“Believing in Santa Claus gives children a sense of wonder and encourages them to behave well in hope of receiving presents. If Santa-belief is destroyed by truth, the children will lose their sense of wonder and stop behaving nicely. Therefore, even though Santa-belief is false-to-fact, it is a Noble Lie whose net benefit should be preserved for utilitarian reasons.”
Classically, this is known as a false dilemma, the fallacy of the excluded middle, or the package-deal fallacy. Even if we accept the underlying factual and moral premises of the above argument, it does not carry through. Even supposing that the Santa policy (encourage children to believe in Santa Claus) is better than the null policy (do nothing), it does not follow that Santa-ism is the best of all possible alternatives. Other policies could also supply children with a sense of wonder, such as taking them to watch a Space Shuttle launch or supplying them with science fiction novels. Likewise, offering children bribes for good behavior encourages the children to behave well only when adults are watching, while praise without bribes leads to unconditional good behavior.
Noble Lies are generally package-deal fallacies; and the response to a package-deal fallacy is that if we really need the supposed gain, we can construct a Third Alternative for getting it.
How can we obtain Third Alternatives? The first step in obtaining a Third Alternative is deciding to look for one, and the last step is the decision to accept it. This sounds obvious, and yet most people fail on these two steps, rather than within the search process.
Some false dilemmas arise honestly, because superior alternatives are cognitively hard to see. But one factory for false dilemmas is justifying a questionable policy by pointing to a supposed benefit over the null action. In this case, the justifier does not want a Third Alternative; finding a Third Alternative would destroy the justification. The last thing a Santa-ist wants to hear is that praise works better than bribes, or that spaceships can be as inspiring as flying reindeer.
The best is the enemy of the good. If the goal is really to help people, then a superior alternative is cause for celebration—once we find this better strategy, we can help people more effectively. But if the goal is to justify a particular strategy by claiming that it helps people, a Third Alternative is an enemy argument, a competitor.
Modern cognitive psychology views decision-making as a search for alternatives. In real life, it’s not enough to compare options; you have to generate the options in the first place. On many problems, the number of alternatives is huge, so you need a stopping criterion for the search. When you’re looking to buy a house, you can’t compare every house in the city; at some point you have to stop looking and decide.
But what about when our conscious motives for the search—the criteria we can admit to ourselves—don’t square with subconscious influences? When we are carrying out an allegedly altruistic search, a search for an altruistic policy, and we find a strategy that benefits others but disadvantages ourselves—well, we don’t stop looking there; we go on looking. Telling ourselves that we’re looking for a strategy that brings greater altruistic benefit, of course. But suppose we find a policy that has some defensible benefit, and also just happens to be personally convenient? Then we stop the search at once! In fact, we’ll probably resist any suggestion that we start looking again—pleading lack of time, perhaps. (And yet somehow, we always have cognitive resources for coming up with justifications for our current policy.)
Beware when you find yourself arguing that a policy is defensible rather than optimal; or that it has some benefit compared to the null action, rather than the best benefit of any action.
False dilemmas are often presented to justify unethical policies that are, by some vast coincidence, very convenient. Lying, for example, is often much more convenient than telling the truth; and believing whatever you started out with is more convenient than updating. Hence the popularity of arguments for Noble Lies; it serves as a defense of a pre-existing belief—one does not find Noble Liars who calculate an optimal new Noble Lie; they keep whatever lie they started with. Better stop that search fast!
To do better, ask yourself straight out: If I saw that there was a superior alternative to my current policy, would I be glad in the depths of my heart, or would I feel a tiny flash of reluctance before I let go? If the answers are “no” and “yes,” beware that you may not have searched for a Third Alternative.
Which leads into another good question to ask yourself straight out: Did I spend five minutes with my eyes closed, brainstorming wild and creative options, trying to think of a better alternative? It has to be five minutes by the clock, because otherwise you blink—close your eyes and open them again—and say, “Why, yes, I searched for alternatives, but there weren’t any.” Blinking makes a good black hole down which to dump your duties. An actual, physical clock is recommended.
And those wild and creative options—were you careful not to think of a good one? Was there a secret effort from the corner of your mind to ensure that every option considered would be obviously bad?
It’s amazing how many Noble Liars and their ilk are eager to embrace ethical violations—with all due bewailing of their agonies of conscience—when they haven’t spent even five minutes by the clock looking for an alternative. There are some mental searches that we secretly wish would fail; and when the prospect of success is uncomfortable, people take the earliest possible excuse to give up.
