Geoffrey Warnock, vice chancellor of Oxford University, explains why politicians so frequently ask his wife, Mary, to reason about moral dilemmas: "They seem to think she knows the difference between right and wrong."
The vice chancellor is not like the vice president of the United States. The vice chancellor is grander.
He runs the place -- to the limited extent that an ancient institution requires running. The office of chancellor is, with lovely illogic, honorific. The current occupant is Harold Macmillan, who recently wondered aloud whether, now that he is 90, he should step down. He promptly answered himself with a firm "No."
But splendid though the vice chancellor undoubtedly is in his black suit and white clerical necktie, he is no more splendid than Dame Mary, Britain's savant for all seasons. Thatcher, Warnock . . . . Is there no room for men at the top of British life? There should be a national inquiry into this question, but it would be conducted by yet another Warnock committee of inquiry.
Mary is about to become principal of a college at Cambridge, but presumably will continue as a cottage industry producing solicited advice for the perplexed. When a British government knits its brow about education for the handicapped, or in vitro fertilization, or some other thorny issue, the government eventually exclaims, "It is too deep -- send for Warnock!"
Regarding, for example, in vitro fertilization, the most recent Warnock committee sought a criterion by which to limit research on human embryos conceived outside a mother. The committee report emphasized an early stage in the development of the embryo -- a stage at which there appears an arrangement of cells called "the primitive streak." It occurs about 15 days after conception and is a stage in the multiplication of cells that marks the last point at which identical twins can occur. Hence it marks the beginning of individual development of the embryo and is, the committee concluded, an appropriate outer limit for research on embryos produced by in vitro fertilization.
Leaving aside all issues relating to such research, the "primitive streak" could be a useful category in the abortion debate. It could point to a policy that would avoid the consequences -- including frequent infanticide -- of the U.S. policy of unlimited abortion on demand. That policy is a consequence of the idea that it is impossible to identify any point in gestation, prior to birth, at which personhood should be acknowledged.
The Warnocks, both of whom are philosophers by training and inclination, seem to be constantly bumping into public questions that call for philosophic subtlety. Geoffrey was a philosopher before he was elevated to the vice chancellorship, and presumably still is: one can hardly stop being a philosopher once one has got the habit. He shall return to full-time philosophy when he is returned to his position as principal of Hertford College here. Until then, he is at least spared the ordeal of trying to teach philosophy to the likes of boneheaded me, as he did 20 years ago.
But even as vice chancellor, he must grapple with metaphysical disputes of a sort that flourish here. For example, in 1915 this question arose: Can the university confer a degree, especially a master of arts degree, on someone who is dead? The issue arose because in 1915 many young men were going directly from the university to the trenches. The war ended before the university answered the question, but the question remained technically open and now has been re- raised by a liberal. (A liberal is someone who cannot leave well enough alone and who has a disruptive passion for unnatural tidiness.) Anyway, the problem is as follows.
After receiving a bachelor of arts degree, a recipient waits for years and then pays a nominal sum and gets a master of arts degree. But strictly speaking (and precise speaking is a skill taught here), when one receives a master of arts degree, one is granted certain rights and powers. One is empowered to lecture, dispute and do all the other things appropriate to that station.
But the deceased cannot do those things in this world. And a university clergyman (Anthony Trollope, call your lawyer: life is imitating your art) wonders about those who have gone to another status. He worries that if he endorses the idea of conferring degrees, and hence powers, on the departed, he may endorse, by inference, various propositions about life beyond the grave, propositions that may be dubious, even heretical.
Only one thing is clear. There are too many questions, and not enough Warnocks to go around.