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There is no Santa clause

Christmas%20with%20the%20Super-Heroes.jpg

What do the figures above all have in common? None of them exists. Nor would any parent ever tell his child that Superman or Batman is real. Yet some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real. Perhaps some also tell them that the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy is real.

They shouldn’t. These are lies. Parents who do this certainly mean well, but they do not do well, because lying is always wrong. Not always gravely wrong, to be sure, but still wrong. That is bad enough. But there is also the bad lesson that children are apt to derive from this practice, even if the parents do not intend to teach it – namely, the immoral principle that lying is acceptable if it leads to good consequences. There is also the damage done to a child’s trust in his parents’ word. “What else might they be lying about? What about all this religion stuff?”

This issue came up in the comments section of my recent post on lying, and I decided that it was important enough to address in a separate post. My more secular readers might not find it worth the attention. But the reason might be that they think that I am obviously right. Ironically, it is (I suspect) more religious and traditionally-minded people who are most likely to tell this sort of lie. Certainly there are many religious people who do it.

I would urge them to stop. A child is completely dependent on his parents’ word for his knowledge of the world, of right and wrong, and of God and religious matters generally. He looks up to them as the closest thing he knows to an infallible authority. What must it do to a child’s spirit when he finds out that something his parents insisted was true – something not only important to him but integrally tied to his religion insofar as it is related to Christmas and his observance of it – was a lie? Especially if the parents repeated the lie over the course of several years, took pains to make it convincing (eating the cookies left out for “Santa” etc.), and (as some parents do) reassured the child of its truth after he first expressed doubts? How important, how comforting, it is for a child to be able to believe: Whatever other people do, Mom and Dad will never lie to me. How heartbreaking for him to find out he was wrong!

To quote Fr. Thomas Higgins’ once widely-used textbook, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics:

Certainly harmful truth might be withheld from children, but not by lying. They may not be told falsehoods which from the force of one’s words they will rightly take to be true. A child can distinguish between fable and fact. When we purport to tell him things “for real” he does not expect a fairy tale. An example in point is the Santa Claus legend. We obtrude the story upon his belief, insisting that we are not weaving tales and commanding his acceptance – it is nothing but lying. One’s intent is innocent enough, but this is a fair example of the end justifying the means. This conclusion will seem strange to American people. It will be said that we are so used to this story; our own mothers told it to us, it is surrounded by an aura of the happiest recollections. Yet it is speech contrary to one’s mind. God has never and cannot so act toward man, deluding him into accepting fiction for fact. It is a wrong way to discipline young minds – eliciting good behavior by falsehood. The motive of the good should only be the true. Because of this experience, it is difficult for the young to avoid the implicit conclusion that a lie in a good cause is legitimate. For some, the awakening is a cruel disillusionment; thereafter they will be wary of the things that are told them by those whose words should be sacred. (pp. 321-22)

The natural law tells us, and the Church has always taught, that lying is intrinsically wrong. There is no clause that says “…but it is OK when you’re lying to your kids about Santa!”

(cross-posted)

Comments (154)

Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy - I'm going to hell.

Santa Claus is real, of course, and this blog above is a piece of garbage. Santa Claus is an analogy for God the Father and acts as a very good object and moral lesson for small children.

Santa Claus is omniscient. He knows who is good and bad and he rewards the good and gives a lump of coal to the bad (but most parents don't let that happen since they are merciful as Santa).

Santa can be everywhere all at once on Christmas. Santa can miraculously invade a house that doesn't have a chimney and leave gifts for little ones.

I could go on but you get the point. Santa Claus is good for children and for a month or so in December, can bring a child's focus onto being good, doing good, and thinking about what is good and why.

Parents don't really have to foist a set of lies on children to accomplish the Santa Claus set up. They simply have to support the good ideas of conscience, omniscience, the miraculous, mercy, kindness, and tenderness.

God is Santa Claus and if children confuse the jolly old soul for the other, that's not a bad thing, and being ready to discover that Santa Claus is not the same as God is the moment to teach them more seriously about the Father.

Ed, I think we had this argument out last year. It didn't convince anyone who wasn't already open to the idea already, as far as I recall.

But I am always ready to argue it again. I am squarely on Ed's side on this: intentionally planting in the mind of a child a "fact" to be held as definitively real-world factual, is to intentionally cause a defect in the child's mind: error. This is contrary to the virtues related to truth, and in intrinsically wrong. In addition to this basic wrong, it also damages the child's ability to trust, and to respect natural authority. Whether it does these latter in any significant degree is not determinative.

I would like to temper that with a clarification: there is no LIE when we fail to clarify a point that you could clear up but are not obliged to immediately clear up. There is, also, no lie in leaving behind you an ambiguity that leaves a person open to questions, puzzles, and wonder. These may be an offence against the virtues of truth in some cases, depending on circumstances, but they do not constitute lies of themselves. There is nothing wrong with telling the Santa myth, just as there is nothing wrong with telling the Peter Pan myth, and the Paul Bunyan myth. The lie comes in when I, either with words or actions (usually both) convey to the child that the Santa myth is not merely story, but is real-world factual, contrary to what I hold in my own mind. (I will leave for Ed to deal with the question of whether it constitutes a lie when you intentionally create the ambiguity with a technique of multiple-meanings well over the maturity level of the child, a technique that you know, given the immaturity of the child's mind, there is no reasonable basis for them to remain in doubt about factualness of the matter.)

The argument that springs from myth, fable, or more generally "story" is a non-starter: we never need our listener to believe the myth is real-world factual in order to convey the underlying truth, the base level "what the story is about". We distinguish in our story-telling all over the place fact from fiction, and we can convey truths in the midst of fiction just fine. There isn't any definite human good that adding real-world factual presentation to a myth-story gets you that you couldn't have achieved just fine without applying the real-world factual presentation.

For those of you who (like myself) had the fake Santa story fed to you as if real-world factual, and who perceive that you took no harm from it (unlike myself), I would suggest a cautionary thought: it is always at least a little problematic to base your sense of morals on "that's how we did it, (and it always seemed ok)" just as it is dangerous to base it on "everyone is doing it." The question is this: in what should we place greater confidence in forming our conscience? In our personal, anecdotal history and the feelings that were generated in that, (whether or not bolstered by a fairly common custom but not universal around us)? Or on principles carefully enunciated and applied with precision, with qualification, and fully supported by the Church over centuries?

Mark: Bulllloney. Santa Clause is NOT an image for God, except in the way a saint is an image for God. "Santa Clause" is from the Dutch version "Sinterklaas" of the term for Saint Nicholas, a perfectly ordinary saint from Smyrna, a bishop, and an all-around good guy (as saints tend to be). But a real-world factual person.

All the miraculous abilities of the mythical Santa Clause are possible to saints in heaven by God's power. As we attest to when we pray to saints for miracles: they cannot act if they cannot perceive our prayer, and they cannot "grant" (through intercession) the miracle if they have pull with the Big Honcho.

er: cannot grant the miracle if they have NO pull with the Big Guy.

Santa Claus is as much a real image of God as the father in a nuclear family. Saying he's a historical figure we've misconstrued is meaningless. He's jolly old St. Nick now. Live with it.

BTW, why would you ever pray to any saint for anything when you can go directly to the source? That's why I bailed on Mary and all the saint idolatry in the church. Saints have no more "pull" with God than you do.

Mark -

If Santa Claus is meant to represent God the Father... why not just tell them about God the Father?! Not to mention that your argument is the definition of "the ends justify the means."

Also, the way I've always seen it, we tell kids about 4 "invisible" beings that have "miraculous" powers: the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and God. Then we tell them later that we were lying about the first three. Do you really think the kid isn't going to question God then? So it's not even a lie for a good cause; it's a lie that could very well lead your children to doubt the existence of God.

My first child is on the way (a boy, due mid-February), and I will never, ever tell him something that I don't think is true. I may be mistaken about something, but I will never lie to my son.

Why? It's simple, really: lying is wrong. LYING IS WRONG. End of story.

Well, chemically, the compound Na(Claus)5 is Sodium PentaClaus. I suppose that's a fictitious compound, huh? Man, talk about ruining the holidays for geeks.

Seriously, tell your child that he's a fable based on the greedy capitalist system. Can't be too economically naive, you know.

Activiating overdone Nazis-at-door-looking-for-Jews scenario in 3...2...1...

Santa Claus is as much a real image of God as the father in a nuclear family. Saying he's a historical figure we've misconstrued is meaningless. He's jolly old St. Nick now. Live with it.

Your human father is real. When you compare him to God in those traditional aspects fathers are compared to God, a child has an actual, real point of comparison. With Santa it's comparing the "imaginary jolly old father figure you can't see" to the "real father figure you can't see."

Ed, did you know that I made this very same argument in my own post before?

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2009/05/why_i_dont_teach_my_kid_that_s.html

It's great that you agree! :-) Great minds think alike. As you can see, it got a lot of discussion.

I wonder, is this "damage done to a child’s trust in his parents’ word" an empirical fact, or is it a philosophical deduction or even speculation ("What must it do...?")?

There may be some kids who were traumatized, but I wasn't, as far as I can remember. I believed in Santa, left milk and cookies, stockings on the fireplace mantle, etc. When my parents told me the truth, I don't think my trust was destroyed or even damaged. Maybe it should have been, philosophically speaking, but the fact is that it wasn't. If it matters, they didn't insist on the the lie; they told me the truth as soon as they thought (wrongly!) that I suspected.

Anyway, that's why I don't trust philosophical ghost stories about heartbreak and betrayal. I'm more interested in empirical results: how many kids really are damaged by this? How badly?

I am particularly interested in how often skeptics make the argument--implicitly or explicitly--to young people that they should not believe in God because they have "grown up" past that just as they have grown up past believing in Santa Claus. I am also interested in movies like _Miracle on 34th Street_ that implicitly compare the _irrationality_ of believing in Santa to the supposed irrationality of believing in God (approving, in that case, of irrationality). There is also the attempt to "fuzzify" belief in God or even the ontological status of God by sentimentalists--that God, like Santa, occupies some undefined realm of neither real nor unreal, "real to us," "real to the eyes of faith," or something of that sort, which is very pernicious.

In short, there is a lot more to be concerned about here than how many children consider themselves to have been traumatized by being temporarily taught to believe in Santa Claus.

BTW, why would you ever pray to any saint for anything when you can go directly to the source? That's why I bailed on Mary and all the saint idolatry in the church. Saints have no more "pull" with God than you do.

To be consistent, then, I suppose you will not ask any other Christians to pray for you either? Nor should you pray for them. You certainly don't need your fellow Christians praying for you or vice versa since, as you say, no one has any more pull than anyone else.

One of my girls recently asked me, point blank, whether Santa actually existed. I knew instantly that I could not resort to lies. So I fell back on a discussion of the historical St. Nicholas, mentioning in particular the tradition that venerates him for his generosity to the poor and especially poor children. Therefore, I explained that there is a very real St. Nicholas whose name has come down to us through several languages; that he, like us, possesses an immortal soul called into friendship with God through Christ; that we have good reason to believe him saved and thus with Christ now; that a more popularized legend has grown up around him, especially among folks who do not know Jesus as we do; and that to the extent that the legend of Santa reminds us of the real meaning Christmas, it's fine.

I also like this article:

http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=18-10-011-v

So now we not only have to deal with Santa immediately after Halloween, we also have to deal with Santa-bashing?
Thanks but no thanks.

Btw, this white boy will not be going to the mall till after Thanksgiving, lest I be tempted to blow the damn place up.

To be consistent, then, I suppose you will not ask any other Christians to pray for you either? Nor should you pray for them. You certainly don't need your fellow Christians praying for you or vice versa since, as you say, no one has any more pull than anyone else

For many of us, the difference is that asking a dead Christian to pray for us feels like prayer, which in turn feels like you're messing with the first commandment. Intellectually, I understand the difference (Catholics don't consider it prayer, so much as asking a fellow Christian, who they believe can hear them just like their neighbor in the pew, to pray for them). However, for most Protestants, it carries a gut-level, emotional connection to prayer.

Gil Chesterton called. He asked (politely) that you take this unimaginative, ungenerous, unappreciative, over-analytic nonsense off the website that bears his words on the masthead, "unless you meant it as a place to promote what's wrong with the world, at which point you've merely added to the problem, haven't you?" I think as he hung up I heard him mutter something like, "It would be a more valuable philosophy if the philosophers did not think so much in the manner of philosophers..."

Ed:

I'm joining this conversation late.

The above post is well-said, as is the post about HAL.

I thought I found the answer to the "Nazi at the door" scenario in the HAL post but on a re-reading perhaps not.

It's not the "Nazi at the door" scenario which bothers me because it is more hypothetical than the real situation that happened: the Pope and Vatican officials forging documents that said the holder was a Christian in order for some Jews to escape Germany (I can find a link if necessary). Does this fall under the "misdirection" category?

Any thoughts (from anyone)?

Ed,

Great post and I'm going to stop the lie this year (my girls are old enough to have figured out the lie, but then why do I keep lying? -- I just need to stop).

Paul,

Great story -- that is what I'm going to say when the subject comes up again in the Singer household.

"Gil Chesterton called. He asked (politely) that you take this unimaginative, ungenerous, unappreciative, over-analytic nonsense off the website that bears his words on the masthead..."

Lewis, Tolkien, Eliot and Kirk have all texted (well, JRRT didn't actually text--he sent a telegram): they agree.

Sorry I didn't remember your earlier post on this, Lydia -- I can barely remember my own past posts half the time! ;-)

To some of the others: I'm not "bashing Santa Claus." I'm bashing lying about him. There will be Santa decorations around our house this year, as there always have been. But the kids will know, as they always have, that it's all in fun and not real.

Bravo, Ed. My parents didn't tell us this lie and I don't lie to my kids either. I never understood the recurring "joke" in Calvin and Hobbes where Calvin's father would tell him all sorts of outrageous tales when Calvin would ask simple questions like "where does the sun go at night?" I want my children to 1) know the truth and 2) trust me.

Besides, kids have a hard enough time distinguising fact from fiction as it is (I'm having to explain to my three year old that we can't pray for Elmo and Thomas the Train). I have no idea why anyone would want to muck it up even worse.

I'm bashing lying about him.

Exactly, Ed. I have had the _hardest_ time getting this through to people. It's like they think we don't believe in having fun in life or something if we don't believe in actually lying to your kids about Santa, actually trying to convince them that Santa is real! The Philosopher Grinches that Stole Christmas.

Obviously, Santa is the racial memory of a time when an alien from a tachyon universe accidentally visited the earth. His spaceship, while slowing down, underwent a red shift, which was the origin of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He was so grateful for the help of the people that he gave then all presents, practically simultaneously, as he left at faster-than-light speed.

See. Perfectly logical explanation.

"The Philosopher Grinches that Stole Christmas"

Heh-heh. That's what y'all should've called the post. More hits, I'll bet.

