Mary Warnock was born in 1924 and is a life fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, of which she was mistress from 1985-91.
She was educated at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and became a fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. From 1966-72 she was headmistress at Oxford High School.
In the early 1980s she chaired the Inquiry into Human Fertilisation which resulted in the controversial Warnock Report. More recently she chaired the Advisory Group on Medical Ethics. Her publications include Ethics Since 1900, A Common Policy for Education, The Uses of Philosophy and Imagination and Time.
I interviewed her in 1997.
It is said that you do not mind being included in the ranks of the great and the good. What do you yourself understand by this?
The great and the good are a collection of people who have time and willingness to learn and are prepared to serve on government committees of enquiry. These committees serve quite a useful function. They are not just ways for the government to get off the hook for a bit, as some people believe.
You are sometimes considered to be a role model for twentieth-century women, having combined marriage, motherhood and a demanding profession. That’s quite an achievement given that in 1950 you were the first married fellow of your college in Oxford. Did you never feel disadvantaged as a woman?
An academic profession is not quite like a profession in, say, the civil service, or in chambers. It’s very flexible, so it was much the easiest to combine with having children. I certainly didn’t feel disadvantaged, because I was a member of an all-women’s college then and I was very decently treated.
Did you ever consider yourself part of the feminist movement?
My sympathy with the feminist movement is moderate. I am very much in favour of there not being a ceiling beyond which women can’t go, and I would want women to do whatever they thought they possibly could, but I’m not in favour of any aspects of the feminist movement that are anti-men. That’s what I dislike.
You regard your own background as privileged, despite the fact that your father died before you were born. Has his awareness of privilege always been an unqualified advantage in your life, would you say?
It has. My mother was reasonably well off which meant that I could have music lessons and other opportunities which gave me enormous pleasure. When my own children were growing up, far more was possible for children without their having to pay for it, and this was an enormous advance. But in my day a wealthy family was a terrific advantage. It was also assume that you could go to university and enter the professions which other people couldn’t. My family were particularly self-admiring, if I can put it that way. We were brought up to think that we came from a wonderful talented background, and therefore that we would go ahead and do something with it.
Your eldest daughter Kitty said of you that it is one of your strengths of character that you think that everything you do is unique and wonderful…would you agree with that?
I agree entirely. I know my children find me terribly boring in that I’m always yacking on about my childhood. One of my sisters and I regard our childhood in a particular way. We adored it and we can talk about it endlessly; it is a kind of benchmark of how exciting things can be. But Kitty was certainly right in criticizing me for this.
Apparently you don’t think of yourself as having been ‘a proper mother’. What do you mean by that?
I remember one time when I was talking about how I might stop working and devote myself to writing when the children were all off my hands, and my eldest son said to me: ‘Proper mothers think of starting work when their children leave home, you think if stopping it.’ He was also critical of the fact that proper mothers in Oxford were always getting together wonderful picnics and going off in the car, and I never did that. I never had time.
Did you ever suffer from guilt in the way that most women do?
I suffered acute guilt. It was mainly because I had to hire nannies who in the beginning were awful and terribly unreliable. I spent a frightful amount of my early married life worrying about whether these people were adequate, and whether they were good for the children. Later on we had some good people and I didn’t have to worry any more. I had a great dispute with Geoffrey about who were the good nannies. My favourites were some Irish Catholic girls who succeed one another, sister after sister, and who were looked after by the local church so I didn’t have to worry about them. But Geoffrey was an Ulsterman through and through, and he didn’t like the fact that they were Irish Catholics and used to think they would have TB.
Your husband Geoffrey was a fellow philosopher. Would you describe the marriage as principally a marriage of minds, or was it of the more normal passion and love?
It was certainly a marriage of passion and love, but on the other hand I don’t think I could ever have fallen in love with anyone who wasn’t my intellectual superior. I have a passion for learning and for being taught, and Geoffrey taught me an enormous amount, not only about philosophy, but also about economics and politics and all the things we had in common all through our married life. I’m sure I couldn’t have committed myself sexually to somebody who was my intellectual inferior.
