The Ethics of Overcoming a Pandemic: Interview with Danielle Allen

Political theorist Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where she leads the center’s on-going COVID-19 Rapid Response Initiative. Widely recognized for her contributions to democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought, Allen is the 2020 recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize awarded by the Library of Congress for Achievement in the Study of Humanity.

Harvard Political Review: Throughout your career, you have been able to write on varied, but still interconnected topics as a classicist, a modern political theorist, and now a commanding voice on criminal justice reform and the ethics of pandemic response and resilience-building. Can you speak to how you’ve been able to successfully traverse these different lines of academic inquiry and develop your voice as an authority on public policy?

Danielle Allen: There are two things that matter. The first is to develop clarity about what really motivates you and what your core questions and pursuits are. For me, that is all about democracy and my conviction that healthy democracy is necessary for human flourishing. So I’ve always had a motivation to understand democracy from a scholarly perspective, but then also a motivation to be able to contribute that understanding to public conversations. The second thing, though, is about understanding roles and being able to be very clear in your own mind about what’s appropriate for a specific role. I think of myself as carrying multiple roles. Most obviously, I am a faculty member at Harvard. I’m also a columnist for The Washington Post. I participate in various kinds of civil society organizations. I understand each of those roles as being distinct with their own kinds of morality and duties. And I try to be very, very careful about always being clear about which role I’m playing and really making sure I live up to the standards of that role and that context.

So in other words, people can ask the question, “How do you take scholarship into public life?” and they can think that means, say, using a university platform for political advocacy or something like that. But I really try to draw a bright line between what scholars do qua scholars versus what you can do qua columnist for a newspaper or what you can do as a citizen participating in your own name in civil society organizations.

HPR: With regard to the Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience and COVID-19-related initiatives from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, what role does ethics play in undergirding the center’s policy recommendations, and how do you view your role as an ethicist in spearheading that work? 

DA: I think it’s important to recognize that any domain of policy requires hard thought about “first principles.” That is, what are the overarching objectives being pursued in the relevant policy domain? And then there’s a second line of thought which is, given those objectives, what are the solution pathways and how do we implement them? And it can be the case that when a society achieves consensus around an overarching objective, it settles into the experience of the policy conversation being just the technocratic one of how to implement a policy.

In my view, it’s actually important that we routinely refresh the “first principles” conversations across all domains. That’s hard for people to remember to do. However, a moment of crisis makes it visible that it’s [a] necessary [step]. Then, though, you have a problem, because people have fallen into this habit of just having a technocratic conversation; they don’t actually know how to go back and have the first principles conversation. That’s what my colleagues and I who are affiliated with Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics were seeing in February. We saw a world that really needed to have a “first principles” conversation but was stuck in a technocratic landscape and therefore, couldn’t get unstuck. 

So, we built a network of people who would start by asking the question, “What should our overarching objectives be?” From there, you realize that you probably have multiple objectives. If you look at our cases, we care about saving lives. We care about saving livelihoods and liberties, for instance. And then your next job is to ask the question, “How can we maximally align achievement of these objectives?” Ask that question first, before you start asking questions about trade-offs. In this country, we just defaulted straight to asking the technocratic question about trade-offs, as if we’d already addressed the question of how do you align the pursuit of your top-level objectives. We just totally missed out on that whole alignment conversation.

HPR: One aspect of the COVID-19 response that you have emphasized is the difference between “mitigation” and “suppression,” a distinction which has not been in the vernacular of most people day-to-day. What do you believe will be the long-term effects of the vast disparities between the United States’ attempts at mitigation versus the successes of countries like Germany, among others, to suppress the virus, both externally in the way the U.S. is viewed, but also with respect to how Americans view their own systems and institutions and their relative inability to suppress the virus?

DA: When I was a graduate student, I showed up in Cambridge, England in 1993. I remember being really struck by how much England was struggling with the fact that it was not a colonial superpower anymore. That is, it had lost all of its colonies. It was having an identity crisis. And there’s a lot that’s been happening in this pandemic that has reminded me of that moment. That is, it’s a moment where the U.S. has discovered that we weren’t able to deliver the capacity that we’ve historically believed we’ve had. We have not performed or delivered at the level at which we had good reason to think we should be able to perform. So, I think we’re going to have an identity crisis. I think it’s probably going to be long-lived. And it’s hard to say what the cost will be or what directions the crisis will take.

