The COVID Jerk

The boundaries of responsible behavior are less clear than they once were.

An illustration of a man peering over your screen with glowing yellow eyes reflecting coronavirus particles.
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Eric Schwitzgebel is a philosophy professor at UC Riverside and the author of A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

We all know the type. First appearing in the spring of 2020, the COVID jerk strutted unmasked through the supermarket, exhaling clouds of risk on worried shoppers and employees, and daring low-paid workers to try to enforce the new policies. Flaunting their disdain for scientific consensus, they stepped close behind you in line, breathing on your shoulder, complaining about maximum-occupancy requirements.

The classic COVID jerk still thrives. But because highly effective vaccines have been available for a long while, and as the Omicron wave subsides, reasonable people will disagree about what now constitutes a jerk move. The boundaries of responsible behavior are less clear than they once were.

I have a theory: Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the intellectual and emotional perspectives of others around them. Let me unpack this a bit.

Jerks fail to appreciate others’ intellectual perspectives. Those who disagree, they see as idiots. They don’t recognize that their preferred opinions might be mistaken. They have no interest in exploring alternative views. Conversation aims at winning, or embarrassing another, or simply announcing the truth they know. Listening with an open mind is for other people.

Jerks also fail to appreciate others’ emotional perspectives. Unless in alignment with the jerk’s own goals, other people’s feelings, priorities, and values barely register in consciousness, or register only as targets for ridicule. Everyone around the jerk, except the few they care about most, inhabits one or another negative social stereotype. Strangers and acquaintances are not unique individuals with diverse and worthwhile concerns. Instead, the world swarms with slimy salespeople, dippy party girls, clueless retirees, losers who couldn’t find a real job, illegal aliens, empty suits, cheaters, suckers, sheep.

Recently, I spotted a COVID jerk in the news. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who proudly and publicly refuses COVID-19 vaccines, last month created a fracas by dining indoors in a New York restaurant, violating the city’s mandate that indoor diners must be vaccinated. After testing positive for COVID, she returned to the same restaurant. Although during her second visit she remained outdoors, Palin violated federal guidelines by failing to isolate, and she exposed nearby staff and diners to what most would regard as excessive risk. She did this, presumably, without their knowledge or consent. Palin’s behavior was obviously improper.

Jerks culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of others around them. That is, they do so in a blameworthy way. Babies aren’t jerks. They aren’t blameworthy for failing to appreciate others’ perspectives. And some perspectives are too foolish or noxious to deserve appreciation—for example, the perspective of a neo-Nazi. Sympathetically understanding Richard Spencer’s politics is optional.

The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. People with a sweet disposition see value in others’ projects and readily help out—sometimes too readily, at excessive cost to themselves. Where the jerks cut to the front of the line ahead of all the dumb schmoes, the sweethearts yield their spot to someone in a hurry. Where the jerks insult others almost by instinct and revel in it afterward, if they reflect on it at all, the sweethearts email a pained apology after being unintentionally rude.

Having the wrong opinions about COVID safety is not what makes someone a COVID jerk.  Stipulate hypothetically that the risks of COVID are overblown. Assume for the sake of argument that COVID now poses little more risk than the ordinary flu. Even if that’s the case and you know it, you can still respect those who disagree. If someone thinks—however falsely, in your opinion—that your breathing maskless puts their life at risk, you can pull up your mask out of politeness and in acknowledgement that you might be wrong. It’s the dismissive attitude toward others’ concerns that makes a COVID jerk.

Imagine a sweetheart version of Palin. She knows, or thinks she knows, that COVID is spreading inevitably, and we’ll all get it, and it’s not so bad, and we should just proceed with life as usual. But she recognizes that many other seemingly reasonable people think differently. She appreciates that others might care intensely about not taking risks that she feels they ought to be willing to take. This fictional Palin is honest and willing to compromise. She informs others that she has tested positive and allows them to decide whether to keep their distance. Knowing that some people will be upset if she is unmasked and unvaccinated around them, she pulls up her mask in public places.

As COVID-safety standards evolve in the next weeks or months, I recommend the following principles of non-jerkitude:

Be open. Don’t hide your vaccination status. Don’t hide a positive test result. Even if you think these things don’t matter now that COVID caseloads are declining, others might disagree.  Respecting others means letting them know what risks you bring so that they can respond according to their own comfort level.

Adhere to rule and custom. If the supermarket requires masks, wear a mask, even if you think it’s silly. People less tolerant of COVID risk still need to work and shop, and they rely on others’ compliance with policy in deciding when, where, and how to appear in public. For the same reason, even if there’s no explicit rule, don’t be the one person violating customary precautions.

Be willing to compromise. Maybe you think that children should start playing together again without restriction, but another parent in your playdate group feels more cautious. Try respectful conversation aimed at compromise. Can you discover a mutually acceptable set of standards?  I should stress here that COVID-cautious people can also be COVID jerks by insisting too stridently on precautions that others find excessive rather than respectfully considering alternative points of view.

Don’t inflict unusual risks or costs on others without their consent. Ordinary living entails inflicting some unwelcome risks and costs on others. We drive our cars, putting not only other drivers but also cyclists and pedestrians at risk. We burn firewood for a cozy winter atmosphere, compromising outdoor air quality. We host noisy parties and talk on our cellphones in public, annoying those around us for our own convenience. It’s part of the implicit social contract, so to speak, that we do these things within ordinary bounds. If the noisy party runs unusually late, if you swoop within inches of a pedestrian at 30 mph, or if you’re shouting ragefully into your cellphone right at the edge of an outdoor café, you break the implicit contract—unless the affected people somehow indicate consent. The same applies with COVID.  If you’d like to do something that puts others at unusual risk—and what is “unusual” will vary with time and locale—get consent first.

None of these principles requires that you have a particular opinion about COVID safety. Go ahead and argue against mask requirements at town-hall meetings—but wear a mask if that’s the policy. Petition your school to change the quarantine rules—while continuing to abide by them. You might be mistaken, or you might be correct, but either way you are respecting the people around you.

Nor do these principles require you to live according to your most cautious friend’s code of conduct. If you feel comfortable eating at a restaurant or drinking at a bar, that’s your call. Yes, you might catch COVID (perhaps you’ll be seated downwind of Sarah Palin). You might even inadvertently pass the disease to someone else, perhaps a relative. But if you haven’t been a jerk about it—if you’ve been open, rule-compliant, and respectful; if you told Dad how you’ve been living before exposing him to the indirect risk—then that’s bad luck, not an ethical slip. The sweetest kid in the world might do that.