So, did you take five minutes and try to come up with an better noble lie than Santa Claus? I tried and failed. Unfortunately, Santa Claus does remarkably well at achieving a package of related goals.
From my perspective, the main goal that Santa-ism serves is giving children a trial run at atheism - teaching them to be skeptical of supernatural propositions fed them by adults and believed by their peers, especially the part about being rewarded for belief. If I had children I'd let their peers tell them about Santa Claus, without contradiction from me, just to make sure the kids got experience in skepticism - you lose out on a fundamental life trial and very valuable experience if your parents happen to be atheists.
But even this can be improved upon, if you're willing to tell your own lies instead of letting others do it for you. Just tell the children in a very stern voice that if they doubt the existence of Santa Claus he won't bring them any presents; but if they believe as hard as they can, they'll get lots of presents. Also, remove the part about Santa Claus rewarding children for being good - being good should be its own reward to be internalized appropriately; if the children believe they are being bribed, it may interfere with their internalization of morality. Santa Claus should reward children only for believing in him. Why is that good? Well, just because.
When ... (read more)
As a trial run at atheism, I would have been the Dinesh D'Souza of Santa-ism. I recall that at age 12, I proudly defended Santa-ism from my peers because of a personal experience that I thought gave strong evidence of his existence. Because, of COURSE, no human could sneak presents outside under the tree while a kid wasn't paying attention, and OBVIOUSLY the door was closed the whole time, and no human could have placed them all there within just a few minutes. I should ask my parents how they managed that trick.
We seem to go to pretty dark places pretty fast once we tell ourselves it's all right to lie to our children.
Also, while most people do grow out of Santa, they don't seem to grow out of God; so the dress rehearsal apparently doesn't ever become a performance.
Or, how about telling kids that Santa is rewarding or punishing them for how he predicts they will act during the coming year? Get them started on Newcomb problems!
"Santa put a really awesome gift in this present if and only if he predicted that you'd destroy all your other gifts without opening them before opening this gift."
Joe: When you think about the commercialization of Christmas, is the perpetuation of Santa and presents still a noble lie? Or does it now become a perverse destruction of what was supposed to be a religious celebration of the birth of Christ?
Just a thought. Maybe the initial story behind "The Clause family" was created to help people understand about generosity. Feeling grateful of family and friends. Taking the time to appreciate and celebrate.
I'm not sure how it literally became a man in a red suit and reindeer when in turn it has been clearly ... (read more)
it does not follow that Santa-ism is the best of all possible alternatives. Other policies could also supply children with a sense of wonder, such as taking them to watch a Space Shuttle launch or supplying them with science fiction novels.
This strikes me as slightly fallacious reasoning, since it's implying that supplying children with science fiction novels and telling them about Santa Claus are mutually exclusive options. If one only wanted to inspire a sense of wonder in children, would the best option not be to tell them about Santa Claus and take them to watch a Space Shuttle launch and supply them with science fiction novels?
I understand your message, but I think Santa Claus is a bad example to illustrate it with. The "but there is a third choice as well" argument only applies if we're talking about an either-or situation, but in this case, your suggested third choices can be just piled on top of the original one.
(If we wanted to attack the Santa Claus argument in particular, it could be pointed out that by the same logic, children should be told presented countless of fairy stories as true ones, up to the point that they'd start getting seriously confused about how the world really works and how it doesn't.)
Gah. And somehow I managed to miss that Jeremy had posted a comment with the essentially same content just before me. Ignore me, folks...
I have a suspicion, based on a limited degree of personal experience, that the common philosophical practice of coming up with thought experiments, may tend to promote this sort of fallacious reasoning. Such "experiments" often artificially force people into exclusive "would you do X or Y?" dilemmas, and anyone who says "well, actually... why wouldn't you do Z?" is promptly told that they're missing the point. All of this is fair enough within the bounds of the thought experiment, but if people start seeing real life in the same simplified terms, then that's something of a problem.
In my experience, in real life what most people do in a crisis is stand there and dither.
First you flip the switch, then you make an extraordinary effort to stop the trolley.
P.S. Jeremy: "atheistic children with an internalized sense of morality, an obvious contradiction"? Spare us, please. Why ruin an otherwise perfectly reasonable comment with such a patently ridiculous cheap shot?
Kaj, Jeremy, your objection contains the seeds of its own refutation - if you can both teach children about Santa and supply them with science fiction, it hints that the number of possible different ways to supply wonder is exponentially huge, whereas your available time is linear at best. Thus my dilemma is not false; the best is still the enemy of the good, even if you pick the top five instead of the top one.
