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] http://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

59 comments

  1. Trying to take this Santa kerfuffle seriously, but it’s hard to do. I grew up during the late 50’s and 60’s. We were in 2nd grade or so when fake air-raid sirens would occasionally erupt and then knew we had to file into the hallways and crouch down, heads in laps, arms covering our heads from potential — what? Radiation? I also vividly recall the weekly student readers which would come our way containing rosy views of the future (1980s) during which only one person in fifteen in the USA would need to work, and our leisure times would be filled with scientific hobbies and the enjoyment of nature. Want to know which unexamined untruths foisted upon school children really mattered then (and with minor adjustments persist now)? The way nationalism was drilled into us. The fake narratives of American and World history. The idea that doctors and medical companies and pharmacies should be revered as benevolent gods all and that curing (and understanding) of all disease lay around the corner. And my favorite unexamined untruth, which functions as a sort of taboo dogma, even within academic circles: philosophical materialism.

  2. Previously, I revealed my personal experiences and indicated some of their consequences, because I think the emotions and psychology that form our perspectives on cultural issues like this ought to be acknowledged; otherwise we will be misled into thinking those perspectives are coming from somewhere above, as if intellect were divorced from personality. This has certainly been an ideal in Western philosophy, but is easily falsifiable once biographical information is taken into account. We are humans first; and then, if lucky and industrious, thinkers after.

    Currently, in response here, I am working through the notion I mentioned in comment to the previous article (Johnson’s), that Santa Claus is rather a construction of collective fiction-making or story-telling, and considering some of the social uses of this, many of which David Ottlinger notes in the article above.

    But first, a comment from a perspective under-represented here so far:

    “You ever noticed how easy it is to transform ‘Satan’ from ‘Santa’? Just move the ‘n’ to the end. And presto! ‘Satan’ appears.”
    (…)
    “Is ‘Claus’ another anagram for ‘Lucas’? It’s no secret Lucas and Lucis are new-age “code words” for Lucifer.”
    (…)
    “Maybe Santa Claus means ‘Satan’s Claws’? Like a lion’s ‘claws’? ‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’: 1 Peter 5:8
    (…)
    “I am sure many reading this are thinking, ‘Aw, c’mon, Santa Claus is just fantasy. What is the big deal. Nobody takes it serious.’
    And that is where you are WRONG – DEAD WRONG! Those little children take their Santa very serious! They literally worship him! They believe and love Santa with all their heart!
    Most parents would never teach their beautiful little children such a lie as Santa Claus. Most parents would never openly lie to their children. Especially something that is a blasphemous imposter of the Lord Jesus.
    And Satan knows this.
    So he disguises the lie in a nice little package of make-believe and fantasy. He creates a harmless ol’ jolly fellow that just loves little children. And most parents think, “Now what could be wrong with that?”
    Fantasy. . . Satan’s ‘magic weapon.’ ”

    – Dr. Terry Watkins, of Dial-the Truth Ministries, “Santa Claus, the Great Imposter,” http://www.av1611.org/othpubls/santa.html

    The (lengthy) article is a remarkable document – it is filled with esoteric research, interpretive strategies bordering on the schizophrenic, and a strangely holistic paranoia presenting itself as calm reasoning. It’s a reminder of the need not to let our concerns over fantasy become themselves fantastical. ‘Satan’s magic weapon’ may really prove nature’s greatest gift – properly co-ordinated with the real, of course.

  3. Stolyz,

    If I read you right you seem to be saying that these kinds of concerns are trivial and that we ought to focus on more important and practical (interchangeable?) problems. But that is just the kind of view that I am trying to mitigate. We have many pressing practical concerns that demand our attention, but culture and storytelling and the like are of inestimable value as well and it is vitally important that we attempt to preserve these as well. Pointing out that these things do not assist with our political and economic problems misunderstands their nature, their value is elsewhere. (Also I tried to make this a discussion about more than just Santa. It is about preserving culture and custom of which Santa is a paradigm.)

    “my favorite unexamined untruth, which functions as a sort of taboo dogma, even within academic circles: philosophical materialism.”
    I’m sorry but if you believe this you are really not very familiar with philosophy as it is practiced. Philosophers debate materialism all the time. Philosophers are Platonists, moral realists, dualists, theists…

    ej,

    Sorry, I didn’t catch all the comments on the last post partly because I was writing. Quick rundown?

    “otherwise we will be misled into thinking those perspectives are coming from somewhere above, as if intellect were divorced from personality. This has certainly been an ideal in Western philosophy, but is easily falsifiable once biographical information is taken into account.”
    Yes, but I think this works more with my point than against it. Part of why I value and celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas is because I am an American and I am participating in my own American culture. Part of why perpetuating these myths and customs is good is because it perpetuates the ties that bind and bring us together in a common culture and society.

    “a perspective under-represented here so far”
    May it continue to be so….

    Oh and in case I don’t say it, Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

  4. Excellent rebuttal piece, David, covering most of the problems many readers expressed in the remarks following Prof. Johnson’s essay. There is one sentence in your piece, David, that is worth its weight in gold, and one I think most would applaud for its wry insight:

    “For instance I believed in [XYZ] and I turned out all wrong, but for completely different reasons.”

    By coincidence, I had been elsewhere reading a critical essay on the poetry of John Crowe Ransom, and the following paragraph struck me as having some relevance here:

    “Amid constant mutability, one’s only defense is the sustaining force of sensibility, yet sensibility seems besieged in a world that prefers abstractions. Reason and scientific discourse cannot supply all necessary knowledge; one needs knowledge derived from imagination, myth, and poetry in order to accept the dualism inherent in human experience. “Painted Head” (1945) illustrates Ransom’s “fury against abstraction,” the source of the conflict between science and art. This poem focuses on the interdependence of head (analytical reason, which is capable of knowing) and body (sensibility, which can use beauty to develop a way of perceiving and knowing). Properly joined, head and body create a nurturing home for beauty, myth, and the truths they provide.”

  5. Hi David (hmm now we have two Davids, so I guess you are DavidO), this was a nice essay and I am glad that “the electric agora” is allowing response pieces. That said, I have some serious differences of opinion on a couple items.

    On the moral side, yes it is prima facie wrong to lie…

    No it isn’t. There I made the case as easy as you did 🙂

    The fact is deception is a normal part of human behavior, and in fact behavior across different species. It just is. The important questions are how a certain act of deception is intended as well as how it affects another. The answer to those questions will form the basis of how the others will judge your act of deception.

    Most people get over deceptions meant to help them (or others) enjoy something. So yeah, pretending that Santa is real is usually something people give a free pass on.

    It seems almost disingenuous to say that in not telling our children about Santa, we take nothing away from them.

    This seems to continue running the ball in the same wrong direction as the other David.

    How many children are raised without ever hearing about Santa at all, or that Santa is just a fun mythical character? You seem to be claiming they have missed out on something. Well ok they did miss out on that specific experience but does that mean their lives are somehow less for it?

    As much as I think it is overblown to claim that kids lose something by being told Santa is real, I think it is equally overblown to claim they lose something by not knowing about Santa or not pretending he is real.

    Santa is just one fun thing that people can share together. There really wouldn’t be anything missing if people did exactly what DavidJ advocated… there is just no pressing reason to do what he advocated.

    Basically families need to find the tradition that works for them. Real, not real, nonexistent, whatever. Find something fun and bonding to do with the season.

    And stop nosing into what other families choose.

    By the way bonus points for the Nacirema ref. That was the first thing we had to read in my anthropology course.

  6. I would disagree with one thing. The New Atheists have plenty of literary imagination. Take Dawkins’ essay on Essentialism, which displays a rich capacity for fantasy and imagination with not even a nod towards reality. I could cite a good deal else besides.

  7. Thomas,

    Thank you for your kind words. I will just temper that to say that I do not hate abstraction. I hate abstraction that bulldozes all context and subtlety of life.

    db,
    I would still say lying is prima facie wrong. Or, to use a term from economics, it is wrong ceteris paribus. Imagine I tell you one feature and only one feature of an action, that it is dishonest. Can you say you will not be disposed to be skeptical of it however slightly? But, as is important for my argument, this is only a very, very slight factor which is easily and frequently overridden especially, as I said, with children.

