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Humanists UK mourns philosopher Michael Clark

The staff and trustees of Humanists UK are sad to note the death of humanist moral philosopher and logician Michael Clark, who ended his life at Dignitas in Switzerland on 23 January 2019. He was a longtime member of Humanists UK and its Humanist Philosophers Group, contributing to many of its publications over the years.

Michael first began a life-long love affair with philosophy while at school, and in 1962 he won a place to study Philosophy and Psychology at Exeter College, Oxford. His promise as a philosopher was on display even then: he was the recipient the prestigious Open Scholarship, a generous bursary available only to the brightest students. It was there at Oxford that he developed a rewarding fascination with the pursuit of formal logic. This interest propelled a long academic career that spanned the universities of Aberdeen, Manchester, New Orleans, and Nottingham. Having become one of the UK’s most distinguished philosophers, Michael was named Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, which had awarded him his D.Litt in 2014. Since 2000, he had been editor of the leading philosophy journal Analysis.

Michael was a supporter of Humanists UK’s work, including its long-running campaign for the right to die for people with incurable and terminal illnesses, but his interests extended far wider than that. He was particularly invested in education policy, seeing the UK’s discriminatory and sectarian schooling system as detrimental to social cohesion. He was also very concerned with developing public understanding of humanism.

Before his illness advanced, Michael was out campaigning for a fairer society with Humanists UK as recently as 2014. He was among the long list of distinguished philosophers, academics, and religious leaders who united in urging Schools Minister Nick Gibb to provide equal status for humanism in the Religious Studies curriculum for England. In 2007, he worked alongside humanist philosopher Professor Richard Norman and others to produce The Case for Secularism, a publication of the Humanist Philosophers Group which intended to ‘dispel the myth… that secularism springs from anti-religious feeling, or that it is only humanists who are in favour of secularism.’

Michael’s investment in humanism reflected a commitment across his life to inclusive civic spaces that brought people from different backgrounds together. It was this aspect of his character that drew him, time and again, back to questions of moral philosophy and the philosophy of law: enterprises at once concerned with the social fabric that exists between people, and the ways in which governments and courts help to both provide for and shape just and fair societies.

His colleague and friend Dr Peter Cave, chair of the Humanist Philosophers Group, paid tribute to Michael’s life, saying:

‘Michael was a distinguished philosopher, specialising in logic, law and paradoxes.  He was a strong supporter of Humanists UK, the legalization of assisted dying – and jazz. He thought it was appalling that, with regard to the United Kingdom, when suffering and needing to bring an end to your life in a reasonable manner, you required the knowledge, financial resources and physical ability to travel abroad to a country with a more civilized and respectful understanding of how some people have had enough.

‘Michael was a close friend of mine.  He and I would sometimes reflect on a comment by an early twentieth-century Cambridge philosopher, C D Broad.  Broad, always interested in the possibility of an afterlife, would say, “All we can do is wait and see. Or wait and don’t see.”  

‘Michael, being a man of reason – as well as a philosopher – was convinced that, on death, it was the latter: we wait – and don’t see.’

His friend and fellow philosopher Dr Nigel Warburton added:

‘He was a kind and modest man, with a brilliant mind, a keen sense of justice, a deep knowledge of philosophy, and a commitment to humanist values.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘Humanism was enriched by Michael’s contributions and our organisation owes him an enormous debt. It is a tragedy that he was forced to end his life in another country, at great expense, and not at home with his family and loved ones. We will continue to honour his legacy by campaigning for a humane right to die law in the UK, which allows people in Michael’s situation to die with dignity at a time of their choosing.’

Notes

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

The Humanist Philosophers Group is part of Humanists UK, and exists to promote a critical and rational approach to public ethical issues. Its members have been heavily involved in Humanists UK’s recent legal work on abortion rights and the right to die. Members include many of the UK’s most eminent moral and analytical philosophers, including Louise Anthony, Julian Baggini, Simon Blackburn, Steve Burwood, Peter Cave, Jonathan Derbyshire, Simon Glendinning, AC Grayling, John Harris, Alan Haworth, Brendan Larvor, Sandra Marshall, Sheila Mclean, Peter Millican, David Papineau, Janet Radcliffe Richards, Ben Rogers, Peter Simons, Raymond Tallis, Nigel Warburton, Patricia White, and John White.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on assisted dying: http://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/assisted-dying/

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