You lived quite separate lives at times…
Only in the sense that he used to go to America for whole semesters and I was at home with the children. Also right at the end of our careers I went off to Cambridge for five years while he was still at Oxford, but we were always perfectly capable of living on our own and communicating by letter and telephone at weekends.
So it was never a threat to your marriage?
Not at all. Of course people thought it a bit weird when I went off to Girton, but my youngest daughter said, ‘They’re stupid to say that your marriage is splitting up – it just shows what a wonderful marriage it is.’ And I think she was right.
You apparently regarded philosophy as your discipline rather than your vocation. What are the implications of that in practice?
What I’m most interested in is the history of ideas. I am not and never could be an original philosophical thinker, but philosophy is my discipline in the sense that that’s what I read when I as an undergraduate and that was what I enjoyed, and what I went on to teach.
Do you think that philosophers have any particular insight into the difference between right and wrong?
No, but they can play a fairly useful role in suggesting limits to what can be hoped for in getting an agreement about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s an analytical approach, but in my particular case it is always tempered by an interest in what people in the past thought about morality.
What then are the particular skills that a philosopher might bring to a moral discussion?
Caution. Also identifying where something is a matter of absolute principle. One of the great problems in legislation, certainly in legislation based on morality, is the difference between uncompromising people who have their own principles and yet who are prepared to accept that their principles need to be modified for the real world, and those fanatics, like some of the Moslem absolutists, who are not prepared to regard the real world as necessarily falling below their high principles. That is a great difficulty nowadays. I hate fanaticism. The notion of an ideal as opposed to what can be achieved is a very important one in morality, and certainly in legislation, and some fundamentalists don’t accept the distinction.
Your name is most famously associated with the controversial report on human fertilization and embryology. When you considered all the arguments and finally submitted your judgement, did you think that you had arrived at some sort of truth, or at least the correct view? Or was it more like a flawed compromise?
I think it was the last of those. I always felt very envious of some of my colleagues who looked at the report from a philosophical point of view and said that the argument should have been pushed through to its conclusion. I would love to have come at the issues from a purely philosophical point of view, but I was very conscious of the fact that we were hired, so to speak, to advise ministers, and you can always advise ministers to introduce a legislation that is wholly logical. However, compromise is not necessarily a flaw. We were not selected to air our own moral views, or even to come up with a philosophical solution to a problem, though these contributed to the result. We were really put there to produce a practical solution that might get through parliament. I constantly had to remind my colleagues of that.
If I can put the question another way, did you submit your report in a spirit of humility before the complexity of the issues, or was your feeling more one of absolute confidence?
Certainly not the latter. I knew right at the beginning that we would not reach a unanimous conclusion. One of the members, for example, was a Roman Catholic neurologist, a very nice man and a competent committee member, but I knew he wouldn’t compromise his principle about all life being equally valuable. He didn’t talk ignorantly about the moment of conception – he was a doctor and knew better – but from when the embryo first began to form, he was in favour of giving it absolute protection. In fact the minority report he submitted was one of the best-argued cases for no research using human embryos that I’ve ever seen before or since. So I was aware that there were issues on which we couldn’t possibly hope to get agreement.
Could I go a little further here? The dissent within your committee showed that whatever the benefits to mankind of research on the embryo there are those who will remain adamant that it is a bad, evil business. You said at the time, and have said since, that the opponents must have their say and that all shades of belief must be reflected. What I wonder is this: how is it decided not to give any weight to these views? I mean, what is the point in their having their say if at the end of the day it is not going to count for anything?
There is actually no compromise possible between those who want research using human embryos to be prohibited altogether, and those who want it to be prohibited except in certain circumstances – which is the solution that we recommended and which was accepted by Parliament. You ask what we use it for them to have their say if they don’t win? Well, it’s of enormous use because the whole point of that kind of debate is that they might win in the end. They are freely able to put their point, and still do, and they may eventually persuade people. The pro-life people who sent foetuses through the post are more likely to make enemies than converts, but those who put their view soberly and with conviction are just as likely to make converts as I am.
