Is Santa Claus a “Morally Tone-Deaf Autocrat”?

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What do you know about Santa Claus? He has a big, white beard; a jolly jelly-bowl of a belly; rosy cheeks; and a candy-apple red leisure suit. He keeps a stable of supernatural reindeer, probably somewhere in the vicinity of Norway. And, of course, he delivers Xboxes and ponies to well-behaved kids and coal and books to those that broke the rules too often in December. Most people have a fairly fond outlook toward ol’ St. Nicholas, but Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse of 3 Quarks Daily think he’s one of the most nefarious figures in America. Or, as they put it, Santa Claus is 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.”

Let’s unpack Aikin and Talisse’s screed a little bit, and afterward you can decide for yourself whether you’re going to throw Mr. Kringle under the sleigh.

The two writers start from the premise that Santa is both morally and “somnically” omniscient–that, as the old ditty goes, he knows whether we’ve been bad or good and if we’re lying wide-awake in bed or if visions of sugarplums are dancing in our heads. Plus, he’ll break into our homes by any means possible (even if he must resort to the chimney). “In other words,” the scrooges at 3 Quarks Daily write, “Santa does not respect our privacy.”

You might say that Santa serves as a good metaphor for an ever-watching nanny-state. A scarlet-clad London bureaucrat, if you will. (Or, if you prefer, you can imagine Westerners as inmates of a Foucauldian Panoptican prison complex, with Santa Claus and his workshop hidden neatly in the observation tower.) By stacking the holiday gift-game with the moral incentive to be-good-or-forgo-presents, the goodness and the rightness of behaving well is cheapened. “Performing the action that morality requires is surely good,” they contend, “however, when the morally required act is performed for the wrong reasons, the morality of the act is diminished.” The promise of toys at the end of year spurs us to act out of self-interest rather than out of innate goodness. Aikin and Talisse go so far as to say that “the Santa myth undermines the idea that we should act on the basis of our moral reasons.” In other words, we’re greedy and we’ll do whatever it takes for free stuff–and then return to being despicable after the New Year.

Aikin and Talisse don’t pull any punches in their conclusion. “Santa,” they write, “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.” And just in case they hadn’t upset everyone with their moral treatise, they remind the faithful that they’re failing their own religion by believing and accepting Santa Claus’ stranglehold on holiday tradition: “Christian parents that embrace the Santa myth make idolaters of their children.”

Like a child leaving milk and cookies out for Santa as a last-ditch attempt to prove their sterling character, Aikin and Talisse get in one final parting shot: “Not only does Santa Claus not exist, it’s a good thing, too.” Merry Christmas!

Source: 3 Quarks Daily

Image by DanCentury, licensed under Creative Commons.

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