Getting Past Polarities: “How Should We Reopen?”

This recent Thomas Edsall piece got me thinking, and reflecting on what we have seen emerging over the question that might roughly be phrased as: How should we reopen society?

This is a question that turns on things that are held deeply valuable. It is not suited to a binary approach. Most news articles do portray it as binary, but they use differing poles. Edsall’s examination suggests one polarity (“safetyism” (addressed below) vs. economic security). And a recent New York Times editorial suggests another polarity (economic security vs. civil liberties).

By looking carefully at the various lines of thinking expressed in these binaries, I think we can see three emerging emphases. I know others may have other ways of laying things out, but this is what I am seeing.

    • We should do everything we can to protect vulnerable people and therefore stay home and confined until we know that everyone can be safe. (The thing held most deeply valuable here is care for others and that people be treated fairly: it is not fair that the vulnerable are at such risk) (Note that this is a way of describing the “safetyism” Edsall refers to in terms of things held valuable.)
    • We should move as rapidly as possible to rebuild the economy. (Here, what is held most deeply valuable is collective security: the economic pain is spreading too broadly and our society is at risk)
    • We should allow people to make their own decisions. (Held valuable: ability to chart my own course.)

Each of the above are in direct tension with the other two and also has a strong set of downsides. Think of a triangle with equally divergent corners, rather than a spectrum with a middle to be found.

The question How should we reopen society? will evolve into a different questions as the reopening progresses. And on a particular community level it may have more resonance: How should we reopen our congregation? is compatible with the same set of options, but may be easier to talk about since it is immediate and concrete.

(It is also possible to look at a more expressly economic name for the problem, as safety worries recede: How should we rebuild the economy?)

Covid-19: More Than Two Sides to the Reopening Question

On the really thorny questions that we face in public life, there are usually more than just two sides, yet the way we talk about them assumes an us-vs-them division that gets in the way of clear talk.

Writing in late April, 2020, the question for many states and cities is: How should we reopen, under what conditions, and when?

Like most of the really difficult public problems, there is not a definitive right answer to this question. There is not a department of government that can make the final and objectively correct determination. It is a political and moral question that calls us to set priorities.

Much of the commentary on this question sees two camps, whom some might call the Closers and the Openers. This article (albeit written from a Libertarian perspective) does a good job of portraying the best-foot-forward argument that each would mount:

Americans are divided about the best way to proceed from here, three months since the first case was diagnosed in the U.S. The division is more vivid and harsh on social networks than in the polls, where a vast majority of Americans still think strong lockdowns are the best idea moving forward. Such Americans think the economy needs to stay shut down by law until a vaccine or some effective treatment is developed that ensures no more, or a very tiny number of, people will be seriously harmed or killed by COVID-19.

On the other hand, some Americans think, on balance, the country’s overall quality of life demands we start letting people and businesses make their own decisions about whether it is safe to go out in public or conduct business openly, especially given access to simple prophylactic measures such as gloves and masks.

To the above perspectives I would add one that prioritizes fairness toward vulnerable and marginalized people. Maybe call this perspective the “Equalizers.” This view holds that the pandemic has intolerably intensified already existing inequities, and that mitigation must focus there first.

By acknowledging this third perspective, the conversation becomes more nuanced. The question is not a binary Open vs. Close one. Each perspective is in tension with two others. For instance, if we stay Closed, we not only must address the argument that a ruined economy may do more harm than the pandemic, but also the argument that Closure is harder on people who are already severely oppressed. Similarly, if we Open, we must ask how rushing back to work affects the vulnerable, low income who may well be on the front lines first, as well as what the broader effects of contagion could be.

Covid-19: Dealing with Moral Dilemmas in Everyday Life

Many of us are more secluded than usual right now. Some are living more closely with family members. Some are facing great difficulty in some personal or professional realm. For some, essential workers, care-givers, and others, life has sped up. We all, though, must look at ourselves clearly when we retire at night, able to answer the question: Have I acted rightly?

For some, it feels ever more difficult to answer this question right now.

Rushworth M. Kidder

A mentor early in my career, Rushworth M. Kidder (whose passage I still mourn), was a renowned expert on practical ethical decision making. In his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices, Rush developed a framework for thinking about moral dilemmas: difficult questions that pit one right action against another.

It seems that all we need now to do is simple: follow the advice of the experts who know. We must isolate, practice contagion hygiene, and distance ourselves.  But even within the bounds of these current restrictions, we face questions about what we as individuals — and groups — should do.

We are all facing such dilemmas in more and more intense ways:

    • I need food: Do I shop? When? Where?
    • An encampment of homeless need supplies: Do we go to them? How?
    • A vulnerable person needs shelter: Do I take them in? Under what conditions?
    • My aging family member visits unannounced: Do I allow them in?
    • A person owes taxes to the government: Should they receive a stimulus payment?

Moral dilemmas like these are different than temptations, which is what many people commonly mean when they refer to a “dilemma.” A temptation has a clear right action on one side, and an attractive yet wrong action on the other. For instance, under current isolation conditions, in my area it would be wrong of me to hold a dinner party, much as I might like to.

But dilemmas are different: Two right actions, and I can’t do both. It might seem like there would be infinite kinds of dilemmas, but Rush noted that there are just four:

    • Truth vs. Loyalty: Do I tell the truth, or do I remain loyal?
    • Justice vs. Mercy: Do I punish, or am I merciful?
    • Individual vs. Community: Should I act for myself or family, or for the larger community?
    • Short term vs. Long term: Should I act for the immediate good, or focus on the long term?

