Before I wade into this, I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I don’t have a personal stake in the Santa Claus tradition. If some Christian parents choose to opt out of that tradition, that’s their prerogative. It’s not as if they have a duty to maintain that tradition.
The primary reason to celebrate Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ. That should be central. At the same time, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having fun.
And I’m not going to rehash my position on the Christmas holiday.
The natural law tells us, and the Church has always taught, that lying is intrinsically wrong. There is no clause that says “…but it is OK when you’re lying to your kids about Santa!”
i) Of course, natural law doesn’t tells us that lying is intrinsically wrong. Sometimes lying is acceptable if it leads to good consequences.
But because Feser’s denomination says that, he tries to retroactively validate that teaching by concocting a natural law defense.
ii) And because his denomination’s teaching is unreasonable, it creates loopholes in the form of “mental reservations.” Like the Catholic prohibition against divorce, which has the loophole of annulment, the Catholic prohibition against lying has the loophole of mental reservations. What at first sounds very high-minded quickly becomes sophistical and devious.
iii) BTW, isn’t Santa Claus a tradition in traditionally Roman Catholic countries? If this is so unethical, shouldn’t the Vatican tell Catholic parents to stop “lying” to their kids about old St. Nick? Why does this bother Feser more than it seems to bother the Magisterium?
What do the figures at left all have in common? None of them exists. Nor would any parent ever tell his child that Superman or Batman is real. Yet some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real. Perhaps some also tell them that the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy is real.They shouldn’t. These are lies. Parents who do this certainly mean well, but they do not do well, because lying is always wrong. Not always gravely wrong, to be sure, but still wrong. That is bad enough. But there is also the bad lesson that children are apt to derive from this practice, even if the parents do not intend to teach it – namely, the immoral principle that lying is acceptable if it leads to good consequences. There is also the damage done to a child’s trust in his parents’ word. “What else might they be lying about? What about all this religion stuff?”I would urge them to stop. A child is completely dependent on his parents’ word for his knowledge of the world, of right and wrong, and of God and religious matters generally. He looks up to them as the closest thing he knows to an infallible authority. What must it do to a child’s spirit when he finds out that something his parents insisted was true – something not only important to him but integrally tied to his religion insofar as it is related to Christmas and his observance of it – was a lie? Especially if the parents repeated the lie over the course of several years, took pains to make it convincing (eating the cookies left out for “Santa” etc.), and (as some parents do) reassured the child of its truth after he first expressed doubts? How important, how comforting, it is for a child to be able to believe: Whatever other people do, Mom and Dad will never lie to me. How heartbreaking for him to find out he was wrong!
The problem with this argument is that it proves too much. Should children have unquestioning faith in whatever their Hindu, Muslim, atheist, or Neonazi parents tell them is true? Isn’t part of maturation to scrutinize what your parents taught you?
That doesn’t mean you reject it. Rather, you evaluate it to determine if it’s true or false.
Surely doubting your childhood indoctrination as a Muslim is a good thing. Surely there are situations in which implicit faith in parental wisdom is misplaced. Surely there are situations in which becoming disillusioned with parental instruction, or simply coming to the realization that your parents aren’t infallible after all, is a necessary step in intellectual maturation.
If Richard Dawkins is your dad, and he teaches you that faith in God is delusive, then cultivating mistrust in his wisdom is a positively good development.
Feser’s argument cuts both ways. Yes, if kids discover that their parents were “lying” about Santa, they might possibly react by telling themselves, “What else might they be lying about? What about all this religion stuff?”
But, of course, that would work in reverse. If their dad is Richard Dawkins, that could lead them to question all this irreligion stuff. Lead them to doubt or disbelieve atheism.
Does Christian faith come down to having faith in your parents? That was fine when you were 4 years old, but when you get above a certain age, don’t you need more to go by than your parents’ word? Shouldn’t your adult faith in Christianity be grounded in something deeper, something independent of, trusting your parents?
In fact, don’t some kids lose their faith because that’s all they were given growing up? “Take our word for it. Father knows best.”
Now there may be other, better arguments against the traditional of Santa Claus. But Feser’s argument is strikingly bad for a smart philosopher.
Oh, and just speaking for myself, I wasn't "heartbroken" when, at an early age, I outgrew my childish belief in Santa.