Now more than ever, we have questions. Lots of them. So many, in fact, that every realm of our lives — personal, professional, political, you name it — seems to have been branded with a white-hot question mark.
This unnerves us — and quite frankly, for good reason. Many of the questions we find ourselves asking in response to COVID-19 address tragedies we see unfolding right in front of us — tragedies of both life and livelihood. Many of them address future consequences we can see only dimly, if at all. Whatever the case, we are asking questions amid an unprecedented global pandemic that we don’t have a clear (or even unclear) vision for how to handle. To say we are unnerved by this often feels like an understatement.
And yet, despite the physical and psychological distance we’ve imposed for the time being, we’re acutely aware that our neighbors, both local and global, are asking many of the same questions we are — if not in word, then in essence. Even in our individual situations, we are united in asking deep, difficult questions of our shared past, present and future. And, though we are at a distance, we find ourselves asking questions together.
Questions in the Darden Community
Recently, over 60 members of the Darden community did this very thing: We asked questions together — and in real time. Via Zoom, Professors Andy Wicks and Anton Korinek (a business ethicist and an economist, respectively) guided students through a deeply active, communal process of discussing a vast range of topics, focusing less on finding the answers and more on the value of the questions themselves. Students wondered, for instance:
- How might we learn from history to uplift our communities and those in need? What do responses to other wide-scale catastrophes — the Spanish flu, for instance — teach us about how best to care for our neighbors in the here and now?
- What is the full price of restricting individual liberties for the sake of wider-scale precautions? For example, to what extent can violating a shelter-in-place order be punishable, and under what conditions?
- In what ways is the risk assumed from reentering a “normal” social milieu like and unlike other kinds of risks we take each day? How do we compare and contrast the COVID risk against that of, say, injuring someone in a car accident?
- How might methods of economic modeling provide parallel examples to help us mitigate the full range of risks more effectively? Can we, for instance, quantify the potential consequences of going to a party and spreading the virus?
- How might both our economics and our ethics become at once more harmonious and more tribal as a result of the pandemic? How will countries work together to develop cures and other alleviants more quickly, and how will we determine how to distribute those once they’ve been prepared?
When we see these questions all lined up, we might be tempted to see them only as an illustration of just how complicated, just how colossal the problems of this long moment are. We know this is true — the problems we face are complicated and colossal. But we cannot allow ourselves to see our questions only as a reminder of what we’re up against.
Asking Questions Is Community in Action
Indeed, we should see our questions both as a sobering way to realize the scale of the chaos we are in and as a pathway to seek together a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how to approach and, ultimately, to overcome it. When we ask questions together, we cultivate and nurture our communities — even the ones we can’t see — by revealing shared commitments, shared fears, shared hopes. Simply put, asking questions together is itself a powerful form of sharing, a necessary activity for any community.
Greater still, asking questions together creates new possibilities for starting to overcome the chaos even now, even in our current state of limitation. For only together will we actually arrive at the right questions to ask — and this is absolutely vital for both knowing how to approach our current isolated state and for stopping the virus itself. Asking questions together, then, should not be seen as a “warm-up” for the real “action” of direct, measurable problem-solving. Asking questions together is itself a crucial form of action, one that binds our communities in sharing and in creatively understanding and solving the problems before us.
The Darden community demonstrated powerfully its capability for just this. And rest assured, the Darden community will continue to demonstrate it — together always, even at a distance.
This article was developed with the support of Darden’s Institute for Business in Society, of which Andrew C. Wicks is an academic director and John Nolan is a research and programs associate.