She possesses a unique file that includes the disciplines of philosopher, politician, policy maker, author and public figure willing to challenge the preconceptions of the day. A powerful woman thinker in her native Britain, Baronness Onora O’Neill was recently awarded a $1 million prize for lifetime achievement in the fields of philosophy and public service.
Intriguingly, O’Neill refuses to jump on whatever is fashionable at the moment, opting to discover those deeper traits that she believes are the only things that can save humanity from its ongoing fascination with itself. No doubt it emanates from the woman’s remarkable diverse background – former principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and was chairperson of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and prolific author on matters of justice, human rights and human trust. O’Neill remains professor emeritus of philosophy at Cambridge.
Which is what drew me into her orbit. I was intrigued by her belief that in a world of relentless facts (and fake facts), something must emerge that can tie all these discoveries together in a manner that makes humanity better and not merely smarter or distracted. She had performed endless work on the subject of “trust” and how its loss also means humanity’s loss in the end. Her TED talk on the subject, found here, has been viewed almost 1.5 million times.
Drawing from her vast experience, O’Neill challenges conventional wisdom, as when she declares that a distracted modern world, its citizens and leaders, would do better to focus on what is morally right than to produce a particular outcome. The significant $1 million prize she was awarded was given because of her efforts at, “improving self-understanding in a world being rapidly transformed by profound social change.” At 76 years of age, she is deceptively modern in her understand of humanity’s social ills.
She is now perhaps best known for the distinction she draws between “trust” and “trustworthiness.” O’Neill understands why people have lost faith in institutions and one another, but maintains that such divides can’t be overcome merely by trusting others. Our time would be better spent on becoming more trustworthy ourselves, so that the bonds of humanity could be enhanced and expanded.
Trust, left to itself, can leave us naïve and vulnerable. But as we build our own characters to level where we can be counted upon to be transparent, honest and accountable, we not only guard ourselves against being played, we also lay the groundwork for humanity itself to lay a stronger groundwork on how it deals with itself. If we can’t find a way to trust politics, the media, or law, then there is no effective collective roadmap ahead to help us deal with our great challenges. It’s just as bad to be a self-centered politician who can only see things from one’s own experience, as it is to be one that is overly ambitious, judgmental or hyper-partisan. The same holds true for citizens.
And key to all this, she maintains, is the need for philosophy – that ability to view our modern societies from outside of themselves and the need to make ourselves the centre of everything. The smarter and more aware we become, she maintains, the more vulnerable we become at distrusting anything that has to do with humanity. In the end we become so jaded that we become more untrustworthy ourselves and unwilling to reach across our differences to establish a more connected society.
This all gets back to Mahatma Gandhi’s premise that we become, “the change we wish to see in the world.” We can’t save our world without saving ourselves, and we can’t change it without changing ourselves. Instead of always placing institutions and individuals in the dock of judgment, we must find ways in which we examine ourselves – our flaws and potentials – and become the kind of citizens and leaders that people can truly count on for integrity, friendship, connectivity, and, yes, leadership.
Baroness O’Neill has come to believe that the online world has increasingly become the “fractured” place and that the only way to heal ourselves is through the kind of human contact that isn’t stupid, hateful or identity driven, but expansive, connected and character driven. She’s definitely got the background that should drive us to listen and, as she maintains, it’s not as though our present manic world of distrust and disconnectedness is doing a very good job of things. The choice is ours, but having O’Neill’s option before us provides us a broader, more philosophical, view that we should consider.