Antony Flew (1923-2010): an appreciation
Several newspapers (e.g. the Guardian and the Telegraph) have recently carried obituaries of the English philosopher Antony Flew. These obituaries have emphasized the remarkable change of mind by which Flew, for most of his life an internationally renowned atheist, became convinced at the age of 81 of deism. What this emphasis has overshadowed – and what some readers of this blog may not know – is that Flew was for several decades a heroic defender of classically liberal political philosophy and indeed by far the best known professional philosopher in Britain over that period to champion classical liberalism.
His heroism lay in the fact that, in challenging the spirit of the age as sharply and as unapologetically as he did, he was, and must have known that he was, irreparably damaging his reputation among his overwhelmingly left-leaning professional peers. That reputation – sufficient for his appointment to a chair at the University of Keele at the age of 31 – rested on a prolific output of books and of papers in the most prestigious philosophical journals. His work ranged widely, and especially in the philosophy of religion and the interpretation of David Hume had a major international impact.
During the seventies, Flew increasingly worked in what is today called “applied philosophy”, unmasking conceptual confusion and unsound inference as it appeared in non-philosophical as well as philosophical writings on topics of practical concern, and aiming mainly at a general readership. My favourite example of Flew’s writing in this genre is his 1987 book, Power To The Parents: Reversing Educational Decline, which vigorously argues for the value of parental choice and the necessity of testing in education. Though now sadly out of print, it is still available second hand (e.g. here). I recommend it highly.
Most of Flew’s work in political philosophy, more strictly so called, also belongs to this period. Its culmination, in my view, was his excellent 1981 book, The Politics of Procrustes: Contradictions of Enforced Equality (also out of print, but obtainable here and here). Its main conclusion is the compatibility with justice of the unequal outcomes, pecuniary and otherwise, that are all but certain to arise in an economic system based on the free exchange of privately owned goods and services; the main target of its critical acuity is the immensely influential book, A Theory of Justice, by the late American philosopher John Rawls. It is vintage Flew: elaborately written, mischievously witty, and sometimes passionately polemical, but always penetratingly intelligent. For a taste, one can download his paper, “Enforced Equality or Justice?”, from here.
Tony Flew was a lover of truth, a man of unimpeachable intellectual integrity. He was also a lover of freedom – economic, political, religious, sexual, whatever. And he knew well that, in Ibsen’s words, “A man should never put on his best trousers when he goes out to battle for freedom and truth.”