Monday, 24 December 2007

"A Very Kantian Christmas."

Christmas is a strange holiday. Continually balanced precariously on the brink of morality with a unique counterpointing of decadence and excess on the one hand and goodwill, community, and peace on the other. In Nietzschean terms this makes it a perfect balance between Apollonian and Dionysian sensibilities: an advocate of the theory may even say that the holiday’s longevity is due to this. It’s the celebration of the birth of a man who little over 30% of the global population believe was God Incarnate. However when combined with its sister holidays, Hanukkah and, this year, Eid-al-Adha, it makes this particular December a time of widespread religious festivities.

This alone though does not make Christmas a moral holiday. Custom and performing actions merely because they have always previously been performed is not morality: that’s mindless and slavish obedience to the past. Morality resides within action alone and so one must always think about the actions one is performing in the present; specifically one must ask ‘why’ in order to live authentically. And so, dismissing the historical and mythological origins of the holiday, we must ask ‘why Christmas?’

For existentialists, like me, morality is the same as everything else and must be actively defined as one goes through existence. As Sartre would say we must continually remake ourselves. There is no absolute morality because there are no absolutes (and I realise that that statement is inherently a contradiction). Morality is therefore nothing more than whatever works best pragmatically and the best moral theory of a bad bunch is, in my opinion, Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics.

The crux of Kant is the third formulation of the categorical imperative; act always as if you were a legislating member of the kingdom of ends. This means that whenever you act, you ought to ask ‘what if every rational person did this?’ and only if you can will the action to be universal is the action morally permissible. This moral theory has the advantage of basically being a defence of empathy in action and being based upon strict reason and rationality.

So what does this mean for Christmas? When one celebrates Christmas, can the holiday be universalised onto the entirety of the population? The answer is probably that it can; even if people may not be in a position to materially celebrate the holiday, we can will the goodwill and glad tidings to all humanity onto them. But then the question arises, if it’s supposed to be universal, why isn’t this peace and love celebrated all year round?

Because, unfortunately, Christmas is an anomaly: a strange blip on the annual calendar where everything including reason is put to one side to revel in the either Apollonian or Dionysian side of our emotions. For some it’s an excuse and a justification; people act on this one day as they ought to act throughout the entire year and that makes them feel good. For the vast majority of humanity, feeling good and intuition is all it comes down to. This can be manifested in the joy of material possession and advancement, the communitarian feeling that is lacking most of the time, or the self-satisfaction of religious obedience to their benevolent deity and the advancement towards the ultimate rewards that the religious generally seek. For one day of the year people across Western civilisation act simultaneously to feel good and according to Kant that good feeling ought to be universalisable for the whole year.

Christmas, as it stands, is therefore an excuse for immorality; a day when people can advocate peace and joy even, nay especially, if they haven’t for the other 364 days of the year. The moral of the story is best put by the Ghost of Christmas Present in ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’: that we ought to make the love, community, and empathy of Christmas last all year round. If you can do that, then celebrating Christmas is perfectly moral in Kantian terms because it would be ‘Christmas’ everyday.

Postscript:- More unfortunate still is the fact that morality is entirely subjective so all this only applies if you take a Kantian moral framework. You could of course be an existentialist like me and view morals as arbitrary human impositions whereby “nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary”. In that case, you’re free to do whatever you want, define your own existence, and make your own meaning including whatever you make of this strange holiday known as Christmas.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

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