Danielle Allen: How Can Democratic Values Guide Us When Facing A Global Crisis? In a democracy, what does the path through a pandemic look like? Political theorist Danielle Allen says the solution requires us to preserve individual lives, individual rights, and equality.

Danielle Allen: How Can Democratic Values Guide Us When Facing A Global Crisis?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/904365013/904620517" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - lessons from the summer of 2020. Looking back at crucial conversations we've had on the show.

A couple of months ago, we did an episode about how entire societies were responding to the pandemic. Asking citizens to upend their lives still brings up big questions. Should businesses be forced to stay closed? Should everyone be required to wear a mask? And what comes first - the rights of the individual or the collective safety of society? In other words - what is the greater good?

DANIELLE ALLEN: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights..

ZOMORODI: For philosopher and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, knowing the best way to respond in an emergency means going back to the fundamentals of a nation. In this case - American democracy. Which is why Danielle kicked off our conversation by reciting the Declaration of Independence from memory.


ALLEN: ...as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness. Now, it's the last clause that is the most important. The point of our institutions is that the people - the whole people, not a part of the people - lays the foundation on principle and organizes the powers of government to deliver safety and happiness to the whole people. Our decision-making should always start from the premise that we do not abandon any subset of our population in a time of crisis. For me, that is just the bedrock. You start there.


ZOMORODI: So Danielle says that acting for the greater good, especially when facing a crisis like a pandemic, means doing a better job living up to American ideals. And those ideals include preserving individual lives, individual rights and equality.

ALLEN: When you face an existential threat, you're saving individual lives, but you're also trying to save the collective life of a society. And the society that we are is a constitutional democracy, which means the project of preserving lives, rights and liberties and non-discrimination and due process and equity and things like that. So you know, we want to survive as the kind of place we are, and that changes the question of what the path to survival consists of.

ZOMORODI: So Danielle and a group of experts across the country came up with a strategy called The Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience. It outlines the steps the U.S. should take to suppress the coronavirus.

ALLEN: So how do you stop a viral virus? You break the chain of transmission. One way to do that, you know, collective stay-at-home orders. Do that.

ZOMORODI: But to safely reopen the country, we need much more.

ALLEN: Every time somebody tests positive, you want to be finding 25 other people to also test. So you want to find their contacts and test their contacts and test their contacts. And if you have those who test positive go into isolation with support, then you're also taking that virus out of circulation.

ZOMORODI: Contact tracing is happening in cities like New York, but it's a laborious process, even without all the ethical questions that it brings up.

ALLEN: How do you get people to go get tests? How do you find people's contacts or help people communicate with their contacts to provide them alerts and warnings about exposure? And then, you know, literally things like how do you collect all those samples and accession them and control the data and make sure you have privacy protections and so forth, and then get all those samples to labs that can do high throughput processing? So there's a whole supply chain that involves human organization, as well as the delivery of testing kits. All of that needed to be conceived and organized. It's a doable thing. Asian countries like South Korea have done this. Taiwan had done this because they thought it through after SARS in 2003.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. But that brings up even more questions about privacy, right? Like I've read how the health authorities in South Korea were collecting and distributing to other citizens vast amounts of personal data. And now we're seeing that the tech companies are working together to come up with a contact tracing app. How do we handle this privacy piece?

ALLEN: So the first thing to do is to start thinking about what are these contact tracing apps? What are their purposes? Their purposes are basically to solve information problem. So the information problem is to figure out how to let all those people who were unknowingly or unwittingly infected know that that may have happened to them. And that's where the apps seem to come in as a helpful thing. So you want to make sure that the data is being stored on individual phones, not a centralized server, and that it is being sort of deleted on a regular basis. That's really the key thing.

ZOMORODI: Right. It's a real technical challenge. But can you give us some examples of when individuals have been asked to change their behavior to protect the greater good here in the U.S. and we have been successful?

ALLEN: Sure. I mean, there's a whole bunch of them. I mean, there's motorcycle helmets. You know, it's a law now. You have to wear a helmet, right? And there was huge resistance. Or even helmets for playing ice hockey - that was the kind of thing where you actually have to have everybody do it in order to take away the stigma from having anybody wear a helmet. And that's the kind of key point here. Seatbelts is another one, right? Huge fights in this country about seatbelt laws, and now, you know, few of us would really even think about not wearing our seatbelts in a car.

