Sunday, November 30, 2008

Santa is a Tool

We are not a Santa Claus family. We are not a Winnebago family, either, but this does not seem to generate as many objections as the thing about Santa Claus.

Each year hundreds of millions of adults lie to children about the existence of Santa Claus. I just cannot get on the bandwagon here, folks. Of course, as an atheist family (more on that another time), we are used to not being on the bandwagon. That’s okay. The bandwagon is a bit crowded for our tastes.

It is not because I’m an absolutist about lying. I’m not. But I do think one should try to avoid lying to one’s children unless something really important is at stake. It has to be something really important because it has to override what is always at stake in communication with one’s children: trust, respect, mutual understanding, and the children’s welfare.

Many people seem horrified when I tell them we don’t do Santa. I wouldn’t be surprised if Child Protective Services gets a few calls about us each year. I am asked whether I know how much fun I am depriving my children of by denying them the mystery of Santa Claus. But think of how much non-fun I am depriving my children of by denying them the mystery of God! God is no fun at all, and his earthly institutions, like church, are really boring. But perhaps that is irrelevant. After all, I have a few seriously Christian friends who don’t lie to their kids about Santa, and I respect that decision, even if they don’t compensate for it by disbelieving in God.

Two questions arise. First, how much fun is believing in Santa Claus, anyway? And second, is it enough fun to warrant lying about?

For the first question we are looking for the amount of marginal fun believing in Santa has over non-lie-based alternatives. Which alternatives? We could get rather fanciful here (movies and ice cream sundaes in Disneyworld!), but let’s stick with the mundane: decorating your house, getting together with your family and friends for a big celebration, and exchanging lots of presents, plus anticipating all of that for weeks, if not months. Hey, that’s pretty fun. Now how much extra fun do we get by adding belief in a generous and jolly obese man from the North Pole with a team of flying reindeer? Some fun, I bet. But we haven’t finished our accounting yet, as we have to subtract from the good stuff the chief negative of believing in Santa Claus: eventually learning that this belief is false. For many kids that can be quite a downer. Still, for the sake of argument I will grant that on balance Santa Claus adds more fun to the holiday season than a plausible alternative.

That said, we can ask the second question: is the marginal fun added by Santa worth lying to our kids for? It hardly seems so, given the goods at stake in communication with our children. We recognize this, I think, for there are all sorts of lies we could tell to our kids about imaginary beings that would be really fun for them (fairies, trolls, elves, magical birds, invisible hamsters, etc.), but we don’t. So why do we tell the lie of Santa Claus? Cultural inertia? That everyone does it? Those are not good enough reasons.

I do have a theory about why the lie of Santa Claus persists. It’s that Santa Claus is a tool. No, not in the way your neighbor who mows his lawn at 8am on Saturdays is a tool. Let me put it this way. Who is Santa, from the kids’ point of view? He is not a parent, so he doesn’t necessarily love you, and thus a present from Santa is not guaranteed like presents from Mom and Dad. You have to be well-behaved to benefit. And you really do have to be well-behaved, for while Santa is fun and friendlier and not as abstract as God, he is just as interested in how you are behaving (naughty or nice), and like God he sees all in this regard. If you were a kid, then, you would see Santa as God’s jolly deputy.

God’s jolly deputy serves and protects. He serves to remind the children to be good, and he protects the parents’ dwindling supplies of headache pills from being used too quickly. That is, he is a tool by which parents manage their children: an easy way to elicit joy while motivating good behavior. There is nothing parents like more than to see their children simultaneously happy and well-behaved, so the incentive to use tools that achieve this, like Santa, are quite high.

The lie of Santa Claus is usually justified by appealing to the benefit of the lie to kids. But that benefit, on balance, seems rather small. Instead we should look at who bears the cost of perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus. It’s the parents, of course. They buy the decorations, bribe older siblings to keep them from spoiling the secret, wait on snaking lines at malls so the kids can sit in Santa’s lap, and put a lot of energy into keeping the myth alive. Why are they bearing this cost? What are they getting out of it? Perhaps a little peace, a little quiet, and some evidence that they really did, once, teach their children to be good.

Of course, they could get those things just as easily without lying.

