Neil Richards – moral philosopher


Neil Richards reflects one thing that is right about the UK and one thing that is plainly wrong.

He is a philosopher. He has studied Kant and he certainly knows the famous works of John Stuart Mill; he has a tendency to insomnia and, during his sleepless nights, he used to read Wittgenstein. (He thoroughly enjoyed engaging with Wittgenstein’s striking insights.) He knows the Greeks – as well as the pre-Socratics. He has a deep knowledge of moral philosophy. He has been concerned to develop applied ethics – especially in relation to the wise use of power.

I first encountered Neil Richards in 1981 when I was working for the government. We met by a rose garden: Neil came towards me, beaming, arm-outstretched, ready to shake my hand, the hand of his colleague, for he too was working for the government. He immediately declared that he was very interested in psychology although he hated psychologists because, they, in part, had been responsible for creating exams like the 11 plus. Neil thought it wrong for the results of one exam to consigned youngsters to a kind of inferior status and existence.

Through the process of gaining an excellent first degree and then a proper full-time Master’s degree he developed and extended his very considerable intellectual powers. Neil had faced up to the problems of real scholarship: his degrees mattered. His Master’s meant that he really did know about philosophy and the philosophy of education. (This achievement illustrates the good thing about the UK: you can overcome the past. You can overturn the existence into which you, or me, or any of us, as Heidegger had said, are ‘thrown’. The bad thing about the UK is that many of us are still liable to be born into a miserable environment from which it is very difficult to escape. (But I am rather stating the obvious. Cela va sans le dire)

As Neil Richards reflected on the world about him he found dullness and stupidity and un-inspected views wherever he looked. Neil, though, was someone who really could think for himself. He realised that maybe Socrates had ‘got it wrong’: for most people it seemed that the un-inspected life was worth living. He was critical of the narrowness of British thinking – especially empiricism – and of anyone who thought that life could be reduced to sequences of reward and punishment. He wanted people ‘to look upwards’ – to look at the fabulous creations of fine architecture, to listen to the grandeur of opera, to engage with the glory of the classics. And, he wrestled with the limits of the perfectibility of man.

Neil had been born at the beginning of the 1940s. That made a difference. He was just a little too old for the sheer fun of the mid and late sixties. Life, for Neil, had always been a serious business. He saw directly into the tragedy of the human condition. And, he didn’t, for one minute, discount Nietzsche. But he insisted that Nietzsche should only be read ‘in small doses’: ‘Watch out’, he said: ‘Don’t go too far down Nietzsche’s road.’ He said this to me when we discussed Nietzsche’s brilliant demolition of the moral schemes that informed so much of our culture’s moral conduct and moral feeling.

Neil Richards had, in 1981, been given the task of establishing a framework for police professional ethics. And this had caused him to be a troubled man: ‘Am I up to the task?’ he asked himself. But, he was. In the face of comparatively little directly relevant published work, Neil, bit by bit, began to elaborate a model that eventually came to be acknowledged by the Council of Europe as underpinning the development of Europe-wide police forces. However, back home, in the UK, Neil Richards was not properly appreciated. Worse, he was sometimes seen as ‘weird’ or eccentric or even dysfunctional. Of course, he was none of these things. He was just more informed and more intelligent than the people around him. Culturally the UK had begun to turn its back on the fine arts of the mind; surface was beginning to triumph over depth, quickness over the painstaking search for the truth, image over substance, the body over the mind: The new managerialists couldn’t cope with Neil.

His original work proved to be entirely successful and helped to foreshadow a ‘quality of service’  philosophy that was launched in 1992 and was (is) supposed to provide some of the principles upon which current policing in the UK is based.

However, he knew that you can’t ‘do’ ethics quickly; you have to ask the most fundamental questions of all (the ‘big questions’ as William Ker Muir puts it) and you have to face the limitations that afflict just about every person on the planet. He determined that a major function of ethics was to curb our limitations. He rejected the idea that ethics could be reduced to matters of taste. He understood that whilst style, taste and the realm of aesthetics are hugely significant in human life – and, in many ways make life worth living – they are not to be confused with the hard questions, the concepts and discourses concerning integrity, virtue, courage, loyalty, what it is to be a morally ‘good’ person, and, what moral values lie at the heart of liberal democracy. These questions and concepts are not independent of culture – but the frameworks they provide help to sustain a way of life that is, for the moment, better than certain alternatives.

Neil should have been awarded an honour for his work and the struggle he undertook. He never was.


Some of Neil Richards’ very early work was republished in 1993. See: Richards, N. (1993) ‘A plea for applied ethics’ in: Thomas R. (ed.) ‘Government ethics’, Volume 1, Cambridge, Centre for Business and Public Sector Ethics’

Some later work includes:

Richards, N. (2003) ‘Strategic depth: the core values of policing’ in: Adlam R. and Villiers, P. (eds.) (2003) ‘Police Leadership in the Twenty-First Century’, Waterside Press

Richards, N. (2010) Police Loyalty Redux, Criminal Justice Ethics, 29:3, 221-240,

The photograph shows a notice board for the philosophy faculty in a beautiful university somewhere in Europe.

And, finally, this note raises a serious question about who gets to be ‘honoured’ in the UK.

2 thoughts on “Neil Richards – moral philosopher”

  1. Nice work, Rob, but it reads like an obituary. Is it? I hope not.
    Neil Richards failed the eleven plus. You might argue that that was the making of him, as he was transferred to a grammar school at 15 or 16 and pursued a successful academic career (although what an actor he might have made.)
    Despite his considerable academic achievements, my fondest memory is of teaching this gifted intellectual to play squash at Bramshill. What a determined sportsman! We might all follow many paths…

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