HPR: In May, you wrote about the importance of schools reopening. Recently, in many school districts, it has become evident that it will not be feasible for schools to safely reopen this year. In both your role as a policy advisor and as an educator, what do you hope to see from the education system and from schools as we face the next phase of the pandemic, and what do you expect will be the major fault lines as the pandemic unfolds during the school year?

DA: I think we need to reframe the conversation. It’s not really about whether we open schools. It’s about what is our inventory of pandemic-resilient teaching and learning, and how do we allocate it? So a pandemic-resilient teaching and learning space is one in which de-densification is possible. Where it’s possible to activate the protocols of protection and so forth. Knowing that children and adults in teaching and learning spaces face quite different risk levels, concerns are much higher for adults obviously than for young people. So basically, our argument is that, with the exception of the highest incidents, people should allocate their stock of pandemic-resilient teaching and learning spaces: first priority is to have kindergarten through fifth grade learning in person, the second priority is to have sixth through eighth grade learning in person, and the third priority is ninth through 12th grade, which probably means the oldest students will either be in remote learning or hybrid learning.

And when I say “pandemic-resilience,” that doesn’t just mean the ability to spread out or de-densify. It also means you have to invest in ventilation, filtration, building upgrades that support that air quality, sanitation, and hygiene. There’s a great report by Joseph Allen at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health called “Schools for Health” which I recommend.

HPR: In the last few months, have there been any success stories on the local level of instances of resilience building that you think stand out as a model for future responses?

DA: Absolutely. I’m always repeating over and over again, “You have to diversify the story.” The story of what’s happened in this country is not a single story. The story of what the situation is now is not a simple story. It’s never about whether we all shut down or open up. You’ve got to break it down. And that’s why the micro picture is so important. 

Massachusetts stands out for having built what we call a full end-to-end TTSI-infrastructure, and there are other success cases. Despite the current situation in Louisiana, New Orleans generally has been able to build great protocols for hotspot testing. New York City has done an amazing job of building out contact tracing and starting to ramp up that capacity, and Washington, too, in various ways has been a real leader. 

But the problems are so diverse. For instance, Alaska has to deal with the fishing industry and all these people who come from all over the world in various short seasons and have to go out to sea together. They’ve done a great job of working out protocols for that. If you even just look around Massachusetts, we have opened our restaurants successfully, particularly in the summer period when you can be outdoors. And so it is painful to see the resilience that we’ve enacted for restaurants not being actualized in hospitals or schools. 

HPR: In your writing, you’ve also emphasized the fundamental need to restore the social compact and rebuild trust in one another to overcome COVID-19. For many people, it can be unclear where that begins. How can we each do our part to participate in joint citizenship and change the culture around our response to COVID-19 for the better?

DA: Well, I think you’ve put your finger on it already. We have to recognize that any highly infectious virus is a social phenomenon. It can’t be analyzed on the individual level. So, it’s not really just a question of “How do I keep myself safe?” All of our actions always carry implications for everybody else. So, mask-wearing, for example, is our responsibility to others. It’s a responsibility to the people we love, but also to our broader communities. We need to internalize that we are going to need a shared culture of responsibility because an infectious virus is, by definition, a shared experience.

HPR: It can be difficult to maintain a sense of hope for the future, especially as a young person living through this pandemic. What, if any, words of encouragement do you have for young Americans today?

DA: First of all, people will often frame the question this way: to be optimistic or pessimistic? And what I always say in response is “Failure is not an option.” So I’m a “not-an-optionist.” And that’s important because in every period of difficulty, there are always people out there for whom failure is not an option, and you don’t know who they are. In the world right now, there are so many people who are trying to figure out solutions. And they’re working hard. We just don’t happen to know them. And so none of us can project from the current moment what the horizons of possibility are. So you have to be open to recognizing that the horizons of possibility can surprise you and that the best way to activate those positive surprises is to take the “Failure is not an option” attitude. 

Then the question is, what does that mean to say failure is not an option? So, the final point is that you must have your goal constantly in mind. And the goal is healthy, constitutional democracies that secure rights and deliver justice and equity via the means of effective governance. And if one can keep that goal firmly in mind, then one’s activities orient toward it. And if you can bring that spirit of faith – failure is not an option – to that goal, then all kinds of positive energies are unleashed and good things will come from it. Of that, I am one hundred percent confident.

Image Credit: George W. Gay Lecture with Danielle Allen, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Marian Bothner is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

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