Onora O'Neills Acceptance Speech

Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon, Minister, esteemed members of the Holberg Committee, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, friends and family—both those who are here and those who cannot be here.

It is a very great honour to be awarded the Holberg prize, and a very large surprise. I thank the committee for their hard work and the Norwegian people for their great generosity and their recognition, most deeply.

It is also a great pleasure to come to Bergen for the first time and to see this beautiful city and spectacular coastline. I too come from a rainy and spectacular part of our continent—the Antrim Hills in Northern Ireland, although I do not think that our rainfall is quite so great, or our scenery quite so grand. I had, however, grown up with a sense of sadness about the Atlantic coast of Norway. My father’s first cousin and close contemporary, Captain Brian O’Neill of the Irish Guards, was killed on 14th May 1940, when the ill-fated British expeditionary force was being evacuated. He was on the requisitioned Polish ship Chrobry, which was bombed by the Luftwaffe off the Lofoten Islands, and while most aboard were rescued, he was not. I did not want today to pass without publicly remembering this sadness, and realise that I will now also have happy memories of this coast. Enough of “...old, unhappy, far off things, And battles long ago...”.


Like anyone who has pursued the life of the mind for a long time I have sometimes been tempted to imagine that there has been a clear trajectory to my explorations. But in truth a lot has been less than planned, and I have wandered into many blind alleys. I certainly never planned to spend long years working on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant—although I am glad that I persisted. 

When I began studying philosophy in Oxford my tutors—Elisabeth Anscombe (who had studied with Wittgenstein) and Philippa Foot (whose writing on virtue was broadly Aristotelian)—were united in thinking that Kant’s claims about reason and morality were both philosophically implausible and morally corrupt. Those claims have a long history. Hegel was the first to accuse Kant of reducing morality to empty formalism, while supposedly also displaying a mindless rigourism by insisting that ethics take no account of varying circumstances. Although these accusations are incompatible, their combination is perennially popular.

Kant saw duty as fundamental to morality both in the public sphere and in personal life. In this he was not original. Duty—both public and private—had been the cornerstone of European ethics at least since the time of Cicero. Its pre-eminence was queried in the late nineteenth century—by Friedrich Nietzsche, by G.E. Moore—but fell into serious disrepute when an exaggerated emphasis on patriotic duty, and specifically on killing and dying for King and Country, promoted a grim version of the ethics of duty during the dark years of 1914-18. 

The ethics of duty fell into wider, philosophical disrepute when the logical positivists of the 1930s claimed that all of morality and metaphysics, theology and aesthetics not merely lacked justification but were literally meaningless. Their arguments were slender, but the damage was extensive, and it became conventional to identify ethics with the preferences individuals happen to have, and to cover up this devaluation of values by calling these preferences values. This way of thinking and talking is now well entrenched and fits perfectly with the libertarian versions of liberalism that have gained such currency. However, the further disaster of Nazism and a second world war convinced many that at least the ethics of the public domain must be rescued from the dustbin of history.

Since the late 1940s appeals to Human Rights have been a favoured way of restoring the ethics of the public domain. But a focus on rights is inevitably evasive about the ethics of the rest of life, and indeed the ethics of the public domain also changes when we prioritise rights over duties. Once rights are taken as fundamental the classical ethical question, ‘What ought we do?’ is replaced with the less lovely question ‘What ought others do for us?”—and the ethics of private life, where duties that lack counterpart rights matter, is readily ignored or seen as a domain of individual choice.       

In this situation the ancient war cry ‘Back to Kant!’ may have a point: but it may also have a rub. Kant supports his account of ethics with reasons, and audaciously claims to support reason itself with a critique of reason. Many have thought this venture doomed. For how can anyone justify reason itself? If the supposed justification is based on reason it will be circular, so fail to justify; it does not appeal to reason, it will even more obviously fail to justify.

Gradually, as I tussled with Kant’s work on this topic, I came to see that behind his ponderous rhetoric about reason there is a modest claim. Reasoning is an activity in which we offer considerations to others, and are offered considerations by others. Reasoning must therefore respect the basic disciplines for successful communication with others. We can at least say this much about reasoning: if we want to give others reasons to believe something we must offer considerations that they could follow in thought, and if we want to give them reasons for acting we must offer them proposals that they could adopt as principles for action.

Kant, in short, rejects Descartes’ view, which has been so influential in European life and thought, that ‘reason is complete and entire in each one of us’. When we propose reasons we must meet the necessary conditions for the possibility of sharing claims about what to believe and claims about what to do. And when we propose reasons that are to be relevant to everyone—such as the reasons for belief that scientific inquiry seeks or the reasons for action that ethics seeks—we must offer considerations that could in principle be followed in thought or adopted for action by all others. 

