16/04/20

Democracy and its values in pandemic’s times

A short set of axiological questions for an inquiry into our future

BY ROBERTA DE MONTICELLI*

1) Remarks on recent events 
An alarming fact about many decision-makers and/or public opinion leaders in this time of crisis has been their apparent inability to subject their communications to the spirit of the axiological principles on which the constitutional charts of liberal democratic countries are based. The principle of democratic sovereignty implies the highest possible degree of transparency, clarity and consistency in the information a government owes to the public, concerning the reasons why a given measure should be suggested or imposed, in view of the public interest. This principle has been significantly neglected by several governments in Europe, where the public has been regarded much more as a mass of irresponsible, spoiled children suffering no rules, than as autonomous rational agents, whose consent must be gained by good reasons. The following analysis aims at highlighting in more detail the axiological sources of a democratic civilization that even the worst emergency should not lead its rulers to neglect. 

A general remark: governments are naturally inclined to prioritize Efficiency over any other value inspiring public policies. This leads many persons today to alarming appraisals of totalitarian regimes such as China’s. However, if the gravity of danger concerning Public Health truly implied putting aside all other axiological principles except Efficiency, there would have been no deaths in China, or considerably less. Now a) the number of deaths appears to be considerably higher than the one officially registered; b) The same choice has been responsible for a violation of Transparency so radical as to have caused, or at least to have fostered, the exponential growth of the contagion locally, and its global spread. 

An example of an arbitrary, not axiologically examined trend in governmental communication has been presenting Protection as the only value priority shared by the people now. There is, of course, a sense in which this is legitimate in the given circumstances. However, Protection can be granted by public services, in particular Health Services in coordination with the whole medical profession, only if other co-essential values are respected and implemented, such as Transparency, hence granting everybody the most extensive and most accurate access to the available factual truth and the best existing scientific knowledge. Even more needed would be, in similar circumstances, Clarity, Consistency, and Context-Sensibility on the part of governmental spokespersons. 

Mutatis mutandis, all of the axiological principles of a democratic constitution should be examined as to the impact they could suffer from arbitrary prioritizing Efficiency – or, even worse, paternalistic (or maybe functionalistic) views implying increase of heteronomous behavior on the part of citizens. This point is even more worth considering, as history proves that each crisis tends to cause extraordinary renewals of the intellectual and moral settings to cope with a changing world. Yet such renewals presuppose that spontaneity and creativity, the intellectual and practical daughters of freedom, are not overly constrained. For example, WWI fostered Women’s Emancipation, because of the unreplaceable role women played in the economic and civil life of societies during the war; WWII fostered such spectacular and revolutionary worldwide events as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the constitutionalization of human rights in European democracies, and the welfare state. 

2) Three top values of Liberal Democracy: a survey of questions at the time of Coronavirus. Equality seems to be the value which this crisis shows to be violated more massively than others by the existing institutional settings. The most crying inequalities concern the impact of the confinement measures on people's life, and the very different economic consequences suffered by different groups of citizens. However, an even deeper issue is now gaining visibility. Namely, is it morally tolerable in the future to limit the right of access to public care (e.g., intensive therapies) on the basis of preexisting health, capacity of recovery, class or age or personal performance (the problem of disabled)? Which are the measures best suited to avoid a utilitarian calculus of access priority, made necessary by the scarcity of medical resources in the future? What about the virtual disappearing of any rights, including the fundamental right to life, in the prisons? 


Freedom is, of course, the most challenged principle in times of pandemic. Now an axiological analysis of the content of this value shows that freedom – with the personal, civil, and political rights it implies – is by no means to be understood as unruled, but as self-ruled behaviour. Self-governance presupposes cognition, in particular cognition of the delicate intertwining of different free activities, as well as of all the obligations resting on citizens, quite especially those already constitutionally constraining freedom within the limits of public utility. Transparency and equality are, by consequence, the necessary conditions for any, supposedly “voluntary” or accepted, limitation on personal freedom. That in large measure these two values have been observed by governmental authorities is proved by the very large compliance citizens have shown until now: nobody, except for some playfully irresponsible intellectuals of Heideggerian and Schmidtian obedience (e.g. Giorgio Agamben) has ever accused democratic governments of being plotting biopolitical totalitarianism, once the gravity of the challenge has been understood. 

