Andrew Fiala

Go beyond Santa’s list and be good for goodness’ sake

Larry Bennett, playing Santa Claus, talks with Weston Stapp during the Breakfast with Santa at the Longview Museum of Fine Art in Longview, Texas.
Larry Bennett, playing Santa Claus, talks with Weston Stapp during the Breakfast with Santa at the Longview Museum of Fine Art in Longview, Texas. AP

They say that Santa has a list of the naughty and the nice. He rewards us if we’re good. But if we are naughty he gives us a lump of coal.

This story is fun. But it reinforces some bad ideas about morality. Baked into the Santa Claus tale is the idea that naughty children are willfully bad and that a system of rewards and punishments can cause them to improve their behavior.

But it takes more than the threat of a lump of coal to transform a naughty child. What is needed is patience, kindness and love. And while Santa can bring a gift at the end of the year, it takes compassionate care throughout the whole of life to nurture niceness.

What we might call the Santa theory of moral education focuses on external rewards and punishments. But fear of punishment and hope for reward are not sufficient for developing integrity and virtue. Mere conformity is not virtuous. We don’t want kids to go through the motions of morality in order to get a gift. We want them to do the right thing for the right reason and not merely for the reward.

Consider honesty. A child who tells the truth because they fear punishment or hope for a gift is not really honest. A genuinely honest person tells the truth because he knows it is good to do so. A dishonest person only sees the truth as a means to gain a benefit. He will lie when he thinks it is useful.

Or consider kindness. A kind person treats others with compassion because she knows that it is good to be kind. Kindhearted deeds are phony when done to create a good impression or earn a prize.

A focus on external motivation can encourage cheating. If the external reward is the main motivation, why not cheat to get that reward, if you can get away with it? To prevent this, we must create an elaborate structure of monitoring and supervision. So we tell kids that Santa sees them when they are sleeping and knows when they’re awake. He’s got that big book tracking the naughty and the nice.

But this myth encourages guilt and even paranoia. It is better to teach people to be good for goodness sake, and not because some bearded saint is watching them. Good people do good even when no one is watching.

Cheating stops when people understand that it violates the standards of excellence internal to an activity or practice. A cheater may get an external reward — say, a good grade in a class. But a student is not virtuous if he earns an A through plagiarism. Nor did he actually learn anything.

Over-reliance on external rewards may help explain the dysfunction in our social and political world. A focus on prizes and rewards is a recipe for corruption. A politician who only wants fame and power will not be committed to the principles and values of the political system. A business man who only wants wealth will be tempted to swindle his customers and clients. A man who only wants sex will manipulate and deceive women.

Naughtiness is often caused by focusing of what we can get instead of what we should give. The moral alternative returns us to the deeper message of the Christmas giving season. Genuine gift-giving is not focused on external reward. We don’t give in order to receive something in return. A genuine gift is gratuitous. We give because we want to do something kind, generous, and good.

The moral heart of Christmas is ultimately about the power of love. But love is not focused on rewards. We don’t love our neighbors or our children because we hope for a prize. Rather, we love them because they are worthy of love and because we see their value and vulnerability. We love because we understand that love is good in itself and not because we hope to get on the fat man’s list.

The deepest message of the Christmas season that all children deserve our love, whether they are naughty or nice. The ultimate hope of Christmas is that through the gift of radical and gratuitous love, all children — the naught and the nice — can be uplifted and transformed.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala