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.
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