    “How many children are raised without ever hearing about Santa at all, or that Santa is just a fun mythical character? You seem to be claiming they have missed out on something. Well ok they did miss out on that specific experience but does that mean their lives are somehow less for it?”
    I take it that it would be crazy and flat wrong to assert that Hindu children in India are impoverished because they do not believe in Santa. But that is because they have their own Hindu and Indian traditions which exposes them to their own myths and stories, add their own kind of literary dimension to their lives and bind them to their own kind of culture. What I am saying is that American children who do not get a chance to participate in their own cultural myths are usually the poorer for it. (This will often not be true for Jewish and Muslim children, but again that is because they have their own myths.) What is worse still is not making room for myth and literature and giving all the space to critical thinking. This last is the most important.

    “Santa is just one fun thing”
    I really think fun is reductive here. Santa is not just fun but potentially important. “Fun” is another word like “lie”, which collapses a lot of nuance.

    “And stop nosing into what other families choose.”
    Well…I suppose I’m not nosing into what other people choose. We do not force people to view EA or punish them if they do not follow our dictates, supposing we have any. But I do think we can have a public and objective discussion of what things we ought to value.

  8. David,

    Previously, I explained my experiences with holidays make me unsympathetic to them; nonetheless:

    Collective fiction-making: an ubiquitous phenomenon, particularly because we often think that all we’re engaging in is small-talk, or gossip, social commentary, or politics. But most of the stories we tell about ‘common knowledge’ is a patchwork of assumptions, guess-work, intuition, unrecognized prejudice, ‘common sense,’ and faith in the sources of information deemed trustworthy in a given culture. It is usually, if not entirely false, then certainly not entirely true. (The cult of celebrity – whether celebrity actor or celebrity gangster – is really the fascination for stories concerning what cannot be fully be known, and people who cannot really exist, even should the cult object still be living.)

    It is actually a good thing – a necessary and inevitable part of social discourse – that there are stories we collectively collaborate on, either for our children or for ourselves, that are open and notorious fictions.

    It is said that there are people who still believe that Sherlock Holmes was an existent individual – but I have my doubts. Just because they write letters to Holmes, mailing these to ‘221B Baker Street, London,’ doesn’t mean that they actually believe Holmes exists; rather, it suggests they’re passionate (or highly amused) in their desire to contribute to the continuing narration of the Holmes fictional story.

    It’s hard to say when a collective narrative passes outside of the realm of myth (myths are never myth in their own cultures, since they are sincerely believed), and enters into the realm of conscious collective fiction-making. Having cause occasionally to read up on the Coyote stories of Native Americans over the past few decades, I have always been struck by the fact that, while Coyote appears in a great many stories, he doesn’t actually fulfill much of a truly religious function. Parents use Coyote to prepare children for the difficulties they may face in life, but when those difficulties actually appear, they refer to other spirits and rituals unrelated to Coyote, in order to deal with them.

    The Santa Claus story has its problems – esp. its crass commercialism and indoctrination into consumerism. But its hard to find anything in this culture that doesn’t indoctrinate consumerism.

    But it should be remembered that the modern Santa story developed in the early 19th century, when the lives of the majority of children in urban settings were truly horrific. Among the working class, they worked 16 hour days (beaten when they were tired), or ended up living in streets with open sewers – begging, whoring, or stealing to live.

    The Santa Claus story normalized the sense that children were precious; that they were to be cherished and cared for; that a special time of the year could be set aside for them; that their hopes and aspirations could be endorsed and encouraged.

    I personally hate Christmas; Santa Claus *can* be used as a signifier for parental oppression.

    But that was not always, and is not generally, his history.

  9. Hi DavidO, we are definitely on the same page regarding this…

     What is worse still is not making room for myth and literature and giving all the space to critical thinking. This last is the most important.

    I thought that was an important take away message from your essay.

    BTW, apologies if it looked like I was saying YOU should stop nosing into what other families are doing. I was trying to make a general point that people should not be nosing into what other families are doing. The result of such nosing tends to be chastising others based on how society will fall apart if “your Xmas doesn’t look like my kind of Xmas”.

    Now back to points of discussion…

    You are right that Santa can be about more than just having fun. But I do think it´s a crucial part, kind of a necessary minimum. If it wasn’t fun, why would people continue that myth beyond obeying tradition/ritual? Sans fun, I think Santa would die out pretty quick whatever “healthy” qualities he might provide.

    What I am saying is that American children who do not get a chance to participate in their own cultural myths are usually the poorer for it. (This will often not be true for Jewish and Muslim children, but again that is because they have their own myths.)

    In what way are children not participating in same-culture myths poorer than others who are? And why in the US would there be exceptions for Jews and Muslims (are they not in the US and so missing out on US culture)? Because they have their own myths? Alright, but that sort of begs the question how important the cultural myths are then. Why can’t my family’s traditions, their myths, be good enough? Why can’t we start the new myths that go on to be the cultural myths of tomorrow?

    Santa has a history and there are a myriad other characters and holidays. I just don’t see how anyone is poorer for picking and choosing (or inventing) the form of celebration and symbol of celebration they want. As it is even within the US, the idea of Santa and how gifts are given is not uniform. Heck, Rudolph the red nosed-reindeer was simply tacked onto that pantheon last century and is now pretty popular. Some people like him some don’t. Is it important which camp one joins, with the rest being the poorer for it?

    I would still say lying is prima facie wrong. Or, to use a term from economics, it is wrong ceteris paribus. Imagine I tell you one feature and only one feature of an action, that it is dishonest. Can you say you will not be disposed to be skeptical of it however slightly?

    I am less opposed to the economic concept. But the answer to your question would still be: NO.

    We can run straight for the standard anti-Kantian response. If I was told that a person was being dishonest when telling the Nazi at the door that there are no Jews hiding in their house, I would neither be skeptical nor critical of what they are doing.

    If you were told that someone has lied, would that make you skeptical of them or what they say? Would that make them dishonest? Would you honestly say that you never lie? If you admit you do, should I be skeptical of you?

    I guess one could go semantic and say that lies are those deceptions we feel are wrong, the other forms of deceptions being something else other than lies. That is sort of close to how I’d use the term: when I’d call someone out on a deception I disapproved. But it is all context dependent.

    Life is filled with balances between conflicting interests/concerns. In the case of Santa (where people pretend he is real to children) it is that people are choosing fun and bonding over honesty in that festive situation. That is the trade they made and it is not wrong or something that would give one reason to be skeptical about their credibility. It’s just like when one pretends Barney is a real dinosaur at the kids party, that it really is Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, or the magician really pulled a rabbit out of his empty hat. What about the lies one tells leading the person to their surprise birthday party? There is more to be gained in the deception from other “virtues” than by being honest.

    Perhaps my point would be that “lie” does not collapse as much nuance as “wrong” does.

  10. Dbholmes asked: “What about the lies one tells leading the person to their surprise birthday party?”

    I was with you up to here. I always have the sense that these sorts of parties are more for the pleasure of the organizers than the ‘victim’. This sort of thing (never been involved in one actually but, hey, why should lack of direct knowledge stand in the way of an opinion?) strikes me as flawed, a kind of bullying where the birthday person has to pretend to be happy rather than annoyed or appalled at the fact that they were misled and put into this awkward situation.

    Isn’t a key part of the fun of a party preparing for it, getting dressed up, trying to look good, etc.?

    But then I am not a party person. Not crazy about Xmas, either. Or Dickens, come to that.

  11. Mark English:

    Seriously? So, my daugther, wife, and I “bullied” my mother, when we showed up, in NY, as a surprise, to celebrate her 83rd birthday?

    Oy.

  12. Daniel Kaufman

    Well, I’ve put my foot in it, haven’t I?

    Your surprise visit to a close family member to join them in celebration sounds fine to me! I I was thinking more in terms of those elaborately arranged affairs involving groups of friends which TV scriptwriters seem to be quite fond of (for their obvious dramatic potential).

    My comment (note the reference to my lack of firsthand experience of the matter) was meant to be a lighthearted one. (I shouldn’t have used the word ‘bullying’, especially given how it has been used in recent times.)

    The argument is basically that if the birthday person is not expecting any kind of party or gathering they may not be prepared mentally or in terms of dress and grooming and so on. Different people will react in different ways, of course.

  13. Interesting discussion about surprise parties.

    When I was younger, I recall hating having one sprung on me, which, as Mark English says above, had more to do with people looking for a pretext to party than with people caring about me or so I felt. I’m not a party person myself.

    However, as I approach 83 (not quite there yet), the idea that a group of people would travel a distance and take time out of their busy lives to celebrate my birthday, in whatever possible form, seems miraculous. Even a happy-birthday email from my children is welcome. In any case, even now, at age 69, close to 70, I prefer that the birthday guests announce their visits beforehand.

  14. As someone who subscribes to no particular school of ethics, but who rejects all but the most narrow of deontological thought, I reject the idea that lying is prima facie wrong. Thus, I don’t understand why David Ottlinger, in essence, conceded a debating point to David Kyle Johnson.