If you still doubt, consider that Santa-ism has an explicit downside, namely that it bribes the child to be moral, which has been demonstrated to interfere with internalization of morality - Santa-ism may not even satisfice. False dilemmas are often used to justify downsides, and in such cases, if we find a strategy without the downside, it will generally substitute rather than accumulate, even before taking resource bounds into account.
Here's another Noble Lie: protectionism--that there's somehow a morally and practically important difference between trading inside your borders and trading outside them. It may not be quite as good as Santa Claus, though.
The idea that torture is efficacious for getting accurate information might be Noble Lie (if you accept that causing pain to someone helpless is a benefit, thus making torture a self-seeking behavior), but that one might be too contentious for most discussions.
I suspect that the hook for adults in the Santa Claus story is a "benefit&... (read more)
The problem with examples like Santa Claus is that human culture is highly complex, so that the actual effects of Santaism are hard to fathom, and harder to compare to possible alternative beliefs: if you came up with an alternative to Santa, how would you prove that it is better?
For example, I would say that Santa is less about "encouraging children to behave better in hope of receiving presents", which, as you say, sounds like bribery, and more about starting to build a sense of conscience within the child by introducing the idea of an entity ... (read more)
Rob, Santaism and theism do not encourage integrity, i.e. behaving morally even when no one is watching you. Integrity is good.
Jeremy, your statement could use clarification. Would you rather your children have no conscience?
Nick - the claim is that they make you believe that you are always being watched by a moral judge, not that you behave morally when noone is watching you. I'm not sure how you'd distinguish the two in practice, however.
Encouraging your children to believe in Santa Claus teaches that you will lie to them because you think it's cute. I promised my daughter that I would never lie to her -- I might refuse to answer, but never lie.
After my oldest came out as a Santa-denier, I told him something along the lines of "Congratulations. I admit that I and every other grown-up were lying to you. From now on I will never deliberately lie to you about anything again. Please keep your insight secret from other kids who aren't in on the joke yet, so they too can benefit from figuring it out themselves."
"Nick - the claim is that they make you believe that you are always being watched by a moral judge, not that you behave morally when noone is watching you. I'm not sure how you'd distinguish the two in practice, however."
This is perhaps true in the beginning. But what happens once they figure out that Santa isn't real and that there are times when no one is watching them. I suppose this is why religion tries to pound it into your heads that there is a god, and judgment leading to either heaven or hell. I can't think of a better way to try to c... (read more)
Rob: In practice there is a HUGE difference. If you behave morally when no0one is watching you, new information doesn't threaten your moral foundations, as your morality is grounded in your preferences. If you believe that you are always being watched then your moral behavior will be grounded in supposed facts about the world. In this case, evidence that undermines your belief in those facts undermines your morality, leading in the direction of Nietzsche's "total eclipse of all values" as the inevitable consequence of the "twilight of the idols".
There are also important practical consequences to following orders as opposed to acting from one's own initiative. Psychologically, the former will create resentment and dissatisfaction while the latter will not. The latter will favor initiative, and active pursuit of the best satisfaction of one's (hopefully ethical) desires, while the former will focus only on satisfying some perceived standard of acceptability, which implies, among other things, not seeking out better third alternatives when presented with a false dilemma and evidence that one flawed alternative is considered to be permissible. Actions "above the call of duty" depend entirely upon self-driven internalized ethics.
Conchis and Nick, I should have explained my position more clearly. As an atheist myself, I have come to the conclusion that my children will find the ability to think more useful than an arbitrary set of rules that they have been conditioned to follow. The virtue of Santa is that it is a belief they will inevitably question and learn from, while an outspoken conscience will only cloud their ability to reason when they have to make important choices that will determine their future levels of happiness. While you might be able to convince me empirically tha... (read more)
Michael: 'If you behave morally when no0one is watching you, new information doesn't threaten your moral foundations, as your morality is grounded in your preferences.'
I think the point of Santa is to give the parents more control over forming those preferences, using good old fashioned Pavlovian conditioning. Presumably the idea is for the moral habits to continue, even after the rewards stop being given.
Anyway, my original point was the socially conservative one that phenomena like Santa are often more complex than is originally perceived, and that replacement of them should be done cautiously. Which was a bit more on topic.
While I oppose the use of torture, I am skeptical of those who claim it is ineffective. By the accounts I've read it was very effective when used by the French in Algeria and numerous dictatorships against internal threats.
