Childhood Carnage: The Ethics Of… Santa

If there’s one thing that nearly every western child has in common, it’s Santa. The jolly fat man in the Coca Cola colours has evolved over time from a Christian saint associated with the season, to the undisputed secular icon of Christmas. So synonymous is St Nick with the season, that at this point it’s actually debatable whether he or Jesus is the more recognisable symbol of the holiday.

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Trying to upstaging a guy on his own birthday. Poor form, Santa.

But despite the multiple-culture spanning love of the Santa tradition, and the endless joy and wonder it brings to kids everywhere, recently a movement has started to gain traction again the old guy. More and more people are starting to argue that Santa isn’t just the wonderful make believe that we like to consider it, but rather a lie. A massive lie that adult across the world conspire feed our kids, with moderately devastating results when they eventually figure out we’re all full of crap.

This might not seem like all that big a deal ethically, but maaaaan would you be wrong. I’ve rarely seen such furious debate on any other topic. Even most abortion debates tend to be more reasonable than this. Apparently questioning how people raise their kids, combined with criticism of a beloved tradition is too much for some people to handle, and the ‘debate’ quickly devolves into name-calling. In other words, absolute gold for a shit-stirrer like me to stick my nose into.

The fun thing is that Santa in one of those conventions that the vast majority of us (myself included) never would have ever questioned in a million years. What is there to hate here? It’s an age old tradition specifically intended to make children happy – and make no mistake, it does make children happy. Sure the whole ‘sit on this strange guy’s knee at the supermarket’ bit tends to cause a bit of terror, but apart from that you’ve got a magical man who brings you gifts once a year. Magic, mystery, and free toys: for any kid that’s not suffering from full-blown paranoia, that’s about as close to perfect as you can get. No surprise then that we tend to get a bit defensive when some guy starts criticising our beloved childhood memories.

But in one aspect at least, the critics of Santa have a pretty solid point: Santa is a lie. There is no debating this; Santa does not exist (spoiler alert), and in telling children that he does exist, we are lying to them. You can call it a ‘little white lie’ all you want, and go on about how it’s worth it for the happiness it brings, but the fact remains – we are tell our kids a deliberate falsehood.

Lying is something that is generally frowned upon in civilised society, and ironically, something we are usually very insistent upon with kids; lying is bad, don’t do it! Lying breaches trust, making cooperation harder within a society. The less we can trust each other to be honest, to follow the agreed upon rules, and have each other’s backs, the more we are forced to resort to things like strict rules – far more reliable, but generally a whole lot less fun than just working together in the first place.

Sure, lying about something as minor as Santa might seem pretty harmless, but as the much quoted saying goes ‘Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to rebuild’. Santa might be just a tiny white lie, but one lie is all it takes to bring someone’s veracity into question. Is it then unrealistic that the child who is told “never, ever, ever lie, EVER” might start to look a little more cynically at parents that conspired to lie to them for the first 10 years of their life? And when it turns out that it wasn’t just their parents, but their virtually every adult they know and society as a whole that was in on the act, it’s kinda remarkable that we weren’t all disenchanted, self-absorbed misanthropes by 13.

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Oh.

So what then, case closed? Lying is bad, Santa is lying, so Santa is unethical? Well as compelling as the logic might sound, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Just as I argued last week that Superman’s rigid code of morality is kinda dumb, so too is the uncompromising idea that ‘lying is always bad’. Lying is not always bad, because quite often, telling people the full, uncompromising truth goes down like a lead balloon.

Lying, either with falsehoods or just incomplete information (yeah that’s still a lie, whatever you prefer to think) is often the best option in a situation, and sometimes the outright duty of a person for the good of a group of people. And we’re not just talking about ‘not telling a psycho killer that their victim is upstairs’ level of lying here either (yes, some idiot philosopher actually argued you shouldn’t even lie then), I’m talking about the half dozen lies you yourself have statistically told today alone. You know, the one where you told your boss that you were busy when you were actually stuffing about? Or maybe you told a charity collector that you were in a rush and couldn’t stop? Or when you vastly overestimated the tastiness of the dinner your partner cooked? Or hundred times today when you didn’t give your entire opinion about a subject, because doing so would get you fired, divorced and stabbed all in the same day?

Lies are often necessary and we know that. And ironically, those that most desperately need to be lied to, are the same people that we are the sternest to about honesty: children.

