a blog about philosophy in public affairs

An Interview with Baroness Onora O’Neill (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

Aveek Bhattacharya and Fay Niker recently interviewed Baroness Onora O’Neill, asking her about her wide-ranging experiences combining being a professor of philosophy and a member of the House of Lords (among many other things). 

Baroness Onora O’Neill of Bengarve is Emeritus Honorary Professor at the University of Cambridge and has been a cross-bench (i.e. not aligned with any political party) member of the British House of Lords since 2000. She has written widely in ethics and political philosophy, and is particularly known for her work on bioethics, trust and the philosophy of Kant. She was Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1992-2006, President of the British Academy from 2005-9, chaired the Nuffield Foundation from 1998-2010 and chaired the Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2012-2016.

The Lone Philosopher in the Lords

Baroness O’Neill [OON]: I am the last philosopher left in the [House of] Lords. There used to be four of us: there was Stewart Sutherland, who died a couple of years ago; Mary Warnock, who died recently; Tony Quinton on the Conservative benches.

Aveek Bhattacharya [AB]: Yes, so that gives you a pretty unique position and insight…

OON: It is a unique position; but, as you will realise, you have to set aside the arguments except on rather specific points. So, it’s not as satisfactory as writing philosophy, where you can spend your time thinking whether this argument or that argument really works. But, I would say that, in the Lords at least, one has plenty of colleagues who are appreciative of argument – not only among academics but among the lawyers, economists and many, many others, including many people whom one thinks of primarily as politicians.

AB: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be the lone philosopher in the House of Lords?

OON: So you’d like to know: Why on earth, when I had a perfectly respectable career in philosophy, did I say ‘yes’ when I was offered a peerage?

AB: Yes, what were you hoping to get out of it?

OON: My academic study and career all looked quite consecutive, as it were, until the great surprise of being rung up by No. 10 and I said, “Yes, yes, I know I’m organising a seminar for the Prime Minister. I think it’s all organised”. She said, “It’s not about a seminar”. So, it was a total surprise. I thought about it for a little bit. And I made sure that I wouldn’t have to be party political because I don’t think I would be good at that. But I am a cross-bencher, so that is manageable. I’ve done it for 20 years, and frankly I shall stop soon. But I told myself that in this very discouraging time, it’s not the time to give up.

This last year has been pretty – what should I say – stressful, I think is the word. For elementary reasons, like you don’t know your own diary. For serious reasons, like you’re hearing terrible arguments and terrible confrontations. And for really serious reasons that something extremely damaging is under way.

The Emergence of ‘Applied’ Philosophy

Fay Niker [FN]: Yes, and perhaps this draws us into getting some insight from you as regards the intersecting and overlapping (at times) of your career in philosophy and your work in politics and policy. How have these two interacted? How has your work in philosophy been directed by your work in policy, and vice versa?

OON: That’s a good question because actually there’s a whole middle ground here in which I write things about policy issues, which may be a little bit “philosophy light”, although very informed by philosophy… And I think – I know not everybody thinks this – I think we have an astonishingly rich range of both organisations and individuals working on the cusp between politics and philosophy… And I don’t think – this has been my experience – I don’t think philosophers here have quite as much amour propre as perhaps some of their continental colleagues, and they are willing to muck in and listen hard.

But one of the things that has made a great difference in my lifetime is the emergence of what is called – I believe miscalled – “applied philosophy”, which I think really didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate.

I first encountered it when I was teaching in New York City, and we had a society with lots of us from various universities called – guess what? – the society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. It was separate from the journal, but it had the same name. And that was probably one of my first exposures to policy and philosophy linking up. I can’t say we were brilliant at it, but it was very interesting. I remember a meeting at the Grad Centre on 42nd Street, and I can’t even remember who was there. But it was a meeting that combined philosophers and medics – a very new thing in the late ’70s. And we were talking away and one of the medics said, “yes, there was medical ethics when I was in med school”. So I – I’m always inquisitive– I said, “what were the main topics?” And he said, “Oh, yes, I think three: I think there was referrals and confidentiality, and yes billing.” Now you can see there an older formation where we’re talking about professional ethics for doctors, we’re not talking about any engagement with new science or new treatments.

