In the midst of the festive season, as the iconic figure of Santa Claus takes centre stage, an ethical quandary emerges: should we be joining in the Santa Lie? Lying seems obviously wrong, we wouldn’t lie to adults or so we think. Michael Kuznets argues differently, philosophers have misunderstood the point of lying and ethical diktats ignores their social and developmental function.
At this time of year, it has become traditional to stroke one’s (luxurious white) beard and ask: should civil society knowingly collude with caregivers to perpetuate a sinister falsehood upon the nation’s children? The tradition is deeply embedded in our culture - a cultural icon that few can match - and the notion of him squeezing down chimneys with a sackful of presents is an integral part of the festival. In other words, is it OK to lie to kids about Santa Claus?
The primary argument against this particular festive tradition tends to be that lying to children is obviously wrong. There are, of course, arguments that all forms of lying and/or deception are immoral at all times and under all circumstances. Whole books and careers are dedicated to advance this thesis and a detailed rebuttal of this position is too laborious for a holiday-themed article. That said, despite the storied history of writer’s claiming that lying can only ever be a social evil (from Kant to Sam Harris), most of us have found some amount of deception to be a necessary part of our lives. Suffice to say that if the reader firmly adopts this position, that lying is always and necessarily wrong, then it is impossible to make propagation of The Great Santa Lie acceptable to them. If, however, we allow that it can ever be permissible to lie - if we are being honest with ourselves most of us find some amount of deception indispensable - then we cannot take it as a given that the deceptive nature of Santa makes him morally impermissible.
If moral philosophers find it difficult to reconcile the actuality of childhood and parenting with their theories, I suggest the fault lies with theory and not reality.
Indeed, lying to young children is more permissible than to adults, not less. We might take one of the problems around lying to adults as partially an assault on their autonomy. If I tell you that your presents were left by a magical fat man, I am deciding for you that you would be better off believing this pleasant lie over the less comfortable truth that I ordered them from Mr Bezos’s Wonder Emporium. You are thus denied agency. Children are regularly denied this kind of autonomy, however, because they are not adults and are incapable of exercising it responsibly. A parent who decides it will add to the fun and excitement of childhood to engage in The Santa Delusion is not trampling on the autonomy of their toddlers simply because they have very little to begin with. If moral philosophers find it difficult to reconcile the actuality of childhood and parenting with their theories, I suggest the fault lies with theory and not reality.
It could be argued that misleading a child who has placed implicit trust in you is a betrayal of that trust. That this is a betrayal seems to rest implicitly on the assumption that what has been done is bad, which itself seems to rest on the assumption that being deceived is an undesirable state to find oneself in. If that were so, then Santa Claus would be a sore point with a great many adults, still stinging from that feeling of betrayal. If, on the other hand, this betrayal is betrayal only in moral theory but is not felt by actual people in the actual world, then why should we care about it? As in too much philosophy, this is a critique that aims to guide action in the world but with scant regard for actual evidence. Where are these shattered parental relationships? What adult in therapy traces their trauma back to their parents' deception over Santa Claus? Here is a problem that only exists in the minds of philosophers
The silly nature of the deception feeds into the sense of play that pervades the entire tradition.
The discovery of the truth about St Nick could plausibly serve as a developmental moment for a child. Learning to reason for yourself about the likelihood of such a proposition, to weigh your own judgements against what you have been told, to discuss with your peers, perhaps even to announce your new lack of belief to your parents - it is not hard to see how these could all be important moments in establishing independent thought. Now, of course that could apply to any lie, there’s nothing here unique to Father Christmas, but if tradition has gifted us a low-stakes and playful version, then all the better. Indeed, the widespread and customary nature of the lie cushions any sense of betrayal that might be felt. The implausibility of the lie itself plays a similar role. Once a child grows old enough to work out that reindeer cannot fly and that Finnish elves probably would not impress Made in China upon the toys in their factory, the child is unlikely, as some critics allege, to then enter a paranoid spiral, querying everything they have ever been told. The silly nature of the deception feeds into the sense of play that pervades the entire tradition.
Play is an important term here because play is fundamental the development of children’s minds. The relationship that young children have to the world is different to that of adults. Children have strong imaginations and a more porous boundary between fantasy and reality. Children’s play is marked by an ability to straddle the real world and the world of imagination in a way that, in adults, would indicate serious mental illness. Think of the phenomenon of the imaginary friend, for example. Children may conduct conversations with these figures or even attribute their own actions to them. Yet the child is not hallucinating or suffering a delusion - imaginary friends are a form of play thought to be quite healthy. It is my recollection that I knew, in some sense, that my own imaginary friend was not real in the way that, say, neighbourhood friends were real. This is not really surprising - one need only watch a young child play to observe that they are able to conjure vivid worlds which adults struggle to keep up with.
Much of the concern expressed about the dishonesty of the Santa story can be safely dissolved by understanding that, for many children, they are not literal believers.
In this spirit, we should also ask what the nature of a child’s belief in Santa Claus actually amounts to. This might well vary, both from child to child, but also as each individual child ages and their understanding of the world matures. Literal belief in the physical truth of the Santa Claus story evolving into a more performative and ludic act of public belief. This belief-as-activity is a part of the Christmas ritual and enhances the child’s experience of a festive season that is, after all, chiefly aimed at children. Much of the concern expressed about the dishonesty of the Santa story can be safely dissolved by understanding that, for many children, they are not literal believers - plainly accepting a supposed fact and thus bound to suffer from disillusionment on finding out that they were misled. Rather their understanding of what Santa actually is and what he really means in their lives and in society at large develops as they themselves develop.
Far from being a harmful and pernicious tradition that corrodes the trusting relationship of caregiver and child, this is a joyous and playful custom that enriches the child’s relationship to Christmas and can serve a useful role in their development. Abolishing it because the emotional and cognitive complexity involved doesn’t fit nicely inside the clean lines of this or that moral theory would be a tragedy.
Luckily, there is little chance of that.