Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Is there a Santa clause?

Recently, in response to a question, I got into a debate over Santa Claus. It's striking how emotionally invested both sides can be in this debate. I don't think the Santa Claus mythos is a big deal one way or the other, but it raises some significant, perennial questions about parental duties and Catholic morality: 

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?”

i) Feser's objection depends in part on the assumption that lying is universally wrong. And that's certainly an issue worth discussing. That, however, is a separate argument, because it turns on a general principle. "Lying" about Santa is wrong because lying about anything is wrong. "Lying" about Santa is just a special case of that general prohibition. 

If that's the basis of the objection to the Santa mythos, then we should shift the debate to whether lying is absolutely wrong.

ii) Notice that Feser's logic precludes any form of espionage involving spies who assume a false identity. That's how radical his position is. We're not allowed to send agents into a hostile country who pretend to be someone they're not. 

iii) Then there's his pragmatic objection. But that cuts both ways. What if your parents are Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or secular humanists? Is it not beneficial in that context for kids to doubt the wisdom of their parents?

I strongly believe that Christian parents should not lie to their children about the existence of a supernatural, all-knowing being who is watching them and holding them morally accountable. Once they find out that you have lied to them about Santa’s existence, how can doubts not also arise that you have been wrong as well in telling them that God exists? Maybe the whole Christmas story is a myth which thinking adults should outgrow.

i) That's a very crude definition of a "lie". 

ii) Craig is projecting his own interpretation of Santa onto children's minds, but that overinterprets Santa. How many little kids think that way?

iii) There's a difference between a parent actively cultivating belief in Santa and letting their kids believe in Santa, due to pop cultural osmosis, then letting their kids begin to question Santa's existence for themselves, and aiding them in that process once doubts emerge. 

iv) If the faith of a teenager was based on unquestioning trust in their parents' wisdom and honesty, then that kind of childish faith ought to be shed. That isn't faith in Jesus, but faith in your parents. A substitute faith. That's fine when you're a little kid, but you need to outgrow that basis for Christian faith.

All good thoughts Steve. I'd push back a little on each one, though. If it's not a lie, what is it?

i) For starters, I don't recommend that Christian parents inculcate belief in Santa. That said, I think some Christian parents are overly scrupulous on this issue. 

i) A child may pick up belief in Santa, not from his parents, but from other kids or TV or social media, &c. In that case, in no sense did his parents "lie" to him when it came to the origin of his belief. They had nothing to do with the situation which produced their child's false belief. 

ii) It would then be, in part, a question of whether there's a duty to correct their false belief. There are situations in which we have a duty to correct someone's false belief, even if we're not responsible for creating their false belief. 

Conversely, there are situations in which we don't have a duty to correct someone's false belief. If I'm sheltering Jews from Nazis, I'm not going to lecture S. S. officers on the follies of Nazism. That would get me jailed or executed, which would be counterproductive to my sheltering Jews. 

iii) Apropos (ii), Santa is an opportunity for kids to develop their critical thinking skills. Rather than telling a child straight out that Santa doesn't exist, I think it's better to wait until they express doubts. Let them take the initiative. When they ask you if Santa is real, that already indicates that they are harboring doubts, so you could then ask him what their reasons are. You could then commend and encourage them. It's my impression that kids are proud of themselves for figuring out that Santa is imaginary. A parent can facilitate that process, but I think it best that a parent not short-circuit the process. Let kids discover that for themselves, but support them in that direction, rather than taking over.

iv) Going back to (i), it is, of course, possible to reinforce a false belief you didn't instigate. If a child believes in Santa, I think there's nothing wrong with playing along with that belief. They will outgrow it.

v) Another issue is if, say, the father disapproves but the mother thinks it's harmless fun. Should that be a hill to die on? I don't think so.

All good thoughts Steve. I'd push back a little on each one, though. If it's not a lie, what is it?

i) The problem with calling it a "lie" is that a "lie" has pejorative connotations that are out of place in this situation. 

Put another way, there's a place for using general terms. A biologist will classify a woman and a whale as mammals. That makes sense in some scientific contexts.

If, however, I said "I married a mammal", that would be a peculiar way of referring to my wife, even if it's a technically correct designation. Although women and whales share a common taxonomy, at a certain level of generality, what distinguishes them is at least a significant as what they share in common. 

By the same token, while I suppose it can be useful to have an umbrella term like "lie" to designate a variety of behaviors of a certain kind, it can also be unhelpful when we use the same word to designate things that are significantly dissimilar as well as similar.

Compare a schoolyard sniper to a police sharpshooter. You could say they are both "killers". But one is taking innocent lives while the other is saving innocent lives. 

ii) Dropping the comparison, some practical jokes involve deception. TV shows like Punk'd and Candid Camera are based on pranks and practical jokes. You could call the setup "lies," but that indiscriminate descriptor fails to make morally relevant distinctions between morally licit and morally illicit deception. 

iii) Or take white lies. Even for people who think lying is intrinsically wrong, there's still a morally significant distinction between lying to protect the innocent and lying to harm the innocent. 

iv) I think Santa is more akin to practical joking than "lying" in the pejorative sense. 

Once again, I don't recommend that Christian parents foster belief in Santa. But some disapproving parents freak out on "lying" to kids about Santa.

Sure, evidence can build their trust back up in QM and all the things they'll learn in college, but why break their trust in the first place?

i) I doubt we can engage in universal generalizations about how kids react when they conclude that their parents misled them about the existence of Santa. What percentage of children cease to trust their parents at that point?

Moreover, even if that's their initial reaction, do they continue to distrust their parents for the rest of their lives because they found out that their parents "lied" to them about Santa? A teenager or twenty-something who continues to hold that grudge is immature and spiteful. Even if they conclude that when they grow up, they won't mislead their own kids in that regard, they shouldn't keep blaming their parents. They should have the gratitude to realize that their parents were trying to give them a happy childhood with happy childhood memories. Even if they think their parents made mistakes, big deal. Get over it. 

ii) Also, while there are situations in which not telling the truth can undermine trust, there are other situations in which always telling the truth can undermine trust, or make it impossible to develop trust in the first place.

For instance, friendship has certain unspoken codes. One code is that friends cover for each other.

Now, that shouldn't be unconditional. There are situations in which it would be wrong to cover for a friend. But what if a friend may get into trouble through no fault of his own. 

Let's say we have three high school students. All three are boys. But one of them is a "transgender girl" who wants to be called Tiffany and addressed by feminine pronouns. The other two boys are Rex and Randal. Randal is a Christian.

Rex "misgenders" Tiffany. That puts him at risk of being disciplined. Tiffany may report him to the Vice Principal. He may be suspended or expelled. But of course, Rex will deny it. It's his word against Tiffany's. 

There's only one witness to corroborate what was said. Rex did nothing wrong. Tiffany is biologically male. It's accurate to refer to Tiffany using male pronouns. And that's not a putdown, even if Tiffany is offended. 

If Rex and Randal are friends, then Rex expects Randal to lie for him. He expects Randal to protect him. Friends protect each other. That's a necessary component of friendship. 

And there are situations in which that means lying for a friend, if the friend is innocent of wrongdoing, but there's no other way to protect him.

However, my argument isn't contingent on whether you think lying is justified in that situation (or any situation). The point is that from Rex's standpoint, he can't trust someone who's not prepared to lie for him in a situation like that. Friendship is based on trust, and that includes the implicit understanding that a real friend will cover for him in a situation like that.

iii) Let's vary the illustration. Teenage boys have been known to do dumb, shortsighted things that can ruin their reputation if they became known for that. In the age of the webcams, phone cams, social media, &c, teenage boys (and girls!) sometimes record themselves saying and doing inappropriate things.

Say Rex does something like that. It's not harmful to anyone else. Rather, it's potentially harmful to himself, if enough people saw it. He could never live it down.

Say he realizes that he just uploaded something onto the Internet which will damage his reputation. He tries to delete it.

Suppose he consults Randal, because Randal is an uber geek, just to make sure any digital footprint has been erased. 

