“What ought we do?” Interview with Onora O'Neill

Publisert 17.03.2017
How did the 2017 Holberg Laureate come to be interested in Kant? To what extent is public reasoning lacking today? Is Brexit a good or bad thing, and what are the dark side of human rights? These are some of the questions Professor Onora O'Neill addresses in this interview.

Professor O’Neill was born in Northern Ireland in 1941, the daughter of linguist Rosemary Garvey and British army officer, civil servant and diplomat Sir Con Douglas Walter O'Neill. Having grown up in post-war UK and Germany, she says issues of political conflict impacted her thinking and reasoning even when she was very young, but terms like “global justice” were not yet in fashion.

— Of course, I was very small during the War. And I think the influence on me was largely that we moved very frequently. After the War my father left the army, and at a certain point he was re-employed in relations with Germany, first as the British liaison officer with the American controlled mission. So when I was six I went to Frankfurt and I learnt German, and that is probably helpful for coming to work on Kant.   

— Political conflict was all around in the war- and post-war period. I don’t think anyone would have talked about global justice at the time. What was going on, was the parallel movement that led to the setting up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations and the European Convention on Human Rights by the Council of Europe. So, there was a great deal that now forms the standard institutional backdrop to discussions of global justice going on, but I have to say I was wholly unaware of it. As for “morality,” this was long ago, and people still thought that duty was the fundamental category in which one would think about the question: “What ought we do?”

Hungry for philosophy

In the 1960s O’Neill studied at the University of Oxford before attending Harvard University, where she completed her PhD in 1969. In the 1970s she taught at all-female Barnard College, Columbia University, before returning to Britain upon her appointment as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex. However, she did not set out to study philosophy and Kant, and as an undergraduate she had originally enrolled to study history.

— I came to think that I was not cut out to be a historian. I was quite interested in arguments and qualities of arguments. I had a number of friends who were doing philosophy. It turned out that those were the questions that interested me the most. I don’t think I entirely pleased my history teachers when I told them I was minded to change, but I was sent to see the philosophy tutor at Somerville College, Elizabeth Anscombe, and we had a conversation about causality. I am told she wrote a very short note to her colleagues on the governing body, saying, this girl is hungry for philosophy. I was allowed to move, and I studied philosophy with psychology.

— As a student of philosophy I was not initially drawn to Kant. I think very few people are, because he seems difficult. Still, as an undergraduate I read Kant’s Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals very carefully, and I thought, “Well, done that, no more!”  

However, her interest in Kant was soon piqued by fellow students and people in the Harvard faculty, such as Stanley Cavell, Robert Nozic and John Rawls. The latter became O'Neill's supervisor at Harvard.

— The reason I started writing on Kant for my PhD was in a way anxiety and revulsion at the implications of models of rational choice, which were of course the going way, then quite the new way, of thinking about human rationality and reason.

Who is worthy of trust?

One of the topics on which O’Neill has been regarded as an expert for decades, is the issue of trust and accountability. She thinks people often confuse trust with whether or not people and institutions should be trusted.

— Trustworthiness is more important than trust. Trust is the response. And the difficult thing about placing and refusing trust well, is that we want to align it with trustworthiness, we want to trust trustworthy people, and we want to align mistrust with untrustworthiness. Intelligent trust, in my view, is a matter of judgement.

— Unfortunately, a huge proportion of contemporary work on trust ignores trustworthiness, and it tries to measure trust by asking people to say how much they trust people or institutions of certain sorts. I do not think such polls have no point, but they have absolutely no point as a way of finding out whether it is a good idea to place ones trust in complex matters, or to refuse it in complex matters. Whether measuring trust is a good idea depends on the context. 

All the news that fit

O’Neill believes there are clear risks involved when the untrustworthy are trusted and the trustworthy are distrusted, something which is often seen in public life: Large democracies nowadays do not depend upon local political meetings, but rather on nationally conducted campaigns. These campaigns are conducted not only by the political parties, but also in many cases by people with ulterior interests.

— Also, one notes that Facebook, upon which president Trump has relied a great deal, succeeds in spreading messages with none of the standards that one would traditionally have thought that journalists on the better newspapers sought to maintain. All those things we talk about, like fact checking, or like indicating whether something is an opinion piece or a report, those vanish in the online world. Moreover, since people can use tweeting in order to indicate what they approve of, certain claims get circulated way beyond their plausibility. 

Human rights and state duties

O’Neill is highly regarded as a specialist on human rights, and she has written extensively on international justice and structural conditions of oppression. She has argued that a progression towards global justice requires a shift in focus from rights to obligations and capacity, for both state actors and non-state actors.

— We have to ask ourselves why two millennia of European writing on ethics tended to put the notion of obligation or duty first, and would of course accept that some obligations had counterpart rights, but by starting with the rights, you cut out all those obligations that don’t have counterpart rights. Those are obligations that people traditionally would have thought covered things like obligations of beneficence or clemency or honesty and so on. So we cut down the range.

In human rights matters, it also tends to produce a rather unfortunate result if one assumes that everything should be done by the states. The states can do things that no other institutions can do. I particular, some states are pretty good at enforcing the laws that they enact, and pretty good at enacting laws. However, a large number of states fail in this way. So we have a lot of rouge states that certainly don’t want to enforce human rights, and we have a lot of weak states that cannot enforce human rights. I therefore think that one has to think very carefully about “who ought to do what for whom?” – that is, about the duties. Just saying: “Oh, the state should—,” is not enough.

Union without unity

As a crossbench member of the House of Lords, O’Neill is presently involved in debating the Brexit bill. She is herself very much in favour of the UK remaining part of the EU, but she thinks the EU has got itself into a very difficult position, and she is uncertain whether the Union is sustainable over time.

— The last time I was in Berlin, shortly before the referendum, I spoke with a lot of well placed people, and they said, “We hope you don’t vote to exit in Britain. We need you in order to reform the EU.” Unfortunately, they also said, some of them, “—because the French are broken.” And I think this is a very serious issue. Is the EU capable of reforming itself? Or is it like the League of Nations? It’s ominous, because, if it is like the League of Nations, there’s more difficulty to come. 

The full interview:

The inteview is conducted by James Rivington at the British Academy and produced by the Holberg Prize.

Other Holberg Laureate interviews

Visit https://soundcloud.com/holbergprize to hear Holberg Laureate Interviews from previous years and other episodes related to the Holberg Prize.