Ethics of Santa

Last night I co-hosted (along with the amazing James Walpole) the last of our series of philosophy discussion calls Praxis Philosophy Nights (though the series is continuing without us as hosts, which makes me extremely happy). Our final guest was TK Coleman, who makes a living loving Christmas music. He joined us to argue that there is nothing ethically wrong with lying to kids about Santa. The rest of us on the call, either out of conviction or simple sportsmanship, did our best to take him down. For my part, while I’d like to think I put up a good fight, I came away more or less convinced: it is not unethical to lie to children about Santa. The video’s here. Here’s my take on the relevant arguments (summarized in my words, though many of the arguments come from others on the call):

The Anti-Lying Principle (ALP)

A plausible Anti-Lying Principle (ALP): lying is ethically wrong unless the motivation behind it is to benefit the person being lied to, and there’s reasonable expectation of success.

Let’s draw this out a bit. If I lie to give you a surprise birthday party, most of us think that’s okay. The experience you’ll have when you get the surprise will make the lie worth it. There is no guarantee of this, of course. Maybe you hate surprises and I don’t know that. But, there’s a reasonable expectation of success. If I found out you hate surprises and then tried it again, I would no longer be justified, since I no longer have a reasonable expectation of success.…

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The “What Doesn’t Kill You” Paradox

Suffering built that mustasche

“From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

There’s a lot of truth to this popular phrase. It points to a broader truth: to grow, we must act. It is in the process of acting toward a purpose that our faculties are shaped. But acting toward a purpose can only happen if we have some goal that is not easy to achieve; otherwise, there’s nothing to act for. We need problems to grow against. Satisfaction is stasis, and stasis is the antithesis of growth.

“The obstacle is the way” is another phrase that points to the same truth.

There’s an obvious problem with taking this truth to heart. Follow it to its logical conclusion, and it tells you to have as many problems as you can possibly handle. If “what does not kill me makes me stronger”, doesn’t it follow that I should get beat and maimed to just short of death as often as possible? I’ll get so strong!

No big problem. Truisms always break down when you take them as absolutes. Take it as a general rule, not a necessary fact, and things ought to look better. But even this softer version has its problems.

I think about this most often in terms of parenting. I grew up a poor, undocumented immigrant moving from one shitty neighborhood in Queens to another. I left home at 16 and had to make it on my own from there on (admittedly, with a lot of help – but it was help I had to find).…

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Determinist Existentialism

Modern day Sisyphus
“Good thing I have existentialism to help me out with this.”

Compatibilism vs. incompatibilism

If existentialism means anything, it means believing in freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre, probably the most well-known existentialist, argued that, in all situations, we are free to choose between options. In fact, though existentialism is a diverse and complex school of thought, it boils down to the following two claims:

  • Radical freedom: we are always free to choose how to act.
  • Radical responsibility: we are personally responsible for our entire experience of life.

This should sound utterly incompatible with determinism: the view that causality is an exclusively physical phenomenon. If all causality reduces to the interactions of physical matter and forces, what room is left for personal choice? This isn’t even a question about whether physical states of affairs fully determine how everything will turn out (“hard determinism”). Even if some level of probability or even randomness enters the picture, so long as it all happens in the realm of the physical, then, whichever way it happens to work, it’s still not up to us.

Or, to put it more precisely: even though some of it is up to us, how we choose to influence what is up to us is not up to us. We obviously do choose. But how we choose is only the manifestation of physical causation doing its thing. As Schopenhauer put it: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

Most philosophers are “compatibilists”: they think we can square “metaphysical libertarianism” (the view that metaphysical free will exists) with determinism.…

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