But one other classmate saw it before it was scrubbed. The other classmate, let's call him Reggie, didn't like Rex anyway, and this is his chance to make Rex look bad by sharing the clip with other classmates.

Yet now the evidence is gone. Reggie can testify to what he saw, but there's nothing to back it up. 

At this point there are only three people in the world who know where the truth lies: Rex, Randal, and Reggie. 

Even though what Rex did was wrong, I think it would be proper for Randal to cover for him. But that's not the immediate point. The point, rather, is that if Randal didn't lie for him, Rex would regard that as a betrayal of confidence.

In sum, there are situations in which refusing to lie will destroy trust, or prevent the possibility of developing a trustful relationship in the first place.

I'm by no means suggesting that the question of Santa is equivalent to my illustrations. Rather, I'm considering whether, as a matter of general principle, trust presumes honesty. And I'm giving some hypothetical counterexamples. Although it seems to be counterintuitive to say so, it's easy to consider scenarios in which a trusting relationship requires a willingness to deceive, when circumstances warrant. 

iv) Take one more example. There's an episode from La Femme Nikita in which Nikita talks a teenage suicide bomber out of detonating his explosive belt. She does so by deceiving him. And it helps that she's gorgeous! 

Now, at least in the short-term, he might feel that she betrayed his trust, but since her deception saved his life, upon reflection he ought to appreciate her action. Even though, or especially, because she deceived him, he has more reason to trust her because he knows that she was acting in his best interests. 

Trust can have more than one object. It can be trust in the truthfulness of a speaker. Or it can trust in their good will towards you. And sometimes these are separable objects.

As a quick point... I don't think it's so absurd to say spies are sinning. I recognize the utility of spies, but I don't think it's a job Jesus would accept. Can you imagine Jesus lying as a professional spy? I can't, because it seems to go against the moral perfection of Jesus.

i) There are permutations to that question. As an omnipotent, omniscient being, Jesus doesn't face anything like the same limitations we do, so he'd never be in a position where he'd have to lie to protect the innocent. 

But if (ex hypothesi) he did find himself in that situation, I think it's entirely consistent with moral perfection to lie to protect the innocent. 

ii) If we assume that espionage is sometimes necessary to protect the innocent, then deception is part of the package. It wouldn't be a choice between spies who lie and spies who don't, but not becoming a spy in the first place if you're not prepared to deceive the enemy. 

iii) I subscribe to moral absolutes, but not every action is intrinsically right or wrong. In many cases, motives and results are germane to moral valuation. There's even threshold deontology. 

It's a question of what examples constitute moral absolutes. Different ethicists draw the line at different places. 

In my view, some actions that are prima facie wrong may become permissible or even obligatory if there's a conflict between two duties. In that case, the higher duty temporally overrides the lower duty.

iv) There's also the issue of moral dilemmas (e.g. "the problem of dirty hands"). Some atheists and freewill theists believe genuine moral dilemmas are possible. It depends on one's view of divine providence.

That would be a problem for something true because many children are not smart enough to figure out the existence of God on their own, and so rely on the authority of others, especially that of their parents. It doesn't matter whether it is true or not; it matters that they come to the conclusion on authority, and that authority is undermined by parental lies.

Actually, some people need to learn the hard way not to vest unquestioning faith in human authority-figures or human authority-structures.

Secondhand faith isn't Christian faith. It's not good enough to believe something just because that's what your parents believed. What if your parents are Muslim or Buddhist? 

It can't be borrowed faith. Faith in your parents isn't faith in Jesus. 

Now, there's a sense in which parents are stand-ins for God. But as children grow older, they need to wean themselves away from that kind of intellectual dependence, and personally appropriate the Christian faith.

It's a good thing to lose misplaced faith. That takes up the space which belongs to well-placed faith. Misplaced faith needs to be ejected to make room for Christian faith. 

People are deluding themselves if they think believing something just because their parents believed it is sufficient grounds–even if their parents were right. At best, parents are a temporary bridge in that regard.

That's all I need in order for the point I was making to be sound. It's bad to burn that bridge, temporary or not, by lying to one's children. It is, in the proper sense of the word, deeply scandalous. One needn't at all believe that children ought to vest unquestioning faith in everything their parents tell them in order to see that it is very bad for parents to undermine their epistemic authority with their children by lying to them. One need only believe that children ought to vest an ordinary, human faith in their parents in order to see that. And everybody ought to believe that children ought to vest an ordinary, human faith in their parents.

Children who abandon the Faith because they have been scandalized by their parents never get the opportunity to mature into their own personally justified Christian faith. They very well may just stop investigating altogether, just as children never carry on further investigation into the reality of Santa Claus once they are told they were deceived.

I said "at best" parents are a temporary bridge. Many parents are foolish and corrupt. Blind guides. The sooner that bridge is burned, the better. 

As children grow older, they have an increasing responsibility to think for themselves. They're not entitled to keep shifting blame onto parental foibles and failures. 

Once again, I don't advise Christian parents to inculcate belief in Santa. That said, it's preposterous for grown children to continue to be "scandalized" by finding out that what their parents said about Santa wasn't true. That's an utterly dumb, inexcusable reason to repudiate the Christian faith. 

You're appealing to immaturity to justify immaturity. If they stop at that point, they have only themselves to blame for culpable stupidity. 

This isn't how scandal works. Once the Faith is lost, the sin of infidelity takes on a life of is own and frequently leads to numerous other sins which further distance the subject from Divine Mercy. Of course grown adults do not continue in their infidelity because their parents lied to them about Santa or anything else. But that reason for their separation from the Faith may have, in the interim, been replaced by a dozen others none of which would have arisen in the first place had they not been scandalized.

This is why scandal is such a grave sin: you often can't undo the damage done even if you completely remove the original scandal, because one sin leads to others.

"That's an utterly dumb, inexcusable reason to repudiate the Christian faith."

Every reason to repudiate the Christian Faith is utterly dumb and inexcusable. But that's what scandal is. Moreover, as I said above, such a reason is utterly dumb and inexcusable to adults, yes. But by the time the child in question has become an adult, it's no longer his reason for repudiating the Faith. He has others in the form of the many sins that he is unwilling to surrender, etc. But what's important is the possibility that he would have never had such reasons had he never been scandalized in the first place. Small scandals can snowball into wicked lives.

i) Blind faith in parents is building on a quicksand foundation. And your position is incoherent. You believe that many kids are raised in the wrong faith, or no faith at all. So people ought to scrutinize what they were brought up to believe. In some cases their parents laid a solid foundation which they should build on. In other cases they need to tear up the foundation. If you think children should vest unquestioning faith in the wisdom of their parents, then they should have faith in the wisdom of parents who include Santa Claus in the Christmas season.

ii) Actually, even little kids are capable of experiencing God without parental mediation. But again you miss the point. Blind faith must be replaced by informed faith in the course of cognitive development.

iii) BTW, I doubt you're being forthcoming about your commitments. The majority report in Catholicism is that lying is intrinsically wrong (although Catholic theologians fudge on this with mental reservations). So the "scandal" is indexed to the prior assumption that "lying" is never justifiable. If so, many Christians don't share your presupposition.

There's a running equivocation in your responses. On the one hand is the popular sense of "scandal/scandalous/scandalize," which denotes a merely subjective reaction. Whatever someone finds shocking, off-putting, offensive. It drives them in the opposite direction.

On that definition, many people are scandalized by some things in Roman Catholicism, like the sacrifice of the mass, The Glories of Mary by Alphonsus Liguori, and the official position on homosexuality (Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved).

On the other hand is a technical theological definition, viz. 

2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. the person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.

Presumably you don't think the Catholic examples I cited above are "scandalous" in that sense. Rather, I assume you're defining "scandalous" as something that's objectively wrong, properly off-putting, &c. 

In other words, I take you to mean the individuals in question are justifiably scandalized, but their reaction to scandal (i.e. repudiating Christianity) is unjustified. They are right to be scandalized, but wrong to deny the Christian faith on that account. 

And you classify parents who indoctrinate their kids in the Santa mythos as giving scandal in that sense, because lying is intrinsically evil. But whether it's inherently wrong for parents to foster belief in Santa is the very issue in dispute.

