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.

It’s worth noting: the motivation and reasonable expectation are necessary but not sufficient conditions for establishing an exception under the ALP. So, maybe I found out you’re adopted and I hide it from you to spare you any pain. Maybe I have a reasonable expectation of success here. Even so, one might argue that that’s not enough – the subject matter is too important to justify an exception under the ALP.

Now we can frame the Santa question as follows: is there a good motivation and reasonable expectation of success associated with lying to children about Santa that qualifies it as an exception under the ALP?

There are surprisingly quite a few issues that can be explored here.

The surprise birthday party analogy

When I lie to you about a birthday party, I am participating in an established tradition of lying about surprises that you know about. It’s fairly safe to assume (though, of course, there are exceptions – that’s why that word “reasonable” in the ALP is so important) that the moment you find out the truth, you will not feel deceived. Even if you were lied to in the details, the broad picture is one you’re quite familiar with: lying for surprises is fun.

This does not apply to the Santa case. Children do not already know about an accepted practice of their parents lying to them about the nature of the world. Indeed, it’s relevant to note that young children tend to believe whatever their parents tell them. They have to because, seeing as they’re young children, they have no clue what the hell is going on, and have to rely on parents to set them straight about the world. So they’re particularly vulnerable to lies, especially from parents.

Another important difference between the Santa case and the surprise party case: finding out you’ve been duped into a surprise party feels good. It’s a positive experience in the moment. Finding out that Santa was a lie typically doesn’t feel great. At least in the moment, it tends to feel like a major disappointment.

The question arises, however: many things that feel crummy in the moment are nonetheless worth it. When I lie to you in order to surprise you for a birthday party, I may have to tell you that we’re not going to be able to make it out tonight after all. That makes you feel sad and unappreciated. It’s a genuinely bad feeling. But, typically, the surprise feels so good, that overall, the positive outweighs the negative. This involves a weighing process. Obviously, if I have to tell you that your mom just died in order to get you to the surprise location, that probably feels too terrible for the positive feeling of the surprise to possibly outweigh it.

So: does the positive feelings associated with being lied to about Santa outweigh the negative feeling associated with the disappointment? Again, whatever the answer is, there are likely to be many exceptions. But is there a general answer we can lean on to settle the matter as far as the ALP?

Reliability of self-reports: how we were raised

One possible answer is that we should rely on self-reports here. Typically, people remember the whole Santa experience quite fondly (I’m going off anecdotal experience and common sense here – sorry, I’m not gonna go stat hunting for this one). What’s more, most people who experienced the Santa lie as children go on to lie to their children about it, presumably from good intentions. Isn’t this strong evidence that the positive tends to outweigh the negative of the Santa experience?

Here I think the answer is a fairly obvious “no”. Firstly, people have strong psychological incentives to bias positive when self-reporting about the way they were raised. For example, many people who were hit by their parents as children justify it later, saying that it was no big deal, or it helped them learn, or they were particularly tough children, or their parents had a really stressful job, etc. There’s good reason for this: it’s hard to acknowledge that something your parents did to you was bad. Those of us lucky enough to have strong, loving relationships with our parents would rather not have to face the possibility that there was an aspect of how they raised us that was unethical.

You might disagree with my diagnosis here. Maybe people will bias negative about how they were raised in order to rebel, or to justify their own shortcomings, etc. But even if this is so, the important point for the larger case I’m making is that we’re not reliable to self-report about how we were raised, one way or the other.

Reliability of self-reports: the seen and the unseen

There’s also a problem of unseen consequences here. You may reflect on the fact that your parents hit you and say, “hey, look, I turned out great! I have a loving husband and won a Pulitzer. It must have worked.” We don’t need to think you’re lying about having turned out great to see a problem with the inference. For all we know, you might have turned out having a loving and charming husband and two Pulitzers if your parents hadn’t hit you.

People who reflect on the Santa lie and conclude they received no harm from the disappointment have no access to how they might have turned out if they hadn’t had the Santa lie.

But then, we don’t know the reverse either. Maybe the Santa lie – though painful in the moment of revelation – is actually great, and not just for the excitement it brings to Christmas gift-giving. Maybe it imparts lifelong imagination. Or maybe the disappointment itself is, over time, a net good, because it imparts distrust of authority, scientific thinking, or (for those who discover the truth on their own) promotes self-directed inquiry.

Matters have gotten highly speculative, however we take them. Is there any way we can settle the question without recourse to flimsy generalizations?

The corollary to the ALP

If we accept the ALP, it seems we should accept the following corollary: if the positive result that ostensibly justifies the lie could be accomplished without lying, it does not actually work as a justification for the lie.

So then the question becomes: could all – or most, or simply enough to tip the scales – of what’s positive about the Santa experience be imparted without lying? If it could, then lying’s not actually a requirement for the positive result, and so there’s no reason to think it’s an exception under the ALP.

What about lying, in particular, is necessary to accomplish the expected positive outcomes of telling children about Santa? Let’s suppose that lying is not necessary at all. This seems plausible, because whatever the goal might be – bringing kids excitement, joy, a sense of magic, a sense of wonder, creativity, etc. – it could probably be accomplished with some combination of activities and rituals that don’t involve a lie.

On the call we had, it was TK’s response to this point that ultimately convinced me. He noted that this applies to birthdays as well. It’s possible to stage a surprise birthday party without lying. It’s just harder. And intuition tells us it’s okay to just go ahead with the lie for convenience, even knowing that in theory it could be done without it. There’s even something preferable about lying – it adds to the fun of the surprise.

Ethics by degrees

Why? Ultimately, I think it comes down to this: the ALP is a fairly weak principle. A white lie, even if told for no reason at all, is not that bad. So yes, the ALP is literally true: it is “unethical” to lie without a positive justification. But if we allow “unethical” to work by degrees, lying is a traffic ticket.

This matters. In the case of a small wrong, the burden to engage wrong-free alternatives lightens. We have to ask how hard it is to make the switch. If it’s quite hard, and the wrong quite small, we tend to think it’s not necessary to go through the trouble.

So let’s consider the question anew: what would need to be done in order to give children the same positive outcomes that telling about Santa causes without any lying? The epistemic effort involved in identifying this is already massive. There may be quite a few different positive outcomes involved, each with different possible paths for what a lying-free alternative might look like.

Compare this to the lie. Intuitions may differ on this. For some, the fact that the lie is to a child makes it much worse. The lie isn’t insignificant; it comes with major philosophical and ethical implications. But, on the whole, intuition tells me the lie isn’t strong enough to require the effort involved in reliably employing the alternative. It matters here that lying, in general, isn’t that big a deal; and this particular lie, while maybe significant, just doesn’t seem to be all that harmful.

Obviously, this is a restrained answer. How you weigh your degrees may vary from how I do. Personally, I doubt I’ll tell my kids about Santa. I like the challenge that designing the lying-free alternative poses. And there’s something about Santa that feels to me like implying that we need to lie in order to believe in magic – this isn’t a message I want to send. But this is a very personal sense, and I don’t think I could confidently argue for it. All which is to say that, though I don’t personally find the Santa lie preferable, I’m for the moment convinced that it’s not unethical.

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