  15. Hi Mark,

    I always have the sense that these sorts of parties are more for the pleasure of the organizers than the ‘victim’.

    I actually agree with your assessment up to a point, and is something I mentioned as being the source of problems where Santa gets taken too far. People mistake or prioritize their own fun for that of others. And get really upset when their own fun gets spoiled

    One memorable birthday for me was being taken to a party for someone else (actually for a group of friends for someone else, I basically knew no one) which was horribly boring and absolutely nothing I would have been interested in, being forced to stay there for hours, and when I finally insisted on leaving having the “host” become enraged and reveal that this was ALSO a surprise party for me and began tossing presents out on the parking lot. Gee thanks.

    But here’s the thing, DanK is right that you can’t generalize about such things. Certainly I would not from my own horrible experience. Yes surprise parties are by design taking into account the pleasure of the hosts, but a properly designed one should equally take into account the pleasure of the guest. So the guest should not automatically get described as a victim. I assume DanKs mother did not feel like a victim at all.

    Part of good planning for a party is knowing whether the person likes surprises in general and making sure they are in the mood to take a surprise (and the type of surprise) at the time in specific.

    If I were to take your argument regarding surprise parties as credible I’d also have to say giving people gifts at all (at least one’s not asked for in advance) is foisting some unwanted object on a victim, bullying them to take something they must pretend they like.

  16. Hi Mark, after some more thinking it occurred to me that your criticism about surprise parties is not about the lying, but the nature of having a party come as a surprise (where one might be unready or uninterested).

    It’s not like during a surprise party one is actually enjoying, you’d turn to the people who got you there and say “Look I like this party, but what you said to me. Those things you said on the way over here. That was just plain wrong to do.”

  17. Let me add a few more notes, mainly sociological.

    Parents lie to kids about all sorts of stuff, including at Christmas: “I promise you’ll get a bike/Nintendo/iPhone,” comes immediately to mind. I suggest that a lie like this is a far more serious concern.

    First, starting from my POV, which in this case has nodes to both utilitarian and virtue ethics schools, that lying is not prima facie wrong, is it more wrong in some cases than others? Yes. Within Christmas, is a lie like this more serious than lying about Santa? Yes. It certainly is more likely to discourage individual moral flourishing, as it promotes a cynical view of parents in children. And, all the original lie does is delay for a month the inevitable, that the parents can’t afford such a gift. (Setting aside issues of parents who can, but won’t do it.)

    Here, I’m in EJ territory. At an appropriate time, move beyond Santa Claus, and whether one is religious or not, say that it is in part anti-commercial, that the “spirit of the holidays” has been hijacked. (My religiously conservative, old-German-custom imbibing sister had “Christ Child” and “We Three Kings” bring gifts, as well as Santa, when her kids were younger. Of course, per the conversation, this itself may backfire for her and her husband in the long term, as should be obvious.)

    I personally think the best solution is parents who dodge the Santa myth from the start. It’s not easy, but, if one is a secularist in Xn America, one’s already dodging the Jesus myth (not the claim that Jesus is mythical; I’m not one of those). Still give gifts, but put it on a purely humanistic level. Teach your kids what to say to friends and schoolmates.

    Per David O’s response to DB, the “in ceteris paribus” seems to be softening his own deontological stance, especially with the explainer attached. Deontological moral stances need, and more importantly, admit of, no explainer. They simply “are.” The Priestly Code is a perfect example; it doesn’t say WHY you can’t eat shellfish, just that you can’t.

  18. db (and Steve),

    The reason I conceded the point that lying is prima facie wrong is that I think it is true. Think about what it would mean to say otherwise. I take it that we all follow a moral principle that lying is to be avoided and that there are many cases in which it is difficult to be truthful but venerable to be. We even you the word “honest” to mean moral. Likewise think of the way we inculcate children about lying. If you concede all these things, and really it seems you must, that is as good as conceding that lying is prima facie wrong. What would it mean to adopt an attitude that something is prima facie wrong if not that?

    “If I was told that a person was being dishonest when telling the Nazi at the door that there are no Jews hiding in their house, I would neither be skeptical nor critical of what they are doing.”
    Neither would I, very obviously. But here we are talking about a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuge defeater, namely the life of an innocent person. If we can lie for politeness we can lie for that. Also Kant’s position is that lying is never defensible not the much weaker claim that lying is prima facie wrong (and even he backed away from this somewhat). Remember that I brought up lying because *contra* Johnson I think the moral weight of lying is very easily and very often defeated.

    “If you were told that someone has lied, would that make you skeptical of them or what they say? Would that make them dishonest? Would you honestly say that you never lie? If you admit you do, should I be skeptical of you?”
    *raises eyebrow* Let me put it this way, if you met a person who said they didn’t worry about lying and didn’t think it was wrong, wouldn’t you be skeptical of that person?

    “In what way are children not participating in same-culture myths poorer than others who are?”
    They are lacking a bond that connects them to the rest of their society. I’ll give you an example. I visit my family in Iowa over christmas. They live in a small town. Every year there is a Christmas parade and a lot of the town goes. The floats remain down by the river and people go together. This is a chance for neighbors and friends and families to meet together and celebrate communally. There is less and less of this in America and it hurts America more and more if people like Robert Putnam are to be trusted. Santa is one part of that. Also think about kids talking about Santa in school with their friends. These common experiences bond people together. No one experience is that important in isolation but they add up to the texture of daily life.

    “And why in the US would there be exceptions for Jews and Muslims (are they not in the US and so missing out on US culture)? Because they have their own myths? Alright, but that sort of begs the question how important the cultural myths are then.”
    Not at all. Jews and Muslims (I think) don’t celebrate Christmas. They have their own myths and traditions. Jews set a place for Elijah. They have the traditional story of the menorah with its message of perseverance and hope in dark times. I’m sure Muslims have their own stories (I know less about them). They have their own familial gift giving ceremonies. They are getting what Christians and Americans more generally get from Christmas, just from somewhere else. Synagogues, temples and the like are not just for performing rites, they also foster community, support charity, introduce people to each other and so on.

    “Why can’t my family’s traditions, their myths, be good enough? Why can’t we start the new myths that go on to be the cultural myths of tomorrow?”
    Because you’re not going to. Unless your family consists entirely of literary geniuses you are just not going to produce the deep and distinctive traditions of American Christmas. You stand no chance of rivaling Clement Clark More’s poetry, the richly colored Rockwell informed Santa of American tradition, Charles Dickens’ moral parable, the Nutcracker (another public event) and so on. Of course families invent their own traditions (mine did), but these shared traditions give them a framework in which to do so as well as an occasion to prompt the invention of new traditions.

    “I just don’t see how anyone is poorer for picking and choosing (or inventing) the form of celebration and symbol of celebration they want.”
    Neither do I, but I think that those not availing themselves of the riches tradition brings us are missing out. Choose what you like, leave what you don’t but to use none of it? Pity.

    “Heck, Rudolph the red nosed-reindeer was simply tacked onto that pantheon last century and is now pretty popular.”
    But this a great example of the continuity of the tradition, not the discontinuity. Santa had eight reindeer, someone added a ninth. I am actually quite fond of Rudolf and his island of misfit toys. It’s a story with a point that is not lost on vulnerable tradition of being othered. It’s sentimental but it’s meant to be. Story telling traditions prompt the telling of new stories. Traditions evolve, but are still themselves.

    Also at no point in this exchange did I take offense so please don’t worry about that.

  19. David, I knew that you knew of the Nazi example as the classic counter-rejoinder. But, that’s just one sample of a whole class of lies that are, IMO, not prima facie wrong. Specifically, any lie told under coercion or duress is, at a minimum, at least likely to not be prima facie wrong, if not certainly so.

    I think from US foreign affairs history of the last decade, and lies told to the CIA by people being waterboarded. And, though waterboarding is also an outlier, nonetheless, it’s another example.

    Duress also is not always physical.

    You’re a middle manager for IBM, tasked to lead a group project. Your boss above you is a micromanager. At least in the early stages of the project, do “you” lie about how well it’s going? Most people do. And, to the degree that lie is wrong, most people would likely cite utilitarian reasons first, virtue ethics reasons second, and deontological ones third. And, certainly an example like this is not an outlier.

    Even less an outlier?

    David, a classic, classic, classic domestic life counterexample:

    “Does this dress make me look fat?”

    If you think a lie like that (assuming it’s told) is prima facie wrong, if you’re married/partnered, or when you become so, I wish you a lot of luck, because you’re probably going to need it.