He asked (politely) that you take this unimaginative, ungenerous, unappreciative, over-analytic nonsense off the website that bears his words on the masthead

It requires quite a generous imagination to explain how you are honoring the Lord's birth with a practice that deceives "the little ones" (remember the part about turning the little one's to sin and mill stones).

MC reads too much science fiction. :-)

I suspect that fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale, the one Lewis believed was ingrained in our being. New research from the Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa indicates that children aren't overly troubled upon learning that Santa is a myth. But the researchers remained puzzled because while children eventually abandon Santa, they keep believing in God. Lewis would say this is because God is real, but Mr. Dawkins fears it is the lasting damage of fairy tales. While Mr. Dawkins stands ironically alongside Puritans in his readiness to ban fairy tales, Christian apologists like Lewis and Chesterton embraced them, precisely because to embrace Christian dogma is to embrace the extrarational.

From here.

You know, Bill, I really disagree with that article from what I'm seeing. Notice he doesn't say what he told Caleb. At least, I didn't see it in my quick skim. The idea seems to be that if we oppose telling children, solemnly, that things are _true_ that we know are _false_, we are being "rationalists" and opposing some sort of essential Christian "mysticism." Now, this is the very type of muddled thinking that I think is so very dangerous. Christianity does not involve a form of mysticism that requires a genuine attempt to confuse fact with fiction. To say that it does, to deliberately foster a sentimental connection of Christian truth with telling your children--really _telling_ them--that Santa Claus exists, and to do so on the grounds that Christianity is extrarational, is to imply something seriously confused about Christianity.

Oh, wait, he _does_ say what he told him. And it's as bad as I feared, if not worse:

Not everything we believe, I explain to Caleb, can be proved (or disproved) by science. We believe in impossible things, and in unseen things, beginning with our own souls and working outward. It's a delicate thing, preparing him to let go of Santa without simultaneously embracing the notion that only what can be detected by the five senses is real.

Great. So we're _deliberately_ connecting in Caleb's mind the idea of belief in God and the soul, both of which cannot be seen or "disproved" by science, with the existence of Santa Claus.

This is _seriously_ misleading. Caleb is being deliberately taught to equate the irrationality of believing in Santa Claus--which Caleb himself has just shown is irrational--with believing in the soul. This little morality tale--"You need to be careful about thinking that you've shown that Santa doesn't exist, because after all, scientists cannot disprove the existence of the soul, so you don't want to put much weight on those kinds of arguments"--has a serious chance of backfiring when Caleb decides that Santa _really doesn't_ exist, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and then wonders if that means that he is supposed to believe in the soul (not to mention God) in a sky-hooked manner of truly blind faith. And why should he, in that case?

I'm sorry, but this sounds to me like a father who has some real apologetics problems. If he's an evidentialist, I'll eat my hat.

And for all the invocation of Lewis, I would point out that Lewis gave _arguments_ for the existence of God. He didn't tell people to believe in God because Aslan makes such a nice myth and scientists can't disprove everything and we all need to realize that Christianity is a mystery, etc., etc.

Gil Chesterton called. He asked (politely) that you take this unimaginative, ungenerous, unappreciative, over-analytic nonsense off the website

Lewis, Tolkien, Eliot and Kirk have all texted (well, JRRT didn't actually text--he sent a telegram): they agree.

Yeah. And God texted too. In stone. Read #8 (or #9, if you are working on a Protestant version). Who you going to follow: 5 guys, none of whom have been canonized and none of whom are likely to receive that distinction, or the Big Texter in the sky? In war of argument by authority, the one with the biggest stick wins.

I suspect that fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale, the one Lewis believed was ingrained in our being. New research from the Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa indicates that children aren't overly troubled upon learning that Santa is a myth.

Children aren't overly concerned with finding out that Peter Pan is a myth, or Paul Bunyan, either. Did you specifically tell your kids "OK, now listen, this story is FICTION, it isn't a real recounting of actual historical facts" when you gave them the Paul Bunyan story? You probably didn't have too. If you presented the Santa story the same way, again you didn't have to say "and by the way, this is just a myth". It is only after being told point blank that Santa exists that kids have to be de-programed.

But here is the real question: is there ANYTHING good in the long run that kids achieve through the Santa story that rests explicitly on believing that the story was real-fact truth? No. Nothing. There can't be, because whatever good remains after they find out the falseness of the real-fact reality is a good that was there WITHOUT USING any claim that the story is real-fact truth. So there is no benefit to the lie. "Fairy tales prepare us" without being believed as real facts. It just isn't needed.

So there is no benefit to the lie. "Fairy tales prepare us" without being believed as real facts. It just isn't needed.

That's well-put, Tony.

What I fear very much is this: People who write beautifully but misguidedly on this topic believe that the myth is needed and helpful _precisely because_ for a time, at any rate, children may be striving to believe irrationally or because they actually are believing irrationally. They have reasons (as young Caleb does in the story) for not believing in Santa Claus, yet their parents solemnly tell them that he exists, so they hold on to it because a) they trust, or want to trust, their parents, and b) it seems beautiful to them. The people like (I'm afraid) the author of that article believe that this kind of believing in X contrary to evidence against X and in the absence of good evidence for X is, in fact, good and helpful preparation for continuing to believe in God! In other words, they believe that faith in God is irrational and therefore that believing in Santa is good practice for believing in God.

This is just very, very problematic, to put it mildly.

What do you mean Santa Claus isn't real? Of course he is. Those letters that kids send and when they whisper in the ear while on the lap of some pretender at the mall, all of these are prayers of some sort to St. Nicholas, who really and truly intercedes for these children before the Heavenly Throne. And then God uses the generosity of of parents, churches and charties to answer those prayers. This isn't really any different than when we pray to other Saints for other things. We ask them for help, they intercede and then God uses other people to answer that prayer, and there is an occaisional miracle. I remember one Christmas when extra money mysteriously appeared in my checking account. I never could figure out how it got there. I think that both St. Nicholas and St. Joseph were on the case that time.

Mike T,

While I wouldn't presume to speak for other catholics, I have to say that when I pray to saints, it sure feels like prayer to me. I pray to saints many times a day. I doubt that I would be much of a Chirstian without their constant assistance. Sometimes I even venerate their relics; there is a fragment of bone from and anonymous martyr in our home, which we will sometimes bring to mass with us. On at least 10 occaisions now I have honored some of the saints so much that I've named children after them. But I don't give them the worship that is due to God alone, the worship due to God is so much more than the prayer, veneration and friendship given to the saints.

Ben, when you "pray" to saints, you are asking them to ask God for you - they do not "answer" your prayer except by way of God's beneficence, they are only instrumental agents. When you pray to God (as petition), you are asking for His grace and benefit directly of His own power and authority.

What do you mean Santa Claus isn't real? Of course he is.

Yes, that's what I said above: there is a real-fact historical bishop Nicholas of Smyrna, who is a saint, and whose Dutch name is Sinterklaas. As a saint, he answers prayers by interceding with God on our behalf. Lydia, he even does it for Protestants, so he is ecumenical. :-)

There is no real-fact jolly elf who lives at the north pole, drives a sleigh with reindeer, and makes his lists. To tell a child there is in a fashion designed to make the child believe there is a real-fact elf is a lie.

Rob, my kids immensely enjoy the Santa story, and look forward to it every year. Both the little ones and the big ones. Being told "...and this elf character is REAL" is unnecessary to the enjoyment. I am robbing them of nothing of value (no pun unintended).

The mind is designed for truth. Those who wish to put forward the "but the story is a way of telling deeper truths" must explain how it comes to be that these deeper truths CANNOT be obtained except by way of passing through error as a child. You cannot do it, of course, because there is nothing that first holding error adds to the truth that makes the truth more true or better held. The only thing you can claim is that eventually the mind rids itself of the error, and the truth is "just as good" as if the error wasn't there earlier. You can claim that all you want, but since the error adds no benefit, nothing justifies it.

My own take, for what it's worth...

1) I really can't see that an annual game of make believe can be equated with a lie.
2) For several years after I worked out that there was no Santa, I still felt the excitement of a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve. Even though I knew this was make believe, I still wanted to play.
3) If it makes anyone's conscience easier, you can simply tell your child that Santa only exists as we believe in him. Or that he's made from the magic of our imaginations. That's my strategy.
4) My daughter talks to bugs and worms. She still worries that her teddy bears will get lonely and cold. I'm asked to comfort them for her at times. If I play along, am I lying?
5) As for the spectre of religious damage, I think this is an urban myth. I've never met anyone who has had their faith damaged by reflecting on Santa.

Still, I think I should allow Christians liberty of conscience on this issue. I've seen evangelical churches split, and Pastors fired, over less (-:

And I think this debate should be a Yuletide tradition for Christians. Deceit is a nasty business. We do need to keep a check on our habits. So it's a nice topic to raise, and I'm glad to see it discussed and debated on W4. It's a healthy sign that Christians are keeping a check on what they say.

Maybe a better argument against promoting "Santa" is that it raises our children's expectations for gifts. They expect what their classmates receive. And the amount of money spent in Santa's name is, frankly, sinful. For many families, it is a dreadful burden.

One way to escape "Consumer-mas" and the annual race with the Joneses might be to avoid Santa. Too late for my wee bairns. They've got a grip on pester power, and they won't let that go, Santa or no Santa (-:

I really can't see that an annual game of make believe can be equated with a lie.

Not if you make no effort to get the kids to believe the make believe. But I've known parents who straitly charge the older children not to tell the younger children that there is no Santa and who even punish them if they do give away the secret. I've read anecdotes of parents who, when asked point-blank by their children if Santa is real, solemnly swear to the children that he is, doing their best to make them believe it. That's just not a game of make-believe anymore.


If I play along, am I lying?

I don't think this is the same thing as _your_ inventing something and telling it to her in a way designed to make her believe it is literally true. If you started making up stories that the teddy bears told you this or that, and if you told them to her in a _serious way_ (that's important) designed to make her really believe that her teddy bears talk to you when she's not around, then that would be a problem.

I want to be clear that I'm not at all against telling children made-up stories. I think telling stories is great. It's just the difference between telling them in a way that gets the kids to think they are real and telling them _as_ make-believe that seems to me important. We tell stories about Cinderella, but we don't put her dates on the history timeline.

Cut the sophistry, people. When your 6-year-old asks whether Santa is real, what he means is: "Dad, did you buy these gifts down at Toys R Us and eat the cookies yourself, or did a fat man in a red suit really come down the chimney and leave them there, after which he ate the cookies and then went back up the chimney?" And when you say "Yes, son, Santa brought the gifts, not me," what he understands by that is "OK, so the fat guy in the chimney is real, and Dad didn't go to Toys R Us or eat the cookies." And you know that that's what he thinks you mean. You know that he doesn't think "OK, there's this saint, Nicholas of Smyrna, who intercedes for us" or "OK, so we're playing a game of make-believe" or "This is Dad's way of explaining some grown-up business that I'm too little to understand" -- all of which he would have no trouble whatsoever understanding if you had told him straight out, without the "life is a fairy tale" hoo-hah.

In other words, you've lied to him. Flat out. If you want to try to justify doing so, give it a shot, but spare us the flowery B.S.

Hear, hear!!! (Okay, I don't do that very often, but...this time the temptation was irresistible.)

You are right, Ed.

To be clear, I truly respect you and Lydia and had no intention of commenting on this post, but caprice got the best of me. My father used to get up on Christmas Eve and make noises on the roof so that my sisters and I would think it was Santa. He would leave soot boot prints in the room, eat the cookies, drink the Coke, and when we came downstairs we were overwhelmed. Every bit of it was a lie just as you have said. And you know what, in a relationship that was ultimately damaged and cut short it remains one of my fondest memories of my father. It remains something special between us all, lie or not.

It was all a lie, and it makes me happy to remember it. Neither I nor my sisters were damaged as a result of it. So while we are, as you so delicately put it, sparing the flowery BS, keep in mind that you are talking about our relationships with our families and our parents. I do not do what my father did with my own children and do not feel the need to justify what I do for you or anyone else. It is not a public discussion, but whatever your moral judgements about my father's lies I will remain grateful for them whether that makes sense to others or not.


OK. No flowery B.S. Let's consider the tooth fairy. I tell my kid to put their tooth under the pillow so that the tooth fairy leaves a gift. My child DOES NOT ask me, "Daddy, is the tooth fairy real?" And yet, my actions are such that, clearly, I am allowing my child to believe in a falsehood. (And if you don't believe this is lying, then I'm not sure what to say - as I _clearly_ recognize that my child believes a falsehood, and nothing in my behavior would suggest otherwise.) So, the fun and hoopla surrounding the tooth fairy should always be made plain; is that it? Please tell me at what age I should begin preparing my children, such that they aren't misled by all those other school-children into believing that there's a jolly ol' elf shambling down their chimneys each 12/25?

When my 3 year old asks me where babies come from, how they get here, etc., etc., I should just lay it all out for them?

In all my years, I can honestly say that I've never heard of a single person complain that their parents "lied" to them about Santa Claus...and the idea that a belief in the fat man's existence could be _detrimental_ either to one's psyche or to one's faith just seems absolutely laughable to me. (Plus the fact that I do my best not to agree with Louise Antony on virtually any philosophical topic...oh yes, she's spilled her self-righteous opinion on the topic of Santa Claus elsewhere on the web.)

Forgive me, but I thought this was a _conservative_ website?

Amazed,

So, it's somehow non-conservative to object to lying about Santa Claus? Never got that memo.

As I made clear in the original post on lying linked to above, no one is saying you always have to say everything that is in your head. Often you don't have to say anything at all. Just don't lie when you do say something.

So, re: the "facts of life," no, of course you don't have to "lay it all out," heavy breathing and all, for your 4-year-old. But do you seriously believe that the only alternative to doing so is some story about a stork (or whatever)? Please. You tell as much as you need to, and with very small children that ain't a whole lot. As they get older, you add details as they ask for them, never saying more than they ask for and being frank but tactful when you get to the eyebrow raising parts. It's pretty easy, actually, as I know from experience.

And no one said every single child is scarred for life, or even scarred at all, by being lied to about Santa Claus. But there are children who are hurt by it. And the thing is, you never really know for sure if they will be until it's too late.

But since we're waxing anecdotal, here's what I don't get: I know from my own childhood experience and that of my own children that not having been lied to about Santa Claus has done no harm whatsoever. Certainly it is still possible to love Christmas, and even to enjoy the whole Santa game, even when one knows the game is just a game. So, no loss from not lying. But at least some children are hurt by lying.

So, why all this insistence on the lie? And since when is the burden of proof on those of us who oppose lying, anyway? It isn't me, or Lydia, who has a duty to show you shouldn't lie. Surely it's you "pro-lie" folks who have the burden of showing that lying about Santa is good when no good is lost by not lying and at least some harm is, for some children, likely to follow.

Pro-liar here.

