Home / Arts & Life / Onora O’Neill Wins $1 Million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy

Onora O’Neill Wins $1 Million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy


The philosopher Onora O’Neill, who received the Berggruen Prize for her thoughts on interpersonal trust, among other ideas.

Onora O’Neill

The British philosopher Onora O’Neill has been named the winner of the 2017 Berggruen Prize, which is awarded annually to a thinker whose ideas “have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.”

The prize, which carries a cash award of $1 million, will be given in a ceremony in New York City in December. It was inaugurated last year by the Berggruen Institute, a research organization based in Los Angeles and dedicated to improving governance and mutual understanding across cultures, with particular emphasis on intellectual exchange between the West and Asia.

Ms. O’Neill, 76, is known for her work in ethics, which builds on the work of Immanuel Kant. The prize jury, which was led by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, praised her for providing insight on “the central questions of our time, from the tension between universal rights and national sovereignty to the role of interpersonal trust in enabling autonomy to the moral obligation to take action across borders to relieve famine.”

Trust, in particular, has been a major theme of Ms. O’Neill’s work, elaborated in scholarly works like “Justice, Trust and Accountability” (2005), as well as in a 2013 TED Talk called “What We Don’t Understand About Trust,” which challenged the frequent call to “rebuild trust” across society.

“Frankly, I think that’s a stupid aim,” Ms. O’Neill said in that talk. “I would aim to have more trust in the trustworthy but not in the untrustworthy. In fact, I aim positively to try not to trust the untrustworthy.” The call to rebuild trust, she said, “gets things backwards.”

This is not the first major international prize for Ms. O’Neill, a crossbench member of the House of Lords and a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, who has also served as the chair of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. She was the winner of this year’s Holberg Prize, which is awarded by the Norwegian parliament and carries a cash prize of about $525,000. She also won the 2015 International Kant Prize.

The winner of last year’s Berggruen Prize was the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

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