Mary Warnock photographed by Des Willie

From the New Humanist archive: Laurie Taylor's interview with Mary Warnock (1924-2019), who died on 20 March.

“I’m so sorry,” says 86-year-old Mary Warnock, hustling ahead of me and a cameraman and a researcher, “but I’m afraid that we have to climb a lot of stairs.”

She’s right. Without breaking her stride she leads our little troupe up three steep flights before finally reaching the room at the end of the corridor in the House of Lords that she’s booked for the interview. Although there’s a large notice outside bearing her name, we open the door to discover three elderly and serious men evidently well settled into an earnest discussion.

“Oh. You’ve booked this room?” says the portly man nearest the door in a tone of voice that suggests that he’s angling for a little negotiation. “Yes,” says Lady Warnock, standing firm at the end of the conference table.

“You see, we were rather in the middle of something,” says the man in a noticeably more wheedling tone. Lady Warnock stands exactly where she is and says nothing. The men look at each other and realise that the game is up. They gather their papers together with more fuss than is necessary and shuffle past her out into the corridor.

I realise that I’m watching their brisk dismissal with much the same sort of relish I’ve derived over the years from hearing Mary Warnock dispatch with equal aplomb the scores of interviewers and special pleaders who’ve taken it upon themselves to dispute her views on animal experimentation, assisted dying and human fertilisation.

In her new book, Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion out of Politics, she’s trained her no-nonsense approach on all those religious bodies and groups that seek to claim some special right to adjudicate upon the moral issues of the time. But although this takes up the bulk of the volume she also appends a chapter in which she argues for the significance and importance of religion and religious thinking in everyday life. I begin the interview by suggesting to her that in this latter respect her book is intended as an antidote to the writings of the so-called New Atheists.

“That’s absolutely right. I find Dawkins’ simple-minded view of religion very difficult to take. It pays no proper attention to the history and tradition of religion. It says that religions have done nothing but harm but that is manifestly not true. He omits all the good things, the education, the cathedrals, the music. All that’s disregarded.”

But did this mean that she herself would wish to be described as religious? Does she believe in God?

“Probably the answer is no. I don’t think that there’s any one personal object that I believe in. But I do believe in the religious imagination. That is part of all our aesthetic imagination and enormously important to being properly human.”

Isn’t there a danger, I suggest, that this sort of view concedes more than is necessary to religion? Might we not talk about such notions as the aesthetic imagination and feelings of transcendence in completely non-religious terms? One surely didn’t have to be a believer to have intimations of the sublime.

“Not really. Except that if you don’t call it religious, if you insist on not calling it religious, then you’re throwing out what seems to me to be a lot of hugely influential and deeply moving functions of the imagination that come along with religion. So, if I said, no, it’s not religious, it’s just aesthetic imagination, I’d then have to somehow say that my whole aesthetic experience of church music had nothing to do with God.”

I tell her that I can understand the argument, that many of the finer intimations about art and life and the sense of the sublime have been traditionally phrased in religious terms, but surely these could also be cast in human terms and still preserve their essence. And if that was the case then might she not best describe herself as a humanist?

“It’s not an expression I particularly like.”

Why not?

“Because calling yourself an ‘ist’ means you’re joining a party. That’s why I don’t like it.”

Words matter to Mary Warnock. During her years at Oxford in the 1950s she saw her task as “the incredibly important deflation of pretentiousness and philosophical jargon”. And her great ally in the fight for plain speech was the philosopher JL Austin, author of How To Do Things with Words. “I adored Austin,” she tells me. “I loved talking to him and going to his wonderful classes. I absolutely loved him.”

You can still detect Austin’s influence in much of Mary Warnock’s work. As I reflect after the interview, you can even see how his emphasis upon taking words seriously informs her view of religion. Austin has no time for positivistic philosophers who see their task as the correction of infelicities and mistakes and inaccuracies in language. For Austin our common stock of words “embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking in the lifetime of many generations”. Religious language like other forms of language doesn’t just exist to describe a given reality that it can be checked against. It embodies worthwhile distinctions. It invents and affects realities.

