All Great Minds Think for Themselves

08 Apr 2020

STI extended an invitation/request to experts from various fields to offer a thought on what this global health crisis means or might mean in the future in the context of their field, and/or to society as a whole. Professors and practitioners of sociology, international relations, law, history, philosophy, media, and bioethics offered the impressions, reflections, and predictions collected below (in alphabetical order). Food for thought… 


Jeffrey C.Alexander - Yale University

Over the last three decades, I have developed, with colleagues and students, a sociological approach to democracy and social justice that I call civil sphere theory. The civil sphere is one part of our present day societies, the part that orients itself to a universal solidarity that intertwines the commitment to individual autonomy with communal obligation. Real (as compared to ideal) civil spheres are always comprised by pressures from two sources: (1) The founding core groups of societies that define certain primordial qualities (race, religion, ethnicity, science, and gender) as "more civil" than others; and (2) The pressures and demands of the "non-civil" spheres that border the civil sphere - spheres that represent other kinds of justice and pay homage to different kinds of values (like the economy, the state, the family, and religion).

In the global pandemic we're all experiencing, our civil spheres are being tested. If they are found wanting, future possibilities for democracy and justice will narrow; if they can rise to the occasion, some of the fragmentations that undermine contemporary civil spheres can be repaired, and the future will provide better opportunities for justice and democracy. 

What are such current tensions? Probably the most obvious is the tension between individual interest and social whole. As our societies organize to protect against the virus, leaders ask people to curtail their freedom, whether or not they themselves are currently at risk. Even people without symptoms can pass the virus to others. Self-interest often seems to strain against such requisite social virtue. People want to take risks, even with their own health; they are tempted to become free riders, betting on the virtue of others to protect themselves. 

The other challenge to civil spheres under the shadow of the Coronavirus occurs at the boundaries of the civil sphere. It is difficult for the leaders who organize non-civil values and organizations -- and the enthusiasts who participate in them -- to curtail their plural pursuits in order to sustain the social whole. Stores and corporations want to stay open. So do schools and churches. Finally, there is the fate of those excluded from the civil sphere, the poor, the homeless, the undocumented. Can feelings of solidarity be extended to people who are usually so stigmatized? 

If our civil spheres can rise to these challenges, social solidarity will be strengthened, not only today but for decades to come.  


Michael Barnett– George Washington University

It is far too early to begin the process of imagining the long-term impacts of the Age of COVID-19 on world order, but there are several telltale signs of some of the effects. The first is that the so-called end of the liberal international order is not only about liberalism but also about the end of global leadership and a broader sense of collective responsibility. 

The U.S. used to be able to manage things at home and abroad, but no longer has the will or the capacity. And no other power or powers, rising or otherwise, has seen fit to step into the breach. Second, global governance has moved from a rather state-centered to a much more diverse and variable set of architectures, which is probably reasonable during settled times but is a disaster during unsettled times.  The WHO and other institutions are not fit for the task in part because states have never given them the authority and resources.  Third, in the on-going battle between nationalism and internationalism, nationalism continues to flex its muscle -- all to our collective pain. Fourth, and following on the decline of internationalism, we have witnessed a huge deficit in compassion. There are many reasons for this, but in the West much of the blame must rest on a neoliberalism that has emphasized individual interests (and greed) over collective welfare (and care). 

All four of these developments have been hastened by American decline. But decline is too kind a term. The US was already in relative decline prior to the election of Trump (and the perceived decline was part of the factors that led to his election). But this is a decline that has combined with the kind of destructiveness and self-destructiveness of a White House with the profile of a certified sociopath. Can this be turned around? Stay tuned. 


Naomi Cahn – George Washington University

The pandemic has complicated implications for women and families. First, many women feel they are taking on more childcare responsibilities after their children's schools and daycares have closed, even if both parents work. Indeed, women are more likely than men to say their lives have been disrupted because of the coronavirus. Second, many domestic violence victims are sheltering-in-place with their abusers. And while child custody arrangements during a time of COVID-19 are more complicated for everyone, domestic violence victims who share children with an abuser are likely involved in  even more difficult questions. Third, women are on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic because they constitute so many health care workers. Fourth, past recessions have typically hurt men more than women; that may not be true with this one.

But long-term effects of COVID-19 on women may become even more complicated as norms around flexible work schedules and leave change. And it may ultimately create some positive changes. First, with more workers trying to be productive at home, employers are facing the  child-care needs of their employees. This has resulted in increasingly flexible work schedules and improved telecommuting options. If these flexible work schedules and telecommuting practices continue after the pandemic, then this may help both women and women. Second, even though many women will take on more responsibility for child care, so may some men. Third, the pandemic is focusing attention on the potential strengths of paid family and sick leave policies. This shows the broad range of the pandemic and the uncertainty about ultimate change.


Stephen Davies – Institute of Economic Affairs

In the face of the current pandemic there is a widespread feeling that it will inevitably bring about massive changes and will be seen retrospectively as a dividing line in history or a historical marker. Things will not be the same, and will be changed profoundly is the common feeling. We should resist this.