The pro-lifers are an ever increasing minority, especially in America now. Do you regard them as fanatics?
I do, because they are prepared to take violent steps and have no interest in reasoned arguments. I distinguish very sharply between people who are pro-lifers and those like the unfortunate Duke of Norfolk who was obliged as a senior Catholic to adopt the view put forward by the Pope. He didn’t actually have a great deal of conviction in himself, but he did his duty nobly. Similarly I respect my old friend Frank Langford who feels very passionately about it and continues to argue and debate, but he is quite different from the pro-lifers who are prepared to intervene without argument.
You allow that sentiment has a place in moral reasoning. What sort of place does it have and what degree of importance should it be accorded?
It has enormous importance, because I don’t think there could be any such thing as morality unless there were what Hume referred to as our moral sense. If morality were a simple matter of calculating the consequences, then there would be no difference between morality and expediency. You have to embrace an ideal, and you can’t do that without loving it and hating its opposite. Sentiment is at the very centre of morality. This is partly what makes it so difficult to teach children to distinguish between right and wrong. You’ve got to get them to like the good, and be ashamed of or hate the bad. It’s those Aristotelian feelings of shame and admiration that one’s got to inculcate into children.
David Hume wrote that morality was ‘more properly felt than judged of’. You have spent many years chairing committees and looking at evidence and writing reports – is this judging rather than feeling?
No, I agree with Hume absolutely. What I do believe is that you can’t adopt a moral attitude to something if you don’t know what you’re talking about. So on the embryology committee, for example, the first task of the members was to learn the facts about embryological life, of which most of us – even some medical members – were profoundly ignorant. What I object to is people coming out immediately like pub bored with their gut reaction, saying there ought to be a law against it. Understanding what it is you’re talking about is of prime importance if you’re going to make moral pronouncements.
But isn’t it the case that the majority of people are completely inarticulate about moral issues? They don’t produce rational arguments for or against a particular moral question, they just feel it to be right or wrong…
Yes. There were certainly people on that committee who were forever saying, I don’t feel quite happy about that, and I was reduced saying to one bishop’s wife: ‘We’re not brought into this world to feel happy. Tell me what it is you think is wrong.’ It is a very valuable lesson for people on any kind of public body, whether it’s local government or parish council, to be made to think why they’re against it. In the end they may say, I don’t know, I just can’t quite reconcile myself to it, and that’s important too, but they should come to that only after they’ve had a go at thinking. Feeling is not the first and last thing in moral judgements, but it is right at the base of them.
What about instances where democracy is made subordinate to what might be called liberal morality? The most famous example is probably the issue of capital punishment which the vast majority of people in this country would probably be in favour of restoring…why should your view and those of the liberal establishment hold sway?
It’s a terribly interesting question that. I don’t believe that the referendum kind of solution to complicated problems is ever going to be a proper democratic solution. You can’t make a moral judgement unless you know what you’re talking about. In the case of capital punishment you have to look at the factual evidence of whether capital punishment acts as a deterrent or not. You also have to consider the horrendous consequences of wrongful conviction , how that is utterly irreversible, and the awful weight of one’s conscious if an innocent person has been hanged. So I think one can argue that there are ways of persuading people whose gut reaction would be to bring back the gallows that the consequences of doing so are potentially worse.
There are many who consider hanging to be barbaric…what about those who say that experimentation on embryos at any stage is barbaric?