You can also hear Austin’s influence at work in Warnock’s hostility to writers like Foucault and Derrida – “It’s their language and the lack of desire to be understood. I simply can’t bear that” – and in her general distrust of grand schemes and theories. As Guardian writer Andrew Brown observed some years ago, it was exactly this attitude that made her “a kind of philosophical plumber to the establishment. Whenever some tricky problem arose she could be trusted to get things flowing freely again. In the numerous committees on which she served her task was almost always to find schemes that everyone could agree would work and not to deliver moral guidance from axiomatic principles.”

And it is this hostility to axiomatic principles, particularly those principles that have a religious base, that informs the bulk of Mary Warnock’s new book. Morality is something to be debated and not simply asserted. This means that her wrath is particularly aroused by the idea that special attention should be given to religious views on what is or is not morally acceptable.

“I find it extraordinarily irritating when people treat the bishops in the Lords, or the Church elsewhere, or the clergy in general, as moral experts. I think that is an outrageous thing to believe, but people still believe it automatically, without thinking. They think that these members of the Church, of any religion, have a special insight. And often that insight is narrowed down to Christianity alone. There was a perfect example in one House of Lords debate when Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who’s a former president of the Law Society, suggested, in the aftermath of the Director of Public Prosecutions’ guidelines about [right-to-die campaigner] Debbie Purdy, that one very important step forward would be to change the law of homicide so that it became possible for a jury to say to a judge that there were mitigating circumstances in some cases of murder. Because at the moment if it’s murder then it’s life. And Lord Lloyd wanted to be able to distinguish between gain-induced murder and a mercy killing. Every single person who spoke in favour of this was a lawyer and they all agreed that this would be an enormous improvement on the law. And then up jumped the Bishop of Winchester and said, ‘Ah, but this would give the wrong message. This would show that we didn’t, after all, care about life, which is sacred.’ That was the collapse of all argument. That was it. That was the end of it. It was terrible.”

But at times religious interventions of this kind are more opaque. For as Warnock shows with an Austinian attention to the use of words, religious leaders are increasingly unwilling to voice their moral objections to such matters as assisted dying or the use of embryos in scientific research in explicitly religious terms.

“They know that if they’re going to be seen as rational, as taking part in an argument in a place like the Lords, then they mustn’t be seen to be allowing faith to have anything to do with it. I find it very, very interesting, going through all those back numbers of Hansard, how seldom religion is mentioned even though the people who are speaking are known to be members of some church or other. This is their great pretence.”

I ask her for an example.

“There was a good one in the embryology debate where the religious speakers realised that it was not enough to talk about the sanctity of life. That was too religious-sounding to convince the atheists. So the argument against the use of embryos up to the end of the proposed 14-day period was that they could feel pain. Anyone, even an atheist, would then have to agree that not causing pain was a universal good. But, of course, what the proponents of this argument didn’t understand was that a pre-14-day embryo doesn’t even have the vestiges of a central nervous system and so can’t feel pain. Reflecting on all these sorts of arguments made me realise how little people realised they were switching from the a priori to the empirical, from an argument that was manifestly incapable of proof because it derived from the commands of God, to an argument that was supposed to derive from evidence.”

At this moment in the interview I realise that I’ve been doing something rather strange while listening to Mary’s extended account of the linguistic manoeuvrings of bishops. Although the red light on the recorder was flashing away happily, I’d been taking notes. Quite extensive notes. There was a simple explanation. When Warnock talks to you at any length it’s almost impossible not to feel that you are a member of a very privileged tutorial, one in which at any moment you may be asked to give an intelligent response that shows you’ve been properly following the argument.

Mary Warnock loves teaching. She talked in her interview with Andrew Brown about the pleasure of teaching undergraduates who should probably not have been on the course in the first place. There was the delight of coaxing them into third-class degrees “after they had complained in tutorials that they missed their ponies or wondered why they had signed up for philosophy at all”. She’s said that the one thing that would give her pride on her deathbed was the knowledge of the difference that her teaching had made.

I suggest that her love of teaching must have served her well on the committees on which she’s served. There were surely times, for example, during her chairmanship of the Committee of Enquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology back in the early ’80s, when she’d needed to inject some logic and reason into a subject that was often saturated with emotion, with shock and horror stories.

