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Heath White of PEA Soup has an interesting new post up called The Ethics of Santa. White argues that parents and educators should not teach their children the myth of Santa Claus, for three major reasons:

  1. It involves a lot of lying and deception practiced on credulous people.
  2. It tends to foster greed in children and contributes to their false impression that one’s happiness is determined by one’s material possessions.
  3. In telling children that the quantity and quality of one’s gifts are a function of one’s behavior, when actually they are a function of one’s socio-economic standing and parental temperament, it induces moral complacency in well-off children and false feelings of moral inferiority in less well-off children.

Now, I am no parent, and (as I’ve noted before) have no plans to be one; so my reflections here are not grounded in personal experience, and I urge parents and potential parents to take them with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, childrearing is a central part of life for most people, and our approach to it tells us a lot about what we value, so I don’t expect this to be the last time I dip my toes into these particular muddy waters.

The first of these objections appears the most radical. It would seem to suggest that telling stories is a form of lying or deception. Such a view is hardly without philosophical precedent; we can recall Plato banishing the poets from the ideal city. But in Plato’s work this is clearly understood to be a radical approach, of a piece with his other radical ideas about childrearing (especially, that children should be raised in common rather than by famillies). Do we really want to raise children without stories, without fictions – at least, without fictions that are clearly marked as such? One can tell children stories they will understand, long before they understand the difference between myth and reality. Is this a lie? Perhaps, but one shudders before the implications of an account of truth so unflinching and demanding that it requires all children’s stories be clearly marked as false and fictional. The worldview at issue sounds rather like Dickens’s unsympathetic Mr. Gradgrind; the burden of proof would seem to be on whoever would count such a cold way of life admirable.

White’s second objection is close to my heart, since I’m enthusiastic about Buddhist critiques of wealth. The objection would seem to apply not merely to the Santa myth, but to Christmas gift-giving in general: we will make our children better and happier people if we don’t train them to value material goods. While I’m sympathetic to the position, the advice seems to overestimate the influence that single decisions can have on a child’s emotional development. If a parent withholds Christmas gifts and gives a child only the bare necessities, will that teach the child Buddhist/Epicurean moderation, or will it teach the reverse? My empirically uninformed money is on the latter: a child raised in relative poverty will crave possessions far more, because she will not have had the opportunity to learn the fleeting nature of wealth’s pleasures (let alone the hedonic treadmill they might put you on). I suspect this is a reason the historical Buddha was (said to be) a prince: we do better to find out for ourselves that wealth is inessential (or worse) for our happiness and well-being.

The third objection is very Rawlsian, in a way particularly close to the heart of the young Rawls but in keeping with Rawls’s mature work as well: we deserve nothing, our station in life is determined primarily by external factors. Now while the point seems largely true to me on a macro level, it seems like it does not need to be true at a micro level. Within the household, parents are quite capable of setting up an environment in which children are rewarded with material goods for acting well. (It would seem important, however, that the parents follow through with such rewards and the denial of the rewards, holding them back when children have been genuinely “naughty”; if they’re not prepared to do so, it may not be appropriate to spread the Santa myth.) I think here of Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of goods internal and external to practices, an account which is also central to his more general account of virtue (at least in After Virtue). It is no coincidence that he introduces the distinction with a discussion of childrearing: specifically, how to teach an intelligent child to play chess when he or she does not want to play. At first, one offers the child some candy if she wins, and then her motivation is always to win, so that the child will cheat if she can.

But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Now if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself. (After Virtue, p. 188)

Chess, for MacIntyre, is one example of a social practice, and virtues are those qualities that allow us to achieve goods internal to practices – such as the good of enjoying the challenge of chess, for its own sake. One teaches children to be virtuous first through external motivation, such as candy, in the hope and expectation that soon they will discover motivation internal to the practice. It strikes me as entirely reasonable to see Santa as analogous to the chess-player’s candy: he is the external motivator for virtue, who we expect will give way to internal motivation as the child matures.

In short, I don’t think White’s objections to Santa are compelling individually or collectively. Nonetheless, it’s a thought-provoking short piece, exactly the sort of challenge to social convention that philosophical reflection should provoke us to from time to time.