This week, I faced the somewhat challenging task of writing a column with a connection to the holidays.
As I sat in the Imprint office trying to see how I could add some holiday cheer into an article on formal logic, I was enlightened by the office’s seasonal music.
“He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Jolly St. Nick is famous for his lists on which he separates the good children from the bad.
But how does Santa Claus make these decisions?
Today we will be taking a look at a few ethical frameworks Santa could use to decide which kids make the cut.
If Santa was feeling particularly logical, he may use a theory known as utilitarianism.
This theory attempts to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
The theory has some troubling interpretations, as what constitutes as “good” is so often subjective.
If, for example, Santa decided to maximize individual happiness (as he conflates that with good) then he may give children expensive toys and gadgets.
But what if Santa can’t make enough fancy toys in time?
He would be forced to make decisions that benefit the majority but may be hurtful to a smaller group.
Even for someone as magical as Santa, it could be difficult to determine how to equalize the benefits of distribution.
Would poor kids benefit more from practical gifts instead of fun ones? Should kids who are weak in math receive books of math problems?
Utilitarianism seems like a good theory on the surface, but far too often the implications of its implementation are too dependent on who decides the parameters.
But what if Santa was a follower of the German (technically Prussian) philosopher Immanuel Kant and his extensive moral philosophy?
If this were the case, Santa would make moral decisions based on rationalism and the universal duties of himself and individuals.
The “good” kids would be the ones who adhere to their respective duties.
This could be their duty as children to listen to parents or perhaps to do good in school.
Another important consideration would be if the children were adhering to the categorical imperative.
This is a central part of Kant’s theory and asks that we make moral decisions assuming that the way we act would become a maxim for the world.
To simplify this, a child should not eat their sibling’s cookies because this would imply that taking others cookies is OK.
Rationally (as rational as a child can be), this means that the child should not eat their sibling’s cookies as they would not like their own cookies to be eaten by others.
The issue with this particular framework is that it does not account for the consequences of an action.
The outcome of an action in line with duty or the categorical imperative can potentially be wrong, yet according to the Kantian view it would be morally acceptable.
Of course it is difficult to imagine actual children adhering to these rules but then again, who are we to second guess Santa?
In an increasingly global world, Santa may choose to adhere to the theory of cultural relativism.
He would determine who is naughty and who is nice based upon how well children follow the moral and cultural norms of their society.
Understanding that various cultures and societies have differing ideas as to what “being moral” entails, Santa would not attempt to create unmoving definitions of right and wrong.
Rather he would reward or punish children depending on their adherence to the specific norms and rules of their society.
This theory is among the most forgiving but is somewhat nebulous and not only that, but it is somewhat troubling to believe that we can excuse certain behaviour and actions simply because a subset of people approve of it.
These are just a few of many possible theories and frameworks Santa could use to make his lists.
Morals and ethics are tricky subjects with no definite answers, even Kris Kringle might struggle to define what is moral.