13 December 2015

13 December: Should you tell your children that Santa Claus exists?

Santa Claus Ethics

Bells ringing, flying reindeer and a sleigh with a jolly, white bearded Santa who drops presents off to each and every one of the world’s children on Christmas eve. The story of Santa Claus brims with adventure and magic, but is it really okay to lie to your children about Father Christmas? Mikkel Willum Johansen, philosophy of science researcher, shares his take on the matter.

Santa Claus places us dead centre into a classic ethical dilemma. On one hand, adults lie to their children if they tell them that Santa Claus exists. On the other, it’s relatively innocent to recount a cosy little tale or tell white Christmas lies at this special time of the year. Adults and children alike enjoy the fun of it. But is it really okay to lie to kids? This is where moral intuitions collide:

"On one side, we have duty-based ethics, which say that actions including lying, stealing and killing are fundamentally wrong. In duty-based ethics, the end never justifies the means. Therefore, one may never lie, not even about the lie itself, which in the case with Santa Claus is what elevates the happiness for everyone involved,”"explains Mikkel Willum Johansen of the Department of Science Education.

"On the other side, we have utilitarian ethics. Here one only looks at the consequences of a given action. Therefore, there is nothing in general that can be said about whether it is right or wrong to lie, because the morally correct action is the one that maximizes utility for everyone involved," says Mikkel Willum Johansen.

If there really is a choice between Santa Claus and no Santa Claus, Mikkel Willum Johansen says that from a utilitarian ethic, one can argue that it is acceptable to lie to children as long as the lie is for a greater collective good for those involved than the truth would be.

Beware of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism might be able to save Santa Claus, as long as the lie benefits us all. But before one begins shovelling utility into the Christmas cookies, they should remember that Christmas would be quite different if it were governed entirely by utilitarianism:

"It is very difficult to argue from a utilitarian perspective when we spend large sums of money on toys that provide our children with small and short-lived pleasures instead of sending the money for relief assistance or medicines to vulnerable children in the developing world," according to Mikkel Willum Johansen.

"How many children’s lives could be saved with antimalarial medications for the price of (yet another) set of Star Wars LEGO? And how many meals could be served up at a refugee camp for the price of Barbie’s castle? Where would Santa spend his money – if he existed?”

New and exciting

Mikkel Willum Johansen is an associate professor at the Department of Science Education whose research focuses on the philosophy of science. He became a researcher to understand how scientific and mathematical knowledge is created. According to him, it is exciting to research when the things that one observes do not match with existing dogmas and notions about how things ought to be connected:

"This requires that we adopt new ways of thinking, and that is incredibly exciting."