Here’s a fun game you can try next time you’re around a child: be honest with them. Every time they ask you a question, answer them like they’re an adult that you totally trust. See how long it takes you to make them cry, inflict permanent trauma and/or get shirt-fronted by their parents. See, whatever your attitudes to child raising, it’s pretty clear that they’re not quite ready for a full and frank discussion on, say, the Middle-East conflict, various BDSM techniques, or the psychological influence the looming specter of our own mortality has on the human psyche.

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Pretty much the maximum existential debate kids can handle right here.

We lie to kids constantly, no because we want to mess with them, but because we need to, and more importantly, it’s better for their development. We tell them to share with others – in an economy that rewards ruthlessness. We tell them to trust teachers, police and the authorities – when our own government is actively trying to breach our privacy at every turn. And we tell them that the good guys always win – when in reality the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys is naïve to the point of stupidity. So why do we tell them these obvious falsehoods? Well the fact that most adults aren’t capable or willing to deal with the incredible complexity of reality should make it pretty clear – we’re teaching them ideals to strive for, not them mess that currently exists.

Sharp observers will see that this compromise is essentially a Utilitarian approach to the situation: the argument that ‘what is right’ should be judged not by simple rule like ‘lying is bad’, but rather by what gets us the best outcome to the situation. Lying does indeed compromise trust, but this cost is often completely worth it for the benefits the lie achieves – we may indeed be lying to kids when we teach them to be good people, but it’s more than worth it for the outcome we achieve in the process.

So…case closed again? Lying is bad, but the joy Santa brings is better, so Santa is ethical?

Well, that depends.

See while the cost of lying to kids about Santa and the potential loss of trust might be minimal (that’s hotly debated even by psychologists by the way, but the general findings are that the damage is inconsequential), that’s only half the question: we also have to ask whether the benefits are worth it.

But the benefits are clear, right? Anyone who’s heard the joyous screams on Christmas morning can attest to that – kids love Santa. But it’s worth noting that kids have a similar reaction to just about anything exciting, especially when it involves free toys. The Easter Bunny, Frozen, Justine Bieber and the Wiggles all tend to provoke a similar response from kids – frankly, you have to wonder if Santa himself has much to do with the joy at all. To put it bluntly, immerse your average kid in any good story thoroughly enough and the implication that said story brought them sweet loot is good enough for any kid.

So why then do we put such a big emphasis on Santa? And why do we react so defensively when it’s suggested the idea of making our kids look forward to a strange old guy invading their home to give them gifts, might be a bit weird? If kids would be satisfied with just about anything that got that much build up, then why put so much time and effort into such an elaborate conspiracy?

For ourselves, of course.

That’s right, the big jolly fat man in red, the sleigh, the reindeer, the entire wacky mythos is constructed, perpetuated and fed to our kids entirely for our own benefit. And those joyous screams on Christmas Day? That’s the pay-off.

There’s nothing wrong with that in itself of course. What sort of parent wouldn’t want to make their child that happy, or conversely, would want to deprive their kid from that sort of joy? It’s a wonderful thing in itself – it just kind of begs the question why we bother with all the weirdness in the process. Why a fat stranger in red? Why the sleigh and reindeer (this is Australia for crying out loud, they’d die in minutes)? Why the massive effort from virtually every adult in that child’s life to keep the truth from them? Why even base the even on a falsehood at all?

Well, because it’s tradition. It’s what our parents did for us, and it made us happy. So we’ll do it to our kids, and it will make them happy as well. And it will, but once again, it begs the question why we don’t just make them happy using slightly less bizarre means.

It’s a key point about Utilitarianism; costs versus benefits is not enough in itself to make something ethical. Sure, the Santa myth might indeed make kids happier, enough to outweigh the cost of lying to them in the process. But if there is an option out there that could produce a similar level of happiness without the lying then it doesn’t matter how attached we are to the old way – it becomes our ethical duty to go for the best possible option.

So there’s a challenge for those of you out there wondering whether to introduce your specific baby to Santa next Christmas – can you think of a way to make Christmas just as exciting, without blatantly lying to your kid in the process? Because if there’s some way you can avoid the entire ‘sitting the uncomprehending child on a weird stranger’s knee’ process, I think everyone would be a little happier.

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Ever get the feeling that the children might be the only sane people in the room?

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3 thoughts on “Childhood Carnage: The Ethics Of… Santa

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Circumcision | The Ethics Of

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… The War on Christmas | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Ignorance | The Ethics Of

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