This line of thought may seem to offer limited comfort, because it is so weak. Surely countless beliefs could be accepted by all others and countless principles of action could be adopted by all others. How can such a minimal principle justify ethical principles?  Won’t it also support and seemingly ‘justify’ lots of false beliefs and lots of ethically dubious principles? Does Kant’s account of reason do more than get us out of the frying pan, while leaving us to roast in the fire? 

However, the demand that those ethical principles be for everybody requires us to reject principles that cannot be principles for all.   Kant’s account of reasoning about action—the infamous Categorical Imperative—is in the end no more than a demand to set aside principles that cannot be principles for all. For example, we cannot even imagine a world in which principles of killing or violence, of coercion or manipulation, of deception or dishonesty, are universally adopted. Their universal adoption is not a coherent possibility because those who became victims of such action would be unable to adopt those very principles (or indeed other principles!). The Categorical Imperative is not empty, since it demands the rejection of principles that cannot be principles for all.

Public Reason and Communication

Kant derives an account of duty from the necessary conditions of the possibility of communicating with ‘the world at large’. He called this approach to justification an account of public reason, and this phrase has been taken up by distinguished late twentieth century political philosophers, including John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas and Amartya Sen.  

However, Kant’s account of public reason is more austere than contemporary accounts, which identify public reason with communication under specified conditions. For Rawls (in his late work) public reason is exemplified in communication among fellow citizens in bounded, liberal, democratic polities; for Habermas it is achieved by communication aimed at agreement in which all are free to participate; for Sen it is communication aimed at agreement in which reasons may come from near or far. Each focuses on communication that meets specific conditions and the agreement it may secure; each sees reasoning as pre-eminently aiming at agreement secured by democratic process. Kant was more circumspect. He did not assume that reasoning would lead to agreement—but only that it is lacking where intended audiences cannot even follow what the other party claims or intends.   

A corollary of this minimalist, Kantian view of reason is that we have no grounds for thinking that only the ethical standards of the public domain—claims about human rights, about theories of justice—are justifiable, while the ethics of the rest of life simply reflects individual choices or preferences. A wider range of traditional duties—perhaps including duties of honesty and fidelity, of clemency and beneficence—may also be justifiable. It may be that we can still find arguments for the older and more generous view of ethics that John Locke saw as linking “the great maxims of justice and of charity”.

A revised form of Kantian ethics may also be distinctively relevant to some of the deepest and newest challenges that we face today in thinking about ethical standards for communication. No aspect of our lives has changed more during the past century than practices of communication. In their day earlier revolutions in technologies for communication gave rise to ethical controversy and upheavals, and so do those of our day. The first confrontation between ethical claims and communications technologies of which we know is discussed in Plato’s comments on Socrates’ mistrust of the written world in Phaedrus. Plato depicts Socrates as criticising the new world in which words could be distanced from their authors and sent “fatherless into the world”, with nobody to stand up for them or to intervene to prevent distortion, misinterpretation or misunderstanding. A second wave of dispute and controversy arose when printing enabled communication that could not merely distance words from their authors, thereby bridging time and distance, and separating originator from recipient, but also expanded audiences and multiplied possibilities for exercising and for challenging power and control. The titanic debates of the early modern period took the form of battles about censorship and toleration, about freedom of speech and of the press.

But the liberal resolution reached about the printed word has been placed under severe pressure in the twentieth century. The successive   emergence of telephony, radio, film, television, the Internet and   social media, and latterly of algorithms for the automated selection,    dissemination and recirculation of content have transformed communication and the exercise of power. We are moving rapidly away from the early days of the Internet, in which starry-eyed cyber romantics imagined that the solutions of the early modern period that sought to limit control of content by Church and state would provide an ethically sound model for the new forms of communication. That liberal, latterly very often libertarian, vision is being betrayed by the very openness that was initially celebrated. We need to consider how freedom of expression might best be configured now that communications technologies offer spectacular advantages to many who have reason to hide themselves in cloaks of anonymity. How can we address the harms caused by online bullies and blackmailers, extremists and paedophiles, inventors of fake news and terrorist plans, who use the cloak of anonymity to harm, to intimidate, to deceive? How are we to deal with the echo chambers filled with corrosive content and abuse? With the algorithms that can ensure that we read the sort of content that we ‘like’, and reduce the possibility of encountering material that checks or challenges what we already believe? How are personal and democratic life to be protected in our new situation from those whose weapon is simply the dissemination of content? It is tempting to think that because we managed the transitions to writing and to printing, there are tried and tested ways of dealing with new challenges. But do we? Here perhaps philosophers and others should fear to tread: but perhaps we must be bold. 

Your Highness, Minister, distinguished guests, I thank you for this   great honour, for your being here today, and for listening.  

Professor Onora O’Neill
Holberg Prize Laureate 2017