I would dissent from that comparison. I can see there are reasons why one might say that research using human embryos shouldn’t occur, either on grounds of principle or on grounds of the slippery slope argument – that is to say, if you allow this, God know what else you would allow. But to suggest that such goings on were barbaric would beg the question about the status of the four-cell embryo, because it would imply that it was a human being with full rights. My view would be that the four cell embryo is not a human being with full rights. Although it’s human and alive, it can’t feel anything, it hasn’t got a central nervous system and it is not even one individual thing but maybe two things or no thing in the end. In other words you can’t disregard the differences between four cells and a human person. Now barbarism seems to me to be a concept that applies between monstrous people and humans. Barbarism is an outrage against a human being. I also think that it suggests an archaic, uncivilized way of going on, whereas research in the laboratory is far from archaic and uncivilized.
Does the man on the Clapham omnibus have any sort of representation in the moral life of this country?
The man on the Clapham omnibus would be outraged at the thought of an ageing frail man being mugged and his savings being taken off him and being left for dead. This is a monstrous immorality, but unfortunately it is something that happens. What is so threatening to our society is the growth of a kind of underclass of youngish people who don’t understand moral concepts at all, who don’t have any notion of morality. If they become more numerous and don’t care whether what they are doing is either illegal or immoral, then this is frightening. The criminal law is a kind of crystallization of what most people think is right and wrong. We mostly think killing people is wrong, that stealing is wrong, and therefore the man on the Clapham omnibus is terribly important. He’s the foundation of the whole of criminal law, and if he didn’t think these things we’d be in deep trouble.
Do you think that there has been a moral decline in this country?
Yes, I do. There’s been an enormous increase in greed and violence which people don’t seem to care about any longer. For example, consider these careless phrases that are used, like ‘an offer I couldn’t refuse’. I remember being deeply shocked the first time I heard that phrase from an undergraduate at Girton. He was a committed civilization man, that is to say he deeply wanted to civilize people. He was a classicist, an historian, and he had committed himself to teaching and he was looking forward to it. Then he rather shamefacedly said, ‘I’ve had an offer I could not refuse’ – this was from the City. And I thought, ‘Well damn it, you could have refused it, you could have been this wonderful classics teacher that you wanted to be.’ I was horrified. That mentality of greed is very dangerous.
What about sex…has there been a decline there?
On the whole no. In fact there’s a great deal that’s improved because of the better account that’s taken of women. The bad thing in my view is people’s longing to know about everybody else’s sexual goings on. I hate the openness that is required of one nowadays. I loathe seeing advertisements saying ‘regardless of race and sexual orientation’. What the hell is your sexual orientation to do with the employer?
What do you think about politicians and so-called sleaze?
There’s an awful lot of hypocrisy about this actually. Discretion is a terribly important virtue here. I don’t believe you should dig up things about a politician which may or may not be true and then say he ought to resign. Heaven knows, if that happened across the board, the whole world would be resigning. I don’t see why politicians should be more subject to this than you and me. Whether they’re good politicians or statesmen is really nothing whatever to do with their private lives.
You crossed swords with Enoch Powell – the complete opposite of the man on the Clapham omnibus – over embryo experimentation. You said that the moment he called his bill The Protection of the Unborn Child you knew you had no respect for him…this was because the phrase ‘unborn child’ was not a dispassionate use of language, or was there more to it than that?
No, it was entirely the use of the word ‘child’ which prejudged the issue. To call the four-cell embryo a child immediately had taken a partisan view, and, heaven knows, he’s quite bright enough to understand that. It wasn’t an accident as it might have been with a stupid man, and that’s what I had against it. He deliberately adopted a particular view and put it into the title of a bill. I regard that as a misuse of a bill.
Can you be completely confident that your own passionately held feelings – or even prejudices – as a distinct from rational arguments are never brought to bear on the moral issues you have been asked to investigate?
No, of course I can’t. Part of my thesis about the nature of morality is that it must be based on feeling. On the other hand I’d object to your saying that I have passionately held views – actually I don’t give a damn about embryology. This is one of the things one is always stuck with: one is always supposed to have entered deeply into and feel terribly strongly about the issue before the committee. If I had not chaired the committee I would never have entered into this field of investigation or had any views about it at all. There is a great distinction between learning about a subject and feeling passionately about it. If you told me that I was never going to hear another argument about embryology again I’d be thankful.
