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Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve

Member of the House of Lords, a Companion of Honour, and chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission
CH, CBE, MA, (PhD Harvard), Hon DCL, FBA, Hon FRS, Pour le Mérite
PPP, 1959

Oxford is famous for offering philosophy alongside politics and economics, but the priorities of career politics and academic philosophy then tend to pull graduates in very different directions – it is rare to bring philosophy to bear directly on public life and policy. Yet in a career spanning five decades, Baroness O’Neill (1959, PPP) has done just that.

O ’Neill arrived at Somerville to read History but quickly grew concerned that she couldn’t understand why her Tutor, Barbara Harvey, liked her essays.

“Barbara sent me to Elizabeth Anscombe, who interviewed me very nicely about causality,” says O’Neill. “I wrote something on it and Anscombe apparently wrote a one-liner back to Miss Harvey which said ‘this girl is hungry for philosophy’. So I was allowed to change.”

The rest, of course, is philosophy. O’Neill found studying under Anscombe stimulating and, at times, frustrating. Anscombe’s greatest achievement, she says, was as one of the chief stimulants for the “enormous” move in philosophy towards virtue ethics, not least through her influence on the Northern Irish philosopher and fellow Catholic convert Alastair MacIntyre, and on his landmark work After Virtue. Yet for all her brilliance, O’Neill found Anscombe’s reliance on theological assumptions for ethical justification awkward.

“She was a convert to Roman Catholicism and was theologically quite dogmatic,” says O’Neill. “She believed ethics could only be done seriously if you started from a theological position, and she handed ethics teaching over to Philippa Foot. Elizabeth was a scourge of the dominant people writing in Oxford at that time – notably Hare and Urmson – but was much more interesting than either.”

O’Neill studied for her PhD at Harvard, where she would ultimately come under the supervision of John Rawls – as well as taking seminars with Robert Nozick. It was here in particular that a lifelong love for Kant’s philosophy developed, which she took with her into her teaching at Barnard College, New York, the University of Essex and Cambridge. She has continued to publish widely on philosophy, notably on Kant – a second edition of Acting on Principle: An Essay on Kantian Ethics, republished in 2013.

Today she is a member of the House of Lords, a Companion of Honour, and chairs the Equality & Human Rights Commission. She has previously chaired the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Nuffield Foundation. O’Neill was Principal of Newnham College from 1992 to 2006. She has served as President of the British Academy and – a rare combination – was also elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society. Philosophy, for O’Neill, always had political implications.

When political philosophy was dead

At Harvard, Rawls was yet to write his landmark A Theory of Justice, but elements of his thinking on justice were presented in several seminars O’Neill attended. Likewise Robert Nozick, another of O’Neill’s professors, had not yet published Anarchy, State & Utopia. Unlike Rawls, Nozick argued that a minimal state was needed if people’s rights were to be respected.

“I took Nozick’s first graduate seminar at Harvard – a time when he was still a utilitarian, and not much interested in rights. We read Luce and Raiffa’s Games and Decisions, so it was a sort of formal course in game theory and decision theory,” she says. “Kant became interesting to me when I wrote a little paper on interpersonal utility comparisons, but ended up rejecting the whole rational choice approach because I concluded that it did not offer a convincing view of reason.”

“I started going back to Kant by looking at some philosophers who’d been writing in the 1950s and ‘60s about formal models of rationality – Marcus Singer on universalisation, Kurt Baier and so on – but their approaches all seemed fearfully thin. Then, one fateful day, I thought ‘I’ll read Kant again’.”

O’Neill had been introduced to Kant by Philippa Foot at Somerville (where an entire Easter vacation was devoted to Kant’s Groundwork), and extended her understanding of Kant’s philosophy when she studied under John Rawls and Stanley Cohen. As Teaching Assistant to Cohen at Harvard, O’Neill taught Kant’s Religion within the limits of Reason alone to undergraduates. And she took Charles Parson’s, course on the Critique of Pure Reason in which students had to write a tenpage summary of the latest allocated sections each week.

“There was a lot of sheer chance in it,” says O’Neill. “The lines of thought that I began to develop all queried the prevailing account of rationality, and their background reliance on logical positivism. That slogan of the 50s – ‘political philosophy is dead’ – was not yet old hat at that point. Indeed, one of the baleful effects of logical positivism had been to kibosh both ethics and political philosophy. People credit Rawls with the revival of political philosophy and it’s important to say that it really did need reviving.”

Constitutional implications

Kant’s thesis that the categorical imperative can guide actions – despite its spare, formal approach – is one with which O’Neill concurs. It has also been enormously influential internationally, ensuring his legacy is felt in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet those documents also reflect an ethical culture that Kant would have viewed as lopsided in its combination of eloquence about rights with silence about duties, not to mention virtues.

