The NS Interview: Mary Warnock

“The ‘big society’ doesn’t speak to me. It doesn’t speak to anyone”

How has philosophy developed since you trained in the discipline?
I loved the philosophical climate of the 1950s. We were iconoclastic and it was great fun. But I think what changed was the status of moral philosophy - it was probably the Vietnam war that changed it, because students were not prepared to study the subjects that had nothing to say on just war.

You dispute that morality is grounded in religion. What is its basis, in your view?
I believe morality comes from our common human nature and that we live in a society that is precarious and difficult. To take morals seriously is to take the view that we've got to collaborate and take one another seriously.

Is it an oversimplification to describe Britain as a secular society?
In some ways there's more religion than there was; there's more Islamic religion and there's a lot of enthusiastic Christianity. On the other hand, we have politicians being openly able to say they are not religious.

But we still have an established church.
Yes, but I think that the established church has - and I suspect for years has had - very little to do with policy. It's more to do with ceremony and there being some formal way of recognising great occasions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has talked of a religious "longing" in society. Do you recognise this?
I would probably call them longings of the imagination, because I think religion grew up out of human imagination. This is a Romantic idea and none the worse for that. Romanticism is part of our history; it won't go away.

Would you describe yourself as a “cultural Christian"?
Yes. I love the Church of England. And particularly I love church music, which couldn't have existed were it not for people who absolutely believed what they were expressing.

Do atheists such as Richard Dawkins conflate religious belief with fundamentalism?
Yes. I think he's got very little sense of history, therefore he hasn't bothered to think what it is like to claim to be a member of the Church of England. I can find horrors that happened because of religion, but to move from that to say that religion necessarily produces horrors of that kind does seem to me overly simple.

Is it a failure of imagination on Dawkins's part?
If you talk to Richard Dawkins you will find that he's sympathetic to the imaginative things from religion, such as church music, paintings and architecture. But he dissociates the imaginative content from the religious content. That seems absurd, because obviously the cathedrals were built to the glory of God and people believed that. You can't pretend that Bach wrote his religious cantatas out of anything other than profound Protestant belief.

Why is imagination so important to you?
What I tend to mean by imagination includes the Archbishop's longings: the things that really, as far as we know, separate us from all other animals. It is a distinctly human capacity.

Do you think politicians should declare their faith?
The Archbishop of Canterbury said he thought that religious people had an absolute right to express their political opinions in parliament and outside. But he thought they ought to declare where they're coming from; they shouldn't expect a free passage just because of their faith. I thought that was absolutely wonderful.

You reject the idea that a basis for morality can be found in the concept of rights. Why?
Rights are too legalistic a concept to be the foundation of morality. When you claim a right, you're claiming a right either for yourself or
for your group: you're not looking out towards other people. I think this does diminish the importance in moral discourse of virtues such as patience or compassion or loving kindness. I'm a great believer in the virtues.

What is your view of the "big society"? Is it about trying to find a common good?
I believe that what David Cameron is trying to say is that there's something missing. But the actual phrase, "the big society", doesn't speak to me. I don't think it speaks to anyone. It's not intrinsically intelligible. He should have searched around and consulted a few theologians.

Did you vote before you entered the House of Lords?
I certainly did.

Was there a plan?
No. Though I knew from the age of about ten that I was to be an academic.

Is there anything you regret?
Not being a scientist. If I had my life again, I'd really learn about biology.

Are we all doomed?
Probably - but it will be after my time.

Defining Moments

1924 Born in Winchester, Hampshire
1949 Becomes fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh's College, Oxford
1949 Marries Geoffrey Warnock, later vice-chancellor of Oxford University
1966 Becomes headmistress of Oxford High School for Girls
1982 Chairs human fertilisation inquiry
1985 Is made a life peer
2010 Publishes her book Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics