Over at 3 Quarks Daily, Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse recently had some fun with the whole idea behind Santa Claus and his gift-giving:
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.
There’s a brilliant Kantian strain undergirding this post, highlighting the importance of doing the right action simply because it’s the right action. And, of course, there are also some really interesting atheistic charges leveled against the notion inherent to some religions that one should behave morally because of the grave consequences of not behaving morally.
One could also spend some time fruitfully ruminating on the idea of Santa Claus as a quintessential example of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon (and, by extension, Michel Foucault’s claims about the pervasive element of surveillance in contemporary society in Discipline and Punish), or even Santa Claus as the answer to Glaucon’s famous parable of the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic. Clearly, there’s an incredible amount that I could write about this excellent discussion of religion and morality, but I’m going to focus on what’s missing: a discussion of deterrence.
Let me preface all of this by saying that everything I know about Santa Claus comes from movies and television shows, not from any personal experience. In my world, presents were given to children by parents and grandparents because it was Hanukkah and not for any other reason. The only holiday in which presents required some action on my part was Passover: If I found a lost piece of matzoh, I could demand a ransom for it. I don’t know — and I don’t care to know — what my life would have been like if Hanukkah presents had been contingent on admirable behavior during the year, except that I probably wouldn’t have received as many presents. It’s not that I was particularly badly behaved during the non-Hanukkah months; it’s that I was a kid and kids are seldom moral exemplars.
And this gets directly to the point I want to make about Santa Claus and deterrence, namely that he ought to be one of the better examples of deterring bad behavior but he almost certainly isn’t. What I mean is this:
At some point, a child is told that Santa Claus exists and brings Christmas presents to good children; Santa gives bad children a lump of coal or tosses them in a burlap sack or eats them (depending, as I understand these things, on where you were born). The child is also told that Santa is always watching and always keeping track of good or bad behavior. Presumably, parents use the threat of Santa throughout the year. But even if they don’t, it’s likely that such a threat makes its annual return in November or early December. The closer we get to Christmas, the more powerfully the threat of Santa ought to be felt, though children should know from pop culture that Santa is remarkably vigilant and his list-keeping is impeccable.
So … is it the case that children, confronted with this all-seeing, all-knowing entity, behave better? This is an empirical question, one that I’m hoping someone will study.
My sense is that such a study would demonstrate what I’d like to call the Bart Simpson principle: No matter the threat, no matter how important it is to avoid bad behavior, children seemingly cannot help themselves. Parents of young Christian children will likely attest to the fact that there isn’t a notable change in behavior with the approach of the Christmas season. Presumably, these children should be deterred from their normal bad behavior. But anecdotal evidence suggests that they’re not.
In the very first episode of The Simpsons, the issue of bad behavior in full view of Santa Claus is tackled head on: Bart accepts a dare from Milhouse to pull off the beard of a poor “Mall Santa,” who turns out to be his father. If the threat of Santa properly deterred, if children altered their behavior in order to avoid receiving coal (or worse), then Bart’s bad behavior in his dealings with Santa (or his representative) wouldn’t resonate with the audience. But, of course, Bart’s bad behavior does resonate … especially with parents, who forever use the threat of Santa to generally poor results.
If a perfectly omniscient being like Santa fails to deter, how can we make the case for deterrence more generally?
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