Is atheism incompatible with a belief in morality? For me it was, but I appear to be unrepresentative of atheists. I still have pretty much the same attitudes that I did when I was puritanically religious, but now I recognize there is nothing "true" or "correct" about them that others should be swayed by and that they are merely my personal preferences.
TGGP: I don't think that what you are describing would be considered by most people to constitute a disbelief in morality. Instead, I think it would be considered an atypically reflective and possibly slightly atypically targeted belief about what being means.
Rob Spear: "good old fashioned Pavlovian conditioning" requires that rewards and punishments (reinforcers) be associated very closely in time with the behaviors being reinforced. Santa doesn't do this. Neither does god. This is NOT a minor quibble, but rather is a critically important ... (read more)
"There is no evidence that any analogous distinctive Pseudo-Pavolvian mechanism is at work in generating "Santa efficacy". "
In fact, if there is any effect, what would be the effect on the kid who is naughty throughout the year and still gets presents on Christmas? Does he think that he was a good boy? Does he think that he got away with something and/or realize that someone isn't watching all the time? What happens when there is positive reinforcement regardless of the actions throughout the year?
Michael: Thankyou for the correction. It is a long time since I looked at such stuff. Is there a better psychological reference for the habit-forming effects of belief, or are you denying that such a thing exists? Do you think, for example, that believers in Christianity who lose their faith will then revert to their "preferred morality", or will they retain the Christian moral viewpoint?
Jeremy: I clearly misunderstood what you meant by "an internalised sense of morality". Though I still suspect you're wrong about the contradiction, that could be because I still don't really understand the way in which you're using the phrase. In any event, it's clear that my "cheap shot" call was way off, and I apologise.
Michael V: Depends whether TGGP is making an epistemic claim about his/her personal knowledge of morality, or whether he/she is claiming that that moral statements are not true in general. In the latter case, I think it would be standard to say he/she doesn't believe in morality.
Anyone else want to spearhead a movement to come up with a gender neutral pronoun?
I can't help linking Hofstadter's very funny and apropos "Person Paper":
Wikipedia points out that the singular or indeterminate-number "they" has a pretty long history in the english language - Shakespeare used it, for example.
As I recall, my daughter's dawning realization that Santa Claus was mom and dad was not a heart-breaking loss of belief, but more of a feeling of power vis-a-vis parents: "I caught you out, I'm SO smart". Our response was evasive/joking/supportive. "We're not going to come out and admit that you're right, but you know ... ... you're very smart."
There are a great many such customs, worldwide. Hopi kids may think the Kachina dancers are gods, at first, and then figure it out. The child feeding lettuce to the big lion head carried by the ... (read more)
Karen, I think you may be on to something; could you elaborate?
Rob: I think that some psychologists might say something like the following. Confirmation bias causes new evidence to accumulate in favor of existing beliefs. Subsequent to the accumulation of such evidence, the refutation of the original evidence for a belief will not eliminate the belief. When the beliefs in question are normative evaluations, this is called the "halo effect".
Initial evidence that something, for instance ethical behavior, is good because it leads to Santa giving presents could lead to a bias in favor of noticing other evide... (read more)
Eliezer points out that claims of the "Noble Truth" variety are generally package-deal fallacies, and I would add that with moral claims there are always two key elements of "truth". (1) subjective values, and (2) objective instrumentality. The "subjective truth" of an agent's values is impervious to direct challenge ('no accounting for taste'), while the "objective truth" of instrumental effectiveness is susceptible to demonstration of alternatives.
The Santa Clause myth (in the strong sense described above, rather ... (read more)
What belief in Santa at a young age taught me was a sense not just of wonder, but of Mystery - the delight in the idea that there are might be some things that exist that our rational universe cannot explain. It was a grain of the impossible in what was a very rational child. When I grew older, I understood that there is no Mystery, but previous belief allows me to dwell upon the delight of belief that possibly there was.
What science fiction or fantasy evokes is that old feeling. Deprived of Santa, I'm not sure it would have nearly as much attraction.
Of ... (read more)
Tom, the question is not "Was it a plus, relative to the null action?" but "Was it the best way to delight you?" Maybe you should have just read science fiction or fantasy to begin with. I did, and was blessed with a lasting sense of wonder that transited smoothly from delight in the Unexplainable to delight in the universe's total lack of mysterious answers.
conchis, I am a he (although I would not mind being referred to as "it"), and I am an emotivist, which means I do not believe normative statements have any truth value (according to Nick Bostrom this makes me a psychopath, nihilist and philistine, although the last of those was true even when I was religious). Because of this I make no attempts to hold more "correct" moral beliefs, seeing as how none are in any way "correct". When I was a believer I had some fear of the afterlife, but still being a rather apathetic/lazy indivi... (read more)
Since you do not believe there are any "correct" moral beliefs, do you also deny that some moral beliefs are "better" than others, thus leading to the unfortunate outcome that no moral beliefs systems are better than any other?
