The Case Against Santa

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Santa

As we have noted previously on this blog, Christmas is a drag. The holiday’s norms and founding mythologies are repugnant, especially when compared to its more humane cousin, Thanksgiving. The story of the nativity doesn’t make much sense; moreover, it seems odd to celebrate an occasion that involved the slaughter of innocent children. And the other founding myth – the myth of Santa and the North Pole – is one of a morally tone-deaf autocrat who delivers toys to the children of well-off parents rather than life-saving basic goods to the most needy. But, when you think about it, the Santa myth is far worse than even that.

To start, the Christmas mythology has it that Santa is a being who is morally omniscient – he knows whether we are bad or good, and in fact keeps a record of our acts. Additionally he is somnically omniscient – he sees us when we’re sleeping, he knows when we’re awake. Santa has unacceptable capacities for monitoring our actions, and he exercises them! In a similar vein, Santa takes himself to be entitled to enter our homes, in the night and while we’re not looking, despite the fact that we have locked the doors. In other words, Santa does not respect our privacy. He watches us, constantly.

This is important because the moral value of our actions is largely determined by our motives for performing them. Performing the action that morality requires is surely good; however, when the morally required act is performed for the wrong reasons, the morality of the act is diminished. Acting for the right reasons is a condition for being worthy of moral praise; and, correlatively, the blame that follows a morally wrong action is properly mitigated when the agent can show the purity of her motives.

The trouble with Santa’s surveillance is that it affects our motives. When we know that we are being watched by an omniscient judge looking to mete out rewards and punishments, we find ourselves with strong reasons to act for the sake of getting the reward and avoiding the punishment. But in order for our actions to have moral worth, they must be motivated by moral reasons, rather than narrowly self-interested ones. In short, under Santa’s watchful eye, our motivations become clouded, and so does the morality of our actions.

The exclamation at the end of Santa Claus is Coming to Town captures the moral ambiguity that the Santa myth imposes on us: “You better be good for goodness sake.” Could there be a more confused moral prescription? On the one hand, if the expression aims to exhort us to act on the basis of properly moral motives (for the sake of goodness itself), then the Myth of Santa undercuts our reasons to be moral. Apparently, the account runs as follows: Santa keeps tabs on what you do and when you sleep. He will punish or reward you on the basis of your performance. So you should be good for purely moral motives. The trouble, again, is that after having given a variety of non-moral, strictly self-interested reasons to act, it is a perfect non sequitur to conclude that we must act on the basis of purely moral motives. In fact, if we’re right, the Santa myth undermines the idea that we should act on the basis of our moral reasons. By accepting the Santa myth, then, we nearly ensure that we will not be good.

On the other hand, the expression “be good for goodness sake” may be simply a form of emphatic interjection, like “Do your homework, for Chrissakes!” or “Exercise and eat right, for Pete’s sake!” And in light of the story of Santa’s monitoring practices and the consequent rewards and punishments, this interpretation seems more in keeping with the overall Santa myth, and seems like a more psychologically plausible bit of advice. This reading, however, embraces the usurpation of moral motivation. It impels its listener to be bribed for good behavior; in fact, it places bribery at the heart of morality.

So far, we’ve presented a broadly moral argument against Santa. He doesn’t respect our privacy, and our knowledge of that fact, in light of his role in punishing and rewarding us, distorts our moral motives. Yet he seems to require that our motives be pure. Santa is thus a moral torturer: he punishes those who are not good, and then imposes a system of incentives and encouragements that go a long way towards ensuring that everyone will fail at goodness.

To our moral argument there could be added a theological critique of Santa. The problem with Santa Claus from a religious perspective is that he is presented in the mythology as a kind of god. Like the gods of the familiar forms of monotheism, Santa is morally omniscient. He rewards the good and punishes the evil. Moreover, he performs yearly miracles of bounty that, at least by our lights, put Jesus’ miracle of the fishes and loaves to shame. In other words, Santa Claus can be no mere man; accordingly, the Santa mythology implies a Santa theology. And monotheists should be alarmed. We know that Yahweh is a jealous god, and encouraging children to propitiate Santa with their moral behavior sounds very much like the sort of thing that makes a jealous god very, very angry. Imagine Moses’ frustration with the Israelites were he to come back from the mountain to find them telling Santa stories instead of only worshipping a golden calf. It seems to us that taking the first commandments seriously (the ones about worshipping only the god of Moses) should be a source of moral concern about the Santa myth. Christian parents that embrace the Santa myth make idolaters of their children.

We, the authors, are atheists. We deny Santa’s existence, and Yahweh’s, too. The case we’re pressing against Santa here is analogous to the famous argument from evil. (We think the argument applies to Yahweh, too; but that’s a different story.) It works on Santa because he is a morally objectionable entity who is supposed to be intrinsically good, and intrinsically good yet bad entities do not exist. There is, of course, much more to say about the moral case against Santa. To repeat: he uses his miraculous production capacities to make toys instead of things that contribute to lasting welfare; he uses his monitoring capacities to keep track of the things people do, but does not see fit to prevent morally horrible things, assist the victims of crimes, or report criminals to the authorities. And so, not only does Santa Claus not exist, it’s a good thing, too. The questions that remain are why the myth of Santa persists, and why a major holiday is partially focused on such a despicable character.