By: Joe Pettit
The popular Christmas song, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” encourages young children to “be good, for goodness sake.” That last phrase, “for goodness sake,” has an everyday meaning that connotes frustration or exasperation. One can imagine a parent telling a child, “For goodness sake, clean your room!” or someone telling an adult who is overwrought at the loss just experienced by a child’s soccer team, “For goodness sake, it’s just a game!” In the context of the Christmas song, there is an air of desperation in the lyrics, asking the children to stop crying and pouting, at least for a while, because Santa Claus is coming to town.
But there is also an obvious threat in the song. The threat is implicit when we learn that Santa is making lists of who is naughty and who is nice, and it becomes explicit in the phrase, “Oh! You better watch out.” Children are here taught that receiving gifts from Santa depends on their behavior. This is their introduction to what might be called transactional morality. Transactional morality reduces ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, to calculations of benefits and costs. Gifts become rewards for good behavior, and the withholding of gifts becomes a punishment for bad behavior.
Transactional morality is the exact opposite of being good for the sake of goodness itself. In fact, it suggests that there is no such thing as goodness in the first place. Instead, morality is nothing more than a calculation always ending in the question, “What’s in it for me?” This is selfishness, not goodness. If one pursues goodness for the sake of goodness, one does it merely because it is good, regardless of possible rewards or costs.
That transactional morality has thoroughly infected Christmas, and not just one Christmas song, is demonstrated whenever a person wonders whether or not her or his gift is “good enough,” or when a person is embarrassed for not having a gift to give in return after having received one. Instead of receiving the gift as a gift – something given out of love, affection, or care – one treats it as something earned or owed, and one worries what the cost will be of failing to have a gift to give in return.
In fact, it seems rather clear that transactional morality has spread throughout our society. Along with the very idea of goodness, transactional morality eliminates the meaning of responsibility, whether it is the responsibility to do good, the responsibility to avoid what is bad, or simply responsibility for our actions. If morality is reduced to a cost/benefit calculation to determine “What’s in it for me?”, accepting responsibility becomes a façade necessitated only by the perceived costs of failing to accept responsibility.
In the United States, there is no cost to be paid by a person if she or he does not accept responsibility for reducing great social evils like racial inequality and poverty. My neighbors do not scold me for my inattention to these matters, nor do I scold them. I am certainly not called out by my political leaders. Of course, if the idea of goodness has been ruined by transactional morality, so too would any idea of evil. But the problem we face is habitual, and not just conceptual. When our morality has become transactional, we are trained to relax when there are no obvious costs to us, and when the benefits would mostly accrue to someone else. Thus, if I can go about my daily affairs without responding to racial inequality and poverty, then I will.
One might say that there is an implicit social contract between those not affected directly by racial inequality and poverty to remain silent, to go about our daily lives, and to pretend that these realities either do not exist or are beyond our ability to affect. The principle rule in this contract is acceptance of inaction. My neighbor may oppose my failure to mow my lawn or rake my leaves, but my failure to fight injustice will never be viewed as a failure in the first place.
It does not help when some religious traditions extend transactional morality from here to eternity. Some traditions reduce doing good and avoiding evil to nothing more than the preconditions for getting to the right place after death. This does nothing to encourage doing good for the sake of goodness. Better, perhaps, that one should think there is no such thing as heaven or hell so that one can be good without the temptation of transactional salvation.
So what is to be done? One might be tempted to buy into the assumptions of transactional morality and attempt to make clear the costs to society created by racial inequality and poverty, as well as by other injustices that are so often ignored. But this will be an effort doomed to failure, not merely because it buys into the logic of a morality that is ultimately no morality at all, but also because it is just too easy to live with ourselves while ignoring the consequences of injustice, however clear those consequences might be.
If transactional morality is a habitual way of acting, only creating new habits that focus on goodness for the sake of goodness will eliminate it. These habits can begin with small matters like admitting mistakes and apologizing for them or finding something beautiful to dwell on in daily interactions with both friends and strangers. If we can learn to celebrate goodness, even inits smallest forms, then we will become more sensitive to its absence. We will learn that goodness is not a commodity to be traded for our own benefit, but rather something whose importance is self-evident. We will view it as something to be pursued for its own sake and not for ours alone. Then we will be much better at being good for goodness’s sake.