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by Onora O'Neill
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Review by Berel Dov Lerner, Ph.D. on Nov 19th 2002

A Question of Trust

Onora O’Neill 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. 

Apparent 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 physician’s 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?

O’Neill 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. 

Our 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 of all.

Faced 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 people’s 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. 

At 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 people’s performance, but lack any guaranty of its accuracy.  Who can vouch for the diligence of inspectors and the veracity of audits?  Today’s common wisdom would seem to suggest that we must set up an infinite regress of inspectors, each looking over the other’s shoulder.

O'Neill 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.  Isn’t it remarkable that the press has never demanded that of itself?


© 2002 Berel Dov Lerner


Born in Washington, D.C., Berel Dov Lerner studied at Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, before becoming a member of Kibbutz Sheluhot in Israel’s 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.