It's funny. My parents told me the tale - the lie - I told it to my children and they'll probably tell it to theirs. Isn't that awful? At some point we all believed in Santa Claus. It is of course a belief which will eventually be outgrown, and a lie (unlike most) about which the truth will finally be told. It filled a certain stretch of my childhood at a certain time of year with great delight, and did the same for my own children. They still trust me, and still believe in God. After all, at midnight Mass, it was not Santa in the creche we knelt before, but the baby Jesus in His manger. They understood that Santa was only another agent of God's good will to men, and when it came to time to part with the jolly old elf, well, they simply put away this childish thing.

They also believed in the tooth fairy. I once wrote a poem from the tooth fairy and put it under Bernadette's pillow. You should have seen the look on her face next morning as she read it. Maybe you'd like to have wiped the joy from her face. A year later, when I told her one night the tooth fairy was coming, she said, "You're the tooth fairy," (though she still expected treasure beneath the pillow). She is to this day emotionally stable, and treasures that poem even more knowing that I took the trouble to write it.

Those of you who take yourselves so seriously, whose righteousness can only be assuaged by accusing parents of intrinsic evil, whose outrage can only be mollified by removing this source of delight and wonder from a child's life, need to get one of your own. You risk straining at a gnat to swallow Scrooge.

OK, I'll take up Mr. Feser's offer and try to justify the lie. I disagree that the burden of proof is on the side of telling a lie, though. I say the burden of proof is on those who want to discontinue a traditional custom.

1. There is no categorical natural or divine law against lying. Of course I'm not going to try to prove this here. Take this as a sign that my argument is meant to explain, not to persuade.

2. The Santa Clause game is fun, and telling the child that it's not real may detract from the fun. Granted, this is just speculation.

3. Parents don't have to insist on the lie. I do think that would be bad. They can lie by telling the story as if it were real, and tell the truth if the child ever asks. Or even tell the truth before the child asks, if they think it's the right time. Parents make mistakes, but often they do know what will hurt their own particular child and what will not. The fact that some children are harmed is not necessarily relevant to all parents. Wise parents can make these decisions for their own children.

4. Your child's friends may have been told by their parents that Santa is real. Their parents might intend to break the news gently and non-harmfully at an appropriate time. If your child knows that Santa's not real, there's a good chance he'll tell his friends, and in a much less gentle manner, thereby causing this grievous, irreparable Santa-harm to them. This may also cause discord between your child and his friends, if his friends insist on defending their (parents') version, perhaps scarring them all for life. Or they might decide the truth of the matter objectively, by a vote, in which your child will be the only "Nay". Social conformity is a good in itself, especially at that age. And telling a five-year-old to keep a secret from his friends might not always be effective.

Finally, just to clarify, I'm not arguing that people should lie to their children this way, only that it's justified.

Never believed in Santa.

Tooth Fairy never got a chance, because I thought teeth were cool... when I put my tooth under my pillow, as ordered, and found just some money the next day... er, there were issues. (This is the risk of giving kids a strong foundation in the sciences, folks.)

Easter Bunny... again, my family knew that about the only mammal that lays eggs was the platypus, which is awesome, and the eggs we found were the ones we'd dyed earlier.

That said... I know some parents were flat-out NASTY about lying to their kids. I don't mean fooling, I don't mean trying to keep the wonder in the kids' lives, I mean stuff that turned my stomach as a rather amoralistic six year old. It's funny, I don't even remember the details-- just that it was more inherently wrong than the two-headed calf that year.)

I hate to be that person, but there's a WIDE range of options, with two nasty options (smashing kids' fantasies on one end, and manipulative, nasty lying on the other) at the ends, and some arguable but probably OK in the middle.

(quote)
Children aren't overly concerned with finding out that Peter Pan is a myth, or Paul Bunyan, either. Did you specifically tell your kids "OK, now listen, this story is FICTION, it isn't a real recounting of actual historical facts" when you gave them the Paul Bunyan story? You probably didn't have too. If you presented the Santa story the same way, again you didn't have to say "and by the way, this is just a myth". It is only after being told point blank that Santa exists that kids have to be de-programed.

You don't get anything physical from Peter Pan, although Paul Bunyan was originally much closer-- a "tall tale", sort of like the old joke about sea stories and fairy tales.
(Whats the difference? One starts "once upon a time," the other starts "no s**t, this really happened-")

That said, I think he gets pretty dang close-- kids don't need to have it explained that their cat won't start talking after Puss in Boots, but if they see a movie where someone is pulled down the bathtub drain (bloodyly) they will need to be reassured. If they're told stories about this or that, they won't have to have it explained, but if their parents go above and beyond to tell them that something is so, that's screwy.


Meh, what do I know? I think those morons, on April 1st, who tell lies about serious stuff that folks have no way to check, then gloat if someone believes them are donkeys...and the ones who jump the day because nobody believes them on the first are more so....


Side note:
"praying" to the saints is just an issue with English; as we have eternal life in Christ, then it's not an issue at all to ask folks who happen to not be breathing ATM to pray for you. It's different from the worship and glory that's for God alone. The word means roughly "beg," originally. Remember Jesus' thing with the lady who nagged the judge? Those saints have a LOT of time on their hands to nag.....

P.S. Lydia's point about harm to faith, rather than just to trust in parents, is well taken. I also appreciate her agreement that empirical evidence as opposed to philosophical deduction is needed here. So y'all could take the above as a justification from the non-religious viewpoint, considering that Ed Feser's argument, unlike Lydia's, was non-religious.

... "Children might not be nice about telling other kids the truth" is possibly the worst justification for an action I've ever heard.

Maybe you'd like to have wiped the joy from her face.

...

Those of you who take yourselves so seriously, whose righteousness can only be assuaged by accusing parents of intrinsic evil, whose outrage can only be mollified by removing this source of delight and wonder from a child's life, need to get one of your own. You risk straining at a gnat to swallow Scrooge.

Bill, with all due respect, I think you need to calm down. I have made it clear that I think that parents who do this are well-meaning. I have not said, and would never say, that they are bad people. I have made it clear that lying is not always gravely wrong, and I am certainly not accusing parents who tell their children that Santa Claus is real of having committed mortal sin. I have (in my earlier post) noted that the Catholic Church teaches that lying is always wrong, and that the standard view for centuries now among Catholic moralists (and defended by Aquinas and many other great saints and theologians) is that the "lying" that the Church condemns includes any speech contrary to one's mind, regardless of whether the person spoken to has a right to the truth. I have explained the natural law basis for this view. I have, in response to a question you put to me, politely explained in the combox over at my own blog why orthodox theologians and natural law theorists reject the alternative view (which you and others proposed) that "lying" occurs only when the listener has a right to the truth. And I have simply noted here that it would follow from all this that lying about Santa Claus is wrong too. Perhaps not gravely wrong, but still wrong, and ill-advised in any case for the sorts of reasons I (and Lydia) have given.

Now, instead of replying to any of that and saying "Well, I see why you think that, Ed, but here's where I think you're mistaken..." you toss off some textbook examples of logical fallacies -- an ad hominem, an appeal to emotion, a red herring, and perhaps a hasty generalization, by my count. Just the kind of stuff you would, rightly, never tolerate if directed at something you had said.

I wouldn't single you out, though. I'm really quite amazed at how poor and emotion-driven (some, not all) of the responses to these posts on lying have been -- and I mean the responses by religious people and conservatives, including people who are otherwise keen to uphold natural law, Aquinas, and Catholic moral teaching (which I'm just repeating -- nothing remotely original in what I've been saying). And including people who, in other contexts, are quite happy to mount their high-horses and ride them roughshod over any who disagree with them.

"I've known parents who straitly charge the older children not to tell the younger children that there is no Santa and who even punish them if they do give away the secret."

Yes, I've met parents who do this. It seems a bit weird. Once the kids work out that it's a game, it's time to stop playing. Once we start insisting that our children have a duty to enjoy our chosen games, things get a little sinister.

And I know that you're not a Gradgrind, Lydia! I hope that I didn't imply that at all! (To you or any other reader.)

Graham

In all my years, I can honestly say that I've never heard of a single person complain that their parents "lied" to them about Santa Claus

Amazed, I have. Not only in person, but I have read a number of stories of people hurt by it. Hurt emotionally, at least. In fact, one of the recurring sad side-themes of the Christmas extravaganza is the contretemps of a child "finding out," the different ways it happens, and the different childhood responses, from anger, to sadness, to "how stupid could I have been", etc. How can you not have noticed this? We all know about cases "Billy told Tom, and Tom went went and asked his parents because he was UPSET."

Admittedly, for a lot of kids, the hurt is "only" emotional, and lasts only for a modest amount of time: days, maybe a week or two. Is there some reason that "only" emotional hurt doesn't count? Would you send your kid a truly nasty letter in the mail, only to inform them, a week later, that it was all a joke? It is "only" emotionally hurtful.

Mr. Luse, I am not quite sure that you have met Ed's challenge. What you have described, as far as I can tell, is that no harm has been taken, in your case and that of your kids. You have not presented any positive good that comes out of the lie. Lydia and Ed and I noted above that the STORY is great fun and highly worthwhile. The make-believe is fine and good for the family. What other, additional good comes about on account of the part of the process that includes "no, no, Billy next-door was mistaken, Santa really does drive a sleigh and come down the chimney"?

I am not sure that it is possible to say (as a matter of actual fact rather than pure speculation) what that good might be, unless you have done it ONE way with one kid, and the OTHER way with another kid, and find in actual practice that the kid you lied to was actually better off.

St. Thomas teaches that humans have rational souls and animals have irrational souls. Men can think and reason while animals cannot. It seems to me highly dangerous, perhaps even blasphemous, to allow children to believe that animals actually have human rational souls. Real animals cannot talk and think, and we parents should not be either actively or passively allowing our vulnerable little ones to believe that they can. We may not be lying to them directly as in the case of Santa Clause, but are we not permitting them to believe a lie by our cooperation in it? We should thus be very careful about Disney and such, which continuously portrays non-rational creatures as having rational human souls.

Re my "worst justification ever" (thanks!), it obviously justifies a lot more than lying about Santa. I can't claim originality, though. Not hurting people's feelings, and social harmony in general, are some of the most time-honored, and best, justifications of lying I know of. But I do appreciate your comment. Really.

1. There is no categorical natural or divine law against lying. Of course I'm not going to try to prove this here. Take this as a sign that my argument is meant to explain, not to persuade.

There is such a restriction. Jesus demonstrated that the majority of the law can be bent if it is in genuine service to the first two commandments. It is ok to lie to someone who is trying to kill your neighbor in cold blood because the lie is told to save an innocent life from mortal sin (murder). It is not ok to lie to a police officer who has a valid warrant for their arrest under a just law because there is no higher service there.

2. The Santa Clause game is fun, and telling the child that it's not real may detract from the fun. Granted, this is just speculation.

Saturnalia was probably even more fun than Christmas. Since when was fun an excuse for bending the rules?

3. Parents don't have to insist on the lie. I do think that would be bad. They can lie by telling the story as if it were real, and tell the truth if the child ever asks. Or even tell the truth before the child asks, if they think it's the right time. Parents make mistakes, but often they do know what will hurt their own particular child and what will not. The fact that some children are harmed is not necessarily relevant to all parents. Wise parents can make these decisions for their own children.

Parents who have what the Bible calls wisdom would not risk being perceived as liars by their children over something so spiritual. Everyone knows at least a few people who grew up and irrationally blame their parents for something based on perceptions that are not entirely valid. Probably most of us here have done that at one point. Why create an opportunity for that?

4. Your child's friends may have been told by their parents that Santa is real. Their parents might intend to break the news gently and non-harmfully at an appropriate time. If your child knows that Santa's not real, there's a good chance he'll tell his friends, and in a much less gentle manner, thereby causing this grievous, irreparable Santa-harm to them. This may also cause discord between your child and his friends, if his friends insist on defending their (parents') version, perhaps scarring them all for life. Or they might decide the truth of the matter objectively, by a vote, in which your child will be the only "Nay". Social conformity is a good in itself, especially at that age. And telling a five-year-old to keep a secret from his friends might not always be effective.

So you should lower your standards for raising your child to help other parents out? Should stay at home mothers never say anything critical about career women lest their kids innocently make a remark another family takes poorly? Should parents never teach their kids about alcoholism lest their kid make a remark about their friend's parent who smells like a liquor cabinet and is a falling-down-drunk?

Finally, just to clarify, I'm not arguing that people should lie to their children this way, only that it's justified.

Based on this comment, if rhetorical contortion were an olympic sport, you'd be making Bill Clinton train harder right about now...

...you toss off some textbook examples of logical fallacies -- an ad hominem, an appeal to emotion, a red herring, and perhaps a hasty generalization, by my count.

If history is any guide, calling philosophers heartless isn't an ad hominem. Nevertheless, I agree that there is no reason to encourage the fable of Santa.

I'm also going to quote a passage from The Liar's Tale that seems relevant:

By this thesis of the centrality of the imagination, which has been called "one of the most fascinating and disquieting" aspects of Hume's philosophy, Hume left a gap between what "seems" and what "is" that evolved into the now accepted convention that there is no hard and fast distinction between bare facts and theories, a doctrine that has done much to undermine the view of science as providing us exclusively with objective, mind-independent truths. We need imagination, the perilous vehicle that manufactures falsehoods as easily as it constructs a world we can trust. We need it even to recognize unadorned facts. Hume opens a space between what we call knowledge and the world itself. We cannot dispense with imagination, because reason by itself not only is unable to explain how or why we believe what we believe, but also tends to dissolve everything in an acid bath of skepticism. It has suicidal tendencies. There is a faint foretaste here of Godel's celebrated Incompleteness Theorem, published some two hundred years after Hume's Treatise, which proved by logic that there will always be true statements that cannot be derived from a given set of axioms, putting ultimate truth out of reach.

Lies _can_ be very well-intentioned and even intended as expressions of love. That doesn't mean that we are bound to say that they are right, just that we understand why they seem important and even, in some cases and to some people, required. No, I'm not talking even about the "Nazis at the door" example. I'm talking about family things. I think an example that has some affinities with the Santa Claus case is this: My perception from reading books is that in the early part of the 1900s it was common for doctors and family members to lie to a patient, including an adult patient, about whether he had cancer or some other deadly disease. It's interesting the way that this comes up where some people resisted it and came under pressure. They were told in no uncertain terms that to tell the patient the truth was cruel. One can easily imagine that there are true stories out there to be told about the peace and the hope that the patient had believing that it was "only asthma" and that he was not going to die. And one could be asked, understandably, "Would you take those peaceful months away from him? Would you have had him go through all those months with the shadow of death hanging over him?"

I think I understand why people believe that they are giving the child something special with the lie about Santa that they couldn't give otherwise: It's really incredibly exciting to believe that something wonderful, beyond the ordinary run of life, is truly breaking in on your own life. Aaron expresses this merely by saying that it's "fun," but those who are more passionate about it express it in terms of joy, wiping the joy off the child's face, and so forth. And it's no doubt true that the child would not experience the same feelings of awe, joy, and excitement if he realized that it was only make-believe. After all, that's not nearly as big a deal.

