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Posted on December 24, 2019 at 9:30 AM

Written by Ben Davies

Another Christmas, and another blog about the ethics of Christmas-based lying.

Around this time last year, Alberto Giubilini wrote a post about whether we should allow children to believe in Santa. Alberto was pretty scathing about some of the arguments in favour of Santa-based honesty, but I want to offer some ethical considerations in favour of this unpopular view.

I agree with some of Alberto’s criticisms on this front. While some children might be traumatised by their parents lying to them, most of us get over it – indeed, most of us go on to do the same thing ourselves. Similarly, it’s at least a claim in need of some evidential backing that children from poorer families are psychologically harmed by the fact that they get fewer, cheaper presents than their wealthy peers. Perhaps more plausible is the worry that children might get teased or bullied if they go on believing after their peers; but that’s at best an argument for revealing the truth earlier than one otherwise might, not against lying in the first place. And it’s worth noting that failure to believe too early might also cause upset, both to one’s own child and their unsuspecting peers.

On the other hand, I don’t think there’s actually much available by way of defence for what we might call ‘The Santa Lie’. The most obvious defence is that the rituals and excitement around Santa are, well, exciting. There is clearly a significant amount of good done by the Santa lie, and so it might seem that we’d need a pretty strong argument against it.

Not so fast, though. Let’s assume – without argument, since this is only a blog – that not lying should be our default in our engagement with one another. Even if the amount of happiness caused by lying to your child is sufficiently significant, we’d surely also need to show that the same – or at least equivalent – amounts couldn’t be achieved in another way.

In fact, I think there is an alternative: rather than lying about Santa, those who are so inclined should engage in make-believe about Santa. Make-believe differs from lying, I suggest, in at least two ways. Firstly, in make-believe there is no intent to deceive. It may be that someone is foreseeably deceived by make-believe. Consider, for instance, getting drawn into the world of a film, book, play or computer game. Indeed, this seems even more likely for very young children. But the purpose of the make-believe is not to deceive people. Rather, the purpose is to entertain, educate and/or enjoy.

This points to a second difference, which is a dispositional difference amongst those engaged in make-believe. We are engaged in make-believe so long as all participants are ultimately disposed to acknowledge that what we are doing and saying is not ‘true’, to the extent that they are able of making such a distinction. This is compatible with a hierarchy. For instance, when James Randi or Derren Brown engage us in magic, we are not all equally well placed to justify our claim that what has happened is not really due to the supernatural. But the difference between what Randi or Brown do, and what a con-artist ‘mystics’ do, is that the former are prepared to tell us that what they do is entertainment, and the latter are not.

Engaging in make-believe, then, does not require that we explicitly say that Santa is not real. It does not even require that we do so if explicitly asked, since that may be part of the game. But what it does require is appropriate dispositions to acknowledge the truth in the right circumstances, and that there is no aim to deceive. I think that such make-believe can be every bit as fun and exciting as a full-blown lie. If that’s right, the Santa lie seems unjustified.

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