We all know how the story goes at Christmastime: Only the well-behaved children are the ones that get Christmas presents. How many of us as children heard this oft-repeated warning by parents and teachers, who hoped they could corral unruly children for eleven months out of the year?
The anguished self-examination that troubled consciences are plagued by is actually a helpful way to understand the different approaches and motivations to making decisions about one’s behavior.
In short, the threat of children not getting presents helps explain a whole range of moral theories. In this short (and fun) post, I want work out a few different ways of how varying ethical theories answer the question of why a child should be well-behaved.
I originally posted some of these on social media and heard back a number of helpful and funny replies, which I am posting as well.
Behave or else Santa will not come (Utilitarianism). In a Utilitarian framework, action is done in order to bring about the greatest good for the largest number of people. What’s better than presents? So behave.
Behavior has nothing to do with Santa, just obey (Deontology). This is the framework of people like my wife, who couldn’t care less about Santa, and who think manipulating behavior just to get a reward fails to grasp the underlying principle: Obedience is required of children. No excuses.
Good behavior is its own gift, so Santa doesn’t matter (Virtue). A virtue theory framework would tell a child that being good is its own reward, and the habit of obedience is a journey to self-discovery and meaning. Material rewards do not matter as much as the immaterial reward for experiencing the blessing of good behavior.
You were made to behave, and Santa comes to the obedient (Teleology). The teleological framework bears some similarity to other ethical theories, but its distinguishing factor is to concentrate on a particular goal. A “goal” might sound like its Utilitarian because it’s about accomplishing a good end, and it might sound like its virtuous since virtue requires habit, but a teleological framework is concerned primarily with the child doing what they are designed to do: Obey.
God forbids lying and telling your children Santa is real and gives gifts is lying (Divine Command Theory). A Divine Command Theory approach to ethics bases all commands in the personhood of God. Divine Command Theory understands all morality to begin with God, and because God is sovereign, He creates the rules. It bears a lot of resemblance to deontology, with the exception that someone can create a deontological principle without making God the basis of the rule.
Santa doesn’t exist and nothing matters at Christmas (Nihilism). A Nihilistic approach is as much philosophical as it is ethical. A Nihilistic approach to ethics says that because the world has no ultimate, objective purpose, there are no objective, fixed moral laws. So, who cares if the child obeys or not? Since we’re all going to end up in a state of non-existence, the delight of receiving a gift is really just temporary and fleeting.
What is good behavior in one home might be different for another home (Relativism). A relativistic ethic (also known as Situationism) says that all moral action is context-specific and context-determined. Maybe Johnny’s parents want him to do X to get his presents while Molly’s parents want her to do Y to get hers. It’s all up to what the parents want.
Receiving gifts might appear to create a happy situation for a child, but the child’s happiness is really just illusory and determined by forces that promote imagined happiness (Naturalism). A bleak worldview in its own right, naturalism reduces all experience down to sense-perception. The delight a child receives at getting a present is nothing else than a pleasurable response to neural circuitry happening in the body. The only objective reality is the reality of sense perception, but that cannot, in itself, be the ground for establishing it as necessarily “good.”
The funniest response I got was from a friend of mine who is a lawyer, who added: “Behave and you’ll have a Santa event” (Bultmannianism). This is named after famous New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who reduced truth down to the existential significance it provides an individual. Objective truth does not matter inasmuch as how the encounter of receiving a gift provides meaning.