But I don't see that the rest of us are required to say that that justifies it. Interestingly, one could come up with all kinds of situations in which telling someone an elaborate lie and carefully maintaining it brought that person joy. This could be done even with adults. Would that make that the right thing to do, just to give the person the "gift" of joy for a while in believing something that wasn't true? Any good novelist could do this very well, better than I can, especially as regards hiding tragedies. If you could hide from an elderly woman who was going to die soon the fact that her grandchild had been killed in an accident, if in order to do so you had to _invent_ reports about things the grandchild was doing, saying, and messages he was sending her and tell these to her repeatedly as fact, if she would die happier for it, would that make it right? Would it make those who say you should not do it into hard-hearted, self-righteous jerks? That action might well be an expression of great love, and well-intentioned, mitigated by the love with which it was offered, which could be understood later by the recipient (as in the case Jay tells about his father's pretending to be Santa Claus). But that doesn't have to make it right. Lots of well-intentioned and even loving actions are, in fact, not actually morally right. People can make mistakes in that area, though as Ed points out, these don't have to be gravely wrong.

Rob, I gather the bit about Disney was meant as a reductio: My kids have certainly never for a nano-second believed that animals could really talk. They knew that Disney, Felix Salten, and Beatrix Potter were make-believe. If they'd asked me, of course I would have told them, but they never had to.

By the way, I wonder if there is any split here between what we might call the soft-core pro-Santa-lie crowd and the hard-core crowd. Are all the people who think Ed's and my position is wrong and self-righteous agreed on what you should do if you child asks you whether Santa is real? Some seem to think that _then_ you should tell him it's make-believe, but I don't know if you all agree.

Occasionally when I have told stories my kids have asked if they are true or made-up. Of course I just tell them right away, because my intention was never to try to create any sort of special feelings by getting them to believe that the story was fact if it was actually fiction.

Many parents, however, _do_ tell their children both spontaneously and when asked that Santa is real. This is supposed to be part of the whole "deal" of it.

I would imagine that not all do and that this is a dividing line within the ranks.


Ed,

You call our attention to the use of good judgment when explaining to children the ins-and-outs of the sexual act. And it's with good judgment that I entirely insist parents act. But it strains my cognitive capacities to understand precisely the intellectual gymnastics one must utilize in order to "tell as much as you need to..." You don't mean with-holding (some of) the truth, do you? But it seems you do.

No, a 3-year old experiences the world with a genuine sense of wonder, awe, and innocence. "[Looking at Goofy] Daddy! That's a big doggie. Isn't it???" "Um no, son, it's a person dressed up as a Disney character...in fact, he's probably a pedophile. Stay away from him." :)

Until they are at an appropriate age (which may be 4, 6 or 8), we utilize our good judgment in exciting that awe, that wonder, that credulity. I'm not implying - nor is anyone - that we should do nothing but lie to our children. But I'm also not endorsing the view that they are to be given the unvarnished truth for every query. At the end of the day, I think it'd not only be intellectually difficult to _only_ speak to my children with "nothing but the truth" at all times, but that it would also be counter-productive (in terms of _their_ virtue and innocence) to do so. It seems to me that you are of the view that there is a line that shouldn't be crossed (i.e., heavy breathing and what-not), and I'm simply of the belief that the threshold is not met by employing the Santa myth as fodder for my children's fun.

Like some others above, it's not that I think those who deny the existence of Santa (to their very young children) are wrong...It's just that, well, to me it's fairly strange (where, again, I have only the experiences of myself and those close to me as warrant). And I, like perhaps Mr. Luse, find it odd that one would cast parents, who indulge their children in this mythology, as mistaken (even if not _gravely_ mistaken).

Perhaps if you view the Santa Claus thing as a sort of open-ended, long term "game" of imagination it won't seem pernicious. The analysis of the phenomenon here is to my mind far too prosaic and, dare I say, Puritanical.

Amazed, I cannot understand why you would class answering, "Well, no, son, it's just a fun made-up story" to a child's query about Santa Claus with telling the child about sex. This is _so_ stretched, such an obviously poor analogy. You presumably wouldn't feel the same way about answering naturally that Cinderella is a made-up story (without, therefore, saying that it's a _bad_ story), or Snow White, etc. The mystique surrounding Santa Claus is entirely a _positive and deliberate creation_ of adults. It's not some sort of natural and automatic outgrowth of childhood innocence, as if children living in a non-Santa culture would believe in Santa spontaneously (just as they would spontaneously _not know_ about sexual acts). If adults don't actively _try to induce_ children to believe in Santa, they don't believe in him.

Rob, it's a game of imagination if your children know it's a game. If you solemnly tell them it's real, if you go to trouble to convince them that it's real, and if they believe you, it's not just a long-term game of imagination. I mean, this is pretty easy to understand. We've all played make-believe with our children, and the difference ought to be pretty evident.

Btw, apropos of Tony Woodlief's invocation (over and over and over) of C.S. Lewis in the article Bill linked, I would just point out (as I was just reminded) that Lewis's Professor Digory does not say, "Myth! What _do_ they teach them in these schools?" Ahem.

I've just been reading the Woodlief article more carefully. The anti-evidential character of what he is saying is clear everywhere. He is very uncomfortable with an apologetics based on evidence. His words to Caleb and his defense of lying to your child about Santa Claus are _expressly intended_ to be linked to an anti-evidential approach to belief in God. Indeed, the article is eloquent on the subject.

"It's not some sort of natural and automatic outgrowth of childhood innocence"

Really? How many cultures have a Santa-type figure? And how many hundreds of years do these figures go back? It may not be an "automatic" outgrowth of childhood innocence but it can certainly be argued that it is a traditional one.

As far as the game analogy goes, it is a game from the parents' perspective from the get-go, but one which the child is "let in on" later. Ever see the movie Life is Beautiful? Think of the Santa myth as along the same lines but in reverse.

"This is _so_ stretched, such an obviously poor analogy."

I suppose I'm unclear on why it's stretched. I'm simply pointing out cases wherein telling one's children the truth is counter-productive (to, say, the virtue or innocence of the child). It has been stated by one side that lying to one's children is always wrong. Period. (Even if it is not "gravely wrong", whatever that means.) And I suppose that I am of the view that one can lie by omission. So, telling one's children "as much as you need to" seems to me to be pretty thin evidence that one is not, in some manner, expressing a falsehood.

Again, my point is simply to vindicate the parent of wrong-doing by enforcing the view that Santa likes milk and cookies, and squeezes his jolly bottom down a chimney once a year. Perhaps my point is merely tu quoque, but...It's a point on which, I take it, the opposing side is weak.

One _can_ lie by omission, Amazed. You'll have to show that not telling your 3-year-old all about sex is lying by omission. Good luck with that. Ed is right on the money when he says that the Santa story is instead like telling your child (in a way intended to be believed) that babies are brought by storks.

By the way, apropos of my comment above concerning great novelists and lies, a more educated (but younger) member of my family points out to me that this has already been done by Conrad at the end of "Heart of Darkness."

The very fact that a great novelist can make us so sympathetic to an action is of interest and is probably relevant to the point that there really can be well-intended lies. It does not, of course, mean that they are therefore morally justifiable.

Isn't there a difference between pretending and lying?

There is, Bruce, so long as the pretense is not carried out in such a way as to make the other person believe that it is true. Crawling around on the floor saying, "Raaahr! I'm a bear!" is harmless pretending. Doing all sorts of things over a period of years to make your child believe that Santa and not you brought the presents is lying.

Wikipedia reports that 40+ Christian nations, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, have some variant of a Christmas gift-giver or -givers, some going back hundreds of years. The naysayers, then, are offering a theory over against a tradition. Sorry, but tradition, especially one of such long-standing and universality, trumps mere theory in my book.

Rob, if that isn't a classic example of turning the appeal to tradition into a bandwagon fallacy, I don't know what is. The "theory" in question is that it is not right to tell deliberate untruths to your trusting children. Wow. Sounds high-falutin' and abstract to me.

~~The "theory" in question is that it is not right to tell deliberate untruths to your trusting children~~

No, that's your understanding of what's going on. I disagree with that interpretation, and will go with my conservative instinct against over-rationalistic analytical humbug-ism. Leave the cultural traditions alone unless you can persuasively demonstrate that they're pernicious. I remain unpersuaded.

Once again, I'm with Ed and Lydia here even though they're on the other side. The following statements seem pretty obvious to me:

- It is lying to intentionally cause someone to believe that Santa Clause is real.

- If lying is categorically wrong, then lying about Santa Clause is wrong.

- If lying is normally wrong (i.e., excluding only exceptional situations like "Nazis at the door"), then lying about Santa Clause is wrong.

So given these seemingly obvious statements, I share Ed Feser's amazement at the kind of arguments that are being made here. Ed Feser's anti-lying observation is such an obviously, tautologically valid consequence of the premise that natural law categorically forbids lying, I don't see how anyone who agrees with him about natural law could even argue about it.

Lydia perceptively asks about a split between the soft-core liars (that's me) and the hard-core liars, if there are any here. For me, that's the distinction, though the line between soft- and hard-core isn't that sharp. There are two different kinds of lying involved, it seems.

Anyway, back on the pro-truth side, Ed Feser's observation is tautological and therefore uninteresting (as he'd presumably agree!). I'm interested in a split on his side: where are the people who believe (like me) that lying is justified and even a positive good in many normal circumstances, but who believe that lying about Santa Clause is wrong? Again, I think this would have to be an empirical argument, not a philosophical one.

My brother lost his belief in God when he learned from his schoolmates that Santa Claus wasn't real. There was more to it, of course, and it's just another anecdote, but the Santa "hoax" was definitely a part of the mix for him.

Here's the problem for me and I think for all Christian parents. Teaching young children - by "young" I mean from age 3 or thereabouts (depending upon the child's ability to understand)- the difference between truth and falsehood, and the absolute moral requirement of telling the truth, is of paramount importance. Children who don't develop, at an early age, the habit of truth-telling and a sense of shame at telling lies have incredibly difficult lives ahead of them. Parents must therefore reward truth-telling, punish deliberate lies, and set an uncompromising example. Children notice everything parents say and do - even signing someone else's name on an obscure or unimportant document makes a permanent impression. I believe that parents who neglect this training commit a very grave fault.

Of course there is a place for good-natured teasing, pranks, story telling, "make believe" games, and so forth. Santa might fall into the "make believe" category depending upon how it is played out in the family.

I was truly moved by Mr. Watts' story of his father. Lies can be motivated by love, and that is clearly the case with most parents who use Santa to bring some delight into their children's lives at Christmastime. I understand that. But if we are really dialed into the magic, mystery, and miracle of Christmas as it truly is, we shouldn't need to deceive our children or to displace holy traditions with the comparatively shallow and commercially-inspired Santa mythology.

Aaron, you wrote:

I'm interested in a split on his side: where are the people who believe (like me) that lying is justified and even a positive good in many normal circumstances, but who believe that lying about Santa Clause is wrong?

I'm interested too. Theologians are themselves divided. When it comes to children, though, the first thing to learn is the rule and a habit of truthfulness. The possibility of rare exceptions will inevitably be proposed later in life.

I can only go by my experience. I gradually realized it was pretend rather than suddenly thinking that I had been lied to. I kept up the pretending for a year or two just for the fun of it before they knew that I knew. However, they didn't make it elaborate. Santa came and that's it. If you do it I think you shouldn't overdo it.

I do believe that he punched out Arius at the Nicean council. Maybe he can come out of retirement and bodyslam Richard Dawkins.

"I gradually realized it was pretend rather than suddenly thinking that I had been lied to"

Exactly. The notion that my parents had lied to me never crossed my mind. I was sad in a nostalgic sort of way for a day or two, then went on with life, becoming neither a male prostitute nor a self-mutilator.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) on the subject:

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09469a.htm

The chief argument from reason which St. Thomas and other theologians have used to prove their doctrine is drawn from the nature of truth. Lying is opposed to the virtue of truth or veracity. Truth consists in a correspondence between the thing signified and the signification of it. Man has the power as a reasonable and social being of manifesting his thoughts to his fellow-men. Right order demands that in doing this he should be truthful. If the external manifestation is at variance with the inward thought, the result is a want of right order, a monstrosity in nature, a machine which is out of gear, whose parts do not work together harmoniously.

As we are dealing with something which belongs to the moral order and with virtue, the want of right order, which is of the essence of a lie, has a special moral turpitude of its own. There is precisely the same malice in hypocrisy, and in this vice we see the moral turpitude more clearly. A hypocrite pretends to have a good quality which he knows that he does not possess. There is the same want of correspondence between the mind and the external expression of it that constitutes the essence of a lie. The turpitude and malice of hypocrisy are obvious to everybody.

If it is more difficult to realize the malice of a lie, the partial reason, at least, may be because we are more familiar with it. Truth is primarily a self-regarding virtue: it is something which man owes to his own rational nature, and no one who has any regard for his own dignity and self-respect will be guilty of the turpitude of a lie. As the hypocrite is justly detested and despised, so should the liar be. As no honest man would consent to play the hypocrite, so no honest man will ever be guilty of a lie.

The absolute malice of lying is also shown from the evil consequences which it has for society. These are evident enough in lies which injuriously affect the rights and reputations of others. But mutual confidence, intercourse, and friendship, which are of such great importance for society, suffer much even from officious and jocose lying. In this, as in other moral questions, in order to see clearly the moral quality of an action we must consider what the effect would be if the action in question were regarded as perfectly right and were commonly practiced. Applying this test, we can see what mistrust, suspicion, and utter want of confidence in others would be the result of promiscuous lying, even in those cases where positive injury is not inflicted.

Moreover, when a habit of untruthfulness has been contracted, it is practically impossible to restrict its vagaries to matters which are harmless: interest and habit alike inevitably lead to the violation of truth to the detriment of others. And so it would seem that, although injury to others was excluded from officious and jocose lies by definition, yet in the concrete there is no sort of lie which is not injurious to somebody.

But if the common teaching of Catholic theology on this point be admitted, and we grant that lying is always wrong, it follows that we are never justified in telling a lie, for we may not do evil that good may come: the end does not justify the means.

I believe this is the "money quote", but the entire article is worth reading. It also deals with the "hard cases", and the proposed morality of equivocation, mental reservation, and outright lying under certain extreme circumstances.

What it doesn't address - not directly, anyway - is the existence of certain social customs which are intended to deceive but nevertheless seem necessary. For example, Grandma serves a dish that just tastes awful, and in the presence of forty relatives asks you how you like it. Most well-bred grandchildren would reply "I like it very much!", so as not to embarrass Grandma in front of everyone after she has worked so hard preparing a meal. Is this even a venial sin? Dr. Feser?

Re my "worst justification ever" (thanks!), it obviously justifies a lot more than lying about Santa. I can't claim originality, though. Not hurting people's feelings, and social harmony in general, are some of the most time-honored, and best, justifications of lying I know of. But I do appreciate your comment. Really.

Posted by Aaron | November 10, 2010 7:25 AM

Apparently not enough to pay attention to what I actually said, though.

"Children might not be nice about telling other kids the truth" really isn't something you can lie your way out of.

Hello all, been off-line all day until now, so some brief responses:

Jeff,

It seems to me that the Grandma example would fall under the category of the use of polite expressions which, given custom, are widely understood to be mere pleasantries, and thus don't count as lies. That is, everyone knows that "That was great!" is something one says at a dinner whether or not it really was great. Natural law moralists and theologians pretty much universally regard this sort of thing as a non-lie. The difference with the Santa case is that Grandma, as a normal adult, is likely to know that you may just be speaking politely, while a child is likely to take "Don't listen to the schoolyard kids, Bobby, Santa is real" as a straightforward, literal assertion of fact.

Amazed,

Sorry, like Lydia, I just don't see what the parallel is supposed to be. A child asks "Where did I come from?" He's told "From inside Mommy." He's happy with that for a few months. Later he asks "But how did I get out of Mommy?" "Well, son, there's this opening that women have, which you've seen on your sister." "Wow, really? That must hurt!" "Yup." Again, he's fine for a long while. Later comes "But how did I get in there in the first place?" "Daddy made that happen." "Oh." Later still "What does the Daddy do exactly?" "Well, there's this special embrace Mommies and Daddies have" or whatever. Believe me, it takes quite a while -- including, if one wants to prolong it, some "Well, I'll tell you later, when the little kids aren't around," after which the kid forgets about it for a few more weeks -- before you have to get too mechanical.

Anyway, notice how different all this is from "There's this fat guy in a red suit who comes down the chimney, has a bunch of flying deer, a big bag of toys, loves chocolate chip cookies and milk, etc. Sure, the schoolyard kids don't believe it, but then they've never read Chesterton. Anyway, they're wrong son, don't listen to 'em." In the "facts of life" case, you don't say everything you know is true; in the Santa case, you say things you know aren't true. Pretty obvious, no?

Re: "gravely wrong," that's pretty obvious too. It means "seriously wrong," "wrong in a major way," as opposed to "not seriously wrong" or "only a minor moral lapse." In Catholic theology -- which many of my interlocutors here take seriously -- it means "the sort of thing that might be a mortal sin provided one knew that it was sinful and acted with sufficeint deliberation," as opposed to "something that would be only a venial sin even if someone knew it was wrong and acted with sufficient deliberation."

Aaron,

Yes, I agree that it's a tautology (or, more precisely, an obvious and trival inference) and thus (should be) uninteresting. But as you see, it seems that many people will think you're heartless, Scrooge, etc. just for knowing that "Barbara" (AAA-1) is a valid syllogism form (as in "All lies are wrong; Telling kids that Santa is real is a lie; so, telling kids that Santa is real is wrong"). And that is interesting!

~~Santa might fall into the "make believe" category depending upon how it is played out in the family.~~

Right. At question is not whether lying to one's children is wrong, but whether engaging in the Santa myth qualifies as lying. I'm not convinced that it does.

Plus we still have the matter of 40+ Christian nations, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, which all have a Christmas gift-giver myth and have had for generations. You're talking about literally hundreds of millions of Christian parents around the world and across the centuries engaging in some version of this myth, thus all sinning, perhaps grievously, by lying to their children, according to (no offense) a couple of 21st century philosophers.

Am I the only one here that finds this just a little, uh, strange?

Until they are at an appropriate age (which may be 4, 6 or 8), we utilize our good judgment in exciting that awe, that wonder, that credulity. I'm not implying - nor is anyone - that we should do nothing but lie to our children. But I'm also not endorsing the view that they are to be given the unvarnished truth for every query.

Amazed, that is just what Ed and Lydia and I have been saying - about not VOLUNTEERING extra truths that have not been asked for. But when you volunteer a comment that can ONLY be understood as intended to create certainty in the mind of the child that the jolly elf is real, that's a different kind of act.

Look can we make this distinction crystal clear, please? There are two different orders of obligation toward the truth involved that we are talking about. Under one order, a parent has an obligation generically, by his whole rearing, to lead the child to truth. He can do this in many ways, sometimes with stories that are fiction, because the fiction harbors underlying truth. And sometimes with fairy tales, because they bring forth an important imaginative faculty. But ALL fiction, of whatever sort, holds an implied framework: suspend your disbelief while the story unfolds. Place yourself, using your imagination, right in the middle of the action. Imagine that the magic WORKS in this scenario. The better the story is at enabling the listener to maintain the state of suspended disbelief, the better it is a fiction.

But it is rock solid fact that WHILE the hearer suspends disbelief, he is neither adhering to the story as real, nor telling himself that the story is false: he is leaving that question off to the side, as an irrelevancy for what IS going on. And the story-teller CANNOT be saying "hey, this story is really true" at the same time that he is maintaining the framework for suspension of disbelief, because as soon as he says anything about the story being really true, he steps outside the framework of suspension: he makes the question "is it true" present to the mind, instead of held in abeyance off to the side as an irrelevant issue for what IS going on.

This all rests on the fact that a human being is perfectly capable of remaining indeterminate about the status - right or wrong, true or fact - of a proposition. Indeed, one of the necessary developments for scientists is a highly trained ability to wait for the evidence to prove the truth. The person can do this in two ways: in the first, when he absolutely does not know, and continues to say "gee, I don't know yet". The other way is when he has habitual knowledge of the fact, but he is not paying any attention to the fact at the moment, by placing other things in the forefront of thought.

At a different level of obligation, a parent (well, really, anyone) holds a direct obligation to use our faculties in a way that is conformed to their natures. The faculty of communication is designed to bring into the hearer's mind the same thought that is in the speaker's mind. Telling a concrete lie to produce the opposite of what is in your mind opposes the nature of communication.

Therefore, telling a story designed with the cultural markers we have developed to convey "here be dragons, so suspend disbelief" means that we are NOT lying when we tell the story, we are not defeating the capacity for communication at all. But telling a tall tale, not only with those markers elided out, but with direct forthright demolition of the framework of suspending disbelief, is a completely different act, is an act that is contrary to our obligation to use speech in a way that respects truth in the hearer.

But Tony, the parents are not creating the story. The myth already exists in the culture. The child, in a sense, grows into it or is "traditioned" into it. If it is a lie, which I don't grant, it's not a parental lie but a cultural lie. It's not like the parents sit the child down and say, "Son, we're going to tell you about the Gazorninplat, which rides around from town to town on a unicycle and touches everyone's garden tomatoes, turning them from green to red. If it wasn't for him, everyone's tomatoes would be green." That's not the way the Santa myth works.

When my mom told me there was no Santa, she explained him as a personification of the Spirit of Christmas -- the joy, the gift-giving, etc., and it made sense to me even though I was only in 4th grade. At no time did I feel tricked or duped; as Bruce said above, I realized that what it had been was a sort of long, fun game of make-believe that now had ended. That the game was now over was sad, as was a certain indefinite sense that a bit of childhood had been left behind, but I felt no regret about having been in the "game," and it was something that I certainly did not want my daughter to be deprived of.

Rob, the parents are creating the story if *they say* things to the child like, "Let's write a letter to Santa telling him what you want" in a serious way or if *they say* "Let's leave out cookies for Santa" (in something other than a "twinkle-in-the-eye-this-is-just-pretend manner) or if *they leave* footprints made to look like Santa. And they are especially doing so if, when asked directly by the child, they say, "Yes, Santa is real" or even (like the man in the article linked earlier) respond to their children's reasonable doubts about Santa with a lot of obfuscating piffle that is intended to maintain for a while longer the child's belief in Santa, a lot of, "Well, son, just because you can't see something doesn't mean it isn't real," etc., which in the context is intended to convey the idea that Santa is indeed real.

After all, it's the sum total of such acts that create the cultural phenomenon you're talking about. The parents can either participate in it or not. They can either do _their bit_ to convey to the child that they really believe in Santa, that he is real, or not. Nobody is forcing them to do so. Perhaps if we were talking about children raised entirely by nannies and boarding school, it wouldn't matter much what the parents did, as their role would be minimal. Then we'd have to talk about what the nanny and the boarding school teachers said. But if we're talking about children whose parents have a major role in their upbringing, then the parents have choices to make, and we're saying they shouldn't make choices deliberately to cultivate the idea that Santa is literally real.

By the way, Rob, are you "soft-core" or "hard-core"? What's your position on answering a direct question from your child on the subject?

About baby-making, Dr Feser says "What does the Daddy do exactly?" "Well, there's this special embrace Mommies and Daddies have" or whatever. I tell my kids "Daddy plants a little seed in Mommy's tummy". Perfectly accurate, although the imagery that naturally occurs to them is innocent and confused. In my experience they don't ask more for a while.

Anyway.

"As for the spectre of religious damage, I think this is an urban myth. I've never met anyone who has had their faith damaged by reflecting on Santa."

"In all my years, I can honestly say that I've never heard of a single person complain that their parents "lied" to them about Santa Claus...and the idea that a belief in the fat man's existence could be _detrimental_ either to one's psyche or to one's faith just seems absolutely laughable to me."

This is not an urban myth. Both my mother and my wife had both their faith and their relationships with their parents seriously damaged. Their parents extended the charade ridiculously long with ever greater subterfuge and machinations, and the inevitable reveal was devastating. For my wife at least she never completely regained trust in her parents and her faith suffered for years. This is not an imaginary problem.

My kids know all about Santa, about St Nicholas, about the difference between them, and about the fun and games. It's never been a big deal. The Santa story is fun but we spend more time with the Advent wreath, the Advent calendar, the Christmas tree, etc.

By the way, when I told my mother-in-law that we weren't lying to our kids about Santa, she cried hot, thick, salt tears and sniffled and sobbed that Santa was the most magical, perfect, wonderful thing about childhood, and how could we deprive them blah blah blah. When she pressed me enough I went ahead and explained how her own Santa lies had affected my wife. Instantly she was on the defensive, snapping "Oh, that's right, I'm just a HORRIBLE mother" and so forth.

Ed,

Thank you for your reply. And I should add that your condescension is charming, though I'm sure the bulk of us had a pretty neat understanding of how you detail the ins-and-outs of the origins of babies to your children. In any case, I shouldn't have been so unclear as to my (mis)understanding of "grave sin"; I do understand the concept, though the continued emphasis by my own interlocutors that my sin was "not grave" struck me as the height of prentious, inasmuch as I don't think I'm sinning at all. "Oh don't worry, the sin you're committing isn't a grave one." Wow, that's a relief.

But the following strikes me as patently ridiculous (sorry for the strong language, but mayhap it's just not "pretty obvious"): "That is, everyone knows that "That was great!" is something one says at a dinner whether or not it really was great." Oh, everyone knows this. Gotcha. And, furthermore, the ambiguity therein is no fault, I take it? No, of course not. But it still doesn't get to the heart of Jeff's point, which (as I understand it) concerns the flat-out lying to one's grandmother in cases wherein one is asked, point-blank, if a meal was good. If one says "yes," one has lied. This is no mere pleasantry, but a lie. If the meal sucked, it sucked. I'll be honest here. I tell my children in such circumstances to lie. It's tactful, respectful of one's elders and one's company, and in good taste. From here forward, however, I can cheerfully inform them that at least it's not a grave sin.

Again, I dare ask of the case I described earlier, whereupon you and your son are at Disney World and the son asks you, "Isn't that [Goofy] a big dog, Daddy?" The son queries for a response. And to be honest, I do too. What is it? Do you lie by saying "yes"? Or do you root around and finagle yourselves into a "mere pleasantry" in such instances as well?

As it happens, I this very day queried two courses of Intro to Philosophy students as to their experiences with the Santa myth. And I discovered one that did, indeed, experience a harsh reality upon learning of Santa's non-existence. And consequently blamed their parents. Granted, it was one out of 60 or so whose parents enforced THE LIE (the remainder of which, thankfully, held no grudge). But suffice to say, I was surprised even at the one. So my apologies to those of you whom I doubted in regard to the empirical data (i.e., I originally thought no one outside of the mentally deranged would take umbrage at having been LIED TO by their parents...) But I stand corrected.

St. Thomas, admittedly, was no man of the world, closeted in his brilliance as he oftentimes was. (If Chesterton and other biographers are correct, that is.) While I've certainly not read him as closely as have you (your book, by the way, is outstanding), I'd be surprised if such chicanery as Santa Claus would arouse his ire. Perhaps one should look to the spirit of the natural law in such instances, rather than the letter. In any case, such academic pandering strikes me as puritanical in the strongest sense, and quite objectionable.

I do enjoy this blog, however. I've much respect for all of its contributors, and it says something that I've been reading it as long as it's been in existence (though, Ed, I do miss the CONSERVATIVE PHILOSOPHERS blog; wish y'all would get it started once more) and have not found an instance to complain...until now. Reckon one can't please everybody though, eh?

Y'all have a pleasant evening.

Um, there's supposed to be some sort of major moral dilemma surrounding whether or not to tell your child that a guy in a Goofy suit is a man dressed in a costume rather than a real dog? I mean, this is going to blight your child's life? Never mind the condescending nonsense, "Amazed"--since you seem to dislike condescension in others--from your earlier comment about suggesting without any warrant to your child that the man in the suit is a pedophile. Is "what do you say to your child about the guy dressed as Goofy?" supposed to be a reductio? Seriously? "Why, if we adopted Ed's view, we would have to tell a three-year-old who asked that a man dressed up as Goofy is not a real dog!!! That's just shocking!"

Color me unimpressed.

By the way, on the "mere pleasantries" thing, I'm inclined to think that they probably don't work very well as pleasantries unless said convincingly, in which case they may be lies. It would be a stinker of a situation for Grandma to ask that in front of people, and if she has any doubts about the meal and is going to be hurt if told that the person didn't like it, she should probably not ask. Fortunately, I never have to struggle with the temptation to lie in such circumstances, because I am such a completely lousy liar that I know it would be pointless and at least as embarrassing, if not more so, than some sort of eloquently non-responsive redirection, along the lines of, "It's really interesting. Where did you get the recipe?"

Lydia,

I'm pretty sure the dog example is a reductio.
1. Suppose it's always immoral to tell a kid something not true.
2. But then it would be immoral to say "yes" if asked by a kid when pointing to Goofy [i.e. someone dressed as Goofy not the REAL Goofy], "Is that a big dog, daddy?"
3. But that's just stupid.
4. Thus 1 is false.

If we're voting count this philosopher in with Lewis, etc. There can be truth in telling a myth like the Santa myth.

So, if I say that I think it's wrong to lie about Santa Claus, then I'm a big mean self-righteous heartless Scrooge. But if I try to explain my meaning in more detail and make it clear that I'm not judging anyone, or accusing them of mortal sin, then I'm "condescending." I can't win!

Really, people, the touchiness and defensiveness I'm seeing here (and which is well-illustrated too by Michael Sullivan's mother-in-law example), coupled with the cringe-making sophistries produced in answer to the points Lydia and I have been making, speak volumes.

BTW, re: Jeff's Grandma scenario, I was hardly trying to provide some comprehensive analysis of every possible way you might respond to every possible way Grandma might ask about the meal. I was merely making the point that natural law theorists generally recognize a class of pleasantries -- "How are you today?" "Fine, thanks" and the like -- that don't count as lies because everyone knows that they are intended merely to express politeness rather than to convey literal truth. And there are obvious cases where saying "Great meal, Grandma" would fit into this category. But sure, obviously there are also cases where it would not. E.g. Grandma responds "Don't give me that polite B.S. I read W4 too, smart guy. And I know all about broad mental reservations, so don't try that dodge. Tell me what you really think. I want to know!" Then you've either gotta keep your mouth shut or 'fess up: "Um, well, not so good, Grandma." But of course, this sort of thing is pretty rare.

The grandma-asking-if-you-liked-dinner thing-- you really should be able to say SOMETHING nice-- "So many dishes! How long did you spend on all this?" "Your X has always been a favorite of mine." "You did so much to make dinner for all of us! Can I help with the dishes?" "Any meal I don't have to cook is fine by me, grandma! Ha, ha, ha!"

For the "all these countries are doing it" argument: just because you have a Santa tradition doesn't mean that you're trying to make kids believe he's a physical being. (Especially since Santa as we know him is pretty new-- nosing around the 'net, Santa is a mix of the St. and "Father Christmas," who only got moved to mid-winter because of some religious stuff and suppression of Saints days and Christmas celebrations.) (here's the best page I've been able to find)

For the "magic of childhood" argument, I'll point to the movie trope when someone finds out that the person they are in love with was ordered to date them: "was it all a lie?"
Why on earth would you set your child up for believing there's a great, magical being who will grant your wishes once a year, just so they can figure out it's a lie?

This blog post puts rather well my view-- there's nothing wrong with having Santa involved in Christmas, but he should support the reason for the season (tm?) rather than detracting.
(quote)
Lewis made a good point about this in his book, Reflections on the Psalms:

"There is a stage in a child's life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began 'Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen'. This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat." Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 48-49.
(/quote)

I'd be surprised if such chicanery as Santa Claus would arouse his [St. Thomas's] ire.

Amazed, one of the most famous events that Chesterton recounts about St. Thomas is precisely on point. When he was a student at the university, a gang of fellow students are having a rowdy bull session, and one of the rowdies goes up to the young Thomas and tells him "Hey, Tomaso, there is [some ridiculous thing - was it an elephant?] outside." Thomas "naively" runs to the window to look out. (Or not so naively.) After he verifies that there is no elephant [or whatever it was claimed], all the men laugh at him, and his teaser asks "how could you possibly have thought that there was an elephant?" His response was: I would rather believe in something so unlikely as that than to be uncharitable and assume you told a lie."

So, yeah, he would. As far as your data collection goes: When I found out the truth, after being lied to directly for at least a year, I was pretty irritated, for a while. I distinctly remember feeling bothered by adults deciding for me whether I got to be "let in" on the truth, as if the truth were some personal secret belonging to adults as private property, and until they decide to let you in on their property, they can send you wherever the heck they darn please as long as it isn't on their property.

Perhaps if you view the Santa Claus thing as a sort of open-ended, long term "game" of imagination it won't seem pernicious.

Rob, a game involves mutual agreement to make-believe about something. Mutual has to be on both sides. If a child is OLD ENOUGH to wonder just how factual the story is, and explicitly ask, then by definition he has the right to explicitly decide how far to consent to the game. What made me angry as a kid was the feeling that I had been used by grownups because they had knowingly played the game upon me, not with me. It couldn't be with me, because they had deceived me about the rules of the game. Kind of like being told "you're going to play this game rigged so we win, and you're going to like it, whether you want to or not."

But Tony, the parents are not creating the story. The myth already exists in the culture. The child, in a sense, grows into it or is "traditioned" into it.

Certainly, Rob. The myth exists. In the culture, the myth exists as a myth. All the adults know the myth. They also know all of the myth-markers that remind them about suspending disbelief. The cultural weight allows for parents to tell the story WITH those myth-markers, so the child rightly grasps the suspension of disbelief, or the parents can consciously and intentionally leave out all the signals, signs, markers and tips toward suspension of disbelief and MAKE DARN SURE that everything the child comes across will normally be interpreted to show the story is literally factual. Nothing in the cultural myth definitely requires the second approach.

I know it's presumptuous of me to give this advice to philosophers, but if you find yourself arguing about the "map" rather than the "territory" - about what the concept "lying" means - then it really does help to drop down a level of abstraction. If someone doesn't agree that the Santa thing is a lie, will they at least agree that it's intentionally causing someone to believe something which one knows to be false? And do they believe that intentionally causing someone to believe a falsehood is forbidden (at least in normal cases like this) by natural or divine law? You don't have to believe in nominalism or General Semantics to see when arguments about words aren't getting anywhere.

On my own justification for the Santa lie, I still don't understand some of the objections. I stand by my statement that "everybody does it" is one good reason (among others) for lying about Santa. It's not that social harmony is such a strong reason in this case. It isn't. It's that "lying is wrong" and "the kid will be harmed" are such weak reasons against the lie. That's why "everybody does it" justifies soft-core lying (like the kind my own parents did) but probably not real hard-core lying.

Rob, you wrote:

Plus we still have the matter of 40+ Christian nations, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, which all have a Christmas gift-giver myth and have had for generations. You're talking about literally hundreds of millions of Christian parents around the world and across the centuries engaging in some version of this myth, thus all sinning, perhaps grievously, by lying to their children ...

Of course I am highly sympathetic to this line of argument, as you knew I would be. I know about some of these traditions, too, and some of my friends and acquaintances practice them. They are exemplary Catholics and I look up to them in many ways. I do think these traditions amount to a mitigating factor when it comes to culpability, but I don't think it excuses them entirely. Can it really be said that purposely deceiving children in this way advances the Faith? I don't believe it does. Indeed I rather suspect that such practices might help explain the nominal Christianity and rampant cynicism of many Catholic and Orthodox around the world. Christian traditionalism, obviously, doesn't automatically annoint or validate every tradition for its own sake - but only those traditions in conformity with revealed truth.

I think an awful lot depends upon how the Santa myth is handled by the family. When a child finds out that Santa isn't real in the schoolyard, like my brother and I did, that's not a good thing and tends to erode respect for parents and all belief in the supernatural. But when the parents themselves volunteer the truth, like yours did, that helps to repair whatever trust may have been lost in the preceding years of deception. But it still may leave the child wondering, "What's next? Today it's Santa, what'll it be tomorrow?"

Foxfier, you wrote:

The grandma-asking-if-you-liked-dinner thing-- you really should be able to say SOMETHING nice-- "So many dishes! How long did you spend on all this?" "Your X has always been a favorite of mine." "You did so much to make dinner for all of us! Can I help with the dishes?" "Any meal I don't have to cook is fine by me, grandma! Ha, ha, ha!"

I like these. Great alternatives. However, one has to be pretty advanced in the social graces to come up with these things. Most teenagers are not going to be quite so adept.

"Both my mother and my wife had both their faith and their relationships with their parents seriously damaged. Their parents extended the charade ridiculously long with ever greater subterfuge and machinations..."

Well, the problem there is in the second sentence, isn't it? But that's not the fault of the myth.

"Rob, a game involves mutual agreement to make-believe about something. Mutual has to be on both sides. If a child is OLD ENOUGH to wonder just how factual the story is, and explicitly ask, then by definition he has the right to explicitly decide how far to consent to the game."

Agreed, which is why a child should be told the truth of the thing when he asks, provided he is at that age. If, say, at four my daughter would have been told by some malicious 12 y.o. cretin on the corner that there was no S.C., I would have continued the game without hestitation. At eight, not so much.

"I think an awful lot depends upon how the Santa myth is handled by the family"

Exactly. Anyone wants to skip it in your family, fine. No one's holding a gun to your head. Neither, though, should the naysayers be attempting to guilt the rest of us out of observing what we see as a harmless tradition.

But, but..I'm The Masked Chicken...I visit philosophy blogs and give good little thinkers presents...and for you bad thinkers...I have a piece of black circular reasoning for your stocking.

Now, are you gonna tell me that I'm not real? Didn't anyone see the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

Seriously, why even bring up Santa to your child? Let them hear about it from someone else and then use their questions as a teaching moment. Why DO parents give presents at Christmas? I'll bet that at least half of modern parents don't really know the answer other than, "It has always been thus." Sad.

The Chicken

MC, why do we give black vicious circles to bad philosophers? Don't they have enough as it is? Isn't it kind of like bringing coals to Newcastle? ;-)

They also believed in the tooth fairy. I once wrote a poem from the tooth fairy and put it under Bernadette's pillow. You should have seen the look on her face next morning as she read it. Maybe you'd like to have wiped the joy from her face. A year later, when I told her one night the tooth fairy was coming, she said, "You're the tooth fairy," (though she still expected treasure beneath the pillow). She is to this day emotionally stable, and treasures that poem even more knowing that I took the trouble to write it.

Those of you who take yourselves so seriously, whose righteousness can only be assuaged by accusing parents of intrinsic evil, whose outrage can only be mollified by removing this source of delight and wonder from a child's life, need to get one of your own. You risk straining at a gnat to swallow Scrooge.

Knowing how highly valued my opinions are with folks here, I thought I should post my thoughts on this.

What Bill said above is beautiful. It is right in line with what I thought when first reading Ed's post: As a child, I felt a great deal of warmth and joy whenever I experienced moments where either of my parents did something special for me, something like magically changing the routines of life just to show their care for me - when they bent the rules just for me.

Ed, for goodness' sake, take the stake out of Santa.

This all rests on the fact that a human being is perfectly capable of remaining indeterminate about the status - right or wrong, true or fact - of a proposition. Indeed, one of the necessary developments for scientists is a highly trained ability to wait for the evidence to prove the truth. The person can do this in two ways: in the first, when he absolutely does not know, and continues to say "gee, I don't know yet". The other way is when he has habitual knowledge of the fact, but he is not paying any attention to the fact at the moment, by placing other things in the forefront of thought.

Tony, how come when I say something like this I get reamed. This is precisely my point when suggesting on Lydia's 'Dots' thread that the Hindu expression'mu' has ontological, epistemological, and aesthetical validity.

JT, I am just guessing here, but using "ontological, epistemological, and aesthetical validity" for a mere word might possibly be the reason.

As a child, I felt a great deal of warmth and joy whenever I experienced moments where either of my parents did something special for me, something like magically changing the routines of life just to show their care for me

Like when they light off fireworks on July 4? There is no need for lies to accomplish the magical changing of routines.

JT, and all the other pro-lie-about-Santa people here, can I ask a question: when you were getting old and smart enough to put 2 and 2 together, and at least doubt that Santa could be real, you went to your parents for clarification. Presumably (well, this happened to me, anyway) the grownups in the early stages gave point-blank false answers to your questions, right? And compounded the basic story with invented nonsense to hold back your suspicions. But eventually, maybe a year later, they stopped doing that and told the truth. At that moment, didn't you feel some kind of vindication and satisfaction in your ability to connect dots, and your final insistence that they come clean about all the discrepancies, etc? Why else would you have bothered to ask? But if you felt that way about the adults finally coming clean, then didn't you also feel a bit affronted at their demeaning your earlier, initial efforts at the truth? Wasn't your feeling even a little bit of "well, gee, I was right last year after all, but they foisted off on me some additional bit of nonsense unnecessarily." Didn't your earlier desire for the truth weigh in at least a little into how you felt about the situation?

I am having trouble imagining a child coming away from the revelation moment having NOTHING but warm feelings of gratitude for being fooled that the myth was rock solid factual reality.

If we're voting count this philosopher in with Lewis, etc.

I haven't had time to read all the comments on here this morning, but before some sort of urban myth gets started...

AFAIK: LEWIS NEVER SAID ANYTHING IN FAVOR OF TELLING YOUR CHILDREN THAT SANTA CLAUS IS REAL.

He has Father Christmas as a character in one of his books, but of course in Narnia Father Christmas _is_ real.

The invocation of Lewis in this context is entirely on the part of the people defending the practice. It's talk about what they think he _would_ say or think. I shd. add, for what it's worth, that he was adamantly opposed to telling lies to his wife about her cancer, though I'm not trying to make a big deal about this. Perhaps more relevant is that he _did_ take an evidential approach to questions like the truth of Christianity, whereas much of the attempted "Christian" defense of telling your children Santa exists depends on a decidedly anti-evidential view of the existence of God (see the WSJ article Bill Luse linked above).

But really, I don't know what he would have said. Let's just not get it down here as some sort of Internet legend that because some people are invoking him, that means he actually addressed or even came close to addressing the question. Unless someone knows some passage that I don't (and I'll bet no one does), he never did.

If, say, at four my daughter would have been told by some malicious 12 y.o. cretin on the corner that there was no S.C., I would have continued the game without hestitation. At eight, not so much.

So, Rob, am I understanding you correctly: If your 4-year-old, under the influence of some 12-year-old, asked you point-blank, "Is Santa real?" you would answer that he is and would try to keep her thinking that he is real until she was older? Is that right?

JT, I am just guessing here, but using "ontological, epistemological, and aesthetical validity" for a mere word might possibly be the reason.

Surely you would not accept such a deflected response from someone as a legit counter.

I always kind of thought words could represent concepts. How 'bout it? Why is your argument for 'human indeterminacy" worthy of consideration, while mu is not? Be honest.

"all the other pro-lie-about-Santa people here"

In this corner, hailing from from the North Pole, with a combined weight of 487 pounds, the Incurable Liars!

And in the opposite corner, from the Ivory Tower, with a combined weight of 512 pounds, the Guilt Manipulators!

Um, maybe because, if I understood him correctly, Tony was simply talking about reading fiction and knowing that it's fiction, not about saying something indeterminate about killing unborn babies, as you were on the other thread?

Warning, everybody: JT is a big-time thread-jacker, I've discovered. Since most of you wouldn't know what the deuce he was alluding to, I've answered him, but I'm planning myself to be careful not to let him hijack this thread.

JT: It's not all about you. We're talking about telling your kids that Santa Claus is real. Maybe you could _try_ to stick to that subject, huh?

Why not get rid of Santa altogether? For the warm-and-fuzzy crowd, wouldn't the joy of knowing about God coming to earth as a baby be all the joy a child would need? Santa is like the bad divorced dad who shows up once a year with presents. Christ's love is constant and eternal. Now, I submit that that is whom children should be looking to at Christmas. Santa is a poor secular substitute. If they don't turn to Christ, Christmas will soon devolve (if it already hasn't) into National-Gift-Giving Day.

Who needs a false Santa when there is a real Christ? Isn't he reason enough to be a good child?