Do you actually believe that sound moral values have been revealed to us by God…in the form of the commandments and Jesus Christ?
No, Jesus Christ is a separate matter, but I don’t see why we should think that the ten commandments, which were obviously the basis of the Jewish religion up to a point, have any particular status. I think what happens is that a kind of morality develops very slowly and sometimes very powerfully in the case of Judaism. Although I have a great interest in Judaism and I admire it in many ways, Christianity was a marked improvement morally on Judaism. I’m afraid I take the line that the notion that God told us these things is a way of expressing the fact that they have acquired an enormous authority; it’s a way of designating the authority which these laws have.
I read somewhere that you regard the whole of Christianity as a hugely helpful metaphor which you would hate to be without. What do you actually mean by ‘a hugely helpful metaphor’ and what implications does it have for your professional life?
Very few for my professional life, which has been entirely philosophical in the sense of analytic. My way of thinking about Christianity is that one can’t live – or if one does it’s in an impoverished way – without a tradition, and I think that traditions generate their own authority. I’m a great believer in the power of tradition and inherited beliefs and I would be sorry if the enrichment which Christianity bestows becomes more and more eroded – as I happen to think it does by people jumping up and down in chapel with guitars. I don’t consider myself to be extremely religious and I certainly don’t believe in an afterlife. I think that dead people do have enormous effect afterwards on the people they’ve known during their lives, but that’s rather different. I’m prepared to go along with people who say, ‘How can I possibly know what happens after I’m dead, but I think I do know.’ The concept of the resurrection of the body is a contradiction, but I interpret the life of the world to come in a very different sense, which is that one can now affect how things are in the future. One does keep people alive in one’s mind, not just people one’s fond of, but people like David Hume. It is quite difficult to think of him as dead, when to me he’s a very influential figure.
But you don’t expect a day of judgement…
Mercifully no. I’d hate to have that hanging over me. The downside is that I’m not going to watch Match of the Day with my dead husband, but it also has its good side in that I’m not going to be called to account at the pearly gates.
An amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill was passed in the Lords making it an offence to use the eggs from foetuses or corpses for fertilization research. You referred to those who supported the amendment as ‘the Catholic mafia’. What distinguishes the Catholic mafia from, say, the Jewish mafia who oppose AID, for example, and what exactly is wrong with a view which is sincerely held and in itself is not offensive?
It was a foolish phrase to have used, and I take it back. I am sometimes provoked by the assumption of righteousness in the people who condemn any future developments, but no, I shouldn’t have used that phrase and I willingly withdraw it. The mafia element of it was simply because I felt undue force or violence was being used, but it’s a phrase that contains force and violence itself and so I should refrain from using it.
Would you allow that there are some sort of conviction, partly religious beliefs, which resist evidence? Most of us prejudge certain issues, most of us are touched by prejudice. Are you any different from the rest of us in this respect?
No, of course not. I’ve got hundreds of prejudices, and I also know there are people who have principles that they’re not going to give up, and I respect them for it.
After the Warnock report you took up the cause of universities and published a pamphlet attacking government policies. Are you angered by the fact that rather less notice has been taken of your views on higher education, in that the universities are still underfunded and that academics continue to leave the country and so on?
Here is something I really do feel passionate about. And it is not the result of having sat on a committee; it’s something that I am deeply upset about. I think that the erosion of the universities is one of the most terrible things that has happened in my lifetime. I say this because I love the idea of the university as it used to be. The notion of research and teaching going on side by side, interwoven with one another, the idea of an intellectual elite of people who want to pursue learned subjects whether scientific or in humanities – these are things it would be terrible for a country to be without. That would be barbarism. It is monstrous the way the universities are downgraded and indeed education as a whole is treated with contempt. Those politicians who say that education is at the top of their priorities have no idea what they mean by education. We are turning into a barbarous nation.
You have spoken of the government’s deep dislike of the intellectual. How does this manifest itself, do you think?
