The new ethics of Covid: Holding each other accountable for risky behavior saves lives

David G. Allan is the editorial director for CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, to which you can subscribe here.

(CNN)While I was hiking recently with my family, a woman came toward us from the other direction, wearing a standard face mask. As we neared, she jumped to the edge of the trail and then pointed at us. Firmly, but not rudely, she asked us to keep our distance while we passed.

We weren't wearing masks. No one — at least who we saw — in the park was wearing a mask, except her. Being outside and occasionally passing strangers is a very low-risk activity (though not imaginary) for Covid-19 exposure, so we didn't cover our hot and sweaty faces with masks.
We were not being careless, and in Georgia, where we live, wearing masks isn't required while exercising outdoors. But ethically speaking, the masked hiker was right. And in that moment when we drew closer, it took courage for her to speak up.
We intuitively knew she was right, which is why we quickly apologized and stepped off the trail so she could pass. The fact that she merely perceived a threat obliged us to do as she asked (within reason).
    If we all possessed the courage of this masked hiker — not just to be extra cautious but remind others to do the same — and if we could learn to do it mindfully, there might be fewer casualties in this pandemic.

    The man in the mirror

    We blame our leaders for their lack of guidance and for their self-serving motives when urging people to act incautiously. And that blame is appropriately placed when they set a bad example, because it's their job to protect our health and safety, especially the most vulnerable among us.
    But we have a responsibility as well. What are we individually doing — or not doing — that's making this pandemic deadlier and prolonging its impact on our lives?
    The United States stands out as one of the worst countries in the world for our slow and mixed response to Covid-19. As a country we tend to pride ourselves on our tradition of individualism and dissent. For some citizens this has led to a stance against masks, social distancing and other behaviors proven to keep our families and communities safe and our economy intact. For others, lack of Covid-19 protocol is mere indifference or not wanting to be inconvenienced.
    But the virtue of individualism doesn't take away our obligation to act for the common good. If anything, it puts a greater burden to do the right thing on the individual.
    Try asking yourself an ethical question posed by the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant: What would happen if everyone behaved as you did? We are morally obliged, Kant argued, to individually act in a way that we need everyone to act.

    The courage to do the right thing

    On one hand, you could look at unsafe pandemic behavior displayed by many Americans over the past few months and conclude we are a selfish people, perhaps born out of a long-standing position of privilege.
    But America is also a nation that has sacrificed for the collective good. We are capable of holding ourselves to a higher standard and meeting it, especially in times of crises. We need to be "again touched," as Abraham Lincoln urged in his first inaugural address, "by the better angels of our nature."