Books interview: Onora O'Neill

The author of Justice Across Boundaries: Whose Obligations? on Swallows and Amazons, W.B. Yeats and reading Henry Kissinger and Immanuel Kant

May 26, 2016
Onora O'Neill, Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

What books were your childhood favourites?
Once I moved on from picture books, I began to devour old-fashioned adventure stories wholly uncritically: from Swallows and Amazons to Treasure Island to Masterman Ready and The Three Musketeers. I read them at a gallop in order to find out what happened next, and would probably be very surprised to discover what I had missed if I reread them now.

You begin your new book Justice Across Boundaries: Whose Obligations? by considering Robert Frost’s ‘simple and deep’ Mending Wall. Have you a favourite poet?
Recently I’ve gone back to W. B. Yeats. The 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising provoked fears – widely shared – that commemoration might turn to provocative celebration and damage the still fragile political settlement in Ireland. This sharpened my appreciation of those who refused a century ago to celebrate either war or rebellion. Yeats was pre-eminent among them. In An Irish Airman foresees his Death, he wrote “Nor law, nor duty bade me fight/Nor public men, nor cheering crowds/A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the clouds/I balanced all, brought all to mind/The years to come seemed waste of breath…”. And in Easter 1916 he captures both the grandeur and the costs of the rising: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born”. In a world in which those who kill others for political ends are all too often misdescribed as “martyrs”, Yeats’ austere clarity matters.

Justice Across Boundaries’ final chapter discusses bioethics, an area of longstanding interest to you. Whose work would you recommend to the lay reader interested in learning more about the subject?
Nearly all writing in bioethics is about medical treatment that individuals may or should receive, including innovative treatments such as those that deploy new reproductive and genetic technologies and various forms of “human enhancement”. I’m more interested in the ethics of public health, which does not aim solely at the treatment of individuals. I have enjoyed Norman Fowler’s short and compelling work AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice, which compares what happened in jurisdictions that took a public health approach with what happened in those that took a moralistic approach to the HIV/Aids crisis: the latter have suffered unnecessary and catastrophic rates of transmission. I also liked the reflective approach of Observing Bioethics by Renée C. Fox and Judith P. Swazey.

You became a life peer in 1999, and thus a politician as well as a political philosopher. Whose writing on politics did you find most useful in this new chapter in your public life?
In reading on politics and economics I look for writers – there aren’t enough of them – who combine strong commitment to ideals and principles with tough-minded realism about what it takes to live by those principles. Two books that have impressed me recently are Henry Kissinger’s World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History and Colin Mayer’s Firm Commitment: Why The Corporation is Failing Us and How To Restore Trust in It. Kissinger is deeply thoughtful about what it really takes to secure even a quite imperfect peace, and Mayer diagnoses the real economic costs of institutions whose only aim is the simple-minded pursuit of the bottom line.  

Which recent works of fiction have you, as a philosopher, found most fulfilling and challenging?
At present all too many books that are not classified as fiction are filled with fictions – very often with standardised and irritating fictions. I find myself weary of writing that is predicated on fictitious views of individual autonomy; fictitious views about well-ordered preferences; fictitious views of the possibility of achieving perfection in policy and politics; and many other fictions. Novels can be a way of avoiding irritating fictions, and I enjoy those of Colm Tóibín, Julian Barnes and Sebastian Barry, and Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

What was the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Recent presents include Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome for a classicist son, and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals for a 10-year-old granddaughter who loves drawing animals.

What books are you presently reading, or are on your desk waiting to be read?
As usual I have a number of partly read philosophy books waiting for the fuller attention they need. At present, they include Rudolf A. Makkreel’s Orientation and Judgment in Hermeneutics, Reidar Maliks’ Kant’s Politics in Context and Kenneth R. Westphal’s How Hume and Kant Reconstruct Natural Law. During the past 15 years, I have found Immanuel Kant’s late political writings deeply absorbing and it is exciting to find this enthusiasm increasingly widely shared.

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve, a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, is former principal of Newnham College and emeritus honorary professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge, and author of Justice Across Boundaries: Whose Obligations? (Cambridge University Press).

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