Baroness O’Neill began by outlining public opinion that an inevitable decline in trust is affecting our society, using the general attitude towards politicians and journalists as an example. She then moved on to the perversion of trust in social institutions, criticising the common desire to rebuild trust, and promoting our obligation to replace our mismatched trust. Indeed, we must establish trustworthiness before trust, in order to ensure more intelligent placement of trust. Baroness O’Neill cited the imperative of proof within the allocation of trustworthiness, admitting that it is elusive – for example, belief systems are blind in their placement of trust, due to a lack of evidence.

The Baroness proceeded to single out the pollsters as a means by which we can see how trust is placed according to type and thus preference – making it, therefore, inconclusive. We were presented with recent poll results revealing politicians to be trusted by 13% of the UK population, while doctors are trusted by 92% – statistics that have stayed the same for several decades, despite media stories that publicise small shifts in trust as momentous events. Remaining with the idea of types, the Baroness highlighted the necessity for a differentiation between individuals, insisting that we must resist generic accounts – Baroness O’Neill recalled her Reith lectures, in which a guest’s attitude was juxtaposed to her judgement of surgeons. The Baroness explained this by defining judgements to be evidence-based and therefore prejudiced, while defining attitudes to be more generalised – a theory suggesting a constructivist approach to be essential in intelligently placing trust. The example of the aptly named Bernard Madoff and controversy over the MMR vaccine were evidence of a lack of intelligence within many people’s attitudes.

Baroness O’Neill moved on to insist that one’s placement of trust must be aligned with one’s own interests, outlining honesty, reliability and competence as three key characteristics that influence trust-placement. The Baroness criticised the excessive presence of incentives in UK socio-political institutions – outlining perverse incentives to be based on expectation, while damaging incentives are based on priority – going on to cite the Nolan Principles to epitomise the wide-ranging points of accountability within society. Indeed, it is this dispersion that consequently affects the education of trust-placement. We were prompted to question whether accountability leads to trustworthiness, as the Baroness suggested culture as an alternative to the aforementioned system of incentives – this was emphasised in the example of the “tick box culture” in the UK public exam sphere.

Baroness O’Neill concluded that trust does not necessarily follow accountability, highlighting the importance of simplicity in decisions over evidence. The talk came to a close on the topic of trust building – a concept the Baroness saw to be reversed, insofar as trust cannot be rebuilt, only intelligently given based on evidence. In the Baroness’ opinion, communication is key in gaining trust. We were presented with the final example of a store that offers to replace the Baroness’ socks, should they prove unsatisfactory, that earns trust through confidence in purposeful vulnerability.

The questions that followed considered a range of topics, ranging from the usefulness of a Rawlsian/Kantian approach to morality within society to the effectiveness of fascist regimes (in this case, Nazism) in instilling trust.

Hector Tydeman JMG