    From a utilitarian point of view, combined with cultural evolution, “white lies,” like gossip, can be a sort of social lubricant, IMO.

  20. David Ottlinger,

    You’re idealizing traditional communities. One of the reasons that they break down is that they are very intolerant of diversity, be it sexual diversity, simply non-conformity or any kind of personal weirdness, and people who are sexually diverse or misfits or heretics (I’m not just talking about religious beliefs) flee them and seek places and circumstances where they don’t feel that they are under the gaze of the thought police or Stasi. Those people, once free of traditional communities, often try to invent their own rites and ceremonies. Maybe they fail: they can’t compete with Santa, as you say, but they feel freer and more autonomous for trying and that counts, for them at least. Their life on their own may be poorer in some respects, as you say, than that of the fully integrated member of the traditional community, but it’s a hell of a lot richer than their life, as a resident misfit, was when they were still within the confines of traditional community life.

  21. Steve and db,

    I think I’m beginning to see what happened here. I’m not using prima facie to mean a person lying to hide someone from his potential murderer looks wrong to me “on first appearance”. That would be crazy. I’m saying *in the abstract* lies are wrong until they are defeated by some other reason that makes them right. I’m using the accepted sense of prima facie as “A fact presumed to be true unless it is disproved.” (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/prima+facie) That is to say a lie is presumed to be wrong until that wrongness is defeated. Obviously in the Nazi case it is crazy defeated. I also agree as I said above that it can be and is often appropriate even obligatory to lie for politeness. And yes “Does this dress make me look fat?” is a paradigm case. But remember *I* was saying *contra* Johnson, that lies are more easily defeated than he took them to be. I still say lying is prima facie or ceteris paribus wrong. I said the following above: “Think about what it would mean to say otherwise. I take it that we all follow a moral principle that lying is to be avoided and that there are many cases in which it is difficult to be truthful but venerable to be. We even you the word “honest” to mean moral. Likewise think of the way we inculcate children about lying. If you concede all these things, and really it seems you must, that is as good as conceding that lying is prima facie wrong. What would it mean to adopt an attitude that something is prima facie wrong if not that?” Do you reject any part of that?

    “First, starting from my POV, which in this case has nodes to both utilitarian and virtue ethics schools, that lying is not prima facie wrong”
    Both utilitarianism and virtue theory generally hold that lying is prima facie wrong. Indeed so does essentially every moral system. Indeed it is very generally accepted which is why I am really surprised at the resistance here (unless my claim was misunderstood for the above reasons).

    “Per David O’s response to DB, the “in ceteris paribus” seems to be softening his own deontological stance”
    I never took a deontological stance. Neither did I soften. I said in the OP that the wrongness of lying is very easily defeated.

    “Deontological moral stances need, and more importantly, admit of, no explainer. They simply “are.””
    This, I have to say, is simply false. Trying to explain what makes wrong acts wrong is exactly what deontologists do. For Kant wrongness is explained by the categorical imperative. For Tim Scanlon there is a different explanation, and so on.

    S. walerstein,
    “You’re idealizing traditional communities.”
    I don’t think I am. The purposes of my argument lead me to point to the great goods that can come from shared traditions. Obviously I am aware of the tribalism, intolerance and hate that can come of such tribalism. But obviously one can participate in deep traditions without taking part in tribalism of this kind. You can be a devoted Christian and not abuse Jews and Muslims or make them feel unwelcome in public gatherings. Some people may want to throw out these kinds of shared traditions for their potential dangers, but I think that is misguided for all the reasons I have been motivating.

    “, once free of traditional communities, often try to invent their own rites and ceremonies. Maybe they fail: they can’t compete with Santa, as you say, but they feel freer and more autonomous for trying and that counts, for them at least.”
    Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that shared traditions are right for everyone, but I do think they are better for most people. If other people value their autonomy that much more, very well. They can enjoy their Festivus.

  22. He was before Aristotle, and thus technically arguably is not a virtue ethicist, and per Euthyphro, rejected deontology, but, Plato himself espoused what’s commonly called the “noble lie.” Let’s call Plato a utilitarian. He clearly believed that lies in the service of promoting the greater good of the Republic were acceptable.

    As someone who tilts anti-systemetician in general, and still gives plenty of friendly nods to Hume, I don’t like considering something like lying in the abstract, which … upward reference intended, sounds all too Platonic. Certainly, my reference to social (and behind that, broader sociological) issues would indicate that an appreciation of lying varies from culture to culture. Notice the phrase “white lies” in American English.

    Related to that, the SEP, in its article on lying, notes that multiple definitions of lying exist. Some invoke only deception, others invoke trust factors as well.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition/

    Again per foreign policy, now Syria, note that the Alawites consider it acceptable, even good, to dissimulate about their religious beliefs. And, per certain definitions of lying, they’re not lying.

    The fact that we don’t have “one definition” of lies strikes against talking about lying in “the abstract.”

    So, back to the matter at hand. Taking “prima facie” as being in opposition to “all things considered,” I don’t buy into a prima facie definition of lying. First, as noted, we already don’t have one definition. Second, per my social and sociological comments, I think even attempting to establish a prima facie definition is not wise.

  23. To take this further (and Dan, here’s your cue to enter!) we have a contested definition, and one that plays out culturally and socially. We’re in Wittgensteinian territory.

    To simplify the SEP ….

    We can define lying as:
    1. Anything that deceives
    2. Anything that intends to deceive (accidental deceit excluded)
    3. Anything that not only intends to deceive but intends to damage or break trust

    Or, per my referencing of white lies, we can nuance with
    4. White lies and black lies, namely
    4A. White lies are things that intend to deceive, but not to damage trust
    4B. Black lies intend to do both.

    So, we have a set called “lies” with subsets of “white lies” and “black lies.”

    I would accept that black likes are prima facie wrong. I would NOT accept that all lies are prima facie wrong.

    And, this is not an “appeal to the crowd,” it’s simply a language game guesstimate of what the crowd says — I’d venture that a fair amount of “the crowd” would accept a set of definitions like this.

  24. dbholmes

    “… after some more thinking it occurred to me that your criticism about surprise parties is not about the lying, but the nature of having a party come as a surprise (where one might be unready or uninterested).

    It’s not like during a surprise party one is actually enjoying, you’d turn to the people who got you there and say “Look I like this party, but what you said to me. Those things you said on the way over here. That was just plain wrong to do.” ”

    That’s right. My concern is not with the deception per se – and is prudential rather than moralistic.

    “If I were to take your argument regarding surprise parties as credible I’d also have to say giving people gifts at all (at least ones not asked for in advance) is foisting some unwanted object on a victim, bullying them to take something they must pretend they like.”

    Note that I said I regretted using the word bullying in the first place, and I certainly wouldn’t apply it to gift-giving, but I was amused that you made this point because I actually do have a thing about gift-giving also! This time, however, I will be careful not to generalize inappropriately. My point is that – except for gifts to young children – the hit-rate for successful surprise gift-giving is, I suspect, very low. Some people are better at it than others, and clearly the better you know someone the better your chances of getting it right. But my general point is that our system of (surprise) gift-giving to adolescents and adults does cause a lot of embarrassment and disappointment etc. (for both giver and receiver) as well as pleasure. But I certainly don’t want to make an issue of it. When it works, it’s beautiful.

  25. I haven’t addressed the lying issue (although it is interesting, requiring greater discussion), because I am largely with Socratic here. There is no inherent wrong in lying. Lying, misrepresentation, deception, are simply tools in the language kit-bag we all carry, in order to communicate comfortably with others who may or may not share our perspectives. I have known quite a number of people rigidly committed to ‘absolute honesty’ (including myself, at one point in my life). I have never known anyone who has not told lies, who does not regularly or periodically, even routinely tell lies. Especially to themselves (how could one believe one’s self ‘absolutely honest’ otherwise?). Asking the human animal not to tell lies is as effective as asking canine animals not to spritz their scent on trees. It is a part of their being.

    So: Two quotes, as comment:

    “I assure you that (politicians do not lie). They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind I After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

    “(T)he wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.” – Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

    The question is not whether we will lie – the only question is whether we lie viciously, or appropriately and kindly.

    Of course, being the King of New York, I find it useful not to lie about anything but my age (I’m really 16), and the fact that I’ve been to the moon twice disguised as two different astronauts.

  26. Hi DavidO, regarding shared cultural activities I agree that people’s lives can be described as being richer (in the sense of more degrees of freedom/understanding/ways to enjoy life) with more diverse experiences. So yeah (assuming they enjoyed it) someone who got to experience Santa and so some traditional US custom they might not otherwise experience are “richer” for it.