The best way of thinking about the Covid-19 epidemic is to look at it historically and to compare it to earlier episodes of a similar kind: this will give us a better understanding of what its impact is likely to be. It will indeed be considerable and mark a turning point of sorts, but not in the way many presently think. There are two ways of thinking that the previous experience does not support. The first is to think that things cannot return to the way they were before and that the world before the pandemic has been swept away, or rolled up like a scroll. This is apocalyptic thinking, even if we are not aware of it, and that kind of rupture almost never happens. Secondly, this leads to the thought that the world after the pandemic is over is in some sense a blank page with all kinds of opportunities. The inevitable tendency is to think about all of the things you always wanted to see and to think that they are now possible, now that the old order that prevented them has gone. This results in projecting your own hopes and wishes onto the supposedly open future. A useful heuristic is to list ten consequences you expect to see: if more than half are things you always wanted anyway, then you are probably on the wrong track. The reality is that the future is never completely open; the range of options is always limited by the immutable past and the contours of history.

What history tells us is that major epidemics can and do have significant effects, but also that these are typically not novel or radical departures from the way things were before. Rather, what pandemics do is to give an enormous push to trends and tendencies that were already underway beforehand, thereby accelerating them and making them go further than they otherwise would have. They can also make things that were going to happen anyway happen much sooner and more fully than would otherwise have been the case. The Black Death precipitated a crisis in the social and economic organization of European agriculture that was already starting before it arrived, with the Malthusian crisis of the later thirteenth and early fourteenth century.

Major public health events such as pandemics can also have significant cultural and psychological effects. These depend firstly on the actual scale and severity of the event, but also on the way it is experienced and remembered. As Laura Spinney points out, the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic was not experienced or remembered as a shared, collective and political event in the way that the Great War was; it was remembered as a personal or familial one - at least in Europe and North America. The Coronavirus pandemic is, however, being experienced as a shared or collective experience, because of the measures taken by governments such as lockdowns and the existence of personalized social media. This will amplify its cultural impact.

Given that, what are the likely results - what are the pre-existing tendencies that will happen more quickly and go further than would otherwise be the case? The first is a decline in economic and political globalization, and a strong resurgence or revival of nationalism and the nation-state. Long transnational supply chains with just-in-time delivery systems have been revealed to be economically efficient but brittle and fragile, so the level of economic integration will go down. The rules-based international order built up in stages since 1944 and particularly since 1989 was already under immense strain and will probably not survive. National states have emerged as the effective actors and the ones that have sufficient legitimacy to be able to impose the measures needed to contain the pandemic: supranational bodies such as the EU have been shown to lack that critical quality. One aspect of the crisis of the global economic order will be a massive debt crisis and fall in asset values, which was only waiting for some incident to trigger it - a combination of the pandemic and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has done so.

Secondly there will be a revival of statism and the role of government will become greater (not necessarily their size - that is a different metric). In political terms, this will mainly take the form of a transformation of the political right, away from neoliberalism and towards an older kind of conservative politics. Both of these trends were well under way before and will now get a massive boost. The model for governance will increasingly be the East Asian one (not China but Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan).

Thirdly, there will be a marked decline in movement and physical connectivity. There will be much less long distance travelling because of the permanent effects of the strict border controls that will have to be kept in place for at least two years to stop the virus reappearing in places where it had been checked. Borders will be reasserted and become much harder.

In terms of cultural effects, there will be two. The first is a move away from individualism to a more communitarian or collectivist culture and outlook. The collectivity in question in many parts of the world will be the nation or imagined national community but it may be other kinds of collectivity elsewhere. The other consequence, which we can see in previous cases, is a paradoxical one. On the one hand, there is a turn to seriousness with a great deal of intellectual frivolity and self-indulgence suddenly stopping (again a trend that was already underway). Simultaneously, there is a turn to a live-for-the day hedonism. Human nature being what it is, you often get both reactions in the same person. Looking at these hypotheses there is only one that I welcome personally, the rest I regard with dread, but that is the way things were going and they will now surge down that historical path only more so.


Ana Marta González – University of Navarra

The coronavirus crisis could turn a new page in the way of approaching the globalization of markets and communications. It obliges us to consider the ambivalence of globalization and to reconsider our social and development models. Although our attention is now focused on facing the crisis and its immediate economic consequences, we cannot avoid that reflection.

Global interconnectedness does not automatically lead to solidarity or compassion. The pandemia highlights a tragic irony: the borders we have unfortunately erected in Europe against immigrants - claiming that our health and labor systems could not bear their weight - have been easily breached by a virus. Even now, amid the pandemia and its economic repercussions, Europe is still tempted to put up internal and external walls, further undermining its already shattered moral credibility at home and abroad.