The Chicken

"Why DO parents give presents at Christmas? I'll bet that at least half of modern parents don't really know the answer other than, "It has always been thus." Sad."

In my house we give presents because a) the wise men brought presents to baby Jesus, and b) St Nicholas gave presents to poor children. We imitate both the wise men and St Nicholas by giving each other presents and also setting aside something of our own to give to the poor.

I do not wish to divert to another topic, either. My point is that I agree with Tony on 'human indeterminacy', but when I raised it in the form of 'mu' it was received with vile.

I got no interest in talkin' abortion, and never really did on that thread - I did not hi-jack it either.

So again, I would simply ask TONY

S

urely you would not accept such a deflected response from someone as a legit counter.

I always kind of thought words could represent concepts. How 'bout it? Why is your argument for 'human indeterminacy" worthy of consideration, while mu is not? Be honest.

And will take his honest response 'off-air'.

Sorry for the mess up...corrected post is

I do not wish to divert to another topic, either. My point is that I agree with Tony on 'human indeterminacy', but when I raised it in the form of 'mu' it was received with vile.

I got no interest in talkin' abortion, and never really did on that thread - I did not hi-jack it either.

So again, I would simply ask TONY

Surely you would not accept such a deflected response from someone as a legit counter.

I always kind of thought words could represent concepts. How 'bout it? Why is your argument for 'human indeterminacy" worthy of consideration, while mu is not? Be honest.

And will take his honest response 'off-air'.

What I want to know is why Ed and Lydia are so intent on murdering Santa and causing pain and misery to all the children of the world. You can’t hug a child with nuclear arms, and you can’t bring joy to a child’s Christmas by bludgeoning Santa to death in front of him with a blunt object. So give it a rest.

Ed, why do you have to be so analytical all the time? Don’t you realize that reason and humanity don’t mix? You should be more like Bill Luse. I mean, when I read how he wrote a poem for the tooth fairy I just totally lost it. That was beautiful, man.

Leave the explanations to the family, if even necessary, the transition from Santa to them as givers is their ground, the day means as much or more to the child after as before, the story comes to be understood as the parents innocent desire to bring joy.
We live in a country where lie has become Emperor, where children through school and media are bombarded with dishonesty and myth of far more toxic nature, and we fret of corruption fostered within families we don't know nor can judge and effects on children we cannot fathom but who are succored by a love of a type they will never know again.
May we search for other targets ?

Another point no one has brought up: The kids should learn to thank Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles and friends for the presents they've given. If the children think they all came from Santa, they won't even know to do this.

JT, I was referring to s specific kind of intellectual indeterminacy: The mind is capable of saying of the proposition this story is true something like "well, I don't claim to know if that proposition is true or false, I assert neither truth nor falseness of it". Or, of saying "whether that proposition is true or false is neither here nor there to the question I was speaking to, namely: is X is the main character of the story. I assert neither truth nor falseness of it." Not asserting the fictionality of the Santa story is not the same as asserting truth of it.

I have no idea what kind of human indeterminacy you are referring to, but at a guess it is an indeterminacy as to human nature itself. I subscribe to no theory that human nature is indeterminate. I don't even have a clue what mu represents. My quick google search on it came up with a site that claims human religious records go back 70,000 years, but still didn't explain mu.

Unhinged, you sound just like Ed when he puts on his reductio hippie hat.

Rob: "And, here's our referee and all-around jack-of-all trades, the inimitable fosterer of imagination, the biographer of Thomas Aquinas, tipping the scales at an incredible 666 pounds, Gilbert Kieth Chesterton!"

Besides, if you really must do Santa, do it on December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas. Why drag Christmas into it?

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=38

Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor—and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts.

"If the children think they all came from Santa, they won't even know to do this."

We were never led to believe that all the presents came from Santa, and were always told which presents came from whom.

Tony: nice.

Thank you for the respectful answer Tony. When you said

a human being is perfectly capable of remaining indeterminate about the status - right or wrong, true or fact - of a proposition. Indeed, one of the necessary developments for scientists is a highly trained ability to wait for the evidence to prove the truth.

I recalled this from Pirsig


Because we’re unaccustomed to it, we don’t usually see that there’s a third possible logical term equal to yes and no which is capable of expanding our understanding in an unrecognized direction. We don’t even have a term for it, so I’ll have to use the Japanese mu.

Mu means "no thing." Like "Quality" it points outside the process of dualistic discrimination. Mu simply says, "No class; not one, not zero, not yes, not no." It states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given. "Unask the question" is what it says.

Mu becomes appropriate when the context of the question becomes too small for the truth of the answer. When the Zen monk Joshu was asked whether a dog had a Buddha nature he said "Mu," meaning that if he answered either way he was answering incorrectly. The Buddha nature cannot be captured by yes or no questions.

That mu exists in the natural world investigated by science is evident. It’s just that, as usual, we’re trained not to see it by our heritage.

Ah, now I get it. This reminds me of the proposed framework put forward in a book on fuzzy logic I read 10 years ago: in a lot of cases, the state you are looking for should neither be described as yes or as no, but as another (or set of) answers. Is the apple green or red? It is not (simply) green, it is not (simply) red, so if "green" or "red" are the only allowable answers, I cannot answer the question: it is green in part and red in part.

But when the child asks "is Santa real", we know what the child means, and it is not the case that the question has no answer, nor is it the case that the answer (in the terms the child is asking it) cannot be truthfully answered with a "yes" or with a "no". It can. It simply isn't true that "unask the question" is the best answer, nor is it the case that a materially real, jolly elf of aerial sleigh fame is partly true and partly false. With the Santa myth, it isn't that the TRUTH is indeterminate with respect to the question asked by the child. It is that the mind is, as yet, indeterminate as to which proposition to assert. With suspended disbelief, the mind may remain indeterminate for some time, but when once the mind asserts one of the propositions, the mind is fully right, or fully wrong. Leading a child to assert the fully wrong proposition is to create ERROR, not indeterminacy.

To the person who asked the question of us pro-lie folks: I never got a chance to suspect the truth. One day I asked my parents why Santa used the same gift-wrapping paper that they used on my birthday. They figured the jig was up, so they told me the truth. But I really hadn't suspected anything at all. I was just asking a straightforward question.

I don't remember the details of how they told me, and I don't remember feeling any philosophical discomfort, much less experiencing any existential crisis. That's probably a big reason I'm on the soft-core pro-lie side today.

Again, I appreciate your taking time to consider my concern.

You are right about Santa and mu, I did not mean that it was applicable here. Just wanted to note the science ideas that you and Pirsig share.

Now as for God and mu...but I said I wouldn't divert the thread.

I'm still wondering about Lydia's soft/hard-core lie distinction. I wonder if it's about nothing more that plausible deniability? "Well, yes, now that you ask, that's right, Santa isn't real. This is all just make-believe. [What, you mean you thought we meant it for real?]" Or is it more than that?

I'd like to know if I misunderstood Rob G's comment about a 4-year-old vs. an 8-year-old. (By the way, I don't particularly appreciate having children who tell other children that Santa doesn't exist referred to as "cretins." It could easily be done in incredulous innocence by a child who didn't happen to have raised to believe it was true.) Is Rob saying that he would be "soft-core" on the 8-year-old (would answer a straightforward question with a true answer) and "hard-core" on the 4-year-old (would tell the 4yo that the other kids are wrong and Santa is real)?

I don't mean to say that C.S. Lewis would say that he should lie about Santa! But he's pro-myth-making and myth-telling, and he does say in the article "Myth Became Fact" (in God in the Dock) that myth can convey reality that prose can't and that there's value in this. Moreover, a myth can convey truth even if some statements taken in abstraction are false. From my reading of Lewis, I just don't think he'd think the Santa issue is as cut and DRY as many are making it out to be.

I think it's fine to tell the story and say things like "Santa goes on his sleigh at night" and let the kids imaginations run with it as long as they are able. When they are old enough to abstract from the myth, consider it's genre, and distinguish between fact and fiction, and if in this abstracting context they ask whether the proposition "Santa exists" is true, one shouldn’t simply say "yes." But one needn't preface every story with "Sally, what I'm about to say isn't true" so that the kid doesn't get any false beliefs. From what many of you are saying, it would seem that we ought to preface every story so that no false beliefs are formed during the story with something like, "What I'm about to read isn't true." I find no good reason to think this.

Take Genesis 1 as an example. God seemed to think it was perfectly fine to give us a story which would lead to many false beliefs (and many true ones). But there's value in the story even if people still today mistakenly read it as if the genre were history as we understand this genre today.

So I ask, since kids can form false beliefs during a story that is being read, thinking that it really happened when it didn't, are we obligated to preface every myth with a statement clarifying its genre?

Hey, Ed, I have a puzzler for you about lying. Suppose your country has a cipher that you have been using for 10 years. You begin to suspect that country Z, which has been inimical to your interests for years and may declare war in the near future, has broken your cipher, and may be reading your secret mail.

So, of course, you change your cipher. But in the meantime, just to be clever, you continue to send messages in the old cipher, mis-information that will be very interesting to Z. Is the intentional usage of a now-defunct (i.e. false) cipher to mis-inform Z the same thing as a lie? I take it for granted that Z has no right to the true information. And that your own operatives have been all informed that the old cipher is defunct.

Tony,

There would be no lie because you were not communicating to Z. They intercepted your code to their own detriment. You are not resposible for other people eavesdropping on a private conversation.

The Chicken

Duns, I definitely don't think that we need to preface each fictional story with "this is myth". We have already developed cultural signals that get built into stories that help imply that without being explicit. Such as "once upon a time." Those signals are all over the place. One of them is simply the _story-telling voice_. You don't recite "Twas The night before Christmas" the same way you read out a newspaper item about a plane that crashed.

Nor is it necessary to make sure that your young child gets exactly the perfect distinction of fact from fiction when you tell stories: you can let them learn over time to distinguish more clearly and more certainly. When you sing "I'm a little teapot" for an 18 month old, you needn't clarify by declaring "that's just the way the rhyme goes, I am not really a teapot, OK?" And when you tell a fairy story to a 2-year old, the kid may be more muddled than clear about how to understand it. She may realize the story is "story" without knowing for sure that the magic part is actually unreal. Not knowing for sure is indeterminacy. That's not lying.

But there is a far cry between using a story that the child may be unclear about, and KNOW they are unclear about, from using a direct false declaration induce a definite (no longer indeterminate) falsehood in her mind.

(By the way, would any of you be a little worried about your 6-year old thinking that fairies are real, and fairy god-mothers, and gnomes, and magic wands, and genies in a bottle, etc? Not just "well, I can't really say just what I think about them", but out and out thinking they are totally factual. If so, why that and not for Santa? For myself, I would think that I had failed to tell the stories properly. )

NORAD tracks Santa. The Government wouldn't lie. QED

The Chicken

Tony's comments about story-telling and cultural cues are spot on the money. By the way, I don't know if my experiences are just unrepresentative, but my kids have never had any serious confusion about when we were pretending. This notion that a 3-year-old thinks that any story you tell, including a story that begins "Once upon a time," is literally factual just is entirely contrary to my experience. Occasionally they would ask just to make sure, but they usually had a pretty shrewd idea, from the earliest age on, that I was not a bear when I pretended to be a bear and that the make-believe stories I told were just make-believe. And I doubt very seriously that any of them would not have known all on their own that a guy in a big cloth doggy costume is just a guy in a big cloth doggy costume.

Dr. Feser,
Let's abandon the trivial example of Santa and go for something more. Say you are talking to a child who was orphaned because of a natural disaster. Would you think it inappropriate to lie to the child to try to comfort him?

NORAD tracks Santa. The Government wouldn't lie. QED

Win.

However, one has to be pretty advanced in the social graces to come up with these things. Most teenagers are not going to be quite so adept.

Er, thank you, I guess-- since that's basically the manners my family taught us back in single digits. "Find SOMETHING nice to say about anything someone gives you" came right after "please," "excuse me" and "thank you."

It's also a nice lesson in being thankful and seeing the brighter side. ^.^

Tony,

VJ Torley raised a related wartime question in the parallel blog at his site. I was impressed that it was a slam-dunk debate kiklkler, but Ed noted sone Catholics have already spoke on being obfuscatory in war, yet not lying. Torley had a good perspective from Judaism on lying also – you might go look..

MC,

There would be no lie because you were not communicating to Z. They intercepted your code to their own detriment. You are not resposible for other people eavesdropping on a private conversation.

I am not sure here…you are not lying to Z, but you are obviously telling lies to the intended recipient. So, is it really O.K. for two people to engage in a conversation of lies, knowing that they are causing harm to the eavesdropper who thinks they are true?

Correction

VJ Torley raised a related wartime question in the parallel blog at Ed's site. I was impressed that it was a slam-dunk debate killer, but Ed noted sone Catholics have already spoke on being obfuscatory in war, yet not lying. Torley had a good perspective from Judaism on lying also – you might go look..

And I doubt very seriously that any of them would not have known all on their own that a guy in a big cloth doggy costume is just a guy in a big cloth doggy costume.

Lydia, I think that's generally true. I do remember, though, back in about 1992 the last time I visited a Chuck E Cheese place, with my 2 year old daughter. About 20 minutes into the visit, the Chuck character cames out and my daughter let out a shriek of pure abject terror. 6-foot rat and all, first time she had ever been exposed to people in animal suits - not all that silly a reaction if you ask me.

Seems to me she was pretty leery of mall guys in big red suits, too.

I was going to say something about being afraid, Tony. Being afraid didn't necessarily mean that she thought it was a _rat_, though. I mean, I doubt she'd seen _real_ rats all that often, and this would look very, very different. Sounds to me like perhaps more of a reaction to big, totally unfamiliar-looking, has a face but no expression...What the _heck_??

There would be no lie because you were not communicating to Z. They intercepted your code to their own detriment. You are not resposible for other people eavesdropping on a private conversation.

MC, who are you communicating to, if not to Z? Everyone else knows that the cipher is defunct, so they are not even listening. You want Z to listen, you choose to say things, you use symbols that have been given a determinate meaning (by artificial convention), you use the symbols so that the result has a content that is coherent given that artificial convention, (but false) and you

want them to accept the misinformation as true.

If this is NOT a lie, then it fails to be so only because of the funny little twist between what is normally an organically developed convention in a common language and common symbols that are society-wide, and an artificial convention by which you say: For these purposes here, when I use M, I mean Q, and when I use... If the artificial convention can be called a private language (which means only and exactly what I say it means when I want it to mean that), then perhaps nobody outside of the private parties can be party to the act of communication properly speaking. In which case, yes, you are not communicating to Z.

But it really is a stretch to say that an artificial language means only and exactly what I want it to mean, when I want it to mean that, when the whole point of the pre-arranged cipher as a private language is that between the parties to the cipher, the language means what the cipher RULES say it means, because you don't know for sure beforehand exactly what you are going to need to say and you cannot communicate without those rules. And you established that rule by a practice over a period of years: it is a beginning of a customary usage - i.e. taking on some of the character of a natural language.