    But it seems then that claim should hold equally true for Jews and Muslims and anyone else. The fact that these subcultures have their own traditions would not mean they would not be richer still for having had Santa as well. And likewise nonJews and nonMuslims would be richer still if they tried out the celebrations of Jews and Muslims on top of Santa.

    However, the fact that someone could be richer due to an added experience does not mean they are poorer without having had it. Not richer =/= poorer. I think the example out you gave for Jews etc (they aren’t poorer without Santa) makes my point along that line.

    There are diverse experiences to be had out there, and Santa is just one of many. One can have a rich life without him. And even within the experience of “Santa”, there is not one monolithic US experience of Santa. When I gave the concept of a family making its own traditions that includes Santa! I can’t possibly believe that a family which made clear that Santa is fictional from the outset are somehow lesser off than those who maintained the fiction he is real.

    On lying being wrong, I’m afraid I’d have to start going meta to explain why that is incorrect from my particular viewpoint. The shortest synopsis being that wrong is not an objective state, but a subjective assessment which is highly conditional.

    Thankfully I don’t have to go there completely, since it can be rejected outside my own ethical framework. Socratic has been running the exact argument I’d be making from a more traditional analysis… and more concisely.

    I am sympathetic to your point that honesty is generally valued as a “virtue.” It is considered a positive trait, dishonesty a negative one. But that does not mean in general (or in the abstract) all lies, or acts of lying are wrong. I get your idea (which has some relevance to my own outlook) that this may be because something is gained in the act which justifies or allows for the lie. And I understand that you set that morality point exchange bar pretty low (lower than DavidJ). While there is consistency in this argument, I just don’t agree that is the best explanation/understanding (again referring to Socratic’s arguments).

    Your bringing up how children are raised to think of lies or dishonesty is problematic for two reasons. First is that children are often taught brute, simple rules to encourage general habits which will later have to be adjusted. That is to say what children are taught is largely a practical matter and does not indicate what actual, developed concepts are on any specific topic. Second, children are taught to lie all the time. Don’t tell strangers you are home alone. Do tell Aunt Mabel you loved her gift and miss her. Don’t tell your sister that her goldfish died. Do tell your sister that Santa really exists… 🙂

  27. Hi Mark, apologies… I knew you’d stepped back from the term bullying, but I went ahead and use it anyway!

    Hmmmm guess that puts me on the naughty list.

    Well I hope Sinterklaas is real and I get a free trip to Spain (albeit stuffed in a burlap sack). 🙂

  28. On the topic of honesty, I do suspect that David Ottlinger is getting just a bit perturbed at the moment. He most certainly did not claim that lying was wrong, but rather moderated the notion with “conditionally,” “on the surface,” “all else being equal,” or however you want to interpret “prima facie” and “ceteris paribus.” So I’m not sure that there’s much to do here other than complement his point. So far I’ve enjoyed EJ’s the most.

    Yes dishonesty does happen to be a required element to the smooth functioning of our societies. I don’t know how much credence this is given in “the ivory tower,” but if you’ve ever worked closely with a highly gifted salesperson, you may begin to appreciate the amazing skills required. It’s not just about telling the lies themselves, but rather with quickly developing an accurate understanding of what the customer is thinking, so that a good (perhaps false) story can be fabricated. It’s giving people what they want. The more honest salespeople should not only have more problems moving their goods and services, but I suspect will be rated lower for all supposed sales virtues in the surveys, including even “honesty.” If you ever do require the defense of a lawyer, I suspect that you should not look for the most honesty, but rather for the most skilled liar. Politics is another such specialty. If you know any famous politicians that seem honest, this is will be reasonable evidence that they’ve been pandering to you.

    I did enjoy the article itself. One observation that I’d make is that perhaps Santa, and even gift giving, is becoming a progressively less prominent aspect of Christmas. Nevertheless as far as culture goes, in all the world I can’t imagine that there is anything greater than what western Christmas has become. It may not be “high culture,” but seems extremely rich in identity nonetheless. I won’t pretent that any others have such vast institutions at their disposal.

    I used to see billboards proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season!” presumably in order to promote Christianity. Lately I see the more timeless message of: “Jesus is not a swear word!”

  29. For me, this all raises the issue, and the lack of attention paid to it, of “Suppose you have an ethical judgement, what is to be done about it”. I purposely pick the phrase “what is to be done”, for its being the title of a famous book by Lenin, and for its curious use of the passive tense, when the intent is anything but passive. So, suppose you have an ethical judgement:

    Do you write a book about it? Do you sue people who violate it? Do you set out, by any means necessary to realize (or reify?) it? Do you imagine a world in which the ethic reined, write a utopian novel about what that would look like, and/or try to start a movement to that end? Or do you look for some area where you can make a difference, so you can make the world arguably closer to your ethic, one instance at a time? (I take this partly from Sen’s argument for not being a Social Contractarian in The Idea of Justice). Do you share your opinion over dinner or on your favorite forum? Do you start a newsletter, of a blog?

    On thinking such thoughts, I wondered, is this addressed by that Meta-ethics thing I’ve been hearing about?

    Per WIkipedia:
    “According to Richard Garner and Bernard Rosen,[1] there are three kinds of meta-ethical problems, or three general questions:

    What is the meaning of moral terms or judgments? (Moral semantics)
    What is the nature of moral judgments? (Moral ontology)
    How may moral judgments be supported or defended? (Moral epistemology)”
    And this is pretty much the scaffolding of the article, so, nothing there AFAICS.

    Per SEP, maybe something. I made that article listenable on Kindle and perused it that way, but need to study it further. You might call it a sort of naturalizing, or relate it to pragmatism. In what sorts of actual processes does ethics appear? You could say it is addressed by “practical ethics” (a conversation that may lead to the advocacy of businesses employing ethicists), but that seems to me a matter of from a gods-eye view dispensing advice to mortals, not the pure abstract question of when individuals have certain ethical judgements, how do we make something of them, and what generalities can be drawn about the consequences of various answers to that question..

  30. Eric, no, but David did claim that lying is prima facie wrong. Robin and I both disagree, and I’ve shown in depth why there are good reasons to disagree. If David wants to respond further, I’m sure he can do so on his own.

    If you want to address my reasons to object to him, you can do so yourself. You did in part, in the second paragraph, with your “smooth functioning of societies” line, which fits fairly well with my distinction between “white lies” and “black lies.”

  31. On Lying,

    Eric, yes. “I do suspect that David Ottlinger is getting just a bit perturbed at the moment. [yep] He most certainly did not claim that lying was wrong, [not always, correct] but rather moderated the notion with “conditionally,” “on the surface,” “all else being equal,” or however you want to interpret “prima facie” and “ceteris paribus.” [correct] So I’m not sure that there’s much to do here other than complement his point. [nice]”

    Steve: “I don’t like considering something like lying in the abstract, which … upward reference intended, sounds all too Platonic.”
    Talking about things in the abstract has nothing to do with Platonism. It is a completely normal and, as far as I can see, indispensable part of ordinary discourse. Murder is at least as hard to define as lying. Would you object to the statement “Murder is a heinous moral wrong”? We can frequently make statements about things without stopping to form rigorous definitions. In fact we usually do. I am not sure of what exactly murder consists in and I’m sure that in many borderline cases I would have a hard time coming down on one side or the other. But I am completely comfortable saying “Murder is a heinous moral wrong”. Indeed what would you think of me if I were not? This amounts to saying that all unambiguous cases of murder are heinously wrong and that all ambiguous cases which are determined to be murder are also heinously wrong. The moral statement does not wait on or require elaborate definition (though forming careful definition is important for other reasons).

    Also this new turn of “I don’t understand lying in the abstarct” seems to me incompatible with your former position. You said earlier “that’s just one sample of a whole class of lies that are, IMO, not prima facie wrong.” That seems to presuppose that you find talk of lying in the abstract meaningful, you just disagree on what is true of lying in the abstract.

    On the distinction between “white lies” and “black lies”, they don’t really complicate the situation or the definition of “lies”. Both are lies which is why we call them white *lies* and black *lies*. The white lies are presumably lies whose wrongness is defeated. Black lies those whose wrongness is not. The difference is only in moral valence.

    I am repeating here but I am not sure what else to do. I said lies were prima facie wrong. Now that is different, crucially different, from saying lying is always wrong. Yet a few people continue to reply as though I had said the latter. Even after I spelled this out, Steve (Socratic) apparently assumed that I thought anyone would be obliged to tell the truth when asked “Does this dress make me look fat?” (I do not). Ej replies as though I were committing myself to a standard of “absolute honesty” or were “Asking the human animal not to tell lies” (I am not). Db writes “I am sympathetic to your point that honesty is generally valued as a “virtue.” It is considered a positive trait, dishonesty a negative one. But that does not mean in general (or in the abstract) all lies, or acts of lying are wrong.” But I never said all instances of lying are, on balance, wrong, in fact quite the opposite. Now I agree entirely with the Twain quote Ej produced, especially this part “(T)he wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously” But this implies exactly what I have been saying. Lies are to be avoided except when there is some moral defeater such as “others’ advantage”, “charity”, “healing”, “humanity” and the like.

    I issued a challenge to the skeptics which no one has taken up. Do you not follow the principle that you do not lie when you can avoid it? Would you not be disturbed if someone said that that they did not worry about lying and didn’t see it as something to be limited and avoided? If you answer yes to both, you agree with me that lying is prima facie wrong, but not all instance of lying are wrong. Indeed many are right and even obligatory.

    db,

    “But it seems then that claim should hold equally true for Jews and Muslims and anyone else. The fact that these subcultures have their own traditions would not mean they would not be richer still for having had Santa as well.”
    Suppose I have a bowl of strawberry ice cream after dinner. (We’ll assume, counter-factually, that I am in good shape and am perfectly entitled to a bowl.) I am not in any sense poorer (or much poorer) for not having had chocolate chip. If I thought I were poorer for not having chocolate chip, I would have to think I was poorer for not having butter pecan, black raspberry, coffee, caramel, black walnut and so on until it would seem there is no benefit at all or less to my ice cream. But this is a mistake. I was only ever going to have the one bowl of ice cream, and I chose strawberry. I am not worried about people who have their own traditions and stories. They have another, different kind of ice cream. (As I said Hindus in India participating in their own Indian/Hindu culture are not poorer for not believing in Santa, no more than I am poorer for having strawberry in place of chocolate chip.) What I am worried about is people who opt out of their own cultural myths and traditions out of a misguided scruple and replace it with nothing. Their children have no ice cream.

    “However, the fact that someone could be richer due to an added experience does not mean they are poorer without having had it. Not richer =/= poorer.”
    True but I think this a class of experiences which is a very natural part of childhood. An absence of any kind of shared cultural myth does leave a hole. If a kid does not learn to play the violin, it is not very meaningful to say he or she is the poorer for it. Especially if he or she is learning to paint or play the piano. But if kids are raised without any serious exposure to art, an element of a flourishing life is missing. They are missing out.

  32. David, again, I accept your distinction between “prima facie wrong” and “always wrong.”

    I made that clear in previous responses.

    However, I said I rejected your claim that lies were “prima facie wrong.” And, explained why.

    Why you think this does not undercut your claim, even as you in response refer to white lies vs black lies, I have no idea, unless you’re using “prima facie” in some way that goes beyond or differently from even the SEP as well as its everyday use. I didn’t supply the link, but my definition of ‘prima facie” as being one contrasted with “all things considered” comes from the SEP on “moral reasoning.”

    So, I’ll supply the link now: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-moral/

    Which, of course does square with the normal legal use, etc.

    Again, I understand what you’re saying, and I believe my responses show that.

    But, again, I reject your claim.

    If you reject my rejection, fine.

    But, please, should you respond, don’t try to explain yourself again as though I don’t understand what you’re claiming.

  33. Just in case anything in my previous comment was not 110 percent clear:

    David, I reject your claim that lies are prima facie wrong because I reject that white lies are prima facie wrong.

    You can either agree with this, or disagree with this, whether you provide an adequate warrant for your disagreement or not.

    But, again, please, I’m not claiming that you said lies are always wrong, and please don’t re-present that claim.

    Agree with me, disagree without warrant, or else find a more convincing defense that white lies are prima facie wrong.

  34. I’d still like to know whether the question of “what is to be done with an ethical judgement” ought to be some part of meta-ethics, and whether any known philosopher is pursuing it as such.

    The kernel of truth in post-modern distrust of the enlightenment is when you do something like visualizing the ideal state from a gods-eye view or view from nowhere, you in effect suggest a goal that tempts one to say, “Now if I were the king of the world….”, and has tempted more than one person to try with disastrous effects to become king of the world.

  35. David Ottlinger,

    If I can clarify the misunderstanding between you and Socratic:

    You are saying (if I read write) that lying is categorically wrong, but that certain circumstances provide justification for lying.

    Socratic is saying that circumstances define *different kinds* of lies, such that one would need justification for *not* telling certain kinds of lies in appropriately defining circumstances.

    These are really two entirely different understandings of lying. You have already announced your sympathies with Twain; I suggest that Socrates’ sympathies are with Wilde: lying in certain circumstances is a positive good, and, in such circumstances, would not need justification (or explanation by ‘defeaters’).

    As for myself, I don’t believe you’re committing to ‘absolute honesty;’ I’m going the next step beyond Wilde, and suggesting that lying has to be understood as inevitable part of communication. To the first question of your challenge, I answer ‘yes,’ but to your second I admit ‘no.’ This is what I expect from the human animal; as a confirmed pessimist, this leaves me open to pleasant surprises when individual cases suggest otherwise.

  36. David,

    “Ladies and gentleman … epidemic … every national malady from climate science denialism to Illuminati conspiracies … rhetorical ploys … Prof … a single silly lawsuit … anecdote mongering … not unlike the tactics Fox News uses …”

    I get the impression you’re criticizing David Johnson’s style by using a lot more of the kinds of styles your criticizing him for.

    “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”

    I understand your concerns, but as I said in a comment on David’s submission I’m not sure the Santa phenomenon fits in well with that.

    “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”

    Oy vey 🙂 but then what kind of arguments are left !

    “What is worse still is not making room for myth and literature and giving all the space to critical thinking”

    If that is the case, I agree.

    “What I am saying is that American children who do not get a chance to participate in their own cultural myths are usually the poorer for it.”

    We wouldn’t want our myths to stop evolving, or to be stuck with those of a 1000 years ago. In that context I don’t see the a problem with what David was actually proposing:

    “Play the Santa game; label gifts from Santa and eat the milk and cookies. Pretend that Santa is real. But when your child is old enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, and asks you for the truth…don’t lie. Don’t make excuses. Don’t appeal to magical explanations or say they should believe because it’s fun. Just tell them the truth”

  37. To extend EJ and the sociological angle further? (And, yes, EJ, I largely agree with the summary.)

    Now, if a wife asks, over 5 dresses in 4 years, “Does this make me look fat”? and she’s actually added 20 pounds, a repeated white lie risks becoming a black lie. When that line is crossed, of course, depends on the two individuals involved, and the firmness, or shakiness, of their particular relationship.

    Ditto for my other example, about lying to a boss about where a work project is at.

    Thinks like this, to me, just further illustrate why “lies” can’t be called prima facie wrong unless one’s definition excludes “white lies” in advance. Then, per my one comment, we’re at Wittgenstein, and I may not accept your definition.

    That said, I have seen a book or two about “radical honesty,” but, unless one lives among other people who truly practice the same, one shouldn’t be surprised by the fallout “radical honesty” generates.

    And, this is directly relevant to the story.

    Given that parents aren’t trying to break trust with their kids, and presumably aren’t unwittingly doing so, lying about the existence of Santa is not prima facie wrong.

  38. Hi DavidO (part 1),

    But I never said all instances of lying are, on balance, wrong,

    Yes I understand that, which I hoped the two sentences following the one you cited showed.

    The position I was attempting to describe (over three sentences) was based on your own statements that “A lie is presumed to be wrong…” (1st sentence) “…until that wrongness is defeated” (2nd sentence), and that you set the defeat criteria rather low compared to DavidJ (3rd sentence). So I recognize that by the end of any analysis not all cases of lying will end up being wrong.

    The problem for me is that system seems to operate analogous to a presumption of guilt, until proven innocent. While I concede it has some consistency as a model, ultimately I don’t think it is accurate to how such assessments work.

    I think EJwinner did a good job distinguishing (what I understand as) your concept of lying and SocraticGadfly’s. I agree with Socratic’s argument regarding the flaws in your concept. My own position about lying (based on anti-realism) goes a bit further but is not necessary to reject the prima facie claim.

    But this implies exactly what I have been saying. Lies are to be avoided except when there is some moral defeater 

    I liked the Twain quote too, even if I dismiss the reality of such labels as “good” and “evil.” But I’m not sure it does imply what you are saying. Maybe I am wrong but lying here appears to be something neutral (my point), like a tool, with the observation it can be used for benefit or harm, and that wisdom would suggest one practice using that tool only for benefit.

    What I am worried about is people who opt out of their own cultural myths and traditions out of a misguided scruple and replace it with nothing. Their children have no ice cream.

    Well I largely agree with that idea. It just sounds like you and I might differ on what counts as “nothing” when choosing a replacement. For example I didn’t think DavdJ’s suggested compromises would constitute nothing.

    True but I think this a class of experiences which is a very natural part of childhood. An absence of any kind of shared cultural myth does leave a hole… But if kids are raised without any serious exposure to art, an element of a flourishing life is missing. They are missing out.

    Though the word “flourishing” sets my teeth on edge, I agree with what you are saying here.

    Hi SocraticGadfly,

    David did claim that lying is prima facie wrong. Robin and I both disagree,

    Hey whattabout me? I disagreed first!

    Admittedly, you disagreed best. 🙂

  39. Hi DavidO (part2)…

    I issued a challenge to the skeptics which no one has taken up. Do you not follow the principle that you do not lie when you can avoid it?

    If you mean an ethical principle, then the answer to your question is no, I do not live by such a principle.

    Lying is a tool. It is neutral. My temperament/habit is that I don’t lie unless I need such a tool, and most of the time I don’t see the need of using that tool. But that is as principled as saying I don’t use a hammer unless I need a hammer, and most of the time I don’t need one.

    A major pressure for people (or at least me) avoiding that tool is that under normal circumstances it usually requires more work than just going with the truth. Lying creates a fiction that must be maintained at some additional cost. Why lie when that only creates more headaches in having to stay consistent? Oh what a tangled web we weave and all that…

    Besides I suck at it.

    Would you not be disturbed if someone said that that they did not worry about lying and didn’t see it as something to be limited and avoided?

    Well, yes and no. I am basically with Ejwinner on this. I know I am going to get lied to, the question is always context as to how I’d feel about it.

    In some cases, like during scientific or philosophical investigations, lying is wholly contradictory to achieving the set goals and so a tool not allowed by accepted methods. It makes no sense to use it there and I strongly avoid it (to a fault) when working in that capacity. I guess one could argue I live by the principle you mentioned (or stronger) within the confines of that setting. Admittedly, I am offended by scientists and philosophers that lie within the context of those investigations, and it would make further claims by them in that context suspect.

    Likewise, if I established a relationship with someone where certain areas of discussion are agreed to be off-limits for using that tool (lying), I would be upset if they used it in those areas and I’d have a hard time trusting anything else they said.

    And of course… like a person using a hammer for anything and everything under the sun… if they showed no judgment on when it is an appropriate/useful tool for a given task I would think they are a fool and avoid them for that reason.

    Finally, if they routinely used that tool to hit people on the head, including me, I would dislike them because they are being unjust, cruel, etc (but that would not be because of the tool used).

  40. Steve,

    I think I see what happened here (but I was wrong the first time so I can’t be sure). I’m afraid it was not as clear as you intended it to be from your responses that you understood that my position was that lying was not categorically wrong, particularly because you did seem to imply that I would have to take “No, that dress does not make you look fat” as prima facie wrong ( I do not). I see now (I think) that you attempted to undermine my assertion that lies are prima facie wrong by asserting that white lies are not prima facie wrong. This implies that you took my assertion that lies are prima facie wrong to imply that each individual lie is prima facie wrong. This does not follow. When I say lies are in the abstract prima facie wrong, I mean abstracting away from the other characteristics of the lie, the fact that it is a lie weighs against it. “On it’s face” it is wrong because all we know of it is that it is a lie. Hence lies, considered qua lies and considered only in this aspect, are “on their face” or “on first glance” wrong. This does not imply what is crazy, that a person’s lying to hide someone from their murderer is “on its’ face” or “on first glance” wrong. When you ask me to consider individual lies, like polite lying about dresses or serious lies meant to save innocent life, you are filling in a great deal of information that affects how these actions are to be considered. Such information was not present when considering lies in the abstract.

    Again, *still* no skeptic about the wrongness of lying has taken up my challenge. Do you not accept that lying is to be avoided and limited when possible? Would a person who told you that they did not worry about lying or try to limit it not disturb you? To me the silence seems eloquent. (Oops, I guess ej, did. Good on you ej, answer below.)

    ej,

    “You are saying (if I read write) that lying is categorically wrong, but that certain circumstances provide justification for lying.”
    I wouldn’t use that terminology. “Categorically”, since Kant, has meant all actions in a given “category” are wrong in any circumstance. But yes I do believe we always have a reason not to lie it is just that reason is often defeated, and, in the case of the Nazi/murderer overwhelmingly defeated. Saving an innocent life is vastly more important than respecting the autonomy of the gestapo.

    “Socratic is saying that circumstances define *different kinds* of lies, such that one would need justification for *not* telling certain kinds of lies in appropriately defining circumstances.”
    I arrived at a similar understanding since the last round of replies. See my response above if you’re interested. Thanks for trying to help clarify.

    ” To the first question of your challenge, I answer ‘yes,’ but to your second I admit ‘no.’ This is what I expect from the human animal; as a confirmed pessimist”
    Well then it seems you are conceding my point. If lies are to be avoided as such, then lies considered in the abstract are prima facie wrong. When you generalize you assign them a negative valence. You answer the second question negatively but out of “pessimism”; evidently you would prefer an affirmative. But my claim amounts to no more than an affirmative answer to both questions.

    marc,

    “I get the impression you’re criticizing David Johnson’s style by using a lot more of the kinds of styles your criticizing him for.”
    I make no apology for using rhetoric or style. Prof Johnson used heated rhetoric to call parents encouraging kids believing in Santa “immoral” “unimaginative” “bad parenting” a “charade”. I gently (ok not *too* gently) mocked what I thought was the Prof.’s over-heated assessment. The difference is that belief in Santa is not a moral outrage, while shouting about Santa being an outrage is genuinely a bit silly.

    “I understand your concerns, but as I said in a comment on David’s submission I’m not sure the Santa phenomenon fits in well with that.”
    I tried to make the case that it does. What makes you think it’s different? I’d be curious.

    “Oy vey 🙂 but then what kind of arguments are left !”
    More moderate ones generally.

    “We wouldn’t want our myths to stop evolving, or to be stuck with those of a 1000 years ago. In that context I don’t see the a problem with what David was actually proposing:”
    Well, what you quote was from the “Let’s compromise” part of the paper. His first preference was that we “cease” with Santa.As to evolving, by all means let it go on! I praised Rudolf above as a worthwhile innovation.

  41. David,

    “I get the impression you’re criticizing David Johnson’s style by using a lot more of the kinds of styles your criticizing him for.”
    I make no apology for using rhetoric or style. Prof Johnson used heated rhetoric to call parents encouraging kids believing in Santa “immoral” “unimaginative” “bad parenting” a “charade”. I gently (ok not *too* gently) mocked what I thought was the Prof.’s over-heated assessment. The difference is that belief in Santa is not a moral outrage, while shouting about Santa being an outrage is genuinely a bit silly

    Put that way, what I meant was that to me a lot of your flourishes (rhetoric, style, tone, etc) sound a bit silly too.

    “I understand your concerns, but as I said in a comment on David’s submission I’m not sure the Santa phenomenon fits in well with that.”
    I tried to make the case that it does. What makes you think it’s different? I’d be curious

    My comment about the Santa phenomenon was: “It’s doesn’t seem like other myths and fairy tales we tell our children. In those I think we clearly imply, or right out say, things like it’s a story, it’s not really true, or it’s make believe”

    “Oy vey 🙂 but then what kind of arguments are left !”
    More moderate ones generally.

    I wasn’t serious, and I can see it’s not clear what I meant, but what I was trying to say was that if I read what you wrote without charity “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”, I’d think that you were saying that every kind of argument was prohibited because any kind of argument could motivate other writers to run rough-shod over culture and the humanities.

    “Well, what you quote was from the “Let’s compromise” part of the paper. His first preference was that we “cease” with Santa”

    Yes, the conclusion was headed with the title “Let’s compromise”.

    About his preferences, I’m the first to complain about titles, by-lines, and click bait but I don’t think I can speculate more about his intentions.

    Rudolph is ok by me too 🙂

  42. David, I think you’re missing my point. What I’m saying is that there’s enough exceptions to your rule that your rule-making fails. And, again, I’m not alone.

    Do you not accept that lying is to be avoided and limited when possible? Would a person who told you that they did not worry about lying or try to limit it not disturb you? To me the silence seems eloquent.

    Actually, with white lies, I did take up your challenge, and …

    I said you were wrong.

    David, I don’t know how much clearer you need it.

    I’m getting the feeling that you’re simply doubling down on your initial stance while taking the least “charitable’ interpretation of critiques. I’m saying with “white lies,” your concerns for this class of lies, as a class, generally does not prevail.

    I don’t how much clearer I can make it.

  43. It seems to me David O is making a perfectly good distinction via the phrase prima facie. The following is from Wikipedia, but refers to solid academic sources if I’m not mistaken.

    The phrase is also used in academic philosophy. Among its most notable uses is in the theory of ethics first proposed by W. D. Ross, often called the Ethic of Prima Facie Duties, as well as in epistemology, as used, for example, by Robert Audi. It is generally used in reference to an obligation. “I have a prima facie obligation to keep my promise and meet my friend” means that I am under an obligation, but this may yield to a more pressing duty.

    What’s the problem with saying lying is prima facie wrong although in many circumstances it is justifiable? Loss of a limb is similarly prima facie a bad thing but if the alternative is death it is probably worth it. This seems a good way of permitting some consequentialism without getting totally mushy about everything.

  44. Steve (and Ej),

    There is quite a bit I might ask you toward making your view more clear, but at this point we should probably worry about declining returns. I’ll try to sum up my side. Thanks for the SEP reference. Actually I find that the SEP is using prima facie in exactly the way I intended. Moral philosophy “now generally interprets ‘prima facie’ in contrast to ‘all things considered.’ One has a prima facie duty to do some act just in case there is a sufficient basis for concluding that it is one’s duty to do it. A fuller consideration of the act’s features might rebut this conclusion by showing that the features providing reason to ascribe the duty are overridden by other features of the act.” So when I said we have a prima facie duty to not lie, this is considering actions in view of the feature that they are lies. This feature weighs against them. As soon as we start to consider more features of the lie, its social appropriateness, its potential to harm other people etc, we are no longer considering lies only in view of their being lies. (Just catching us up.) Now you say “I’m saying with ‘white lies,’ your concerns for this class of lies, as a class, generally does not prevail.” But this does not have the force of an objection. Now you are not considering lies just in virtue of being lies but in virtue of being lies and being “white”. In the language of the SEP, you are now entering “a fuller consideration of the act’s features”. But this is to change the question. (This is as much as to say that considering a class of actions prima facie wrong does not commit us to considering each subclass of that class as prima facie wrong. Lies are prima facie wrong. White lies are not prima facie wrong. There is no contradiction and so no objection.) Further you write, “I’m saying is that there’s enough exceptions to your rule that your rule-making fails.” But this again does not have the force of an objection. The wrongness of lies can be usually or even almost always defeated, but that does not affect the fact that the wrongness of lies must be defeated. The rule is “Avoid lies unless there is a good reason” (equivalent to lies are prima facie wrong). If we usually lie this is perfectly consistent with the rule so long as there is a sufficient reason in each case.
    Now if we lied very often or on most occasions, that would be inconsistent with the rule “Avoid lies”, but that was not the rule proposed. “Avoid lies” is not equivalent to lies are prima facie wrong.

    Also I don’t see how the distinction between “white” lies and “black” lies helps. Splitting “white” lies and “black” lies is not like splitting rams and ewes. “White” and “black” don’t impute any content, any feature of the act, except moral comment. Both are equally lies. (On my view “white” lies are lies which are defeated, “black” lies not.) If your answer to my challenge is no I don’t avoid lies, I avoid “black” lies but not “white” lies, you will have to give some account of “white” and “black” which does not make reference to defeat. (I see no such analysis as forthcoming.)

    Sorry if you still find this unsatisfying, I tried my best to state my side.

    Ej: (missed this one) “Socratic is saying that circumstances define *different kinds* of lies, such that one would need justification for *not* telling certain kinds of lies in appropriately defining circumstances.”
    I would agree but this is not in conflict with my view. I said we have a reason to avoid lies considered as a class. Now if we consider a subclass of lies which have the feature of being lies along with *some other feature* it may be that such lies are morally innocent or even obligatory. This does not argue against my point. It merely says that every action in the sub class is permissible because the wrongness of the act in virtue of the feature distinctive of the larger class is always defeated by the feature distinctive of the subclass. My point is that it still has to be defeated. For more, see my (admittedly daunting) reply to Steve.

    Hal and Eric,
    You guys get me. Stay cool.

    db,
    “The problem for me is that system seems to operate analogous to a presumption of guilt, until proven innocent.”
    Exactly right. The legal language is meant to move us into the space of guilt and innocence.

    “I think EJwinner did a good job distinguishing (what I understand as) your concept of lying and SocraticGadfly’s.”
    See above (if youre sufficiently interested). Especially after “Also I don’t see..”

    “My own position about lying (based on anti-realism) goes a bit further but is not necessary to reject the prima facie claim.”
    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 wit, defeaters can be metaphysically self-sufficient, public entities (Scanlon-esque) or just things that count as defeaters relative to my moral sentiments.

    “Maybe I am wrong but lying here appears to be something neutral (my point), like a tool, with the observation it can be used for benefit or harm, and that wisdom would suggest one practice using that tool only for benefit.”
    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?

    ” if they routinely used that tool to hit people on the head, including me, I would dislike them because they are being unjust, cruel, etc (but that would not be because of the tool used).”
    But lying is always a bit of hitting on the head.It is disrespecting someones autonomy. We lie because we don’t like what people will do when given full information. Sometimes we lie to our own advantage, sometimes to the advantage of others. Sometimes that limiting of autonomy is justified but is always to be used judiciously.

    “My temperament/habit is that I don’t lie unless I need such a tool, and most of the time I don’t see the need of using that tool.”
    Aristotle always said that the virtuous are not even disposed to do wrong. 🙂

    marc,
    “Put that way, what I meant was that to me a lot of your flourishes (rhetoric, style, tone, etc) sound a bit silly too.”
    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    “My comment about the Santa phenomenon was: “It’s doesn’t seem like other myths and fairy tales we tell our children. In those I think we clearly imply, or right out say, things like it’s a story, it’s not really true, or it’s make believe'”
    I see. It’s a natural point but it is worth noting that 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. The psychologists seemed to think this kind of play was natural at this point and not a hindrance to further development.

    “About his preferences, I’m the first to complain about titles, by-lines, and click bait but I don’t think I can speculate more about his intentions.”
    Really? He titled his piece “Let’s End the Santa Charade” and called it “bad parenting” and an “unjustifiable lie”.

    As long as we agree on Rudolf, all will be well.

    Hal,
    “For me, this all raises the issue, and the lack of attention paid to it, of “Suppose you have an ethical judgement, what is to be done about it”.
    I’m not sure I understand. If you have an ethical principle you should follow it. Also no, this would not be a question for meta-ethics. Generally ethics concerns what we should do, meta-ethics concerns questions about ethics (meanings of moral terms, status of moral claims etc).

  45. Over the last couple of years I’ve been learning that when someone snickers to him/her self about someone else disclosing their degree in philosophy, that this humor generally does occur in ignorance. Yes I’ve been gaining tremendous appreciation for various ideas in the field. But when an author’s position can so easily be subverted by ticky-tack semantics, yes I do believe that the standard derogatory perception of the field rings true.

    David, I once told you that I’d like to help the field regarding its use of definition, and to this you mentioned that Ludwig Wittgenstein did some good work. It seems to me however that if he would have actually straightened this issue out, then tangents such as our present one would be far less common. And what’s the issue again? As far as I can tell you’re being accused of saying that white lies are prima facie wrong, and apparently others won’t be satisfied unless you concede that such lies are instead just plain right. My my my… I mustn’t really blame anyone however, since this sort of thing does seem quite standard in the field. Furthermore I’ve also developed a good deal of respect for all associated parties. But let me also submit this:

    There are no “true” definitions, just more and less “useful” ones. This is clearly not yet understood in general, since any standard encyclopedia will try to assert “What is… ” rather that “What’s a useful definition for…” time, space, life, consciousness, and so on. So while I can’t thus point out blame for digressions, I’m still able to suggest that there’s a better way.

    When an author presents ideas, we must learn that it’s the reader’s obligation to figure out the author’s definitions, whether or not they’re formally disclosed. There are a host of ways that such definitions may then be objected to as non useful, but we must learn that any reader who suggests that the author’s definitions happen to be “incorrect,” has failed given that there are no true definitions. Instead it must become known that it’s the reader’s obligation to figure out what the writer happens to be saying. This would not only clean up the field of philosophy tremendously, I think, but science as well.

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