The Scrooge Charade

By David Ottlinger

“Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.” [1]

Ladies and gentleman, I have lately been informed of a “grand deception” and “lie”, enthralling millions across the country. This epidemic is the cause of widespread un-critical thinking and is a major contributor to every national malady from climate science denialism to Illuminati conspiracies. Who is at the center of this sweeping conspiracy, you may ask? Santa Claus. Or so argues our first guest poster, Prof. David Kyle Johnson, in his recent piece which is well summed up in its title: “Let’s Cease the Santa Charade.” [2] I want to say something on behalf of the jolly, old elf, partly because I see real value in the myth itself and what it can do to enrich the lives of children, but more because I worry that Prof. Johnson’s critiques participate in certain broader cultural trends which, I believe, value too little great cultural properties such as Santa Claus. America’s problems with critical thinking and science education are pressing. But so too is America’s relative neglect of art, culture and the humanities. There is less and less appreciation for myths and stories like St. Nick, and it is well worth pausing to remember what makes these things so valuable.

Before turning to the main arguments there are a few rhetorical ploys on Prof. Johnson’s part I wish to address. He starts with an anecdote about a parent suing another parent over a child proclaiming to his schoolfellows that Santa isn’t real. [3] From this he invites his reader to draw some pretty broad conclusions about our culture. But a single silly lawsuit proves nothing and even suggests very little. In a society of 320 million people, a lot of strange things will happen. One of my favorites is a woman who called the police because a Subway employee used the wrong sauce. [4] This kind of anecdote mongering is not unlike the tactics Fox News uses to convince people that there is a war on Christianity in a country that is 85% Christian. Further, in support of his narrative in which Santa “enjoys a kind of sacred protection that modern religious beliefs can only dream of in the Western world”, Prof. Johnson makes some pretty dubious claims about the American Atheist’s billboard controversy. For those not familiar, the American Atheist organization routinely puts up billboards every Christmas mocking religions as fairy tales and superstition. Prof. Johnson comments that “Sure, people were annoyed and the Catholic League erected billboards in response. But no one questioned the American Atheists’ legal or moral right to do so.” But this is flatly false. The billboards caused considerable controversy, as of course they were designed to do. Bill O’Reilly made comments typical of Bill O’Reilly. [5] One New York State Senator implied that it may contribute to another holocaust. [6] Even many atheist friendly, liberal commentators criticized the organization in moral terms. [7] Readers who joined us from Scientia Salon will remember that Massimo Pigliucci was among them. Imagining a parallel case in which someone put up billboards proclaiming the non-existence of Santa Claus, Prof Johnson writes “Would anyone even sell you the space? Would laws not immediately be passed to take it down? Would you not be forced to publicly apologize? If found out, might you even lose your job? Quite likely!” I don’t share Prof. Johnson’s certainty. I would have to answer that I don’t know because, as far as I know, no one has tried.

More importantly, Prof. Johnson makes two central points. The first is that lying to children about Santa Claus is wrong as lying is prima facie wrong. The second is that belief is Santa harms children because it reinforces credulity and undermines critical thinking. We can call these the moral and epistemological arguments. In pursuing these arguments, Prof. Johnson sets a rather low bar for himself and a rather high bar for his detractors. On the moral side he argues that his case is “straightforward: it’s an unjustifiable lie.” On the epistemological argument he writes, “Do I need a scientific study to justifiably believe that demonstrating and encouraging poor linguistic skills to my son Johnny can hinder his linguistic development? Of course not. In the same way, I don’t need a scientific study to justifiably believe that modeling and encouraging poor critical thinking skills can hinder his rational development.” With such permissive standards of evidence, Prof. Johnson feels licensed to make poor Santa at least partially responsible for everything from anti-vaxers to supply side economics.

