Philosophy and Public Life

The Acceptable Face of Philosophy

David Archard asks what compromises philosophers should be prepared to make in order that their ideas will be listened to.

In the very engaging memoir of her life’s work on various public bodies, Nature and Mortality (2004), Mary Warnock notes that during her drafting of the committee report that led to the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act on reproductive ethics and scientific research, there was a critical point when she realised that her insistence on the language of morally right and wrong was misplaced. She recognized that they needed to talk instead in terms of what was acceptable – a usage she had previously rejected as fundamentally mistaken. In essence she had come to believe that her responsibility was not to recommend what she and others on the committee thought was morally justified, but rather, to find a set of recommendations that could win the support of the government, Parliament and the general public, and so what was acceptable to them.

Warnock did indeed steer the committee to produce a report that led to the drafting and passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. That Act created a regulatory body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

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