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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