What is clear from the pandemic is that it isn’t worth much to have an excellent healthcare system if our neighbor’s is poor. That alone condemns us more than anything else to live confined within our own borders.  Now more than ever, we realize that – not only on the individual level, but also internationally – taking care of ourselves and taking care of others are two sides of the same coin.  Commitment to the development of others is the flip side of our own development.


John Ikenberry – Princeton University

Ikenberry gave Foreign Affairs his prediction in a March 20 article.  He said:

“In the short term, the crisis will give fuel to all the various camps in the Western grand strategy debate…The response might be more nationalist at first, but over the longer term, the democracies will come out of their shells to find a new type of pragmatic and protective internationalism.”


Robert G. Picard – Reuters Institute, University of Oxford

It is important to stay informed about developments in the pandemic, but also to understand that news and discussion is how society works out what is known and true. In that process, media present confusing information, contradictory statements, wishful thinking, frustration and anger, misinformation and debates because they have no original knowledge but have to get information from many sources. As viewers, listeners, and readers, we need to sort through and balance that information to arrive at what is truthful and to the best course of action.  In times like these, we need to remember that doctors and scientists have better information and understanding of the pandemic than do celebrities, sports figures and politicians.

Being constantly tuned in to television news, and reading every newspaper and online report about Coronavirus 19 is not necessary and can lead to undue fear and depression. Make sure your media use includes programs, films, books, and reading that take your mind off the virus and the fact that you are staying at home. Seek content that enlightens, raises the spirit, and takes you far away from the difficulties we are sharing.

Connect with friends and family by telephone, the internet and video chats. Talk about other things. Find ways to remember that life goes on and find ways to celebrate with family and friends. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Have dinner parties together by video. Use the technology available in your phones and computers to overcome isolation and the inability to attend events. Yesterday, I attended a virtual wedding party for a friend with more than 100 people attending by video conference. It was a wonderful event and good for the soul.

Be in control of your media use and make the most of the opportunities contemporary technologies provide. This pandemic will pass. We will remember and miss those lost, but life endures.


Margaret Somerville – Institute for Ethics and Society, University of Notre Dame Australia

What does the pandemic mean for my field - Bioethics? In no particular order of priority or importance:

1. First, it shows that learning about bioethics is not just a theoretical exercise for medical students. Rather, it is an applied discipline where we need to have prior learning and familiarity with the issues we face in an emergency such as COVID-19, when we do not have the luxury to ponder at length what the most ethical approach is to the multiple difficult ethical dilemmas we face.

2. It shows that good facts are necessary for good ethics and good application of the law.

3. It faces us with life-and-death decision making in conditions of great uncertainty. Converting unavoidable uncertainty into a false certainty is often a source of ethical mistakes: we are certain but we are wrong.

4. That the issues are complex, and simplistic responses are often not ethical.

5. That we are dealing with a “world of competing sorrows” that is, one in which no “no harm” option exists.

6. That we can unethically manipulate decision making, for example, by detaching the decision makers from the outcome of their decisions or not identifying them, which is a lack of transparency and attribution of responsibility.

7. That we need to look to the long-term consequences of our decisions (their potentiality), e.g. of basing access to ventilators on age discrimination.

8. That we are still very co-dependent and that the intense or radical individualism of the last quarter century must be balanced by more concern for the common good, even if only for selfish motives of protecting ourselves and those we love.


W. Bradford Wilcox – University of Virginia

The “soulmate model of marriage” has played a central role in the popular imagination of the West since it took off in the ‘70s, amidst a decade known for “expressive individualism.” This model assumed marriage’s primary function was to build and sustain an intense romantic or emotional connection, a connection that need only last so long as it remained happy, fulfilling, and life-giving to the self. This adult-centered model—expressed in a thousand romcoms, pop songs, and self-help books—has exercised a particular hold on the imaginations of young unmarried men and women in recent decades. One survey found 94% of never-married singles in the United States wanted their spouse to be a soulmate “first and foremost—surpassing matters of religion, economics, and the ability to be a good mother or father.”

But in the wake of both a global pandemic and the greatest economic depression of our lifetimes, the soulmate model of marriage will largely die off. Going forward, in a world marked by massive economic insecurity, record unemployment, the threat of recurring disease, and dramatic increases in home production (from home schooling to home gardens), the meaning and practice of marriage will change. Unmarried men and women will become much more attentive to potential partners’ virtues, including their ability to bring home a steady paycheck and contribute to domestic production, and less concerned with their ability to emote. In facing new trials and tribulations, married men and women will be less focused on their own emotional fulfillment and more focused on meeting the basic financial, social, and educational needs of their children, themselves, and their parents. 

Divorce rates will fall and marital commitment will rise, as a family-first model of marriage comes to the fore in American family life. This is a model that will, of course, make a place for romance in marriage. But it will also stress the importance of staying together for the sake of the kids, building a decent economic nest for the family, and being prepared to give and receive practical, economic, and social aid to one’s spouse, children, and kin. In this new world, duties to spouse and family will trump the search for emotional fulfillment in marriage. In other words: Soulmate marriage, R.I.P.