“That’s right. We had to distinguish between what we were looking at and the pure science fiction, the images from Brave New World and Frankenstein which were sort of present in everybody. At that time we didn’t know anything about Dolly the sheep. But we did realise that there were ways in which one could split an embryo to make it into two embryos and that they would therefore share the same DNA. That produced a lot of exclaiming and throwing up of hands among the sillier members of the committee. I think, though, that all the shock and horror was dissipated when we came to talk about the actual possibilities, about why anyone would want to do such a thing.”

And this was surely also the point in the committee’s discussion when it became impossible to avoid arguments about what was morally acceptable or unacceptable. Axiomatic principles about “the sanctity of life” or “life being a divine gift” could readily be exposed as special pleading, but where else did she find a moral standpoint from which to argue for a particular course of action?

“I think I derive my position almost entirely from my husband Geoffrey, who wrote a book called The Object of Morality. His account of origins of morality starts from the view that the world is pretty awful place filled with human beings who don’t get on with another very well because they’re always terribly greedy. This means that if society is to grow, then we all have to realise that other people are of the same importance as we are. Once you start realising that, you recognise that you can’t do what you like as far as other people are concerned. That’s the beginning of morality. So when you have a small child who’s behaving badly, being nasty to another child, then what you have to get into his head is the simple point, ‘How would like it if you were the object of this?’ Then you’ve got him on the road to morality. Hume was absolutely right when he said that it’s only when you think of things from a steady and general point of view that that particular pleasure we call moral pleasure comes into operation. There’s a generality about what one thinks is right or wrong, a capacity to think not only how you’d feel if this or that happened to you, but what society would be like if this was generally done and permitted.”

This is, of course, the moral view that she has sought to inscribe into her reports on fertility treatment and assisted dying. She passionately believes that society can only grow once people can be persuaded to abandon their emotional reactions to such topics and instead try to empathise with those suffering from the pains of infertility or the desperation of having to care for a terminally ill relation who seeks to end their life.

There is something so persuasive about the manner in which Mary argues her case that I wonder why it is that the bishops normally seem to have such an easy time of it during debates in the Lords. Why doesn’t she simply stand up and savage them with her distinctive blend of morality and reason?

“One thing I don’t enjoy is standing up in the Lords and talking. I’ve never got it right. I’m either too informal or I deliver a lecture. I’ve simply never ever made a speech in this place that I thought was very good. Occasionally I’ve made a sort of brief interjection that I thought was quite funny, but otherwise nothing.”

I’m feeling bold enough by this point in our conversation to suggest that this is an odd piece of self-deprecation from someone who always exudes such confidence.

“I am both very bossy and very independent. But I’m also not particularly certain that I’m always right. And I think I’ve had those characteristics since childhood. I do enjoy doing things by myself, in my own way. But I have a sister just older than me – she’s still with us – who I always regard as my leader and infinitely nicer, cleverer, more musical, and in every way more delightful than I am. She is my constant mentor. She’s always at my side.”

But there are clearly limits to Lady Warnock’s capacity to accept criticism. I remind her of the 2005 article by Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail which described her work on assisted dying and embryo research as having “made a devastating contribution towards unravelling our society’s essential humanity and . . . helped destroy any intrinsic respect for human life.” Phillips went on to lampoon the manner in which Warnock had changed her view on the education of children with special needs and conclude that she “was one of the most titanic and dangerous egos of our troubled age.”

Mary Warnock smiles. It is, she says, “a badge of honour for any decent liberal to be attacked by Phillips.” And she adds that she would be “very, very worried if I ever agreed with Phillips.”

On our way down the three flights of stairs, she apologises several times for the length and circuitousness of the walk, sympathises with the photographer, who’s having difficulties negotiating the corners with his bag of equipment, and tells me that she’s thoroughly enjoyed our talk.

“Thank you. Thank you,” I say with what I realise afterwards as I walk across Parliament Square was somewhat intemperate enthusiasm. But then there is something very special about allowing oneself to think that possibly, just possibly, one might be on the way to becoming the pet of such a very special teacher.

Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics by Mary Warnock is published in September by Continuum