‘Can Optimism In Democracy Be Exploited?’ And Other Qs for Danielle Allen

Oregon Humanities wrapped up its 2018-19 Think & Drink series last month by interviewing Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University and author of the memoir “Cuz.”

You can watch the full conversation on YouTube.

And as always, we took questions from the audience for a bonus Q&A after the show:

Can people’s optimism about democracy be exploited by those who are not as sacred about it? How do we confront that?

Danielle Allen: Sometimes it is necessary to fight to defend the core values of democracy. But one has to fight in ways that embody the values of freedom and equality on which democracy rests. One has to fight fair. This means within the bounds of the law and of democratic norms.

In other words, the fact that optimism for democracy means that one moves in the world fundamentally with a commitment to peaceableness does not prevent one from registering those places where one meets an existential adversary nor from finding the means to defend democracy against the challenge they present.

All of the lawful and non-violent tools of democracy contain great power and they should not be underestimated.

Did religion figure into your understanding of “justice”?

I understand justice as the pursuit of human flourishing. Advocates of justice may have religious bases or secular bases for those commitments. Religious traditions and secular humanist traditions are both capable of building solid foundations for respect for human dignity and pursuit of justice.

Your comment that equality is built on the belief that there could be gods among us struck me as similar to Kant’s categorical imperative. Am I on the right track? Can you speak to this?

Many of the world’s philosophical traditions have ways of capturing the basic idea of human equality that I was expressing with the remark that even here, among us, there may be gods.

Kant’s categorical imperative is one such idea. The ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh gets to the same idea by focusing on the fact that we’re all mortal — regardless of how wealthy or powerful anyone is, that person too will die and turn into dust just like the rest of us.

That’s the other end of the spectrum for capturing basic human moral equality, but focusing on how we all reduce to dust. Of course there are echoes of both of those ideas in the various religious traditions of the world. And one can go on and on.