules not because the state says they should, but because they understand it is in everyone’s self-interest to do so, is simply that only time will tell- and it’s how Foucault’s disciplinarian powers are used that will make the difference.

3 thoughts on “What does people’s refusal to wear face-masks during a pandemic tell us about the possibility of Kant’s self-governing humans?

  1. Dear Tom Roscoe,

    I concur with you and like the scope of your commendable post. Thank you very much for your excellent discussion on public discipline and compliance with Covid-19 restrictions from the Kantian and Foucauldian perspectives.

    Having studied social science, I have also enjoyed reading your life trajectories and your reflexive examinations of your own cleft habitus, as a result of your straddling two social milieus: a working-class upbringing and a middle-class tertiary education.

    Though much of modern science has divorced from philosophy, the latter is still very important. I would like to contend that whilst the History, Philosophy and Mythology of Science can be deemed as an Unholy Triumvirate, the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science is definitely a holy alliance. Sociology includes the study of myths, and the social science includes sociology, anthropology, archaeology and criminology.

    Regarding sociohistorical viewpoints, one way of looking at the problem or issue of social construction is through the works of Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas whom we both admire, and who has been well credited for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry (Madness and Civilization), social anthropology of medicine (The Birth of the Clinic), the human sciences (The Order of Things, The Archaeology of Knowledge, The History of Sexuality) and the prison system (Discipline and Punish), at least to the extent that the social construction of history is an (un)necessary evil, so to speak. The explication and insightful analysis of critical theory and ethics in relation to Foucault and Habermas in the light of social/moral philosophy and postmodernism can shed some good insights.

    History, philosophy and science are not immune to the pitfalls of following the default framework, the prevailing theoretical perspective, the dominant paradigm, and the latest trend or pop ideology. On the one hand, historians and philosophers should be empirically informed by the sciences most relevant to their work. On the other hand, scientists should have at least some historical awareness and philosophical training before assuming narrow interpretations of the data that they are compiling. In short, historians, philosophers and scientists alike need to collaborate to draw accurate and responsible interpretations and conclusions. Hence, I have always adopted a multidisciplinary approach, however difficult and challenging that approach may be(come).

    In addition, I wonder whether we can hope for some fundamental changes and sustainable improvements over the next decade or two. When one looks at the great number of schools, theories and disciplines within criminology and criminal law, and when one sees the ongoing anomie, social fracturing, cultural tribalism and escalating polarization plaguing many regions of the world, one would like to hope that some long-term solutions could be found in spite of the steady decline of some traditional customs and institutions amidst the rapid social and technological changes faced by contemporary societies and peoples. I, for one, am not very optimistic.

    I am delighted to have come across your writings. In light of your intellectual pursuits and analytical interests that have so far come across in the several well-reasoned essays that I have perused on your blog, I am certainly very curious of what you will make of my lengthy post called The Quotation Fallacy “💬”, and another more recent one called “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“, both of which you can easily locate at the Home page of my blog.

    Wishing you a very Happy August!

    Yours sincerely,


    1. Hi SoundEagle,

      Thanks so much for such a detailed reply- it was a nice surprise to see someone so knowledgeable about these topics that they could infer my interests in philosophy of science just from these articles! I have always had a few essays and ideas from back in my uni days I should like to write properly and post… you are getting me motivated to write again as I have not felt able to lately. In part because my path has changed quite significantly over the last year or so and in September I am due to start training to become a qualified secondary education teacher. I hope, and I can imagine you see where this thinking comes from, teaching will be a pragmatic way of applying social theory about the power of education rather than being a dusty policy maker who is doomed to be left unread by those with the power to legislate policies, or forced to frame things in a way that renders them useless or worse in order to even be glanced at from the real rulers (well… their minions).

      I will take a look at your posts as soon as possible and let you know what I think. Thanks again for your detailed response and have a great week.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear Tom Roscoe,

        I am delighted to hear from you, and look forward to your resurrecting those essays composed during your uni days.

        By the way, it is best to view my posts and pages on a large screen of a desktop or laptop computer, since those lengthy multimedia posts and my blog could be too powerful and feature-rich for iPad, iPhone, tablet or other portable devices to handle properly or adequately.

        Furthermore, since my intricate blog contains advanced styling and multimedia components plus animations, it is advisable to avoid using the WordPress Reader, which cannot show many of the advanced features in my posts and pages. Therefore, the posts and pages should be read in situ so that you will be able to savour and relish all of the refined and glorious details.

        Being an educator is no mean feat. The theory of education is vast, covering many intellectual terrains and needing a complex cartography to map them out. In any case, the best and most dedicated amongst the likes of us are also inveterate teachers of everlasting, transcendental wisdom to save humans from themselves, their self-interests and their destructive ways, about which you will find out in the two aforementioned posts entitled The Quotation Fallacy “💬” and “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“. It seems that we both have quite a lot in common.

        Happy mid-August to you and your family!

        Yours sincerely,


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