The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You 1

In Alpine regions, Santa Claus has more than happy little elves to assist him on the holidays, he is accompanied by a demonic and frightening figure. While good Saint Nicholas is rewarding the well-behaved children with gifts, Krampus is tormenting the misbehaved with a good caning.

It seems that in recent years a similar distortion of the holiday spirit (it’s about being good for goodness sake, right?) has taken hold of Christmas in the United Statesthough, it is a terror of a different nature: the Elf on the Shelf.

The Elf on the Shelf is a doll that is described to children as being an agent of Santa, reporting back to the jolly fat-man who’s been naughty or nice (presumably to decide whether you get an iPod, some coal, or a visit from Krampus if you’re an unlucky Austrian child). Notions of Big Brother immediately came to mindand the doll’s song doesn’t quite alleviate such thoughts.

The elf on the shelf is watching you —
what you say and what you do.
The elf on the shelf is watching you —
each and every Christmas!

It seems to me, first and foremost, that we are introducing a superstition to our children that we know isn’t truevaluing truth, I find it slightly offensive. But more worryingly, we’re teaching our children, under threat, to do the right thing.

A dilemma I’ve found myself pondering lately is: If the consequences are the same, is it better that a child does the right thing because they wanted to do the right thing (Goodness for Goodness sake) or is it somehow cheapened if someone does the right thing through coercion (coal, a beating, a bad report to Santa, etc.)?

In other words: Does character matter?

If it does, then what are we doing by introducing a new “Christmas tradition” that celebrates this sort of morality-at-gunpoint?

Adrian Hawkes, of Phoenix Academy is not alone in saying:

If there is no God, there is no Lawgiver, why does it matter what I do? Why is rape wrong? Why is pedophilia wrong? Why are any of these things wrong?…I think that all people, if they think they can get away with something and, it is, there is no consequenceswe actually tend to do that. I think that is the reality…

Many sophisticated and unsophisticated theologians seem to agree with this principal on this principleRavi Zacharias and Ray Comfort come to mind.

But, really? Without the threat of hellfire or bribery of eternal bliss would we really become immoral rapists and pedophiles? Without the Elf on the Shelf do children become immoral troublemakers?

I sometimes worry what a child will do when they find out Santa doesn’t exist primarily due to the feeling of betrayal that comes from being lied to, not because they’ll become evil, little heathensbut what happens if men like these, who base their morality on a threat or commandment, find out God doesn’t exist?

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You 2

Merry Christmasor else!

Thoughts on Justice, Causality, and Free-Will

Justice, Causality, Free-Will

A man is enrolled in a college course. In this college course it is required that he write his own work and respond to the work of his peers. On at least two occasions, this man has been exposed for plagiarism.

Under normal circumstances, it only takes one strike to failbut the professor gracefully gave the student a second chance… a chance that the student did not take seriously because soon afterwards the man was exposed, yet again, for plagiarismspelling an end to his enrollment in his course and spelling the beginning of another dismal episode in his academic career.

Probably due to my current Behavior Analysis frame of mind, I’d say that this is a perfect demonstration of the principles of Reinforcement and Punishment. The man got away with plagiarizing the first time around, increasing the likelihood that it would occur again.

Justice, Causality, Free-Will 2

In order for behavior to be modified, the desired behavior must be reinforced and the undesired behavior must be punished. In this instance, the man’s behavior was reinforced. The first time around, he received a reinforcing grade for his undesired behavior which was more reinforcing than the aversive talking to that most people would agree should have dissuaded him.

In order for punishment to be effective it must be: 1. Immediate 2. Consistent 3. Aversive.

For a punishment to be truly aversive, I wouldn’t say that punishment needs to “fit the crime”it just needs to be aversive enough to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In this scenario, we could imagine a punishment that might have been aversive and appropriate given the situation:

Justice, Causality, Free-Will 3

Unfortunately for the cheater, we might say his idiocy prevented him from grasping a warning as an aversive enough condition.

But is idiocy really at the core? Perhaps a warning simply wasn’t aversive enoughto the point of maybe being almost reinforcing.

I wonder if this is the result of his behavior being shaped by prior experiencesperhaps getting warnings for his errors without a real response-contingent punishment from parents, professors, and policemen. In behavior analysis it is understood that behavior occurs because it has been reinforced. If this is the case, can we really blame him? He’s just the product of conditioning. So am I and so are you.

All of our wants and desires, values and ideals, attitudes and personalities are the consequences of prior experiencesprior reinforcers and punishments acting on a completely uncontrollable machine composed of neurons. All of our behaviors (intrinsic and extrinsic) boil down to the turning of cosmic wheels. No matter how complex this equation, there is no room for free-will to creep in. As an aside, some pseudo-scientific understanding of quantum indeterminacy might appear to add an element of randomness to the cosmic machine, but it would be comparable to throwing in a dice-roll to the mixwe remain reorganized cogs in an apparently mercurial machine. This appearance of unpredictability, however, is faulty. Whether stemming from obscurity, complexity, a false premise, or simple ignorance, to admit of free-will is to deny the obvious rule of cause-and-effect.

Sam Harris illustrates in his book, Free Will, a short-hand description of what precedes our imagined notion of “free-will”:

Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?

This cocktail of factors that determine our every thought really can account for all of our wants, desires, wills, decisions, etc.however obscure or impossible that idea might seem.

The student failed because he cheated. He cheated because the behavior had been reinforced. Everything he will ever do is a response to previous consequences of previous actions stemming from the very first stimulus that provoked him to his first behaviorwe can almost call it a primum movens.

The question of free-will, however, is not the question that bothers me. The question that bothers me is: Can he be blamed? In understanding the law of cause and effect, perhaps “blame” is an out-dated concept. We don’t blame the bullet for the destruction it causes, nor the gun for projecting it, we tend to blame the person pulling the trigger. But if people are composed of the same matter that composes everything else — all of their being is subject to the same laws of nature, the same law of cause and effectcan they really be blamed?

Within the context of justice and creating a just society, we certainly need to hold individuals accountable for their actions and act accordingly; but perhaps there is another way of thinking about the problem of responsibility and blame that would make this whole concept make more sense that we (or at least I) have not yet considered.

Perhaps my initial anger at the cheater is an outdated response when considering the much more complex reality of the situation. Perhaps all retaliatory impulses are outdated as well as the laws and punishments that reflect them.