So I’ve been mulling over whether to even address a certain holiday, only a few days away, that I think most folks are looking forward to. Why, it’s Godless Capitalism Day, when we celebrate rampant consumerism with the goal of propping up a shaky economy by collectively sinking ever deeper into debt ourselves. This is a Great Good. It’s only why, after all, we’re called “consumers” and not “citizens.”
Oops, that’s not much in keeping with the holiday spirit, is it? And I recall that some folks do actually call it “Christmas” and approach the day in a different manner than we godless heathens do.
But, believe it or not, I do have a Christmas spirit – rather smallish, true, but not insignificant – and it’s neither godly nor godless. Actually, if I had to pick a side, I favor a Jesus-centered Christmas over one focused on the unbridled consumption of goods, for whatever reason.
To engage in a bit of Kant-speak, Gross Consumer Day is means- based, while Christmas is more ends-based. So, you ask (if you even care about my secular opinion), “What the heck does that mean?” Happy to tell you and happier still to sneak a teeny bit of philosophy into your day – by which I mean, to seek the larger meaning of Christmas. No matter how you approach it.
For those who are blessedly free of the philosophy bug – which promises a life of continual questioning and only contingent, provisional answers – I’m speaking of Immanuel Kant, probably my favorite of the ethical thinkers. Rigorous. Formal. Blessedly free of absolutist thinking, even his own, which he admits could be wrong.
In any case, the whole means and ends deal is part of what he called the categorical imperative, which you can just think of as his golden rule. There are several formulations of the imperative, one of which says that you should never treat people merely as a means to an end but also as an end in themselves. That’s basically a fancy way of saying we all have inherent worth and deserve to be so treated.
Which gets me back, I hope, to the meaning of Christmas. Goods Consumed Day seems to revolve around people as a means to an end, the end being the triumphant victory of “more is better.”
And people, insofar as they matter at all, simply exist to consume. (Remember how President George W. Bush told us to get out there and buy after 9/11?) And if you can’t pull your weight, if you’re a 47-percenter, then you’re supposed to buy the fact that you’re just a worthless drain on society.
This Get Cool Deals approach ain’t much in the spirit of Christmas, as an end not a means, and Mr. Kant had something to say about that, too.
Simplifying a bit, he had it that you should only act in such a way that you wished everyone should do the same – that your behavior should become a universal law, e.g., putting others first, like Jesus did.
Now, giving your life for others is far from a necessary good – which others and for what reason? – but celebrating the birth of Christ seems closer to a categorical imperative, even for heathens like me, than giving praise to Gift Card Day.
Believers say that Jesus died for everyone. Ergo, if everyone is worth dying for then everyone has worth. And whatever Christmas means, and for whatever reason we celebrate it, that might be a pretty good one to add.
Now what’s in that red package?