It was made particularly obvious in Lady Thatcher’s day. She ran a campaign against intellectuals because she had a passion for entrepreneurs and people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, people who could make a lot of money quickly. And because she was so completely given over to the needs of industry, I think she really did seriously doubt whether there was any point in universities. She thought them self-indulgent, the humanities in particular. It might be good that people got degrees in engineering and conceivably physics and chemistry, but as for a degree in history, she really did regard that as an indulgence that ought to be watched very carefully.
Is the deep dislike of the intellectual confined to the government or does it seep through other political parties, do you think?
It has seeped through other political parties. The economic consequences of Thatcherite policies and the general desire to get university education on the cheap have had consequences that go on today. It’s endemic in English life now. We’re not inclined to admire academics in the way the French or Germans do.
You were at Oxford with Lady Thatcher for whom you seem to have a thinly disguised contempt. In the Daily Telegraph you spoke of her ‘odious suburban geniality’ and said that she ‘epitomized the worst of the lower middle class’. You later said that your remarks were quoted out of context – what was the context exactly?
The exact context was that I thought I was having a private conversation with a journalist called Graham Turner. At the time we had staying with us an American columnist who remarked that what he found amazing as a visitor to this country was the fact that people who disliked Mrs Thatcher personally would nevertheless vote for her. He was questioning me in the presence of Graham Turner about this phenomenon and what I said was that I could quite understand that if you watched her waddling around like a partridge in her bright blue suits she was a figure of fun, and I went on and on in my snobbish way about those awful blouses she used to wear with floppy collars, but I also said that people would still vote for her because they admired what she did. Graham Turner took my remarks out of context, and I never forgave him actually.
About ten years ago I interviewed nearly three hundred women for a book. They came from all walks of life but what they had in common was that nearly all of them disliked Mrs Thatcher immensely…
I’m sure that’s true. And she herself disliked women of course. She was much more willing to use the talents of men until they got above themselves. To my great shame I used to be able to detect the same trait in myself when I first started examining in schools in Oxford. I was usually the only woman on the board of examiners in those days, and I used to have a terrible suspicion of first-class women, and I was inclined to be much more critical of them than I was of those wonderful men who were destined to be fellows at Balliol. I could much more easily admire and wonder at a marvellous script from a male undergraduate. It was a terrible thing, a kind of instinct that one certainly needs to suppress. It comes from a fear of people being better than oneself. It’s also terribly easy to fall into the trap of diminishing the talents of other people’s children lest they should actually be more talented than one’s own, and again I remember consciously deciding that I would never ever do this. I resolved always to be more admiring of other people’s children than I was of my own. I think one can take that kind of decision.
Did you have any misgivings about your title coming from Mrs Thatcher?
None at all. I knew that this was something that I would greatly value. I also thought that it was rather nice that she was prepared to honour me, given that she knew perfectly well how much I disliked her.
You yourself have five children…has your own productivity, so to speak, ever been an impediment to understanding those women who took so long to conceive?
It has had the reverse effect, because I know that I would have been completely desperate if I hadn’t had children. I longed to have children, and I would have hated to be infertile.
Do you think parents have a right to parenthood, come what may, provided that medical science can provide them with the means?
No, I don’t. I’m very much against thinking they have the right. I dislike the idea of a rights-based morality rather than a morality based on what one wants and what one perhaps ought to try to achieve.
Does it ever strike you as an appalling absurdity that we seem to be more and more keen to push back the boundaries of fertility treatment and yet there is quite a lot of evidence that a great many people are simply not fit to be parents? I mean, they hit their children, they abuse them, they sometimes even kill them. Is this something we just have to accept?
One of the truly horrifying things is how badly parents treat their children, and in this country we are particularly guilty. You’ve only got to go into Waitrose or a Marks & Spencer’s to feel perfectly ashamed at the way people shout at their children and yank them around. I suspect some of the people who desperately want children may not turn out to be wonderful parents, but a lot of us are not wonderful parents and we ought to do something about it. I always admire Italians, for example, and Indians, who are on the whole extremely nice to their children, and I long for us to be like that; but we’re not.
A few years ago you chaired the Arts Council committee looking into the cost effectiveness of the Royal Opera House. You concluded that the institution was run with incredible amateurism and all the precision of a school choir. On the face of it that statement seems to lack the restraints of a reasoned approach…
That was one of the most terrible things I ever had to do. It was truly staggering what we found when we went behind the stage, and when we talked to members of the orchestra, the choir, the cleaning ladies, the people who hired the singers, the costume people – there was no communication whatsoever between any of them. For example, we came across an old man happily painting some scenery, and he had no idea that there was ever going to be a period in the foreseeable future when the house closed for repairs. He thought he would go on painting scenery for ever because nobody had told him otherwise. There was an extraordinary arrogance in the management of that place that I found almost unbelievable.
But you weren’t against the Royal Opera House on principle…
It was the way it was run. There was the attitude that it was no good putting on endless popular operas, that they had to have new operas and take risks and so on. While I have some sympathy with that I wanted there to be an acknowledgement that because of the financial difficulties the opera house might consider putting on rather more popular operas – for a short time at any rate. Although they scornfully talked about whole seasons of Mozart and Verdi, I could think of worse fates for an opera house. Birtwhistle could wait. The suggestion that you were so grand that you had to put on foreign productions that might not be terribly good, or obscure operas, or commission new ones all the time, with just a Rigoletto thrown in to pay for things, seemed to me to be terribly demeaning to Verdi. I mean, Rigoletto is a most wonderful opera and people ought to be able to see it.
Your book Imagination reveals what might be described as a less rational side of your character, a kind of belief in things beyond our knowledge or experience…do you see any conflict between this and the other more analytical, reasoned approach to life?
No, I don’t, because my approach to morality has to be based on feelings and tradition, and that romantic idea of nature being infinite and an astonishingly powerful influence is quite compatible with that. It’s also the basis of my attitude towards religion, that one’s got to be in a position to feel gratitude, humility, all those things, which are religious virtues in a way. If you’re totally non-religious then there’s no scope in your life for feeling genuinely grateful except to individual people. This idea of gratitude and thanksgiving which is central to Christianity is something which one may just spontaneously feel and can’t really live without. If occasionally, like Wordsworth, you feel part of the universe in some amazing situation, whether it’s on top of the Alps or on a lake, then three things follow: one is that you can’t express all this in rational propositions, the second is that you’re more likely to come near to the expression of it in terms of music than of words, and thirdly that you feel that the world is somehow flawed, it’s not a perfect universe, and that you’re part of its being flawed. I’m always deeply moved by the religious expression qui tollis peccata mundi – who takest away the sins of the world. The notion that there are peccata mundi which are not necessarily sins, but are natural disasters and things we can’t control, is a very important one.
What puzzles me is how can you describe yourself as a Christian without accepting the basic tenets of Christianity, like the Resurrection and the life everlasting…
This is a very difficult problem, and if those are the conditions of calling oneself a Christian then I’m not a Christian. But if you take – as I do – an intrinsically historical attitude to Christianity, some things that were capable of being believed at one time are not capable of being believed at another time. A lot of the elements of Christianity that used to be essential have been quietly dropped. For example, I don’t know what people make of angels nowadays, what they’re supposed to be, but obviously they are a part of the Christian vocabulary. People reinterpret the great concepts of Christianity.
On more than one occasion you have proclaimed that human life is not sacred. You believe, for example, that parents have the right to kill a handicapped child and that people who are terminally ill might be helped to die. If human life is not sacred, are there any moral absolutes, do you think?