On the other hand, turns like that of the Hungarian Government, or, less dramatically, the strange exhortation expressed by a French Minister on the other hand (“believe the medical doctors if you do not believe us politicians”) should make us attentive to two other directions in which we need more axiological analysis and value weighing. The former concerns E and we already touched on this point. The latter concerns Truth and Knowledge, and the place of scientific-technical competences within political institutions. Since this place is bound to become more and more important, more and more attention should be paid to the composition of different interests and values, which should be a major task of democratic governance. For example, despite being acceptable in a time of crisis, as by definition temporary, a temporally undefined reversal of the priority relationship of Personal and Civic Values over Vital Values is not acceptable as a choice withdrawn from the Sovereignty of citizens. By “priority” I mean that – according to constitutional common sense - the defense of Public Health is indeed a necessary condition for the flourishing of individual persons in peace and prosperity to be possible, but certainly not a sufficient condition: it is a means, rather than an end. So is the good functioning of the economy, welfare, and even, in times of global crisis, international cooperation. In this spirit, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown has urged world leaders to create a temporary form of global government to deal with the coronavirus crisis. He told The Guardian the task force should comprise heads of state, health experts and the heads of international organisations. It would need executive powers to coordinate the response, he argued.

Last but not least, there is the end that all these means should subserve, the flourishing of persons. The most precious resources of meaning and knowledge – Education, Culture, and Science – have not been protected and encouraged as they should have been, at least in many developed countries, in a time where so many people might draw on this resource as hardly ever before. In most countries bookstores and libraries have been locked down, and remote teaching, especially at the basic levels, has not seen the coordinated and massive support it should have had from central administrations. However, Education is part of Public Service par excellence.

As to Solidarity or Brotherhood: while the confinement accentuates social distance, it shows us very clearly that solidarity is by no means a feeling of group and local or national identity. Social distance can be the very expression of maximal respect and love for fellow men. Solidarity shows itself as 1) attentiveness, that is preparedness to explore the individual, contingent and very differentiated needs of our fellow creatures, and 2) the will to help them, accepting, also by way of assent to governmental measures, a further weight of personal responsibility on the shoulders of each person who is better off than her neighbors.

 But the real axiological discovery in the present predicament is that globalization has made the inhabitants of the most remote corners of the earth into our neighbors. The most striking axiological evidence emerging in this time is the supreme injustice we are today called to fight, since we have or can develop the means to do so: the inequality of birth and living conditions and their fatal impact on individual life and death, due to the accident of birth [2]. It is just intolerable that the contingency of being born in a Subsaharan desert, or near Central Park, Manhattan, make a difference to a person’s life and fate so enormous as to cause those continental waves of hope and despair that we call migrations, challenging the political stability of all concerned countries.

Here again, before acting we must acquire knowledge: not only factual, but axiological as well. Migrations are in large measure caused by scarcity and famine, and these are often correlated with global warming, deforestation, and improper exploitation of natural resources. It seems clear enough that the ecological awareness developed by mankind in the last decades should encourage us to widen the formal formula of justice: there is something that we not only owe to each other, but that each of us owes to every other thing in nature and the surrounding world. To each thing inhabiting the landscape of this earth, no matter whether human, animal, vegetal or mineral, a measure of “respect” is given, lest the more basic balance allowing life on earth should be forever broken.


* Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milan. Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Paris, 2019-20 [1]

[1] The author heartily thanks Professor Robert Pasnau, IAS Fellow 2019-20, for his precious and generous help editing this text.

[2] This phrase denotes the main focus of a view of global justice developed by Herbert Spiegelberg, a phenomenologist and legal philosopher of Jewish and Alsatian origin, twice forced to emigrate because of this accident of birth, who became one of the best known historians of The phenomenological Movement, and whose papers on justice and the accident of brirth deeply influenced John Rawls.

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