But for my own part, I doubt very much that belief in Santa is any kind of serious indicator of children’s future moral character or capacity for critical thinking. For instance I believed in Santa and I turned out all wrong, but for completely different reasons. Prof. Johnson states that belief in Santa is prima facie harmful because it could very plausibly reinforce credulity and emotional reasoning. Very well, that is plausible. Prof. Johnson states that getting kids to believe in Santa is wrong because lies are prima facie wrong. Very well, lies are prima facie wrong. But how wrong and how much damage are we talking about? It seems to me that it is likely very little.

On the moral side, yes it is prima facie wrong to lie but there are all kinds of defeaters that we use all the time in daily life and especially with children. “Yes you were wonderful in the school play.” “No, honey I’m not angry.” “We can’t go in there because…” Kids are constantly surrounded by a protective barrier of white lies and I don’t see how it could be (or ought to be) otherwise. I was struck by a statement the developmental psychologist Jacquline Woolley, in a Huffington Post piece on this subject (I discovered the piece though another which Prof. Johnson provided). She writes, “In the end, children are empowered by feeling that they have figured it out by themselves. Upon making the discovery, they become part of the adult world; they are ‘in on the secret’ and can derive even more emotional benefit by being given a role in keeping the myth alive for their younger siblings.” [8] This speaks to different phases of development which require different kinds of reactions from the adult world. We have reason to treat kids differently than we treat adults. This rings true. Though I am neither parent nor psychologist, the way Prof. Johnson describes children and the way we should treat them rings somewhat false. For instance, do children really ask “Why does Santa always give the spoiled rich kid so many presents?” Are children worried about distributive justice? Could we give Santa-age children an education in critical thinking and skepticism? (In my experience it is hard enough with college students who at least know their shapes and colors.) Before a certain age all education is inculcation. If my mother debated ethics every time my sister hit me, I would have been eaten alive before I was twelve. Likewise, fantasy is part of the world of childhood. We ought to let children play with childish things before they grow up and put them away.

On the epistemological side, it must be said that it is striking that by his own admission Prof. Johnson is on the opposite side of the actual empirical scientists on what is essentially an empirical point. Some developmental psychologists evidently argue that imaginative play including belief in Santa can improve counter-factual reasoning and help children to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. [9] Prof. Johnson is unimpressed with this point because he says we merely “feed” beliefs to Santa-believing children, they do not imagine them themselves. I can assure him this was not true in my case. I used to wonder how Santa got to so many places. I worked out how time-zones worked but knew that would not be adequate in itself. So I imagined that Santa would break the landscape into zones and deploy troops of elves to cover entire areas at once. My mother recently informed me that I believed at one point that Santa, the Tooth Fairy and other holiday super-heroes pooled resources in a kind of holiday committee. Apparently this kind of thinking is quite common. Children pose questions to themselves about “What will happen if the elves don’t finish by Christmas Eve? What would Christmas be like if Santa didn’t exist?” [10] Woolley notes, perhaps a bit optimistically, that “The kind of thinking involved in imagining how nine reindeer could fly through the sky carrying a heavy sleigh may well be the same kind of thinking required for imagining a solution to global warming or a way to cure a disease.” The process of becoming unconvinced can also help children to develop creative, skeptical tools as well. [11]

But what is most striking about Prof. Johnson’s argument is not what he does weigh, but what he doesn’t. Reading his piece I kept thinking about Horace Miner’s classic study of the Nacirema. [12] Miner described the odd habits of this strange people:

“The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls. While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.”

But this is a very odd way to describe bathrooms. Yes people often refer to the value of a home by its number of bathrooms (three bed, four bath etc) and yes people put thought and effort into how they decorate them (marble for those who can afford it, tile for the rest of us) but it will be hard or impossible to capture what bathrooms are or how they are used described in these odd, clinical terms. (For those not familiar with the joke, Nacirema is American spelled backwards). If you want to understand the American preoccupation with health, beauty and cleanliness, you must talk about the culture and values of the country and what these practices mean to the people who practice them. (And if you want to describe distant cultures you will have to do something similar, which was of course Miner’s point.)’

