Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor and the Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, has a new book, Justice by Means of Democracy, that explores the foundational understanding of how humans best flourish, in particular in regard to the governmental system under which they live. Allen, author of many books that focus on questions of democracy and justice, also works on democratic reform and renovation at Partners in Democracy. Thus, Dr. Allen integrates both scholarship and democratic activism into her work as an academic and as an activist. Justice by Means of Democracy examines these different threads as well; what is justice, and how does democracy work towards achieving justice? And what is the role of the citizen in these pursuits?
Allen opens up her discussion weaving together a number of threads, since politics, economics, civic engagement, and citizenship are all part of the whole when we consider both justice and democracy. Growing out of the ideal that democracy is a very good system for individuals to move forward together, and to achieve their full flourishing, complexities arise from issues like inequality, inequity, and how liberty is structured within the governmental system. Part of Allen’s framing comes from John Rawl’s Theory of Justice and his connection of justice and democracy—but she is pushing further in terms of the role of power and thinking about power and power sharing within democracies and democratic institutions. Justice by Means of Democracy also wrestles with the abstract ideas of negative and positive liberty, and what this actually means in practice, particularly in the United States. In fact, the book thinks about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, and what that requires from each individual. Allen explained in our conversation that while we often discuss “work/life balance” in terms of our personal and professional lives, what we should be discussing and focusing on is our “work-life civic balance” – since being civically involved takes time, takes effort, but is required for democracy to function and to remain intact. We are living through some of the breakages within our democratic systems of government, not just in the United States, but in other democracies as well. And part of the reason for these breakages is the failure of democratic practice by the people themselves. Allen’s own activism is focused on restoring and reinvigorating democratic practice, so that citizens become more used to the “habit” of democracy and civic engagement.
Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book,Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics