An Argument to Move College Students to Follow COVID-19 Guidelines

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is strengthening in parts of the United States, many universities here are planning to reopen their doors in the fall to educate, house, feed, and entertain students.

There are some who believe that re-opening cannot be done safely this fall, and one of the key failings, it’s predicted, will be student compliance with measures to slow the spread of the pandemic, such as keeping a safe distance from one another and wearing masks. Here’s the opening of an NPR story on the problem:

When asked if he could imagine a college party where everyone is wearing masks, Jacques du Passage, a sophomore at Louisiana State University, laughs. “No. I don’t think they would do that,” he says. “I think [students] would just have the party and then face the repercussions.”

So how might universities get students to comply with guidelines on social distancing, mask-wearing, hand cleaning, and the like? They might use a variety of methods, such as public service announcements and advertising, recruiting influencers to model good pandemic caution, perhaps rewarding students for good behavior and disciplining them for bad.

What, if anything, can philosophers do to help increase student compliance? Well, one thing philosophers are experts at is constructing arguments. And while it is an open question to what extent students can be moved to behave in certain ways by philosophical argument (and the extent to which humans are good at thinking rationally), it seems worthwhile to have some possibly effective arguments to deploy. After all, there is a lot at stake, and we might as well make use of the tools and skills we have to help out.

So, philosophers, give it a shot. Pick a particular type of behavior universities will want students to exhibit in order to mitigate the pandemic and give us an argument you think might have a chance of moving them to do it.

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3 years ago

I’m sorry but who exactly is the target for this exercise? Is it students who are not currently complying with the health recommendations despite the mountain of evidence and media coverage available about the effects and spread of COVID-19, but who will find themselves “rationally compelled” by a valid or cogent argument?

Wisdom, in this case, may be knowing that our particular methods and skills are ill-equipped for this endeavor.


Paul Wilson
3 years ago

Young college sudents *may* be most receptive to public health initiatives they have been exposed to for years:

* drunk driving
* hazing
* safe sex
* mental health

Repurposing some of the more successful campaigns, if any, might be a place to begin.

3 years ago

If rational arguments and even grim death tolls cannot persuade administrators at universities or government officials — most all of which have degrees of one sort or another, have easy access to the data/evidence, and are supposed to be equipped with the skills to lead — how can we expect those same things to persuade students?

3 years ago

Our students overwhelmingly want to attend college in person. I would argue that if there is an outbreak in our small community it is likely that classes will move online and dorms will close and they will be forced to move back home. The alternative is that they follow our best practices and if they must have relaxed attitudes towards PPE and physical distancing they form small friend-groups to socialize in this fall until we see what happens with testing. This will be hardest for the first year students, but I think it is still possible to imagine the majority of students complying with PPE while “out and about” and then retreating to smaller family-type units of friends. We are a small rural college of <1500 students. I doubt this argument has any force in the larger schools or in schools that have less residential and close-knit communities. And if the NHL can't even do this when there are million dollar salaries in play I'm not sure self-interest will be sufficient to motivate students.