It strikes me that Prof. Johnson’s` description of Santa Claus as “lie” and “grand deception” is on a level with Miner’s account of the Nacirema. Santa Claus is a myth and bedtime story. He is a way to inspire excitement in children and for families to bond over important holidays. He embodies certain values of charity, communal good will and rewarded virtue. Collapsing all that into a “lie” strikes me as unhelpfully reductive. Writing in Slate, Melinda Wenner Moyer takes the obvious next step and describes “nine flying reindeer [which] pull an immortal fat man and his sleigh through the sky so that he can deliver gifts to millions of kids around the world one night a year.” [13] But who could understand what Santa is by means of such descriptions? If we want to talk about why Santa Clause is valuable we have to talk about what he means to the people who perpetuate his myth and how this myth is encountered. I value my young belief in Santa Claus very much. I think of family members like my uncle who made up elaborate stories. I think of all the imagining I already spoke of. I think of coming down the stairs and the added wonder at being met with presents brought from the North Pole. There are many warm and friendly times I can remember. Prof. Johnson says that we can give wonder to children in other ways, presumably in the form of literature and stories and learning. Very well, but I had all that and Santa Claus. It seems almost disingenuous to say that in not telling our children about Santa, we take nothing away from them. We may weigh what negative impact Santa Claus has on critical thinking and moral character (though until I see stronger evidence I am inclined to think these weigh rather light), but we must also weigh the rich value of these experiences and stories against these prima facie worries. I think scale tips strongly in Santa’s favor. To this Prof. Johnson replies, “But we need all the help we can get!” But I don’t find this to be true. Too much of childhood has been scrubbed out of childhood for America’s educated classes already. Many serious problems face the world, but I am not about to start throwing out many deeply valuable things, like Santa, because they don’t help to solve global warming.

Something about this piece’s rhetoric about critical thinking and the virtues of incredulity has me thinking about the New Atheist and Skeptic movement and its monomania for “reason”, “science” and “rational inquiry” as the solution to all of life’s problems. Certainly they describe Jesus and Christianity in the same register as Miner. Jesus becomes an “iron-age preacher” and God a “great, bearded man in the sky”. So many of the leaders and followers of that movement evince appallingly little interest in art and literature and when they do say something on art its often so bad that you wish they hadn’t. They are missing what we might call the literary dimension of life. They and the young people who idolize them often remind me of Bitzer in Dickens’ Hard Times. [14] Dickens describes a scene in which Bitzer is asked by his no-nonsense school teacher to define a horse. He responds memorably: “‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.” Bitzer does not include that horses are graceful and beautiful. For him they are a collection of observable facts. Dickens calls him Bitzer, because he only has a bit of the picture. The One Thing That is Needful, argues the book, is something like a literary imagination. Presumably the teacher did not think it worth imparting because rhapsodisng about horses assisted with the problems of early industrial Britain about as much as Santa helps with global warming. But this leads to a barren and philistine society. Hard times indeed. Of course Dickens had to imagine a generation of children with an essentially technocratic and scientific education. We have to live through it. They are horrible and they all have Youtube channels.

Now it must be said that Prof. Johnson is by no means responsible for the excesses of New Atheism. No more than Santa is guilty of supply side economics. As someone who is a professional philosopher, an educator in the humanities and a person who does much public outreach he is three times on the side of the angels. And I am sure he believes in and tries to impart the great value that art has for us. But I take him to task on this occasion for using the kind arguments that motivate other writers to run rough-shod over culture and the humanities. In taking the value of critical thinking to be entirely over-riding and passing over other values that have nothing to do with such thinking, he misses the mark in a very similar way. Santa is not useful for making us better critical thinkers or more competent scientific reasoners it is true. But then he was never meant to. There are other, largely aesthetic reasons for valuing such myths and these may not be passed over in silence. And there is another lesson here, or another instance of the same lesson, as we had a chance to reflect on in an earlier post about the ethics of meat eating. When philosophers show up with abstract principles totally removed from the texture and experiences of ordinary life and proclaim some familiar activity to be a serious moral defect, something has probably gone wrong. I aimed to elucidate what makes these stories valuable and I hope I have. In the end I think Virginia should be allowed and even encouraged to believe in Santa Claus. The essential reason is that without such myths and stories childhood would not quite be the same childhood. And, as the editors of the New York Sun seemed to realize, Virginia would not be quite the same Virginia.

