Does Santa exploit elves? Philosophical questions about Christmas

Richard Handler on a different way of looking at Christmas.

For the hard-to-buy-for ideas person on your list let me suggest a book that has somehow appeared on my desk: Christmas: Philosophy for Everyone.

Subtitle: Better than a lump of coal.

Who sent it? Christopher Hitchens, or one of his legion of New Atheist supporters? No, I think not.

Still, it contains several thoughtful and bruising entries, the perfect mix for this time of year.

The book's contributors are mostly professional philosophers. But they have an eye for the real world with all its problems and contradictions.

That is, beyond the staple of tired, ethical debates — is Christmas too commercial?

(Though aren't retailers also God's creatures and deserving succour in this holy season, too? But I digress.)

One particular essay instantly appealed to me as a journalist, as I imagine it would to my investigative colleagues at the fifth estate and The Current.

It is called "Santa's Sweatshop: Elf Exploitation for Christmas" and it was written by Matthew Brody, a PhD in philosophy who teaches business ethics at the University of Minnesota.

In his pocket bio, he tell us he still believes in Santa Claus.

Imported labour

In his essay, though, Brody likens our consumer society to the short story by the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which depicts a utopian society, full of happy citizens.

Has this elf been taken from his natural habitat and exploited? Philosophical minds are inquiring. (Reuters)

"Except the dirty little secret," Brody notes, "is that the happiness of Omelas is magically dependent on the squalid enslavement of a child, hidden away in a town building."

Ouch. What a Scrooge this Brody is! He and Le Guin are essentially asking us to check the labels on our Christmas presents to ensure they weren't produced by child or other exploited workers.

But being a philosopher, Brody is not content merely to point out the obvious hitches of child labour. (After all, you might argue that without child labour in some unfortunate places of the world a family would have no income, and children would be sent out to beg or sell themselves on the streets.)

No, philosopher Brody zeroes in on Santa's elves and, as they say in academia, deconstructs the myths that surround their lives.

He tells us that their having those sharply pointy ears and tiny legs (terrible for locomotion in the snow), means that they are obviously not native to the Arctic, where Santa has his workshop.

Imported workers, he notes, is "the optimal way to attain cost-effective labour." Optimal at least for the dastardly factory owner, Santa.

Brody then goes on to inquire about their wages. Must they buy their own supplies at a company store at outrageous prices? What kind of housing do they have? What about the heating? Do they have to hobble to work in the snow on those tiny, tiny feet?

Elf self-exploitation

Brody then asks the more pointed question: Even if the elves have agreed to this form of indentured servitude, have they really made a free choice?

Volunteering aside, might they not still be suffering from what Brody calls elf self-exploitation.

Now, here we are in the realm of what a Marxist would could "false consciousness." Believing what you believe because those who own the means of production have convinced you of the proper way to think.

"I'm happy to have a job, Santa sir! Could I only have a little more porridge, please," as young Oliver Twist once said to his captors.

Brody does point out the elves are not completely without their own lobby group. Harry Potter's pal Hermione Granger once created SPEW, the Society for the Promotion of Elf Welfare, whose task was to liberate house elves, "even though they don't recognize their own oppression, and don't want to be liberated."

But then he ends his essay by asking us to boycott Christmas, in the process calling Santa "the Kim Jong-il of the North Pole."

Ouch again.

Virtue and Scrooge

But wait, Christmas: Philosophy for Everyone is not a complete downer. Scrooge, in fact, makes a more festive appearance.

On the other hand, it is not always easy being Santa. (Associated Press)

Of course, philosopher Dane Scott then asks us, in what way is the reformed Scrooge really happy?

Oh dear. Will the reformed Scrooge also turn out to be suffering from more false consciousness and analytical error?

That could well happen, Scott tells us, if we define happiness only as an expression of transient emotions, which is how we usually see it.

Scrooge has certainly been scared by his visions of Christmas past, present and future. But he has definitely not been taught that the key to continued happiness is the managed expression of emotions, which is the lesson in the barrage of happiness manuals in today's bookstores.

Proper training is very important, Scott tells us. Even those temperamentally dyspeptic can absorb a certain modicum of joy this season by paying careful attention to their own emotions and learning "the affectionate regard for others."

The key to human flourishing, as Charles Dickens (and all those Christmas movies) also reminds us, is the marshalling and moulding of character.

That's what the ancient Greeks called "virtue," a combination of judgment, generosity and courage.

Virtue defines character and is a measure of true happiness, as opposed to those fleeting moments of pleasure and positive feeling.

It's easy to be swept up, as I am with each TV viewing, in Scrooge's giddiness ("Oh, I don't deserve to be so happy," spouts Alastair Sim, in my favourite version of A Christmas Carol).

But, as Scott reminds us, virtue is built on a foundation not of fear of retribution but of gratitude, one of the most neglected of contemporary mental states and oh so difficult to muster in this cynical world.

Plucked from their rightful abode and made to endure hard Christmas work, Santa's elves, it can be concluded, may not be grateful to their Kim Jong-il of a boss.   But I, at least, am grateful for this opportunity to offer a season's greetings from your Ideas guy, somewhere near the North Pole of