A life of high drama, dudgeon and dilemma

Nature and Mortality
August 8, 2003

Mary Warnock is a professional philosopher who has made a distinguished contribution to public policy in a number of areas, not only the Warnock report with which she is so closely associated. In this book we have her reflections on the work of a number of the committees on which she has served as chair or member. She is frank and amusing about her fellow committee members, but this is balanced by her great capacity to admire ability when she encounters it. In short, this is an enjoyable read, not least because of the author's sense of the absurd. She has a number of good anecdotes - for example, after the first meeting of one distinguished body, Winifred Tumin remarked to her: "Well! No lovers for us, I fear." Warnock's self-deprecating manner is also evident: "Enjoying the kind of work that committees involve is, I believe, a form of mental laziness. For people like me, who enjoy thinking, but who are entirely unoriginal thinkers, it is ideal."

I have always maintained that committees should include a professional philosopher, and the work of Warnock bears this out. Though claiming that she usually started off the work in total ignorance, she has been able to explain the science and the key issues that arise in prose of great clarity.

In addition to the humorous vignettes, the high dramas and dudgeons of members at various stages of the reports and the value of having a history from the Warnock perspective, there is in these chapters considered reflection on some of the fundamental ethical and social dilemmas, especially in the field of education and in the cluster of concerns associated with the word nature.

The first chapter is about Warnock's time as chair of the committee looking into what was then called the education of handicapped children and young people. I found this most moving, with its bold championing of a rich understanding of education for all and its concept of "special needs". The main theme of the report of the committee was that children and young people with severe disabilities should not be seen as a class apart. There is a spectrum of children with needs of various kinds and it is desirable that as many as possible should be educated in mainstream schools. Many of these special needs are related to social deprivation, a point that Warnock feels strongly about now but that the committee was warned off pointing out at the time.

There is a good account of Warnock's time as chair of the committee that considered human fertilisation and embryology, the recommendations of which passed into law with the 1990 act. She makes it clear that she steered the committee in the direction of what society might find acceptable, trying to find a consensus rather than looking for recommendations with a clear-cut philosophical basis, because the latter approach would have revealed irreconcilable views. It is perhaps a pity that she does not give us a little more of her considered thinking about the nature of a person and when personhood begins. In the House of Lords select committee on stem-cell research, which I chaired, we followed the Warnock example in our conclusions but tried to set out, as evenly as possible, the basic arguments for regarding personhood as, on the one hand, beginning with conception and, on the other, for it being understood in a much more gradualist way.

A further chapter on genetics deals with some of the far-reaching implications of the new genetic knowledge. This is followed by chapters on the place of animals in creation and her experience of arts administration.

She was given the task of inquiring into the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Royal Opera House and came across a world even more bizarre, vain and ineffective than she had ever experienced in teaching.

There are a number of points where one would have liked to have taken up the conversation with the author. One is in the introduction, where Warnock says she dreads the thought of the development of cell therapies enabling people to live for ever. She suggests two reasons why death, that is life with a limited time, is a fundamental good. My own reason is that as artists work with a definite canvas or piece of wood and need something as particular as that on which to work, so we, as artists of our own life, similarly need to work within definite boundaries. If life went on for ever, there would be a formlessness that would make it impossible to do anything worthwhile with one's life. Warnock's first reason is close to this. Her second one I much profited by. It is that we need the contrast between our mortality and a sense of the ideal and eternal to produce so much of what is creative in the arts. This tension agitates and inspires our imagination.

Another argument I would have liked to have followed up is that human beings are of a different order, from the point of view of worth, to our fellow animals. We may share much of the same genetic material but we are, Warnock thinks, allowed to use animals for our benefit, provided we do not subject them to gratuitous suffering. I do not dissent from the conclusion but the argument she puts forward to justify it is simply that human beings have always had this evaluation and it has shaped our institutions and value system. But if we query this given and ask about its basis, it seems either we are left with no answer at all, or we find one in what is believed to be the disclosed mind of the creator of ourselves and other animals in the one world. Of course we can then ask why should we accept this allegedly revealed divine purpose, as, for example, it is set out in the Book of Genesis - and that involves further considerations. But, if one can believe it, it does offer a more satisfactory answer to the position that while animals should be treated with care, it is morally legitimate to see them not only as valuable in themselves but as a benefit and blessing to humans.

I have only two small caveats to mute my admiration for this readable and useful account of some extremely influential work. I think Warnock might have spared some of the civil servant minions her descriptions of them. I also think she has not stated the Australian theologian Norman Ford's contribution quite correctly. I do not think that he overthrew the Aristotelian theory about the origin of human identity so much as showed how it did fit with a modern gradualist understanding of the development of the human person. After all, Aristotle taught that first there was a vegetable soul, then an animal one and a human one only later.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

Nature and Mortality

Author - Mary Warnock
ISBN - O 8264 5940 4
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £18.99
Pages - 225

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