There is No Santa Claus

Philosophers often speak about Santa Claus in the context of discussing the problem of names without reference. Since ‘Santa Claus’ does not refer (that is, there is no Santa Claus) what are we to say about sentences that have the name. Is ‘Santa Claus is Jolly’ true? False? Neither true nor false? Nonsense? There are those who defend each of these positions. Yet there is a more pressing issue that has received almost no attention from philosophers. I speak of the moral issue of lying to our children about the existence of Santa. It is commonly recognized that we have a duty to be truthful and yet millions of Americans engage in the most elaborate deceit imaginable all aimed at duping their children. Is this a moral action on their part? It is my position that it is not. Let me now make the case.

What then is it to lie? Common sense dictates that one lies when one utters a falsehood with the intent to deceive. Thus, our common sense idea of a lie focuses on the speaker and his intentions not on the hearer and their expectations. Perhaps more reasonable is our common sense feeling that it is sometimes OK to lie when the consequences of telling the truth are dire. So, if someone asks where you mother is and clearly has the intention of finding her and commit murder most foul, few of us would feel that we violate our moral duty to tell the truth by lying to this person. So is it the case that telling the truth about Santa would cause more harm to our children? Hardly! In fact the opposite seems to be the case. We actually cause more harm by perpetuating this falsehood. In the first instance what we do is to teach our children that they cannot trust us. They then lack any reason to believe what the parent says about other, more important things. For instance, the child might equate what the parent says about God with what they say about Santa. In the second place what we do is to teach our children that it is OK to lie for no good reason. What the child learns is that the truth is not valuable. So, far from being a harmless ‘white lie’ this is quite a damaging tradition

The most common defense for this behavior appeals to a sense of the mystery of child-hood or ‘child-like innocence’. What is wrong, it is often asked, with having a little magic in ones childhood? Isn’t it just like a child believing in Red Riding Hood or Hobbit’s End? The difference between these kinds of cases should be obvious. In one case we tell the child that it is a fable, or a fairy tale. In the other case we go out of our way to deceive the child. I mean, no one leaves things out for the Big Bad Wolf. Santa Claus is portrayed as real, not only in the story but also by the parents. No parents pretend that Darth Vader is real but when I was on a plane on Christmas Eve the PILOT announced over the intercom that he had spotted Santa on the radar!!!!  And, while it may be Ok to omit certain information in order to protect a child it is absolutely immoral to actively perpetuate a lie.

Thus, according to both deontological and utilitarian moral theories it is immoral to lie to ones kid about the existence of Santa Claus. It causes more harm than good and we violate our duty to tell the truth. I think it hardly worth mentioning that it is also vicious and so would be ruled out by any virtue ethics. There is no moral theory that condones this behavior. We do our children, and ourselves, a great disservice by prolonging this nonsense.

20 thoughts on “There is No Santa Claus

  1. Hell, it’s just so much fun for the kids that believe. I would get so hyperexcited about the prospect of this weird fat stranger with a beard sneaking into our house at nite to give me gifts. A man who obsesses about whether I’ve been good or bad all year, and wants to reward me, with a wink, no matter how bad I’ve been.

    Hmm..when I put it that way it sounds kinda creepy :)

  2. Is Santa a Lie?

    I agree that parents shouldn’t deceive their kids, e.g. into thinking that Santa is real in the same way as Grandma. But children are sensitive to playfulness, and should pick up on the game if their parents play it right…

  3. I thought I was original with that thought and shocked many fellow parents sharing that concept through the years. I felt set-up as a parent, and still worry about the “I lied” aspect, so when I read On Bullshit by Frankfurt I was relieved to understand how Santa does exist as a story. Ironically On Truth costs 50% more but didn’t learn as much (yet.)

  4. I am glad I am not a kid growing up in your house! The concept of Santa is to teach about selfless giving and a general spirit of good etc, man you give new meaning to uptight.

  5. I think its a total sham, lying to children for the pupose of teaching them greed. If its really a “Christian” holiday, then the intent should be to teach children that its better to give than to receive. Parents should take their children to local nursing homes, and talk to patients. Parents should get their kids out to help poor people.

  6. Some good points here. I can understand the frustration of those who are challenged about their beliefs in popular mythologies. It seems to me that the Santa thing is just another example of how one culture assimilates the myths of another culture and gets it wrong. Unfortunately, Chritians have been commiting assimilation failures from their inception as a religion. But then again, way back then, they were extremely narrow minded, misogynistic and lacking of any imagination. Amazing how far one can run with that set of standards! Christian faith seems to be entirely based on the fear of…’ i.e. the fear that God will not love you unless you do what He asks (as interpreted of course by His intermediaries who discourage any learning except their teaching); then there are the multitude of other cultural icons who may only be worshipped under the fear flag including the big guy himself…Santa Claus. “You better watch out..” in song sounds simplistically innocent as a warning to children to behave or else but it is only a continuation of our culture’s past, i.e., an oral culture in which we pass on our infinite wisdoms through nursery rhymes filled with frightening creatures like the boogeyman.
    We have remembered most of them but we also have come up with our own modern versions simply in order to perpetuate the power of the parent. We need to control our children so we lie to them, every time we turn around.
    That is the story of Western culture which is based on the idea that we, as individuals, exist outside our deity, our God whom we need to fear and obey. However, and this I would like to understand more, the Eastern philosophies are based on the belief that everything in the universe is part of God. Being part of something means we have to look within ourselves to find the power of choosing between right and wrong and then being accountable for our choices, rather than being able to pass off our mistakes as ” the will of an external being, i.e. God.
    Seems to me, Mr. Brown, that our Western philosophy not only has a lot of accountability to make up for, but could use a thorough dose of self-examination bathed in the humility of realization that we got a bad start and did very little to change things along the way even when we knew we were wrong. Butch Francis

  7. Santa Claus is a fascinating phenomenon. What is the purpose? Why is it associated with Christmas?

    I don’t think that the purpose is to teach greed, but rather to teach gratitude. The historical Santa Claus, St. Nicholas of Myra, gave anonymously, so it isn’t too much of a stretch for anonymous gifting to be attributed to St. Nicholas. If the source of the gifts were simply “anonymous”, the child might try to figure out the donor, but by attributing the gifts to Santa Claus, the child can be deterred from trying to find the donor among the people the child knows.

    Is it a lie to make an anonymous donation? Certainly the purpose of making any anonymous donation is to hide some aspect of the truth as it is known, and thus makes error more likely. But I think the purpose of anonymity is not to mislead, rather it is to avoid the possibility of reciprocation.

    Gifts from Santa Claus cannot be reciprocated. Despite the association of the gifts with “being good”, a child’s being good is of no benefit to Santa Claus, so the gifts are unearned and undeserved. To whom does the child offer thanks? What does the child do with the feeling of gratitude?

    Consider the opposite of Santa Claus. For many people, the randomness of life creates undeserved harm. People to whom life has been unfair may develop bitterness and a feeling that they are owed something. Santa Claus, conversely, may create a feelings of generosity and the wish to contribute something. Thus there is a relationship between being good and the gifting, despite that it is not a quid pro quo in that Santa Claus is not a beneficiary of the child’s goodness.

    Those who do not associate Christmas with their own sense of gratitude and good will tend, I think, to find the season depressing. I think that happiness is associated with gratitude.

    I don’t think there is any particular reason that Santa Claus is associated with Christmas except for the teaching that God’s blessings are unearned and undeserved.

  8. Hi Shack,

    I don’t really see how this alleviates the charge I am making. It is wrong to lie as it does more harm than good and is wicked in and of itself. You can teach gratitude without lieing…

  9. thanks for this. I completely agree. tell them imaginatively, break it to them kindly, but its still lying straight to their face, no matter the intentions. santa definitely isnt a selfless example of goodness. he teaches kids to be greedy egocentric brats who expect everything handed to them on a silver platter. all we’re raising is a generation of even more self-consumed people

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