Scotsman Obituaries: Robin Downie, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University

Robin Downie planned a career in music before encountering philosophyRobin Downie planned a career in music before encountering philosophy
Robin Downie planned a career in music before encountering philosophy
Robert (Robin) Downie, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy. Born: 19 April 1933. Died: 14 February 2023, aged 89

Robin Downie was a man with many interests, in particular his family, music, philosophy and medicine. Born and brought up in Scotland, he became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, a post in which he followed his distinguished predecessors, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid.

Music was an early love, and Robin played the piano and wrote music all his life. His original intention was to study music, but on the eve of term he discovered an introduction to philosophy which he found very exciting and decided instead to study philosophy and literature at Glasgow University.

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This was followed by a B Phil at Oxford University, and a Fulbright scholarship to Syracuse, New York. In between he did National Service in the army and learned Russian to assist interpretation.

On returning to Glasgow, Robin took up posts as lecturer, senior lecturer and finally, in 1969, Professor of Moral Philosophy.

He married Eileen and had three daughters, Alison, Catherine and Barbara, who keep up his ways of thinking and broad interests, especially music.

While he believed philosophy was a discipline worth pursuing for its own sake, Robin advocated more enthusiastically for philosophising about particular issues or disciplines, exemplified in his own work on medical ethics.

His contribution to mainstream philosophy was wide-ranging – from political philosophy (for example, Government Action and Morality, 1964) through social philosophy (Roles and Values, 1971), to moral philosophy (Respect for Persons, 1969, with Elizabeth Telfer).

In his undergraduate lectures, Robin introduced young minds to great ideas and to great thinkers, in a tone that was avuncular and never condescending.

In tutorials, he was the master of the anecdote and the parable, engaging students not by starting with complex concepts but by reflecting initially on small everyday events that, under his guidance, were revealed to have profound significance.

He framed complex concepts in a way that gave his students broad understanding, but left many questions unanswered and ripe for discussion.

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Robin used to say, with a smile, that he enjoyed “shaping minds”. This was much less about teaching his students what to think than how to think.

He encouraged clarity and rigour in the expression of difficult ideas. He provided a framework – a tool for life – to help others to think systematically for themselves.

One of Robin’s many legacies is a generation of professionals, currently in public life and academia, who are able to tackle challenging questions in the manner of his precision, sensitivity, and discipline.

As a mentor, Robin was warm, friendly, and unswervingly supportive, and a remarkable and inspirational teacher, loved by so many students whose lives were enriched and expanded through contact with him.

He became involved in broader student issues, for example as Vice President of the Student Union.

This led to him meeting a wide range of people who would go on to develop interests in politics and business and beyond. These included the late former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, who remained a close friend long after his student days.

Robin was unfailingly generous with his time as a teacher and supervisor, also sharing his family life and love of the West Highlands with so many of us, inviting students to spend time at his beloved holiday house near Tarbert, Loch Fyne. To the end of his life he was a great walker, enjoying the Scottish mountains and walking with amazing vigour and speed!

Robin wrote widely, especially on the relevance of his intellectual field on the professions, such as social work, nursing, law and medicine. These latter links were deepened when he teamed up with future Chief Medical Officer for Scotland Kenneth Calman in the teaching of medical ethics.

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This began when they taught a six-week course on medical ethics to a bright bunch of medical students. Robin and Kenneth taught in different ways. Robin talked without notes or slides while Calman was the opposite. This progressed to a short course on literature and medicine which was a remarkable venture and set the prospect of a new subject, Medical Humanities, which became part of the Glasgow medical curriculum, taught by Jane Macnaughton.

Robin was thus a pioneer in the now widely studied field of Medical Humanities, and published a number of influential books in this field, including The Making of a Doctor (1992) with Bruce Charlton and Clinical Judgement (2000) with Jane Macnaughton, as well as a richly illustrated coffee table book filled with extracts used in his short courses, The Healing Arts (1994).

While always greatly respectful and supportive of doctors, admiring the technical skills they demonstrated, he felt that the arts and humanities were something they deeply needed in order to function in the challenging spaces of people’s lives.

Robin retired in 2002, though writing and teaching continued: indeed his last book, Quality of life: A Post-Pandemic Philosophy of Medicine, was published in 2021. Right up to the end of his life, he continued to write philosophy columns in the Scottish Review, where he did what he did best – he made complex ideas accessible to the rest of us.

It is a fitting tribute to Robin, one of which he was justifiably proud, that all his books were in print at the end of his life. Thus, Robin’s teaching will continue to illuminate ideas, promote clarity, and inspire breadth and depth of thinking in nurses and doctors, social workers and lawyers, politicians and many others for years to come.


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