“Kant’s ethics is not just an ethics of principles but an ethics of principles of duty – duty is primary,” she says. “This was deeply unpopular through the twentieth century, when philosophers often held that any ethics of duty must be narrowly rigid, damaging and overly focused on blame.”

O’Neill points out that World War One tarnished the concept of ‘duty’, perhaps because of a misguided and narrow focus on conceptions of ‘patriotic duty’ which cost so many human lives. Nietzsche’s writings had foretold the shift, but after World War One it was the logical positivists who began to push the rejection of ‘duty’ into the philosophical mainstream, while some took a more radical path towards nihilism.

“But then you have to ask: what grew out of nihilism and logical positivism?” says O’Neill. “Well, it was communism and fascism, so suddenly it doesn’t exactly look as if the move has been a fantastic moral achievement.”

At the end of World War II, the great question – ‘what must we do?’ – could not be ignored, and with ‘duty’ out of the running, philosophers, politicians and commentators alike turned instead to ‘human rights’.

“If I am to be very naughty about it, rights are appealing because they are the answer not to the old (Kantian!) question ‘what ought I do?’ but to that much more appealing question ‘what ought I get?,’” says O’Neill. “I’m afraid that shift is far too popular. Yet we can have no rights unless others carry the counterpart duties”

Nevertheless, the emerging concept of human rights was only slowly translated into constitutional and legal enactments. This was partly because the 1950s and 1960s were the great age of decolonization, and many pairs of eyes focused almost exclusively on the right to self-determination. A wider focus on human rights emerged only after the 1960s.

“However, even in the early post war years, people were saying that mere ‘manifesto rights’ were not effective unless the counterpart duties were allocated,” she says. “The UN Covenants of 1966 also didn’t allocate the duties – they only said that it was the duty of the signatory states to allocate those duties and enforce them. This approach to duties reflects a historical moment in which the powers of states were very extensive, and it was assumed that all duties would lie with the states party.”

Signing Declarations and Covenants proved easy – implementing and realising rights less so. Yet duty remained taboo. O’Neill’s approach is to show why respecting others’ rights is impossible unless duties are duly discharged. Less conceptually, however, she also argues that the assumption that states alone can protect human rights is flawed.

“Duties ultimately have to be carried by individuals and institutions but this kind of realism is too often lacking in certain debates about human rights,” she says. “A right to a fair trial requires very complicated and effective institutions that assign a whole raft of duties to protect it – likewise the rule of law. The right to food requires farming, transportation, and markets that get it to the right people. It’s not enough to say that the state needs to allocate food to the people.”

O’Neill is a fan of the European Convention on Human Rights, believing it to be better drafted and more illuminating than the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in large part because it both defines the rights, and lists ways in which they must be qualified to achieve mutual coherence.

She argues against the view that rights could be better protected and realised by a single, more powerful world state, which she suspects would only increase corruption and inefficiencies. In consequence rights and duties may be differently implemented in different jurisdictions: there may be no unique way of securing rights.

“If you have a plurality of jurisdictions, with all its disruptions and opportunities for conflict, then you have to recognise that there is also a plurality of ways of implementing rights,” she says. “Moreover, over time what you’re trying to implement will change. For example, it would not make much sense to ask what rights the Inca had against their Viking contemporaries – they didn’t know of each other’s existence. But now we have a world in which we jostle up against one another all the time.”

O’Neill concludes that Kant’s claims about universalisability are not and need not be linked to uniform requirements, or take a single constitutional form.

Checking imbalances

O’Neill has also written widely on the right to freedom of expression and on the relation of media freedoms to trustworthiness and to trust, beginning with her Reith lectures in 2002 and including a recent TED talk.

She argues that clamour for greater trust is mistaken: we need well placed trust that tracks trustworthiness rather than ‘more trust’. There is in fact little evidence that trust in politicians and journalists used to be much higher, and where there are problems the remedy is not to increase trust but to increase trustworthiness.

In the beginning was… ethics

O’Neill is keen to emphasise that good science is reliant on good ethics.

“Hume was right when he said ‘you cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ and, of course, Kant thought the same way,” says O’Neill. “Physicists generally agree that you cannot be value-neutral and do science. In shorthand, why would you be interested in honesty in the practice of science if you didn’t have an ethical commitment?”

It is that ‘ethical commitment’ that characterizes O’Neill’s life and work, her determination to apply philosophy to life and politics, and to seek out better solutions to press regulation, bioethical questions, and challenges in human rights.

Kant believed in the possibility of an “ethical commonwealth” in which all people were “well-disposed” to one another. O’Neill has written less on these themes, but her vision highlights two crucial Kantian qualities that would seem to underpin her own resolve: hope and, of course, that other word we’re not supposed to mention – duty.

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