Monday, December 15, 2014

Immanuel Kant and the Elf on the Shelf

Anyone who tells a child (or anyone else) that Santa exists is doing wrong, according to Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804).  After all, to do so is to lie, and lying violates the Categorical Imperative, the fundamental moral rule that governs all actions by rational agents.

Here’s a brief summary of one version of the Categorical Imperative.  (I’m borrowing the explanation from James Rachels’ book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, which provides an excellent introduction to ethical theory.)  The Categorical Imperative says that you must always act in such a way that you can will that the rule you are following be adopted universally – i.e. that everyone always follow it.

But you cannot tell a lie and will that everyone always lie.  After all, lies wouldn’t work if everyone always lied.  (It’s hard to imagine what would happen if everyone always lied – communication would be difficult, that’s for sure!)  The rule that everyone always lie would be self-defeating.  But then you simply may not lie.  And that includes telling children that there is a Santa Claus.

If Kant would hate that particular lie, imagine what he’d think about the Christmas toy, the “Elf on the Shelf.”  This toy supposedly sits quietly on a shelf during the day and spies on the children, flies to the North Pole at night to give Santa a report about their behavior, and returns the next day to some other location in the house to spy some more.  A whole bucketful of lies built into one toy!

Philosopher David Kyle Johnson from King’s College in Pennsylvania argues persuasively in this blog post that we ought to refrain from telling children that there is a Santa Claus and that a magical elf informs Santa about how they are behaving.  And perhaps he’s right:  perhaps we should strive to keep lying out of Christmas.

1 comment:

John Grandits said...

This raises the question of child education in general: what should we teach our children? Take a common topic that has some parallels with Santa: what should we teach our children about God? David Johnson thinks Santa and God share some characteristics, although he doesn't mention which ones. Some atheists argue that we shouldn't believe that God exists for the same reasons we don't believe that Santa exists. That seems false to me, but you don't have to think it's false to think that it's an open question whether one should teach his children to believe/not believe that God exists. What are the criteria?

David Johnson mentions some. For instance, don't lie to your children unless there is some overriding/noble reason to. Certainly those who believe/don't believe that God exists wouldn't be lying to their children if they told them that God exists/doesn't exist. But might there be a related criterion that says something like, "Don't tell your children that P unless you have good reasons that P." However, even if you believe you have good reasons that P, isn't there, at least in some cases (like in the case about God), going to be reasonable disagreement about P. Does your child have a legitimate complaint against you if she, upon growing up, comes to disagree with you about P? She might say something like, "You had no (epistemic) right to tell me that P because there isn't much evidence in support of P. And even if you believed that there is/was such support, you should have realized that this was a matter to which one could reasonably disagree."

All of this leaves me wondering: shouldn't we teach our children as if they were, say, students in a college classroom? Views about teaching certainly differ, but whatever our view is, shouldn't that just be our view about teaching our own children? Or is there something about them (e.g. our relation to them as parents) that makes this not the case?