Baroness Onora O'Neill
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Baroness O'Neill delivers 2014 Isaiah Berlin Lecture on Human Rights and Pluralism

Published on:

Tuesday 27 May

27 May 2014

The 2014 Isaiah Berlin lecture was given last week by Baroness Onora O’Neill. A highly respected philosopher, crossbench peer, former President of the British Academy and of Newnham College, Cambridge, and 2002 Reith Lecturer, Baroness O’Neill spoke persuasively about human rights, pluralism, value and conflicts.

The College President, Professor Dame Hermione Lee, introduced Baroness O’Neill, praising her continuing acts of public service and holding her up as a model for all professional women. The President dedicated this year’s lecture to the memory of Dr Michael Brock, the first bursar and first and only Vice-president of Wolfson College, who died at the end of April.

Baroness O’Neill’s lecture addressed a variety of issues surrounding the difficult philosophical subject of human rights: how can we overcome the conflicts between different cultural values and the lexicon of human rights that has now entered the international legal architecture? How can we strike a fair balance between the competing claims of often contradictory rights e.g. how can we balance the right to freedom of expression with the prohibition on racial hatred?

She began her lecture by addressing the arguments Sir Isaiah Berlin had put forwards regarding the value conflicts that plaque the world; he held that the incompatibility of some values are at the base of all social disputes. Baroness O’Neill spoke fondly about her memories of Sir Isaiah, including meeting him when she was 15, and her father and his strong friendship when they were both studying at All Souls College.

Addressing the issue of the defence of human rights against detractors, she rejected the positivist argument, which holds that because rights are ratified by a large number of states they must be held as binding to all. She acknowledged the historical circumstances that led to the creation of the Conventions, including addressing the charges of Western imperialism, but maintained that rights are moral and fundamental.

Human rights, Baroness O’Neill argued, fall within the domain of ‘practical reasoning’. Unlike aesthetic rights, it would be possible to construct a set of rules and restraints that address all possible conflicts between plural human rights and would set out a realistic system that all humans would be protected by. She acknowledged the magnitude of this task, but suggested that it was the only method that would lead to success.      

The President thanked Baroness O’Neill on behalf of the College for her fascinating and challenging talk, and suggested that the audience would be encouraged to re-examine their assumptions and acknowledge our international duties.