“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe – the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,” Immanuel Kant famously reflected. The ‘moral law within me’ is one of his most notorious contributions to philosophy, the famous categorical imperative that one should act as one could consistently will everyone to do. This empty moral injunction is often referred to as ‘duty’.
The ‘moral law within regular Prospect contributor AC Grayling’ has been inspiring less wonder and awe recently, following news that he forgot to turn up to give a sold-out public lecture. Worse, the lecture was on the challenges of duty, and its relationship to pleasure. One attendee confessed that she “was left in some doubt over Professor Grayling’s position on the matter, after he failed to show up.” Had Grayling been outed as a lawless utilitarian?
Hardly. It turned out that Grayling was simply confused over the date. For this, Prospect readers should perhaps be relieved. Kant himself was a neurotic, time-obsessed hypochondriac, who famously only once missed his daily stroll around Koenigsberg (on the day he received a copy of Rousseau’s Emile). He feared that, unless rooted in strict unconditioned duty, morality would dissolve into hedonistic utilitarianism. There has been ample Nietzschean and psychoanalytic ink spilt as to quite what was ‘wrong’ with this pleasure-fearing man, and how it related to his Protestant pietism. It’s a shame his imperative had to be quite so categorical. Perhaps if, like AC Grayling, he’d been able to temper it with a little free spiritedness every now and again, Western society would now be in better mental health.