Sunday November 12, 2017

How philosophy can show us who to trust

Renowned Irish philosopher Onora O’Neill was recently awarded the million-dollar Berggruen Prize. Judges cited her as “one of the most eminent moral philosophers in the world today”, whose work has “profound significance for the major public issues of our time.”

Renowned Irish philosopher Onora O’Neill was recently awarded the million-dollar Berggruen Prize. Judges cited her as “one of the most eminent moral philosophers in the world today”, whose work has “profound significance for the major public issues of our time.” (Shutterstock)

Listen 32:14

The idea persists in our culture that philosophy is full of valuable wisdom and insights into the human condition and what it means to live a good, ethical life.

Philosophy is a worthy subject to study in university, to debate with friends, or to ponder and puzzle over during quiet hours.

But it's of little practical value in the so-called real world.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve would have you think differently. Or if you encountered her in another context, you might know her as Professor Onora O'Neill, a renowned Irish philosopher. 

She's written widely on political philosophy, justice, bioethics and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

She's an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, the president of the Society for Applied Philosophy and the former president of the British Academy. 

Onora O’Neill

Renowned Irish philosopher Onora O’Neill has written widely on politics, justice, and bioethics. (Wikimedia Commons)

Baroness O'Neill is the author of 11 books and is best known for her work on the nature of trust. In fact, the TED talk she gave on trust has been viewed 1.5 million times. 

And, as you may have guessed from her title, Baroness O'Neill is a member of the British House of Lords and recently served as chair of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission. 

This year she has won both the prestigious Holberg Prize — considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for the humanities — and the million-dollar Berggruen Prize for her life's work in philosophy and public service. The Berggruen Prize judges cited her as "one of the most eminent moral philosophers in the world today" whose work has "profound significance for the major public issues of our time." 

Baroness O'Neill spoke to Michael Enright about trust. 

There has been lots of hand-wringing over the years and decades about the lack of trust in our society — declining trust in institutions, in governments, in our fellow humans. But O'Neill argues that the real thing we should be concerned about is not trust, but trustworthiness.

"Trust is my response to other people or institutions, and what I want to do is target my trust so that I trust trustworthy people and I don't trust untrustworthy people.

"Take an example: That well-known financier, Mr. Madoff — made off with a lot of people's money. You don't want to end up trusting Mr. Madoff, do you? You want to mistrust him because he's untrustworthy.

madoff-cp-6397978

Disgraced Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced to the maximum 150 years behind bars for fleecing hundreds of investors out of tens of billions of dollars in a massive Ponzi scheme. (Louis Lanzano/Associated Press)

"And it seems to me that if we put the question, "Should we have more trust?" at the centre, or "How can we restore trust?" then we have a problem. It suggests that more trust is always a good thing. But it's only a good thing if you can direct your trust at people and institutions that are trustworthy. Then it's important. But indiscriminate trust is not clever."

Obviously, it's not always easy to discern the trustworthy from the untrustworthy. If it were otherwise, con artists would never succeed. Baroness O'Neill suggests three things to look for in assessing whether someone or something is trustworthy.

"Is the person or institution competent at what it's doing? Is it honest in what it says? And is it also reliably honest and competent?

"And of course, that's much easier (to decide) in everyday life than in complex institutional settings. My guess is that the reason why nowadays people say that they don't trust or that there's less trust has a lot to do with the fact that over the past thirty or forty years, we have made our institutions extremely complex, and it's very hard for most of us to judge what people in highly complex technical roles are doing. It's because judgement is difficult that placing trust is hard."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.