Endnotes

[1] http://www.nysun.com/editorials/yes-virginia/68502/

[2] https://theelectricagora.com/2015/11/23/lets-cease-the-santa-charade/

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/21/mum-threatening-letter-kid-tells-santa-not-real-reddit_n_8169932.html

[4] http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/08/04/man-calls-11-to-complain-about-sauce-left-off-subway-sandwich.html

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2014/12/04/tis-the-season-for-fox-newss-bill-oreilly-to-republish-atheist-propaganda/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH7Byr6PbVI (Sorry for Young Turks)

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/20/andrew-lanza-atheist-billboards-_n_4482066.html

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sanjay-sanghoee/atheists-should-opt-for-peace_b_4493363.html
http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/38392/american-atheists-christmas-billboard-a-below-the-belt-crusade/
http://www.christianpost.com/news/new-atheist-billboard-compares-jesus-to-satan-nj-pastor-deems-it-ignorant-and-vulgar-61762/
https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/its-american-atheists-billboards-time-again/

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jacqueline-woolley/why-the-whole-family-benefits-when-kids-believe-in-santa_b_6336940.html

[9] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-children-know/201212/imagining-the-impossible-christmas-time

[10]http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2012/12/the_santa_lie_is_the_big_christmas_con_hurting_our_kids.html

[11] Again http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2012/12/the_santa_lie_is_the_big_christmas_con_hurting_our_kids.html

[12] https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/miner.html#anchor860867

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59 Comments »

  1. Hi DavidO, I was interested and read your response to Socratic and Ej. Unfortunately I think you keep applying your own standards (sort of overlaying it) when looking at what Socratic is saying, instead of seeing what the differences are and understanding it as a different view point/model. Put another way, you keep translating the other position into your own to reject a legitimate comparison of the two.

    I dont see how the meta move helps either. Everything I’ve said can be made consistent with moral realism or moral anti-realism.

    To be fair you haven’t seen my meta-moves 🙂

    Seriously though, I agree you could make it consistent (your economic model being closer), but I am telling you based on my own take on ethics your claim simply makes no sense. There is no “wrong” to begin with. No prima facie duties. But I am not getting into that because it will produce an even longer discussion that is even more off topic. We can save that for some other time.

    I have problems with your claim outside of my particular ethical system, and it comes in the counterexamples/model given by Socratic.

    Boy I really don’t get this. This is one of those bed rock moments in ethical argument where you find yourself saying things like do you really believe that? Like *really* believe it?

    Yes I do. Are you calling me a liar? 🙂

    Now let me return the favor… Did you even read Twain’s essay? Here is the opener…

    Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption—no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, A Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this club remains.

    and then…

    No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our circumstances—the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without saying. No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful and diligent cultivation…

    and on truth…

    What I bemoan is the growing prevalence of the brutal truth. Let us do what we can to eradicate it. An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered… An injurious lie is an uncommendable thing; and so, also, and in the same degree, is an injurious truth—a fact that is recognized by the law of libel.

    Indeed the quote cited was not complete, it actually starts with…

    Lying is universal—we all do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully…

    And he wraps up with…

    Joking aside, I think there is much need of wise examination into what sorts of lies are best and wholesomest to be indulged, seeing we must all lie and we do all lie, and what sorts it may be best to avoid…

    So, yes I really believe it.

    And now I will challenge you… ala Twain… Would you not be disturbed if someone said that that they did not worry about telling the absolute truth and didn’t see it as something to be limited and avoided?

    But lying is always a bit of hitting on the head.It is disrespecting someones autonomy.

    What? You can’t seriously claim that after defending lying to kids about Santa. And same for Socratic’s example of the obvious answer to “does this dress make me look fat?” There is no “little bit” of hitting anyone on the head in those cases or disrespecting their autonomy, which must be made up for.

    We lie because we don’t like what people will do when given full information…

    I think that is a rather incomplete assessment of why lies are told (read Twain’s piece). I agree… like Twain… that lies should be used judiciously, but that is more a practical thing than hinging on moral justifications for its proper use.

    Aristotle always said that the virtuous are not even disposed to do wrong.

    Heheheh, virtuous living is the occupation left to those who suck at being bad. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David,

    I’ll try to clarify my own position (which is not quite the same as Socratic’s), partly because I want to make clear that my pessimism doesn’t mean that I believe reality could or should be some other way than it is.

    As comparison (with a Kantian flavor as spiced by Schopenhauer), we would find it difficult to imagine a world in which everyone was trying to murder everyone else, at least some point in their life (although certain role-play computer games come awfully close). But it is not difficult to imagine a world in which everybody lies at some point to someone, because that is the is the world in which we live.

    Take a specific example. You and Socratic have been debating the ‘white lie,’ which benefits another. I want to take a social imperative that effectively moots the ethic altogether.

    Most of us in the working class are expected to lie at work. At the very least, we are expected to reply to an executive’s inquiry concerning our morale, that we are content with our jobs, and loyal to our employers. Not doing so can result in punitive repercussions, even expulsion from employment. ‘Not happy with your job? Well, don’t worry, you’re not working here anymore.’

    This kind of lie-inducing situation has recurred with variation for many centuries; it’s a fundamental feature of any class structured society.

    But contemporary employees are also expected to lie on behalf of their employers, the most obvious case being retail employees who must sell to clients for maximum profits, regardless of actual value to purchasing consumers.

    Before we condemn the dishonesty of such situations tout court, we should be aware that there are important gradations among differing power relations and the persons involved. My favored car mechanic appears to be pretty upfront – ‘these are our services, this is what we charge,’ but I’m not disappointed by the occasional add-on. There are also ranges within which such dishonesty reaches limits and actually becomes open to rebuttal and punishment.

    So, the more general problem: One reason we have no difficulty in condemning certain acts, like murder, as inherently wrong or immoral (whether categorically or prima facie) is because so few people actually perform such acts . But how can we hold as inherently wrong or immoral behavior that everybody engages in at some point or other? Do we simply condemn the whole species as ‘evil’ (as some churches do)? Or admit that human behaviors are complex and indefinitely variable, and that ethics rather trails after many of them, as a means of understanding, rather than prescription.

    Lying is simply a form of communication, and a behavioral tactic of social survival; it can hurt, but it can help; in some instances it’s actually expected.

    What I suggest is that we conceive of an ethics that treats behaviors universally engaged in, along a spectrum of social acceptability, in a different way from behaviors that are infrequent and/or openly transgressive.

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  3. David O: “If you have an ethical principle you should follow it”

    But I think that begs the question. As I understand it, ethics is about what we should do, and metaethics is about “what is a should, anyway”? One could answer with more abstract words, or “aboutness”, I’m tempted to say, but my strong inclination is for a “naturalized” answer (cf Hilary Kornblith(ed) Naturalizing Epistemology or one in terms of processes. There seem to be great differences among the “shoulds” of Amy Vanderbilt, Peter Singer, Osama Bin Laden, Mother Theresa… You might say the “should” is the same, it’s what they do with it, but I’m inclined to think it’s very different understandings of “should”.

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  4. In reading my previous comment, I was disappointed; I tried chopping it down from a comment twice the posted length, so some of the linkages were lost. Ah, well….

    Nevertheless, let me remark what I hope(d) would be the implication of my remarks – namely that, when considering the ethics of lying, one has to approach the matter on a case-by-case basis; otherwise, injustice will be done to those who behave in good will, or those who feel socially compelled. I’m not sure a sustainable universal or general theoretical statement on the matter is possible, given the social contextualization of the behavior.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. David yes, I also think I get you, though it’s certainly good to hear you say it. I’ll now elaborate however, and hopefully you won’t change your mind!

    The position which you’ve presented here concerns morality. This isn’t my favorite topic, since I do find the degree to which it dominates the field of ethics, quite unfortunate. Nevertheless I can still take the stuff, and believe that I’ve even developed a very effective definition for the term itself. Morality exists in us, I think, as a product of our empathy sensations, as well as our theory of mind sensations, and evolved as a tool from which to help a fundamentally capitalistic creature, function more effectively under social settings. (I’d love to know if anyone has beat me to this!)

    Now our friend Socratic has been leading a charge to have you proclaim that white lies are not prima facie wrong. As I mentioned last time, I see this as a mere semantic issue. Furthermore given the 121 comment “Socratic/Coel history lesson” which Massimo recently cut short at Plato’s Footnote…

    At the moment what truly inspires me however, emerged yesterday from Dbholmes, and then Ejwinner. I don’t believe that they’ve truly contradicted you however, since they seem to be discussing something that’s more fundamental than morality. I see this as the realities of good/bad itself — my most favorite subject, though it is different.

    DB, you’re such a tease! You must know that I’m dying to see your “meta moves”! But I suspect that they function well beyond the plane that David has been addressing, and also the whole of the philosophy establishment. Your realm where “…There is no “wrong” to begin with. No prima facie duties…” seems more fundamental than this moral side. I’d love for David to join us over here, but remaining above at the moral realm simply leaves his position “standard” rather than “wrong.” I’ll be surprised if your theory beyond morality doesn’t square with my own “subjective utilitarianism,” though I can’t wait to find out!

    EJ, the statement you made which encouraged me most was this: “…my pessimism doesn’t mean that I believe reality could or should be some other way than it is.” Yes with their eternal focus upon morality, the establishment seems to be trying to fight reality rather than understand it, so it’s great to hear that you’re not fighting. Apparently reality can be amazingly repugnant, which is exactly where the moralist becomes flummoxed. So I can see why you’d pragmatically resort to case by case evaluations, though I do have my own fundamental variety of theory that I’d love for you to assess. Hopefully DB’s got one for us sometime as well.

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  6. Sorry for the delay gang, my family is traveling and things are a bit hectic. I think this will be my last round of comments unless I see something new. We chewed these topics over pretty well. Thanks for the comments.
    ej,

    I see. Your last comment, especially what follows “Before we condemn the dishonesty of such situations tout court…”, is very helpful. Thank you for it. I see now it is important to say that a view which holds that we always have a moral reason not to lie, does not “condemn” all people who do lie as “dishonest” (even on the occasions that they do lie). In deed if you have a moral reason not to lie and a much stronger moral reason to lie (the murder case for instance) lying is morally *praiseworthy*. There is no moral censure for people who do not follow the lesser moral reason. Indeed we cannot follow all are moral reasons, I am comfortable asserting, because they often conflict. This view does not censure those who lie at appropriate times. But it would censure those who do not weigh the wrongness of lying against other considerations.

    Also I agree that we must take things on a case by case basis. Indeed that is what my view is. My only point is that in each case we have one reason which weighs against.

    Hal,
    “But I think that begs the question.”
    Not sure what question is being begged…

    “As I understand it, ethics is about what we should do, and metaethics is about “what is a should, anyway”?”
    I love that sentence, but metae-ethics is about more than that. Its also about moral terms and what moral questions are liked.

    db,
    “I think you keep applying your own standards (sort of overlaying it) when looking at what Socratic is saying, instead of seeing what the differences are and understanding it as a different view point/model.”
    I understand Steve’s, and your, position. Lying, in and of itself, has no moral valence. But Steve made arguments nominally against *my* position which missed their target. That was all I was trying to say, except also that my model can accomodate the cases that are giving you pause as well and even, I think, better.

    “To be fair you haven’t seen my meta-moves”
    Ha!

    “And now I will challenge you… ala Twain… Would you not be disturbed if someone said that that they did not worry about telling the absolute truth and didn’t see it as something to be limited and avoided?”
    Of course! But as I said, several times to be fair, my view is that the wrongness of lying is often defeated. Even *more* often than Johnson took it be. This is also *moral* defeat so we are talking about actions that are morally preferred or even obligatory. I am very far from being unable to accommodate such points.

    “What? You can’t seriously claim that after defending lying to kids about Santa. And same for Socratic’s example of the obvious answer to “does this dress make me look fat?””
    I can and dammit I shall! Again I am not sure what to say here. Of course lying still has a negative valence even when its justified. It’s like the saying there is a little bit of poison in every medicine. You don’t stop taking medicine but you take it carefully and don’t take it when you don’t need it.

    “I think that is a rather incomplete assessment of why lies are told (read Twain’s piece).”
    I am using “do” in a broad sense here, like feel, be offended, be hurt etc.

    Like

  7. David,

    ” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ”

    First time I saw that. I’m going to have to use it too!

    “children in many eras and cultures do have stories they give more than ordinary credence. Think of fairy stories. Also I did try to make the case that this might be natural to children at a point in their development, a point at which they might also have imaginary friends”

    I think that’s true but I don’t see that it affects the point that in those cases adults tend to “clearly imply, or right out say, things like it’s a story, it’s not really true, or it’s make believe”, and though children can themselves take these stories further into ‘truthiness’, or even make up there own ‘true’ stories, I think it’s pretty distinct from what some adults seem to be doing with the Santa story.

    Which got me to, well what exactly are adults doing? I’m not sure we really know what’s going on. Even in Woolley’s piece in Psychology Today she starts by saying she also won’t really touch the subject: “I’m not going to address the issue of lying in much depth here, because I think this is a personal issue”. And then she gives us all kinds of examples of play and fantasy that are supported by research, but that aren’t examples of, as she stated, the “lying issue”. In other words I think she knows she’s leading people to think the research ‘solves’ the issues (and I think she even uses sloppier and more tendentious reasoning in the Huffington Post).

    In short I feel the potential negatives are being skipped over. A lot of them where mentioned in the comments, and there’s a lot more, children can be shamed for their beliefs by older children, they can be marginalized for their lack of belief by adults, and they can easily be overwhelmed by the strong socio-cultural and emotional forces involved in the greater Santa phenomenon. And what if there is a much larger percentage of children than we suspect, for whom this ends up being a bad experience, or for whom it isn’t so much a bad experience in itself but more of ‘another brick in the wall’ of that child’s life.

    And the positives, a lot mentioned in the comments too, like what if for a child living in a supportive environment the ‘lying’ part isn’t a negative, or it’s so small it’s not relevant, and what if it can even lead to better outcomes sometimes, and what happens in less than ideal socio-cultural environments.

    We don’t know, so maybe that’s a big part of why I think they’re good questions to consider.

    Just in the past few days I’ve noticed that my annoyance with the ‘holiday spirit’ doesn’t seem as strong this year, and when I thought about it, I realized it probably had a lot to do with me trying to understand, and then believing, what you’ve written here about your good Santa experiences as a child.

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  8. Thanks David for the tip on Adam Smith. I did get a bit of him as an economics undergraduate, since he was essentially the field’s founder, though we didn’t go very far into his history itself. It’s good to know that he was deep enough to have true musings on the topic of theory of mind. In truth however I’m looking for dynamic modern people who have great ideas (beyond myself of course!).

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