The moral philosopher’s Christmas

I have a fictional character, Isabel Dalhousie, who is the editor of a review of applied ethics. She leads a fairly ideal life in a leafy suburb of Edinburgh, interfering in the affairs of others – at their request, of course. She seems to live in a world where it is perpetually summer; her garden, I have noticed, is always in full bloom, the skies are high and blue, and rain, when it occurs, falls in soft veils of white. It is also a Scotland, curiously, without midges.

Scottish novelists write about summer largely because they do not get much of it and fiction, as we all know, is aspirational. I have come to feel, though, that a future Isabel Dalhousie novel might be set in the Scottish winter. Not only will this involve a different palette of adjectives – hard, cold, snell (a wonderful Scots word used to describe biting winds), steely grey and so on – it will also allow Isabel a different set of moral issues to sink her teeth into. Being a moral philo­sopher, Isabel does have a tendency to put rather too many things under the moral microscope. Naturally, everything comes with ethical problems attached. The British philosopher Julian Baggini has just written a fascinating book on the dilemmas of the dining table: even sitting down for breakfast involves moral issues.

So, in what contexts will winter send us off to our Hume, our Scruton or Baggini? One obvious matter is the problem of resources. Should we wear a jersey and turn down our heating – if we are fortunate enough to be able to afford to heat our house? The answer is probably yes, because we owe it to future generations not to deplete the world’s resources unnecessarily. By the same argument, air-conditioning in summer should be used sparingly. There are hot places and there are cold places, and it might be an idea to respect this. That is not particularly good news for places such as Phoenix, Arizona. It also sends a bracing message to Scotland.

Isabel Dalhousie, as you might imagine, likes not only the large issues, but also the smaller and more immediate ones. For her, winter, bringing Christmas and New Year with it, raises grave dilemmas of social relations. December is a notorious month for socialising. The enforced jollity of office parties brings with it a series of social disasters – indiscreet remarks, ill-advised romances, hangovers. For those with a highly attuned sense of morality, this also raises questions of social obligation: should we try to enjoy ourselves if others are having fun? That question is more profound than it seems at first blush. If everybody else is wearing a ridiculous paper hat, not to wear one is to make a statement. Spoiling celebrations for others can be an inconsiderate thing to do.

And there are other difficulties in the wings, including the question of the general celebration of what is, for many, a religious festival. Isabel would never wish anybody “Happy Holidays” – about as plastic a greeting as that other American import, “Have a nice day” – because it involves the denial of a culturally deep-rooted festival, and she cares for authenticity. At the same time, she would tactfully refrain from wishing a happy Christmas to those who are of a different faith; with them, concentrate on New Year – everybody has an interest in future happiness. Then there is the question of Christmas gift inflation. Materialism stalks uncontrolled in December and the battle against it is largely lost. Rearguard action is possible, however, with subtle, tiny acts of rebellion, such as never giving a child anything that needs batteries (or is made in China). That leaves oranges, nuts and bars of fair-trade chocolate. It will be very good for them.

But it is the concept of friendship that poses perhaps the most interesting of these winter dilemmas. Most of us think about our friends at the end of the year. This is not just because of “the Christmas spirit”, which, whether or not viewed in any religious light, is all about fellowship. At this point in the year, we feel that we need to see our friends; we need to give at least some of them presents; we need to send them greetings in the form of (largely meaningless) cards.

That brings us to the Christmas card list. I have recently been sacked from a Christmas card list I was rather touched to be on. There may be others in the pipeline. I fully accept my dismissal, but Isabel, I suspect, would wonder about the moral implications of removing people from a list once they are on it. It is a very deliberate method of cutting a tie of friendship, and should not be done lightly. Alternatively, one can send nobody a Christmas card – a principled stand, particularly if you give the money you would have spent to a good cause. But not sending cards will undoubtedly cause those who have not received them to worry that they have done something to offend. It is far from simple.

And that is even before we get to presents. Can you “regift” an unwelcome present? Can you sell it? This is where firm rules are the only answer. You may regift after three months, but not to the person who gave it to you, or to any of their close friends or relatives (expediency). You can sell a Christmas present and keep the money if you get less than £25 for it. If you get over that, it must be given to charity. There – so much for moral nuances.

Spring and summer bring different moral issues, but there is generally less time to think about them. They therefore need not worry us, just yet.

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest Dalhousie novel is “The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds” (Abacus, £7.99)

Image: Laura Carlin

This article appears in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue