Baroness Mary Warnock 1924-2019

An appreciation from Richard Kwiatkowski, a former Chair of the British Psychological Society's Ethics Committee, of the role she played in the Code of Ethics and Conduct.

It is with great sadness that the British Psychological Society marks the passing of Baroness Mary Warnock. Her contribution to the philosophical and intellectual life of the UK is well known, her contributions to existentialism and ethics, her fellowship and heading of Girton College Cambridge, her visiting professorship at Gresham College and of course her report on 'special education' introducing 'statements' which are a mainstay of educational psychology to this day. More recently she critiqued her own work; particularly because due to budgetary cuts and other factors the help and support that she had envisaged was no longer being provided. She is perhaps best known for chairing the committee that led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. 

However, strangely absent from the numerous eulogies and obituaries published around the world, was her role in the early days of the development of the British Psychological Society Code of Ethics and Conduct. The BPS had had previous codes, but they had largely been concerned with academic matters, plagiarism, and relations with students. There was a slightly snooty attitude towards psychologists plying their trade in the private sector which seemed a bit beyond the pail. However, in the early 2000s the Society sniffed the possibility of statutory registration for psychologists. One of the key factors that was felt to be necessary by the Parliamentary drafting office was that any regulator had to have a fully functioning code of ethics.

There had been a huge expansion in the rise of professional psychology; as well as clinical occupational and educational psychologists, various other professional groupings such as counselling, health, and sport were developing their own areas of professional practice. It had become obvious, then, that a new code had to be provided; and this code had to apply across disparate areas and go far beyond academic concerns. It was obvious that to complete such a complicated task not only would senior members of the various Divisions have to be included, but that the body creating this code would have to have a certain status and gravitas. It was equally essential that the profession did not simply make up rules for itself, but that external members, especially ethicists were to be included. At a preliminary meeting contemporary ethicists were listed. Top of the list, and most famous, was Mary Warnock. Much to the committees surprise, she agreed to serve for a term of five years.

Her contribution was invaluable. As well as having a laser-like precision in her language and understanding of the underlying ethical issues she helped steer the committee towards emphasising underpinning values; rather than, as the American Psychological Association had sought to do, try to anticipate all the perversely imaginative, odd and awful variety of unprincipled behaviours that unethical psychologists might inflict on their clients. 

Her understanding of committee work and of politics were invaluable. She encouraged the committee to consult (and it often felt like massive over consulting) with a variety of subsystems within the British Psychological Society, with users of services, with the victims of professional misconduct, with other related professional bodies, with the general public, and with a variety of other stakeholders. 

She was as kind as she was sharp; those who disputed a point with her felt that they had taken part in a public viva, yet her humanity was such that it was the collective learning, the idea itself that was important rather than those temporary human brains that were carriers of those ideas. When she left the committee her philosophical legacy lived on, to the extent that she is one of only four people explicitly mentioned by name in the acknowledgements section of the code. 

In the way of committee work individual contributions can rarely be explicitly discovered. However in setting a humanistic, permissive, philosophically sound and incisive example of the importance of clarity and debate in coming to a consensus, she made a tremendous contribution, and is fondly remembered by all those who were lucky enough to serve with her.

The code has since been used as an exemplar of clarity at European and international level, and across a variety of social sciences. Indeed, all those colleagues who are presently subject to the Code of Ethics and are pleased by its clarity owe a debt to Mary Warnock. She will be missed.

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