The Ethics of Santa Claus

The Ethics of Santa Claus - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/

First, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. It’s been quite the first year for Philosophy Matters, and today I’m thankful for the wonderful co-authors who contribute to this blog, the new friends we’ve made along the way, and the interesting discussion that we’ve been able to have! I’m also excited about what’s in store as we continue to grow next year.

Recently, I was having a discussion with both LKAwesome and my parents about whether or not it made sense to essentially lie to children about the existence of Santa Claus for years on end. I’m interested in exploring that thought a good deal more, but first…

The History of Santa Claus

I thought we could begin the discussion of Santa Claus with a little history – where did this concept of Santa come from exactly? Saint Nick, of course, but who’s that? Author of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus explains:

The Ethics of Santa Claus

The dowry for the three virgins (Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome).

Nicholas had been aware of a certain citizen of Patara  in Lycia, modern-day Turkey who had once been an important and wealthy man of the city but who had fallen on hard times and into extreme poverty. The man grew so desperate that he lacked the very essentials of life.

The poor man reasoned that it was impossible to marry off his three beautiful daughters because they lacked dowries for proper marriages to respectable noblemen. He feared they would each in turn be forced into prostitution to support themselves.

Nicholas heard this heartbreaking news and resolved to do something about it. He bagged a sum of gold and in the dead of night, tossed it through the man’s window. The money was used as a dowry for the first daughter.

Sometime later, Nicholas made a second nighttime visit so that the second daughter might marry. Later tradition reported that, finding the windows closed, he dropped the bag of gold down the chimney, where it landed into one of the girl’s stockings that was hanging to dry.

When Nicholas returned to deliver anonymously the third bag of gold for the last daughter, the curious father was ready. When he heard a bag hit the floor, the father leapt to his feet and raced outside, where he caught the mysterious benefactor.

Nicholas revealed his identity to the father but made him swear never to tell anyone what he’d done. He did not want praise or recognition for his generosity. – Adam C. English

And from there, it’s actually not that big of a leap to the modern Santa who comes down the chimney to bring gifts for all! Of course, we don’t share this historical story of Saint Nick with our children – instead we share one imbued with magical sleighs, reindeer, elves, and more. And I wondered why…

The Case for Santa Claus

I asked some of the other authors to share their thoughts about the Santa issue:

b0t had a somewhat neutral stance:

I would say telling children about Santa Claus is neutral.  It can be negative if Santa Claus is used as a way to try to control children’s behavior by saying Santa Claus is watching and you better straighten up; however, it can be a positive in that it allows a child to develop their imagination. Further, it could be seen as a way for a child to develop critical thinking skills and perhaps the first time that a child has to have a paradigm shift in thinking about how something has happened.  It could be a way for children to learn to question their first principles and continue to seek to more fully understand the world around them.  In order to minimize any violations of trust, I think that when a child asks his parents about Santa Claus, the child deserves an honest response.

LKAwesome shared her thoughts on why one should encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus:

To me there is nothing wrong with supporting a seemingly magical idea (Santa Claus) for children – after all Santa is part of American’s collective history! I think the magic associated with a man and his wife living at the North pole with flying reindeer and elves encourages children to be creative. As they get older they learn to resolve the difference between fairytale and real-life; they also learn to think critically and not believe every thing that is told to them. Mostly, it allows for some fun during a brief moment in their lives when they are open to believing in such magical experiences.

Consider the case for Santa. Please!
Without realizing it, LKAwesome has echoed the conclusion of one the chapters in Christmas: Philosophy for Everyone. The author goes on to conclude that this process of learning to resolve the difference between fairytale and real-life is character building for children.

My father did mention that he idea of the naughty/nice list also made a useful disciplinary tool. I’m elaborating a bit on the comments he made, but the sentiment I took away was that if we kids were misbehaving, especially during Christmas season, mentioning Santa’s naughty list was a good way to get us behave.

I take issue with both of these lines of though, as I will do my best to explain.

The Magic of Childhood

First, I think I should preface this by saying that I’m no Grinch! I enjoy Christmas season a great deal, from the lights and relaxation, to the thoughtful gifts and time with family. And I most definitely understand and remember the “magic” and wonder of childhood – and actually I believe that doing philosophy keeps us closer to that wonder!

Character Building

The first problem I have is with the notion of character building and imagination. If these things are truly built up by the idea of Santa, and important, it would mean we should lie to our children about everything, or at least a great deal more. Why stop at the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy. Let’s throw in the man in the moon who cries to make it rain while we’re at it! Etc. But that seems a little silly.

Something Lost?

Another thing that gives me pause with this line of argument is the suggestion that everything special about life is somehow gone after childhood. No one explicitly makes this argument, but I feel it in the background. Something like, “Let the children have their fun and enjoy life before they have to grow up and face it as an adult.” To me, that sounds like a cry coming from adults who never properly learned or have forgotten how wonderful real life can be.

Now, certainly I think adulthood comes with additional challenges and struggles. However, I believe a better strategy would be, rather than only dwelling in fantasy as a child, to learn how to capture that rapture, so to speak, in a realistic way that we can bring with us into adulthood. If it’s not based only on magic, and instead something more real, it would be something we can actually carry with us!

A Magic Outlook

The Magic of Childhood - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/The bigger problem is that I’m not convinced we ever completely grow out of this fantasy. I know that sounds strange at face value, but hear me out.

