Obituary: Lord Devlin

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JAMES MORTON's obituary of Patrick Devlin (11 August), while noting that he was 'FBA 1963', might have mentioned that out of the British Academy's Maccabaean Lecture in Jurisprudence given in 1958 grew one of Devlin's most persuasive essays, 'The Enforcement of Morals' (1965), writes Ross Kessel.

Extending outwards from the evidence that he had given before the Wolfenden Comittee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, to which he had been requested to speak as a Queen's Bench judge in favour of reform, Devlin there set out his responses to three questions which continue to attract the attention of any secular society: ought there to be a public morality, or ought morals always be a matter for private judgement; if society has a right to pass moral judgements, has it also the right to use the law to enforce them; and if so, ought the law to be used in all cases or only some, and if the latter on what grounds should it distinguish?

Characteristically, Devlin's answers were both assured and modest. What makes a society, he averred, is a community of ideas, and ideas about the way its members should behave are its morals. Every society, he wrote, has a moral structure. However, how to define that moral structure was another matter. While he saw the values of Christianity in general and the Church of England in particular as providing convenient rules of thumb for Britain, he remained sceptically convinced that this was merely a convenient historical accident. In this essay as in much else in his life Devlin prefigured, at a time when Britain's diversity was less well recognised than it is today, many of those dilemmas of pluralism that plague makers of public policy.