ZOMORODI: How realistic and likely is it that the road map that you have laid out with your colleagues and other extremely reasonable-sounding road maps generally make sense in a world where we have a government that will actually take the advice of scientists and experts, such as yourself? Where do you find yourself sort of living in this moment that, like, these ideas, I think, largely do make sense, and yet they will be politicized in a way that they will likely not be rolled out?

ALLEN: So the job of experts is just to provide advice. And it's the job of elected leaders to make judgments. And it's the job of citizens to understand the judgments facing elected leaders and to share their own opinions about those judgments. And to some extent, I think the notion that we should simply defer to experts is part of a problem - OK? - hides the choice that the leaders have to make and that people should be clear about. So in the face of existential threats one does need a whole of society response.

ZOMORODI: Right. So this episode that we're working on is about this idea of putting aside what is necessarily the best for you or your immediate family and doing what's right for the greater good. And I guess I wonder, has the American culture of individualism prepared us for all that we need to do right now? What you have just described, I mean, it requires compliance. The Asian countries that you referenced have a culture of compliance. And of course, earlier, Huang Hung, a writer in China - she explained how authoritarianism - well, there are some benefits to it. The culture there is to put the group before the individual.

ALLEN: So I would put the questions and issues differently. So I don't think it's a question of compliance. I think it is a question of civic responsibility. We are very individualistically oriented culture. But we are also a culture that understands concepts of civic responsibility and civic duty. We are, at the end of the day, a rights-based society, and rights come with responsibilities. All right. So in knowing one's own status - you know, if you know you're exposed, go get a test. And then sharing that alert or warning with others, you're actually doing something that's good for yourself, for your family and for your community simultaneously. So the country has deep communitarian traditions. I mean, this is the country of Tocqueville and barn raising where people gather together to build each other's barns. And so it's that sort of civic solidarity, civic responsibility, that we need to tap into in order to have approaches to health that rest on citizen empowerment. So in fact what we argue for in our road map is not a national or federally run contact tracing program. We actually affirm the value of our federalist structure and the importance of localizing contact tracing programs in support of a broad culture of taking responsibility for our own health and health within our communities.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. We still are a decentralized country in many ways. But in light of the protests about racial injustice, how do we balance our health with coming together to address the very real social problems that we have, too?

ALLEN: It's a real question, right? Because before the pandemic hit, fewer than 30% of Americans age 40 and under considered it essential to live in a democracy. OK. So before the pandemic hit, we already faced a legitimacy crisis - a silent one. And so I have a strong conviction that what a democracy promises is a much higher degree and breadth of human flourishing than an authoritarian regime can ever offer. For that reason, I think it's important in the face of an existential threat to preserve a democracy broadly - the broad foundation for the fullest possible pathway to human flourishing. But that is, I think, a case that we'd have to start, almost from scratch, making again.

ZOMORODI: So do you think it would be fair to say then that the social contract between the state and its citizens has been, I guess, splintered here in the United States? And maybe the pandemic and now this national conversation about race - could they actually be opportunities to patch it up in some way?

ALLEN: So when I talk about the social contract, I'm talking about a relationship among the population of a society. So the first social contract is the one that we all have with each other. So that's where I really am interested in this question of, you know, who had an instinct when the crisis hit that we don't abandon anybody? And that was health care workers. And who had an instinct that, oh, well, maybe we let this group go, or maybe we let that group go? That is at a level of a contract amongst ourselves. That's what's broken. And then there's a second kind of relationship, which is between the citizenry as a whole and the state. The state is just our vehicle we use for delivering the public goods that we have mutually committed to protecting with one another. And that's a different kind of breakage than the breakage of a social contract.

So, you know, it goes back to that point I was making about not abandoning people. We're not actually committed to protecting our whole population. And we do have to address that and face it squarely. If we can't recover that basic idea, then what we're doing isn't really democracy anyway. So we can lose it by slow death. We don't have to lose it in a dramatic way. But that's pretty fundamental.


ZOMORODI: That's Danielle Allen. She's a political philosopher and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard. You can find out more about Danielle at ted.npr.org.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.