FN: That’s very interesting. As your career has progressed philosophically, how many of the topics that you’ve now written books or a series of journal articles on, have started with those kinds of (what we’d call now) multidisciplinary discussions or real-world issues, or has that just been in the background?

OON: I’m sure everything I’ve done in bioethics is a good illustration of that because, somewhat later, I remember getting a letter from Patrick Nairne. Sir Patrick Nairne was the founding Chair of Trustees of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. And he had been trying to persuade – having been the permanent Under Secretary in the Department of Health – the government to set up a bioethics council within Whitehall. Whitehall, not interested. So, then he went to the Nuffield Foundation, who were interested and a lot of my work in bioethics was linked to my involvement with the Council and with the Nuffield Foundation.   And it’s been a very interesting model…

Philosophers in Public Life

AB: So you said it was a surprise when you were offered the peerage. Do you have a sense of why you particularly were selected?

OON: One never does you know. I’m sure it wasn’t particularly for the philosophy. But by then, I had sat on a lot of committees. You know, one has to be careful; probably they were thinking, ‘we ought to have some women’…

AB: And do you think the particular kind of skills or knowledge that you displayed in that work meant you’re better suited to the peerage, that show that you were the right sort of person for it?

OON: It must also have been a lot of other things that  I was also doing of an institutional nature. At that time, I was Principal of Newnham College; I was on a lot of Cambridge University committees. I don’t stick with things forever, but I always have a rotation of things going on which I am busy downsizing now that I am 78. I think I’ve done what I can do. I wish I could do more about the idiocy of Brexit, but my newest topic is digital technologies and their effects on public life.

Lots of people are now working in this area. I personally think that what is called – you may say miscalled – data ethics has been too dominated by people who are interested in data, and who think that ethics can be sort of added on like a ribbon afterwards. You’ve probably noticed the enormous number of ethical codes that have been cobbled together from hither and yon, in every institution, I’m told all the way from the Church of England to the Royal Statistical Society. Everybody has some ethical code for the use of data. And of course, we have the data protection legislation [i.e., GDPR].

I’m a bit of a holdout on this because I think that the data protection legislation we have in Europe is probably going to show that it is obsolete in the near future. This may be obvious to you, but I think the reason is that it’s premised on the idea that you can distinguish personal from non-personal data. Unfortunately, in the days of big data and AI, the unwanted wrongful disclosure of what some take to be private data is not on the whole done, either willfully or carelessly; it is simply a corollary of the way the technology works. And there are lots of examples of where personal matters can be inferred from ‘non-personal’ data that are in the public domain, and nobody was either being careless or malicious.

So, I think the present problems are actually rather different. And if I wanted to put a finger on the one that I regard as most important at present it is not privacy, but the anonymity permitted to powerful players. So, we’re sitting in a world where we permit the tech companies, as their business model requires, to sell advertisements; but unlike those who sell print advertisements, do not require an imprint or provide a way of telling who paid for which ad, for which information, misinformation — or disinformation. That is the underlying business, and the reason why the tech companies let people have free Facebook accounts and collect their data and so on. What concerns me is the unaccountability of the powerful, who use a business model premised on the thought that they have a cloak of anonymity.

AB: Do you think that, in general, there is a lack of respect or recognition for what philosophy has to bring to the debate and public policy? Is that a more general problem?

OON: It varies with people doesn’t it? No doubt there are people around, more than there used to be, who will rubbish any intellectual contribution, and who will say philosophy in particular is airy fairy, or whatever they think. But if you think about the number of institutions and public bodies in this country that take it seriously, it’s actually quite impressive. So, I think about, for example, Sense about Science, of which I was a Trustee for a decade, founded by the way by a Lib Dem peer, Dick Taverne. I think about the Science Media Centre. I also think about what Jonathan Floyd has got together in Bristol, where he had 200 people talking about connecting public life with political philosophy.