The scandal rests on the undermined epistemic authority, and epistemic authority is undermined by lying regardless of whether lying is intrinsically wrong or not.

Your objection is incoherent. You yourself don't believe parental authority is unconditional or absolute, for if you did, then parental authority would justify instilling belief in Santa.

If you lie to me, I am going to stop trusting you regardless of whether I think lying is wrong or not.

That may be true for you personally, but that's not a general axiom. I gave counterexamples in response to Blake where the opposite obtains. 

BTW, is there a difference in that regard between lying to a person and lying for a person? Presumably, you think lying undermines the credibility of the "liar". But again, I gave examples to the contrary.

There's been no equivocation. We are speaking here of one behaviour (lying to one's children about the existence of Santa Claus) which serves to "lead another to do evil' in two distinct ways. The first way is by setting a bad example. The parent lies, and the child is thereby led to do the evil of lying. This is indeed scandalous, but is a relatively minor scandal and is not the one I have been pointing out."

That begs the question of whether "lying" about Santa is evil and therefore "scandalous". Yet that's the very issue in dispute. Therefore, you need to provide a supporting argument for your contention, rather than just asserting that you are right. (In fairness, both sides have a burden of proof in that respect.)

Apparently, you think practical jokes that require temporary deception are wicked. 

The second way is by undermining the confidence of the child in the revealed truths that the parent has taught the child. This is an effect of the lie, for lying induces the expectation in others of further lying, and that in turn reduces the extent to which others will rely on one's testimony. It is on this particular evil which children will be led to do by parental lies that I have been focusing.

i) So is the principle that "lying" about Santa is bad because it sometimes has bad consequences? If so, that's unreliable as a general principle inasmuch as the same action may have both bad and good consequences. It can have good consequences for some folks and bad consequences for others. For instance, many Christians associate the Santa mythos with a happy childhood. That's part of their fond memories of childhood. It contributes to a happy adulthood.

ii) Moreover, just because something can have bad consequences doesn't make it ipso facto bad. Some people are "scandalized" by revealed truths. For them, that's a major turnoff. It either drives them away or prevents them from giving it sympathetic consideration in the first place. Yet the Christian faith can't be redefined just to accommodate their irrational or immoral prejudice. 

Of course, Santa is a dispensable custom, but at the moment I'm discussing an unreliable principle.

I don't know why you keep bringing this up.

Because you keep harping on epistemic authority in the context of parenting, as if parental authority and epistemic authority are inseparable, viz. "everybody ought to believe that children ought to vest an ordinary, human faith in their parents," "Blind faith in parents is all that small children have (naturally, anyway)."

Nothing I've said relies on parental epistemic authority being unconditional or absolute.

In which case, by your own admission, kids shouldn't trust their parents without some implicit caveats. 

I am speaking of trust in the sense of relying on another to tell the truth. Notice that the two senses can come apart: if one believes that one can permissibly lie and even sometimes has duties to lie, as you seem to imply in your examples…

Yes, I think there are situations in which we have a duty to lie to protect someone (say, to spare them undeserved humiliation). But my immediate point concerns the multifaceted nature of trust. And as you yourself concede, it can pull in opposite directions. So that in turn raises the question of which takes precedence, in case of conflicting duties. 

When people tell you lies, you should decrease your confidence that what they say is true, regardless of what you believe about whether lying is morally permissible in some circumstances or whether they have your best interests at heart.

i) That's an overgeneralization, since people lie for different reasons. There's a recognizable difference between a chronic liar and someone who only lies to protect the innocent from harm (to take one example). In the former case, the individual is generally untrustworthy. 

In the latter case, he only lies where there are extenuating circumstances of a particular kind. That doesn't render him generally untrustworthy because his behavior is quite predictable. You can anticipate his behavior in ordinary and extraordinary situations alike. His behavior varies, but is consistent given the situation and his priority structure. 

ii) And even if it's wrong for parents to "lie" about Santa, it's good for kids to discover that their parents are morally fallible. Good to be shaken up a bit to prepare the necessary transition from faith in parents to faith in God.

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