The moral absolute is compassion. I may have said that I thought that parents had a right to kill a handicapped child, but I feel I am on much stronger ground saying that parents have a right to abort a handicapped foetus, because I do make a difference between a child that has been born and one that has not. If somebody did plead mercy killing, for example in the case of a child who was in tremendous suffering and not likely to live, then I would want to treat that person with sympathy, but that’s certainly not what I would advocate. As for the other end of life, I think one has to treat those who do exist, and have been born, differently from human foetuses who have not yet been born; but that we need to exercise compassion when it comes to keeping people alive in awful circumstances. This is a very difficult area because one is obviously at risk of advocating putting down people who are of no productive use, and so on.
You believe more in the quality of life rather than life itself…
Yes. I also believe that we have a progressive duty to respect human beings as far as their pre-birth time goes. I mean, I regard all abortions as sad and deplorable, but less so an early abortion than a late abortion. At the other end of life you don’t get less valuable the older you get, unless the quality of your life is diminished to such an extent that you yourself are either unconscious or don’t want to go on.
You have criticized what you call lack of honesty in the medical profession among the terminally ill, the way doctors talk about easing suffering rather than helping to die. Do you accept that complete honesty is sometimes difficult to take in those situations, for the patient as well as for the relatives?
I’m glad to be able to put right what seems like an inconsistency. What I found deplorable – though funny too in its own way – was that on the House of Lords select committee the doctors were so mealy-mouthed about what they actually did. They made constant use of the double-effect argument that their intention was really to give the bloke a good night’s sleep, and that when they gave him this dose of morphine they didn’t know whether that would shorten his life or not. It seemed to me that if you followed through that argument they’d have to say they didn’t know the effect of any drug. Any use of the double-effect argument seems to me to have an implicit value judgement. What I found irritating was that the doctors wouldn’t acknowledge this. But as for general honesty and dishonesty, I’m greatly in favour of a little bit of dishonesty, concealing, if necessary, the fact that someone is dying. The patient, the patient’s family and the doctor do well to share a conspiracy of silence.
You said famously that there was little difference between killing and letting die…do you regret that remark at all?
No, I don’t, because philosophically it is perfectly correct. It’s a remark, with a different example, that Mill made when he was talking about causation. If the sentry trying to protect the castle fails to do something, fails to keep awake for example, this is just as much a cause of the fall of the castle as if he had actually let the enemy in. And if you fail to give somebody the thing that will keep him alive, let him die in other words, you have killed him just as much as if you had stuck a knife into him. To suppose there is a huge difference suggests a rather primitive notion of causation.
But surely there is a difference. For example, not jumping into a river to save someone from drowning, while it might be considered morally reprehensible, is quite different from pushing somebody into a river intending that he drown…
Well, morally, I think it’s not at all different. If you really are a strong swimmer and you know somebody is drowning and you walk by, I see no less culpability in that than if you pushed the bloke in the first place…
Yes but if you pushed the bloke in in the first place perhaps you want him to drown, but if you walk by it is an act of omission…
No, it is an act of intention. If you’re walking past and engaged in conversation and you don’t notice this wretched person drowning, OK, but if you see him and think, I might go rescue him but I shan’t, then that is an intention. You deliberately walk by and pay no attention to him.
But you’re not punished by law then…
It is morally outrageous that you are not punished; you should be. And your conscience ought certainly to plague you just as much as in the other case.
You have sometimes been criticized for the sin of supreme confidence. Oliver Cromwell famously remarked, ‘I beseech you, in the bowls of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.’ Does the same thought ever occur to you?
All the time. I really don’t think I’m intellectually arrogant, however, because all my life I’ve been brought up to be a learner, a person who doesn’t know but who wants to find out, or needs to be being taught by somebody all the time. So I don’t think I would ever assume that in the sphere of philosophy I knew more or understood more than anyone else. I’ve always known myself to be a rather second-rate philosopher.
Would you say that you have become more or less certain of things as you have become older?
I am no more certain of things, but one does acquire a kind of confidence as one gets older.
Looking back, are you pleased with the way things have turned out
I’m not pleased with myself on a personal level; I’ve often behaved terribly badly and there are things that I regret. I never really set out to do anything as such. Indeed my whole life has been an incredibly matter of luck and optimism.