There are just enormous numbers of institutions… I think all these bodies actually take ethical reasoning quite seriously. By which I don’t mean that they do so  brilliantly; but they do take it seriously. And that’s something that perhaps wasn’t done in my youth, because I think what people assumed was that we would have professional ethics. And then (you’re no doubt both too young to know) Thatcher conducted a war on the professions as ‘conspiracies against the public interest’ — that sort of stuff (or some of her minions did). And, of course, the regulatory society tends to marginalise professionalism because you’ve got so much to comply with that is required by law and regulation.

I think we have rather impressive networks in this country. The only one I’m still quite a lot involved with is the Foundation for Science and Technology, which is presently chaired by David Willetts, but that’s another good example. And then the standard of the best parliamentary Select Committee reports and the best reports from the Departments of State  are pretty high…

AB: Is there a trade-off between academic success and public engagement?

OON: Might it depend partly on the particular topics? You know, I have to say I’ve written a lot on Kant, but I don’t try to introduce that into public reports very much. Other people might feel ‘well, if I can’t set out full arguments, and in particular, some of the differences between different passages in Kant I’m really not taking part in that’. I wasn’t so clear about that. I thought one could often address the topic without inflicting the full weighty stuff that we have to do in philosophical writing. But at the same time, it’s pointless to have supposed philosophical input that is no more than bien pensant platitudes. Because that doesn’t take inquiry further.

AB: Exactly. To what extent, in your role as the philosopher on the committee or in the House of Lords or wherever we’re talking about, is your role to simplify and distil substantive ideas from philosophy and to what extent is it to take the philosopher’s toolkit of I guess things like conceptual analysis and clarifying logical ideas? Where does the balance lie?

OON: I think it’s very contextual. I would say that what is useful for people is, if one can quite crisply say what a distinction is usually taken to mean. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘what’s the difference between disinformation and misinformation?’. And before I’d even thought I said, ‘Well, if somebody makes a mistake and tells you something false, that is misinforming you; but if they aren’t making a mistake and deliberately tell you something that’s false that’s disinformation’. Apparently that was helpful.

But I’ll tell you something that is very noticeable in this particular field at the moment, which is that people feel that the information that they’re producing isn’t being taken seriously. And they’re not quite sure what to do about that. And I see entirely the problem and I’ll illustrate it with an example from the corruption of elections: people are inclined to say about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, ‘oh well, we don’t know how effective it was’. No, we don’t. But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t have any measures for controlling it. The idea that we need to know the quantity of damage before we take protective measures is quite widespread   in political circles at the moment. Yes, there may have been some terrible things going on, Russian interference, in this, that and t’other. But we don’t know whether it’s effective. The implicit suppressed thought is: so let’s pretend it wasn’t.

From Trust to Trustworthiness in the Political Domain

FN: You’ve written a lot about trust over the course of your career. How do you see the recent developments in British politics in terms of the role of trust and trustworthiness?

OON: One of the things as I try to introduce into public and committee discussions, and most people get it immediately, is that when we’re talking about trust, we have to think both about the epistemic and about the ethical standards. They don’t like the word epistemic when you first use it but it’s quick to explain it. And I also spend a lot of time again and again and again, in fact two talks last week, explaining that, actually what we want is not more trust. The only thing we might want is more well-placed trust. And that badly-placed trust is a disaster for everyone.* And as soon as you’ve explained it, everybody gets that point. Now they may lose it again later on, because later on in the discussion you hear them say ‘so we want more trust, and…’. And then my killer example is Bernie Madoff who made off who many people’s money. Would it have been good to have more people trust him for more time?


*In a recent Guardian article, Teddy Groves claims that, “The best set of principles for judging whether statistics are being communicated in a trustworthy fashion come from the philosopher Onora O’Neill.”


This is the first in our new series of interviews on Justice Everywhere. The ongoing Beyond the Ivory Tower series will include interviews with both academic philosophers who are involved in politics, and philosophically-trained politicians and policymakers. Stayed tuned for more!


Fay Niker

Fay is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Stirling. Before taking up this role, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy.



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