What initially got me thinking about this topic was running across several instances of people – adults – writing and talking about how they still believe in Santa. I’m confident that the vast majority of them weren’t speaking literally, though, there was one that seemed to be. Those who weren’t speaking literally though, usually go on to explain themselves by trying to describe some type of magic that they believe (hope) still exists – and they feel more connected to it during Christmas. This is always pretty vague, but it often sounds to me much like someone trying to explain that things happen for a reason, or to take a coincidence as a cosmic sign. While a fat man dressed up in a suit may not exist, some cosmic good will, they believe, exists and makes things better.

In that sense, I would say it’s not a brief moment in time that most people are open to believing in magic. It seems to me that this magical belief in Santa Claus is just transfered to something a little less concrete, along with all of the childhood happiness that surrounded this idea of Santa.

You may be asking – Is there really anything wrong with that?

Think about it – this magic creeps in everywhere: believing that the way or even whether or not we watch a sports game can have an effect on the outcome, or the many superstitions that we grow up with, like opening an umbrella inside will bring bad lack. Under normal circumstances, none of these are exactly terrible, or debilitating, although in some cases they can turn into that. But even without the extremes, I’ve observed friends in my life who are guided by these magics and superstitions, and I can literally observe the stress that it brings into their lives.

Aren’t we all stressed enough? Why encourage this to continue by getting our kids to believe in magic?

He Knows Whether You’ve Been Good or Bad

For me, this argument is perhaps even more disturbing from the perspective of an ethicist. Of the three major ethical theories, I think only one of them would support an ethics based on behaving because of the reward (or lack of punishment) that it would bring. Very briefly let’s consider those:

Santa's List - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rondostar/

Deontology argues that we have a duty to do the right thing, simply because it is good. Someone like Immanuel Kant might say that we’re not actually behaving morally if we do some good thing with the intention of getting a reward. For Kant, our intentions matter more than the actual outcome of the actions themselves.

Utilitarianism, on the other hand, seeks the greatest good for the greatest number, and the outcome is all that matters. This is the one ethical theory that would likely support Santa’s naughty or nice list, so long as it results in more good being done for more people overall.

Virtue ethics, of which I’m fond, could possibly go either way. For Aristotle, developing virtue and acting from those virtues is of utmost importance, ethically speaking. However, he believes that we develop these virtues through habituation, so one could possibly argue that the good actions due to behaving for a reward are simply part of that habituation. However, I think we must consider what’s being habituated – is it a virtue that’s actually being habituated or simply the impulse to do what’s required to get a reward that we want?

My biggest concern is that it hijacks the reason we should behave and act kindly toward others. Getting rewarded is not the appropriate reason. I believe it’s problematic when we expect something in return for simply doing what we ought to do.

Jesus/Santa Connection

Again, let me preface this by saying I don’t hate religion, but I do believe that for many people (certainly not all), it has a very negative effect on critical thinking skills. For example, 45% of Americans believe in Creationism. So what does Santa Claus have to do with Jesus? I’ve tried not to mention it explicitly thus far, but consider what we’ve already discussed: a magical man who rewards us for doing as we should. Is that not precisely what Jesus does with the reward of Heaven? Pascal’s Wager explicitly makes the argument that we ought to believe in God on the odds that we’re right and will go to Heaven.

Santa Jesus - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/akitzmil/

But the connection runs deeper:

Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.” – Benedict Carey

So instead of wishing to Santa Claus, we can then teach our children to pray to God. For many, this is explicitly the point.

To reiterate, my concern is that this creates a society that has difficulty with critical thinking and understanding and evaluating science. If there’s always that element of magic and/or miracle lurking right around the corner, science loses its power. Why bother believing that global warming is being affected by our actions? Why believe the Earth is older than a few thousand years? From that perspective the universe is governed by so much more than the laws of science.

Where Does That Leave Christmas?

I know you’re probably thinking I just sound like a bitter old man that hates Christmas, but nothing could be further from the truth! As I said at the beginning, this doesn’t mean I don’t think Christmas is a special and wonderful time of the year. I just don’t think it’s necessary to celebrate it by lying to our children and convincing them that magic is real.

I am interested in b0t’s suggestions that the story of Santa is ok up until the  point a child asks if he’s real, but in a real world application, I’m not sure how this would work. For example, “Is Santa real?” is not usually the first question that arises. Rather, it’s something like, how does he fit down a chimney? Or get into a house without a chimney? These types of questions are what lead to the bigger question of whether he is real. Do we invent answers for those? Or when the first question arises, do we simply say, “Oh, no one actually comes down a chimney, it’s just a story.”? Perhaps that’s a compromise between my stance and LKAwesome’s?

So how do I think we should we celebrate?

For me, Christmas is a time for being with family, friends, and loved ones, and reflecting on what that means. To listen to fun music and put up silly lights. To think about our year and our accomplishments and our hopes for the future. To slow down from the hectic pace of the rest of the year and really appreciate life with those we care about. And Santa is certainly a part of that as an enjoyable, though fictional character. There is something incredibly special about being able to do all of this during Christmas season.

I simply feel like we’re preparing our children for a better life if we can help then learn early on how much beauty there is the actual reality of the world. Instead of magic, let’s focus on the beauty of life, family, and friends. That way, this is something special that they can carry with them their entire lives, rather than a fleeting feeling they lose once the truth about Santa comes up. 

Ultimately, for me, the question is why focus on Santa Claus being real when there is so much to life that is just as wonderful and beautiful?

Here’s hoping each of you, dear readers, get to share in that wonder and beauty with your loved ones this Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

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