Kant and the Queen Mother

Philosophers have argued that actions have no moral worth unless done out of a sense of duty. So did

Longevity is a magical potion. With few exceptions, it transposes ordinary and even wicked people into loveable institutions, sometimes giving them iconic status. By living for a very long time, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother achieved just such status, and enjoyed the affection of some, especially among those who remember the last great war.

She had a sweet smile, which people found endearing; that and her position in society were enough to keep her popularity alive, even though it was well known - thanks largely to Private Eye - that her views on race, and much besides, were no less questionable than those held and too often publicly expressed by Prince Philip, and that she lived all her long life in the most gratuitous ease, luxury and privilege, in return for an accident of birth.

But what brought her popularity in the first place was her part in the example set by her husband, King George VI, during the Second World War. He and she remained in London during the Blitz, and visited scenes of bomb damage around the capital, as part of a vigorous and often anxious campaign by the government to keep London's population from fleeing the city in millions. Such an efflux of refugees would have caused logistical and defence problems so paralysing that, had it happened, Hitler could have entered Whitehall on a bicycle.

The sight of the King and Queen inspecting craters and demolished houses, smiling graciously at knots of bystanders, accompanied newspaper propaganda about cheerfully defiant Cockneys picking their way to work through the morning-after rubble.

The propaganda was an essential act of defence, and it not only helped stiffen a London population in truth quailing under the horrors of bombardment, but kept the residents of other British cities firm, too, by offering them a portrait of the capital's courage led by the example of the royal family.

The symbolic power of royalty was far more general and potent then than now, and its use as a focus for national resolve was brilliantly successful. Everyone expected the King to stick to the helm, but it was a stroke of luck - or of genius on the government's part to recognise the potential here - that the photogenic qualities of his consort were so effective. She managed to convey emotional warmth and concern in a regal package by no greater means than a smile which, though fixed, did not appear rigid; and a wave that, though mannered, seemed to convey majesty. The key to the perception generated by these means was that the King and Queen were doing their duty - and that, therefore, the rest of the population should do no less.

Duty was the essence of the "keep fighting" message repeated by every means every day. If people are adjured to bear hardship, they are reminded that it is hardship they are bearing. If they are warned too often about sufferings to come, the risk is that they will become unnerved. But drum home a message of duty, and with that concept comes a cluster of desirable others: courage, endurance, resolve, making-do - and dying, if necessary.

The principal royals were thus presented as emblematic of duty; and when King George died, the newly denominated Queen Mother inherited all the representational value of that sterling virtue. Quite what was dutiful thereafter about decades of going to the races and holidaying in Scottish castles, cutting ribbons and handing out diplomas, is a mystery; but she remained Duty Personified none the less.

The concept of duty is one of those which one feels ought to be automatically admired. Yet it is not a self-standing concept. Without specification of what one is to be dutiful towards, it is empty. It is easy to see why: suppose you get someone to agree to the general proposition that citizens should do their duty - by implication, to their countries, which in turn means to the rulers of their countries. It is a short step to show that if the country in question were ruled by Hitler, Pol Pot or the Taliban, it might rather be one's duty to disobey one's rulers.

The great philosopher of duty is Immanuel Kant, the 18th- century thinker whose immense and brooding spirit quickens much of the history of philosophy after his time. He taught that our actions have moral worth only if they are performed from a sense of duty. His reason is that respect for the moral law is the only proper motive for action; if we do something kind or helpful because we happen to be feeling cheerful, rather than because we recognise it as our moral duty, then (in Kant's own words) "however right and however amiable such action may be, it still lacks genuine moral worth".

An unappealing consequence of this view, if taken literally, is that there is no virtue in, say, a father playing with his children unless he does so out of a sense of duty. Generally we prefer to think that a better motive for playing with our children is that we love them and enjoy the opportunity to share fun with them; and this thought can be generalised to cover the many reasons, other than a sense of duty, why we might seek to treat others with respect and kindness.

But when (as in the case of royalty) people born to stations in life which - while the social structures that give those stations meaning continue to exist - require that they behave in prescribed ways, do indeed behave in those ways, it is a manifestation of something very like Kantian duty; there can be little motive other than a sense of duty for endlessly unveiling plaques, cutting ribbons, making anodyne speeches and dressing in anachronistic clothes, which is the ceremonial lot of the empty royal offices that, like an old brown stain in a teacup, linger on in the British constitution.

The Queen Mother persuaded her large admiring public that she was an exemplar of this cosmetic function - cosmetic, but not without content; because even in the less deferential and less hierarchical world she survived into in her extreme old age, the mere fact that she had once been a useful symbol of courage and determination in time of crisis, and that she gamely carried on smiling and waving into the eleventh decade of life, reminded people to think of the vague and worthy idea of duty with respect.

To have symbolised a virtue is quite something; and that is the best that can be said of the Queen Mother by anyone who did not know her personally (because in personal life she might have had private qualities of immense value, for all we know).

At the centre of the Queen Mother's passing is a family sadness, repeated throughout the country many times over every day of every year: the death of a parent. The simple, sad, altogether ordinary fact of a death in a family is just that: simple, sad and ordinary. It makes one feel great sympathy for the bereaved. Why the grief should be greater, more public, more symbolic, more important, than that felt for a family down the street is explained (in the usual way) by the illusions of pomp and title, by the fairy-tale penumbra surrounding the life and its supposed meaning.

The Queen Mother claimed that, once Buckingham Palace had been bombed, she could "look the East End in the face". But as Ben Pimlott explains, the East End was "not able to retreat to Windsor to catch up on sleep, or to spend recuperative holidays in Norfolk and Scotland. Nor was the East End able to supplement its diet with pheasants and venison shot on the royal estates."

There were hundreds of thousands of women who stuck out the Blitz with their husbands and children - that they had nowhere else to go does not make them less brave than she was.

Most of these brave women have already died; if one needed a reason to make the Queen Mother's death emblematic, perhaps she could stand as a representative for them, the ones who were mourned only privately, and who had lives in which the performance of duties was infinitely less easy and comfortable than it was for her.