by Onora O'Neill
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Review by Berel Dov Lerner, Ph.D. on Nov 19th 2002
ONeill is wary of suspicion. In her
professional capacity as an academic philosopher, she has pursued this theme in
regards to medical ethics. In the
present extremely brief volume (108 uncramped pages), O'Neill offers a quick
and non-technical overview of her thoughts on the wider phenomena of trust and
distrust in contemporary Western society, particularly in the U.K.
signs of distrust are not hard to find. Public opinion polls seem to indicate
that we have lost faith in practically all of our major institutions. Patients question their physicians medical
advice, citizens lack confidence in the abilities and honesty of politicians
and government agencies, and investors are jaded by the scandals that shake the
financial world. Are we then poised on
the brink of some paralyzing crisis of confidence?
points out that there is something false about our distrust. After all, practically everyone continues to
seek treatment in hospitals, educate their children in schools, and call upon
the police for protection. Although suspicion
is fashionable, it is rarely deep enough to keep people from depending on the
institutions of society in their everyday lives.
distrust, she argues, is superficial because it is unreasonable. It is childish and utopian to withhold trust
until every possibility of deception has been stamped out. However, the news media consistently blow
our societies occasional scandals out of all proportion, creating the
impression of a general failure of professional ethics. Ironically, pollsters
find that the news media themselves constitute perhaps the least trusted institution
with charges of deception, modern institutions adopt the panacea of formalized schemes
of accountability. Hospitals, schools and government agencies
devote ever-larger portions of their budgets towards apologizing for how they
dispose of their budgets. Professionals
find themselves spending more time proving the quality of their work to
bureaucrats, and less time actually serving the public. Of course, these systems of accountability
must be amenable to quantification. They
must produce streams of bureaucracy-friendly information, which often reflect
nothing or little of the actual quality of work being monitored. Worst of all, accountability schemes can actually
distort peoples professional judgment.
Instead of trying to actually do their best, people working under a
strict regime of accountability must gear their performance towards the fulfillment
of artificial, and often irrelevant, official criteria of efficiency.
the end of the day, no system of bureaucratic controls can ever dispel our fear
of deception. In fact, the spotlights
and microscopes of intimate regulation create pressures for deception that did
not exist previously; ask enough questions, and you can turn anyone into a liar.
We end up flooded with information regarding peoples performance, but lack any
guaranty of its accuracy. Who can vouch
for the diligence of inspectors and the veracity of audits? Todays common wisdom would seem to suggest
that we must set up an infinite regress of inspectors, each looking over the
proposes that we act to restore trust by dismantling the rampant accountability-inquisition
and by channeling our attention to the reform of the media. Journalism demands that every institution be
held accountable, excepting itself.
Rumor, opinion and fact mix freely on the pages of our newspapers. (Although I would say this is perhaps truer
of the British than American press). No
one seems to care whether headlines correctly reflect the content of
articles. O'Neill does not offer a
specific plan of action, but she would like to see journalists and news
organizations reveal their monetary sources, as well as their news sources. In a nutshell, she makes one simple and
obviously justified demand of journalists: That they actually offer some kind
of assessable evidence for the veracity of the stories they tell. Isnt it remarkable that the press has never
demanded that of itself?
© 2002 Berel Dov Lerner
in Washington, D.C., Berel Dov Lerner studied at Johns Hopkins and the University
of Chicago, before becoming a member of Kibbutz Sheluhot in Israels Beit Shean
Valley. He completed his Ph.D. at Tel-Aviv
University, and currently teaches philosophy at the Western Galilee Academic
College. His first book, Rules,
Magic and Instrumental Reason was published last year by Routledge.