I don't think I know the answer. Yet.

Lydia,

I think my kids when under 5 do/did believe in monsters (in spite of the fact that I tell them they don't exist). At the very least they think there might be monsters (and that's false it seems; I doubt in many close possible worlds there are monsters of the sort my kids imagine....but maybe I'm wrong. I kind of hope so :).

Kids certainly act as if they believe in such things. A study done recently (on a different subject) showed that children's behaviors changed drastically when they were told there was an invisible magic princess in the room with them. One simple explanation for the behavior is that the kids believed they were being watched by a magical princess.

I myself am inclined to believe in degrees of being. I think kids are too. And I suspect that many of them think that their imaginary friends aren't REAL but are sort of real.

When the FBI poses an agent as a person who is willing to pay a politician a bribe in return for a favor...or as a terrorist so as to infiltrate a cell...

It would seem we are comfortable with our government doing lots of stuff to keep our standard of living and our freedom in tact.

I do not think the crux of the matter in Santa is whether or not we should lie for what we think is a good cause. Rather, it is a matter of differing psychological temperaments: those who largely view reality as logos versus those predisposed to the mythos.

I think this is what Duns is saying.

I hope that I'm not going over old ground here, but:

I've taken both my children on Spibear hunts. Spibears are eight legged bears, indigenous to County Armagh in Ireland. They vary in size and temperament, and are very difficult to spot. Spibears are partial to fish sticks, which may be used to trap them. Once trapped, it is only kind to let them go, very early in the morning, before most children are awake. I am one of the very few people who knows how to find a Spibear.
Ben (who is 10) no longer believes in Spibears (or Santa). He spotted a flaw in my tale - I claimed that I am one of the very few people who knows where to look for a Spibear. Ben reasoned -and I quote - "Dad, you don't even know where to look for your mobile phone.
Rebekah (4) believes, but is becoming a little more dubious. Spibears like fish-sticks, yet no Spibears have ventured into the local grocery store to gorge on the numerous fish-sticks on offer.

Now I caused my children to believe in Spibears. There are no Spibears, and I know it. But I doubt that I am "lying" to my children. In fact, part of the game is allowing the children to work out that their Dad is telling a tall tale. If "Santa" is pursued in the same spirit, then I think he falls into "make believe" and not "lie".
However, where I to punish my children for refusing to believe in Spibears, or if I thought it will a terrible day when Becks realises that Dad is making this up as he goes, that would indicate a horrible immaturity on my part. I think the same principles apply to Santa. Some adults take the game so seriously that I wonder if something worse than lying is at work.

Graham

And I would worry that some of the howling at Dr Feser and Lydia isn't a bit too hysterical. There are many ways to instil a sense of wonder into a child. Refusing to play the Santa "game" may make a parent more creative.

Life would go on without Santa...

I am not sure here…you are not lying to Z, but you are obviously telling lies to the intended recipient. So, is it really O.K. for two people to engage in a conversation of lies, knowing that they are causing harm to the eavesdropper who thinks they are true?

Yes. The eavesdropper causes harm to himself. You do not. He is sinning. You are not because your intended recipient knows that the communication is a lie and therefore knows the truth of the situation. You are not lying to your intended listener and you are not responsible if someone else just happens to listen in and draw the wrong conclusion. That is called the sin of rash judgment on their part. If Z wants information, let him ask you. It is impolite and a form of listening to privileged communication to eavesdrop. Z is the enemy. You owe him charity and the truth when he asks you for it or situations demand it. You owe him nothing when he doesn't ask and the situation doesn't demand it. Technically, you are engaging in a form of broad mental reservation, which is not lying. If another party happens to draw the wrong conclusion from your communication, even if you suspect they are listening without permission, then you cannot be held responsible for what they conclude, since you have not actually given them permission to listen. even if you suspect that they are listening. Caveat auditor.

But it really is a stretch to say that an artificial language means only and exactly what I want it to mean, when I want it to mean that, when the whole point of the pre-arranged cipher as a private language is that between the parties to the cipher, the language means what the cipher RULES say it means, because you don't know for sure beforehand exactly what you are going to need to say and you cannot communicate without those rules. And you established that rule by a practice over a period of years: it is a beginning of a customary usage - i.e. taking on some of the character of a natural language.

If there is a pre-arrangement between the sender and receiver that in the event it is suspected that someone is listening in to the communication that one will switch to saying the exact opposite of what one means, then that is a meta-rule that is being invoked. If you intend for Z to hear something other than your plans and you have reason to suspect that he has broken your code, you switch to another code. Lying is another code for this purpose, since your intended receiver knows of this meta-rule. Essentially, you have a nested code system. Nothing wrong with that. Z can think what he will about your communication. You have no duty to comment on his understanding.

The Chicken

I do not think the crux of the matter in Santa is whether or not we should lie for what we think is a good cause. Rather, it is a matter of differing psychological temperaments: those who largely view reality as logos versus those predisposed to the mythos.

And I know this is what Graham is saying.

You might want to think a little more then.

Some adults take the game so seriously that I wonder if something worse than lying is at work.

The essential difference in perception between Santa as real and Santa as myth that some comments have been dancing around is what Dr. William Fry, the grand old man of humor studies, calls a "play frame". The essential question that Chesterton would ask is does the child recognize a tiny quivering in the truth that lets them know that something larger than life is being dealt with.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a genetic component in one's ability to recognize play. Thus, some kids will, I suspect, play the Santa game as a game and some will be dead serious in thinking that Santa is real.

Treat Santa as a joke set-up and the analysis of the situation becomes clearer. Morally, one may only joke if the sender is sure that the receiver knows a joke is being set-up. Jokes that are sprung from apparently serious situations (there is no quivering of truth), like Athena suddenly springing from Zeus's head, are perceived as a form of injustice and anger is often the result. Try telling a joke while a mother's child is dying. Morally, that is indefensible.

The answer to telling a child about Santa must be a personal one. Until a parent knows their child well enough to know how they will receive it, the parent ought not to speak of Santa. When the parent is sure that the child can detect a quivering of truth, then Santa becomes something that can be spoken about.

Thus, all I can say, morally speaking, is that telling your child about Santa may be a lie or a delight depending upon the child and depending upon the timing. Each child is different. In this case, it is the parent's responsibility to respond to the proper grace to know when the time is right, if ever, to tell them about Santa Claus. If the child does not automatically put Santa in the right category, then a lie has been committed. Young children (3 - 5) have an odd conception of truth. They tend to absolutely trust adults to be truthful, but they give themselves a great deal a latitude in what they create with regards to the truth. The question really is: who owns Santa Claus - the child or the parent. The sense of joy comes when the child owns Santa and has integrated it into their own world, a world where sometimes somethings aren't real. The sense of deception comes when Santa is owned by the parent and the child is merely allowed to see him once a year.

Haven't you realized, yet, that there is an element of a joke in Santa Claus? If this is the case, then, morally speaking, it is the joke and not the subject in the joke that must be analyzed. How do people tell a statement to be a joke or deadly serious. This is the crux of the matter. The frame is the key.

Telling a child about Santa Claus as if he were a real person is not necessarily lying. It is necessarily like trying to tell a joke with a serious face. Cognitive dissonance is often the result. If one tells a joke with a serious face, the teller does not necessarily have to be lying. He just might be a really bad joke-teller. Parents who tell their children about Santa without the slight quivering of the truth, that slight lifting of the lower lip, either don't know how to play, themselves (and should NEVER talk about Santa), or they are trying to hurt their child. Those parents who insist on playing Santa as real, assuming they have a decent sense of imagination and that they are not trying to harm their child, simply have gotten the wrong directions on how to perform the stunt.

Perhaps there ought to be classes on how to talk about Santa, just as there should be classes on how to hunt the snark.

The Chicken

...just as there should be classes on how to hunt the snark.

The first rule of fight club is that there is no snark.

Meta-rule, good clarification. Thanks MC.

It would seem we are comfortable with our government doing lots of stuff to keep our standard of living and our freedom in tact.

You know, JT, when I was a kid I thought that given our enemies (i.e. Communists) having a good spy program was not only sensible, but virtually a downright obligation. And I was perfectly fine with the glamorization of the spy game - James Bond and all. Of course, if you are caught, you get killed, but that's normal of course, because the country that catches you has a right to protect themselves from your spying. At the time, I don't think I knew anyone who explicitly thought that spying was just wrong.

As I grew older, and read more and more from earlier times, I naturally came across stuff that treated spying differently: Spies were subject to disgraceful execution, rather than POW treatment. In the days of knights and gentlemen, it was assumed that no gentleman would spy, and your word was your bond. If you falsely give your word, you were certainly no gentleman, and you deserved to be treated as a villain. And, finally, the noble accounts of people who would not tell a lie even for the sake of their country.

The fact that we ARE comfortable with spying doesn't mean that we are right to be comfortable with it. In the 1920's the government apparently felt comfortable experimenting on the health of black people. They were wrong. Into the 1960s, people felt totally comfortable making blacks into second class citizens. They were wrong too. I have a friend who for years was an undercover FBI agent, and a darn good one. But I don't believe that I could successfully defend his actions as moral.

As I grew older, and read more and more from earlier times, I naturally came across stuff that treated spying differently: Spies were subject to disgraceful execution, rather than POW treatment. In the days of knights and gentlemen, it was assumed that no gentleman would spy, and your word was your bond. If you falsely give your word, you were certainly no gentleman, and you deserved to be treated as a villain. And, finally, the noble accounts of people who would not tell a lie even for the sake of their country.

The fact that we ARE comfortable with spying doesn't mean that we are right to be comfortable with it.

Tony, thanks for articulating something I've never quite known how to address. If spying is immoral, and along with it the whole apparatus of official disinformation related to national security, then serving one's country in a multitude of official capacities (military, CIA, etc.) might be altogether closed to Christians. Perhaps there's some nuance that I'm missing, along the lines of "if the truth isn't expected, then there is no deceit", or something. But I suspect that the whole nasty business is morally irredeemable.

Moral reasoning on spying should be grounded on something stronger than "people of earlier times didn't like it."

Incidentally, counter to Hollywood, spies still aren't supposed to be treated as POWs.

~~By the way, I don't particularly appreciate having children who tell other children that Santa doesn't exist referred to as "cretins."~~

Note that I specified that the offender was 'malicious' and 12 y.o. Any 12 y.o. that intentionally tells a young child that there's no Santa Clause out of mischief and/or malice should be thrashed and soundly, cretin or no.

~~Is Rob saying that he would be "soft-core" on the 8-year-old (would answer a straightforward question with a true answer) and "hard-core" on the 4-year-old (would tell the 4yo that the other kids are wrong and Santa is real)?~~

That's exactly what Rob is saying. The older child has a more developed sense of real vs. pretend, and his doubt about the thing would necessarily more rational.

An analogy might be professional wrestling, although it doesn't have near the cultural or traditional clout of Santa. When I was a kid I watched wrestling faithfully. My dad watched it with me and took me to matches. I thought it was real and my dad allowed me that misapprehension. As I got older though, he began to imply that it was staged (not "fake"), and eventually I came to the conclusion, half by argument, half by intuition and observation, that he was correct. At this point I didn't get angry at him for letting me believe it was real for several years; neither did I get mad at the industry for portraying as real what was obviously, to the adult mind, staged. I took it in stride, kept on watching it for the entertainment value, then eventually moved on.

Thing is, when I was six or seven, there were kids in school who already knew it was staged or "fake." They tried to convince me and the other wrestling believers of that, but to no avail. But what was undoubtable at age 7, became a little doubtful at 10 then completely doubtable at 12 or so.

I would say a similar thing about the 4 y.o. vs. the 8 y.o. wrt to Santa. (Btw, was my dad lying to me by letting on that wrestling was real, or what he just being a good and kind father?)

Chicken, your last comment is the bomb. It's exactly what I've been attempting to communicate, but much less clearly. Thanks, sir!


Well, Rob, I suspect that you and Chicken do not actually agree. Chicken says,

Morally, one may only joke if the sender is sure that the receiver knows a joke is being set-up.

That's pretty clear to me.

If your 4-year-old asks you if Santa is real, your 4-year-old is trying to figure out whether this is a joke set-up or not. If you deliberately tell the 4-year-old that Santa is real, you are trying to continue the "joke" beyond the point where you are definitely and unequivocally committing deception. Ed addressed this very well upthread, and I'm sure would apply it to 4-year-olds as well as 6-year-olds:

When your 6-year-old asks whether Santa is real, what he means is: "Dad, did you buy these gifts down at Toys R Us and eat the cookies yourself, or did a fat man in a red suit really come down the chimney and leave them there, after which he ate the cookies and then went back up the chimney?" And when you say "Yes, son, Santa brought the gifts, not me," what he understands by that is "OK, so the fat guy in the chimney is real, and Dad didn't go to Toys R Us or eat the cookies."

I entirely disagree that there is some huge difference here between what a 4-year-old means by such a question and what an 8-year-old means. When my kids were four, if I started a story and they said, "Is this just make-believe?" they meant the question exactly as it sounded. There wasn't some mysteriousness about being four that meant that they had some weird relationship to truth that made the question mean something different from what it seemed to mean.

"I entirely disagree that there is some huge difference here between what a 4-year-old means by such a question and what an 8-year-old means"

It's a free country.

This is tiresome. Neither side is going to convince the other. Note to self: stay out of this discussion next year when it comes up again.

Peace out.

Okay, someone has to quote it (from the Marx Bros. film, A Night at the Opera):

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause that's in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don't know...
Driftwood: It's all right. That's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!

The Chicken

Can someone post a link to the similar entry from last year?

I posted it way upthread. No time to get it now, but you can find it by going to my author page here and searching "Santa" on the page.

Saw it on the way back down, thanks.

As I read here I am saddened we have come to this. We must have real world answers for real world sin.

1. The first point is there is an El or what the Teutonic peoples referred to as Gott which in English we said is God. He is the Creator of the World from nothing. The 10 commands from the Father or Yahua says have no others you worship before my face.

2. The Saint Nicholas would not want people to make him anything but what he was, a sinner who needed grace and the good he did was out of the grace and Spirit given of the Father.

3.You all forget the other helper from this is Krampus who would work with Santa to punish the children who are bad. Look him up.
This is simply a means of turning people away from the true Elohim and His son.

4. We are to teach our children the truth about the judgment and the death of the Lamb. The Father does not like an unjust balance, which obviously this is- a lie mixed with truth. So, from the scripture you are in sin and idolatry to purport as true such heinous a lie using a saint to bring about sin. Not unusual as you read in The Word, this happens. The bronze serpent Moses used had to be destroyed since it was then an idol in Yisra_el.

Shalom Aleichem
Walt

PS
If you read the Word it becomes very clear what is right and wrong. Many of you do not know Elohim or His Word to have such confusion. That is what the Master ( Yahushua Ha Mashiach) would confront you with concerning this Lie. He would ask do you know the scriptures, do not lie, do not bear false witness. Do not lead your children into idolatry.

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