Do you also reject the classification of actions as either good or evil?
What do you think would be the affect on society if everyone adopted your views?
joe, my own moral preferences are the ones I like. The ones other people hold that diverge from mine, I dislike. I recognize that there is no sense in which I can claim that mine are true and theirs are not, as they can make the same exact claim without any way to settle it. It is similar to my preferences in movies or music. As an emotivist I believe the word "good" just indicates subjective approval, "evil" or "bad" the opposite. I don't think society will adopt my views and haven't given much thought to what would happen in... (read more)
TGGP, joe, please divert further comments along the same lines to the Consolidated Nature of Morality Thread - that's what it's there for.
Fascinating. You also may factor into your ruminations that my legal name is Santa Claus and I'm a Christian Monk, as St. Nicholas was many centuries ago. I'm a volunteer advocate for the 2 million children in the U.S. annually who are abused, neglected, exploited, abandoned, homeless, and institutionalized. I invite you to visit: www.TheSantaClausFoundation.org and www.SantasLink.net Blessings, Santa
I should read all the posts here first I suppose, but I'm a little hurried today so I just skimmed them. Just wanted to add that one thing that the "Santa Claus Cover Up" teaches our children is to give to others and not take credit for the giving personally. Through the "Santa Claus Cover Up" we teach our children altruism. When they find out that we were really Santa all along it doesn't automatically become "they lied to me" in their minds. As adults we all know that we are Santa. It is a make-believe role that we take on f... (read more)
My favorite thing about this post is still that "Santaism" is humorously similar to "Satanism"
In this case these subconscious influences (which I'm fairly sure can be made partly conscious) lead us to hit a goal indicator instead of our goal itself. We succumb to a lost purpose.
It's fun reading through the comments and immediately seeing with little difficulty, which people were told as kids (or have told their kids or will tell their kids) about santa clause (and conversely those which weren't, didn't, and won't).
Seems to me that there's a lot of rationalization going on around this touchy subject from all sides.
I wasn't told the santa myth and I don't plan on teaching it to my kids either. I'm probably biased, but that seems right to me. If truth can destroy a thing, then it should.
And Kaj Sotala, I think the point being m... (read more)
Neat. This helped me less than a day after I read it. I find dieting hard, and this morning my work ran out of milk. I felt that I had no alternative but to purchase fast food for breakfast. I quickly realised that this fit the pattern of a false dilemma, noticed my place in the pattern as the guy with the hidden motive and forced myself to look for other options. It didn't take me long after that to discover that while the two kitchens in my building were empty of milk, there were other buildings.
The only lies to children should be Lies to Children. Any other lies, including Santa, creationism or any other fiction presented as facts should be considered child abuse.
(My ex tried to bring up our children as YECs after being 'born again' and our courts ruled this to be child abuse which is why I'm a single dad. I may be a bit more than the average fanatical about this particular point.)
In order to justify discarding the Noble Lie your Third Option needs to be mutually exclusive with the Noble Lie, otherwise you're discarding a utilitarian gain for nothing. If your five minutes of wild thought brings up ideas that only work if you also discard the Noble Lie, that's probably motivated reasoning as well.
Who's "we"? If you buy into the same package deal as everyone else, it will be supported by the rest of yours society. If one family goes it alone, they will constantly clash with everyone else's mythos. Or you separate from could practice your alternative with a bunch of other peope...but that is starting a religion.
(Rereading the entire Sequnces right now)
I suspect that (a) I haven't done very well on the 'spend 5 minutes by the clock searching for an alternative' advice in the last couple of years (even though I think I have internalized the habit to look for a third way at least briefly), and (b) doing so probably would have helped me avoid some severe mistakes. This may be related to EY's overarching comment that the sequences focus too much on epistemic and too little on instrumental rationality. It's a lot easier to understand and accept this, and even to apply it a little, than to actually adopt a habit of brainstorming for 5 minutes by the clock.
Reformulating the meaning of Santaism, I wonder how often believing parents do not tell their children about Santa, because they are afraid that along with faith in him, faith in God will also go away?