Under our current conditions, all of these dilemmas are front-and-center. Every move I make calls for me to consider the boundaries between my own well-being and that of the broader community. As we consider what to do in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we face stark short-term vs. long-term questions. And as time goes on, we will need to begin to make decisions about punishment, and about truth telling.

Just knowing that there are different kinds of dilemmas is not enough, as Rush knew. He notes that there are three ways of thinking about how to answer such dilemmas. Each has a long philosophical tradition(*) and has advantages as well as drawbacks:

    • Outcome-based: Do what is the best for the greatest number. Also known as “utilitarian.” Drawbacks of this approach: Can be cruel to the minority; assumes you can know all the outcomes of your actions.
    • Rule-based: Determine the proper rule, and act as if you are setting a precedent for all who might face an identical problem in future. Also known as the “categorical imperative.” Drawbacks: Can be overly rigid; under some circumstances can result in ridiculous outcomes (eg answering truthfully when a murderer rings your bell and asks if your family is home)
    • Care-based: Do what you would want done if the situation were reversed. Also known as the “golden rule.” Drawbacks: Cannot always know who the “other” would be; may be overly biased towards leniency

These decision-making principles are not like a computer, where you enter the question and they give an answer. Sometimes different principles will suggest different courses of action. What they do is give me a lens through which to look at my dilemma, and develop a response with which I might be morally comfortable.


* (I am simplifying the philosophy somewhat in the above, so for my theorist friends please be lenient.)

Health Care: How Can We Bring Costs Down While Getting the Care We Need? — New Conversation Materials Released

I am pleased to announce publication today of the most recent National Issues Forums issue guide, Health Care: How Can We Bring Costs Down While Getting the Care We Need?

From the guide:

Americans, individually and as a nation, are worried about high health-care costs. Many of us fear that skyrocketing drug prices and surprise medical bills could keep us from getting the care we need or ruin us financially whether we have insurance or not. Businesses and governments also face increasing costs. Health-care costs continue to grow faster than inflation.

How can we bring costs down while getting the care we need? This issue advisory looks at three ways of making our health-care system sustainable and fair. Each option offers advantages as well as downsides.

    • If we create a single government program to pay for everyone’s health care, would taxes rise and quality suffer?
    • Can gradual reforms hold costs down and still get everybody covered?
    • Should we take responsibility for our own choices in a more transparent and competitive marketplace even if that means those who make poor decisions will suffer the consequences?

NIFI is offering a full set of materials on this issue:

    • The issue guide in a printed, 28-page format and as a downloadable PDF
    • A briefer 6-page issue advisory that presents the same three options for deliberation (printed and PDF)
    • A 4-minute overview video
    • Post-forum questionnaire
    • Spanish versions of the issue advisory and questionnaire as downloadable PDF, and a subtitled overview video
This issue is part of the Hidden Common Ground initiative, a joint project that brings together nationwide survey research by Public Agenda, reporting and editorial coverage from USA TODAY, issue guides developed by the Kettering Foundation, and the network of National Issues Forums. The forums are meant to foster deliberation where people make decisions together on what actions we should take on pressing issues, and where we are divided and still have work to do.

Leadership Paradox

I recently began formally mentoring someone, and so I have been thinking about the nature of leadership. There’s a bind that “leaders” face. It has to do with the expectations of those who are led, and of the person who is trying to be a helpful leader.

Consider the teacher of yoga class. They “lead” the class.

On the one hand, as a member of the class, I want someone to inspire me and instruct me, to push me to do “better” and to “improve.”

But on the other hand, in reality the effort I make is personal. My yoga teacher does not actually make me perform “better,” but instead sets me up to unlock the capabilities I already have. True, she or he may invite me to try to work beyond my limitations. And true, I may practice with others, and the feeling of being in community may lift me. But it is always me, on my mat, alone, making the effort.

The abilities I have are all already locked within me.

And so here is the leadership paradox: If I am a leader, I have knowledge to pass on and I know that I might be able to spur others to self-surpass. But would it not be a shame if what others take away from me was that I “made them do well?” For then, what they learned was that they need someone else in order to perform.

As a leader, I want to awaken people to what they already have the capacity to do. I want to cultivate the sense that a leader is unnecessary — if not now, then soon.

As a student, what I may then learn is that self-surpassing is always fundamentally available to me, solely through my own efforts.

Friday Morning Street Banjo Music

When I am in DC, on weekdays I go to my office near the US Capitol. It is on the Senate side, so for those who know the city I take the train to Union Station and walk a few blocks. Like many train stations, Union Station attracts street musicians.

While we all have heard the stories of undiscovered diamonds busking in the streets, the truth is many of the musicians are just okay. A lot of it is singing performed over karaoke loops. But it’s all great — as someone who has tried it himself, I admire anyone who has the courage to get up in front of people and perform. And I love music.

The unwritten deal of street music is, if you stop and listen you are honor-bound to drop a dollar (or more) in the hat. Sometimes, to be honest, I just walk on by because even though I want to support, I am in a hurry, feel stressed, the music doesn’t grab me, or I don’t have any cash on me and don’t want to break the deal.

This morning, a clear, crisp, bright Fall day, I was stopped short by this:



That’s Brian Williams, playing the banjo. I was not only moved to stop and listen, but to talk to him a while. The figure he cut, and his sound, just entered my spirit. I asked if I could video him and he agreed.

Brian is a multi instrumentalist (guitar, cello, bass, banjo) who has been playing since 1968. Recently his guitar was stolen and he was without instrument. He says he met “an Irish man in Georgetown” who was having trouble finishing a song. Brian finished it for him, and in return the man gave him this banjo. He was going to sell it, but the music store told him it was a vintage 1930’s banjo, so he kept it.

I hope you enjoy his music.