P.S. If you haven't already heard it, you should check out the hilarious story by David Sedaris on the Dutch version of Santa.

Friday, November 28, 2008


My daughter (I’ll call her #3; though she is my only daughter, she is my third child) is on the verge of toddlerhood. Her existence has led to a number of conversations between me and S (wife) over the age at which it is appropriate for a girl to get her ears pierced.

S thought that the best age for piercing #3’s ears is very young, say, before one year old. Her reasoning was that the brief pain of the event would be long forgotten, and our daughter would thank us for taking care of it for her. This is the circumcision model of ear-pierce timing.

This seems spurious to me. First of all, going the earlier route doesn’t reduce the amount of pain involved. All it does is make it the case that the pain of the experience is forgotten at an earlier age. This is of little or no value. Second of all, one’s memory of the pain doesn’t last long, anyway. S was in her double digits before she got her ears pierced. She remembers that it hurt a little (or perhaps just knows that it probably did hurt a little), but she does not remember the pain of it at all. Besides, S should be more than familiar with the fact that time dulls the memory of pain: what else can explain that she has voluntarily gone through labor three times?

My view is that we should wait until #3 is capable of requesting, and consenting in a relatively informed way, to getting her ears pierced. The main reason is that a girl’s getting her ears pierced is not very important, so there is no weighty consideration or emergency that warrants overruling informed consent. If we combine this with the fact that piercing her ears earlier would not in fact reduce the amount of pain she experiences, there seems to be no reason for not waiting.

Moreover, it is important to see how much the discussion concedes to existing gender norms. S and I had no similar conversation about when to get our sons’ ears pierced. We got their noses pierced instead. (Hmm… if this would help with the three-year old’s nose-picking maybe we should.)

Now it’s true that most boys do not ultimately want their ears pierced, while most girls do. But this is because of the beauty norms in place in our culture. Let’s face it: ear-piercing is a form of bodily mutilation that is part of a more general cultural practice of making females attractive to males. I note this not because I’m opposed on moral grounds to bodily mutilation. (I suspect that the mutilation/enhancement distinction is about as tough to parse as the breakfast food/dessert food distinction.) Nor, I hasten to add, am I opposed to attractive women. It’s just that I see no reason to accelerate my daughter’s enculturation into sexist norms. Even if she is ultimately going to accept those norms, she should know what she is doing. This helps flesh out what I think informed consent means in this case. It involves a person not only knowing that getting her ears pierced may be painful, but also knowing one of the causes of her feeling that getting her ears pierced is something she wants to do.

My mother-in-law weighed in on the dispute by purchasing #3 a set of diamond earrings. Did I mention #3 is not even a toddler yet? S thinks they would look very cute on her. I think #3 is sufficiently cute without them.

S has replied to my considerations with an ad hominem (for those readers who are not married, ad hominems are not fallacies in an argument between a husband and a wife). She thinks that I am a hypocrite, and that my arguments are merely sophisticated-sounding cover for the oh-so-typical Victorian overprotectiveness that fathers have for their daughters. This is unfair, I think. I have no problem with #3 crawling around with her arms and ankles exposed, for example. But S points out that I don’t object to her wearing earrings. In fact, I’ve bought her a few over the years.

S asks me whether I am willing to oppose cultural beauty norms for other females besides my daughter. Replying in detail would take me beyond blog-post length. I will say, though, that her question led me to ask: would selective opposition to sexist norms make me more of a sexist than blanket acceptance of those norms?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happiness and Parenting 2

In an earlier post I came to the conclusion that the findings showing that parents were in some sense less happy than non-parents were worth taking seriously. One question remaining was how to do this. What difference should these findings make to what I think or do?

Should I stop having kids? Hell yeah. Three is enough. But that decision had nothing to do with the recent happiness research. There is just so much energy, patience, time, attention, patience, money, room, and patience that Philosophy Dad and his wife have. Overdetermined, as they say.

Should I regret having had kids? In answering this, it is important to keep in mind what the research is measuring. Typically, it relies on subjective reports about how one feels. So the metric is subjective hedonic well-being. So I ask myself, does the fact that an act would reduce the amount of pleasure I experience imply that I will regret the act? Not necessarily. If the point of the act was to experience pleasure, then sure. But there are all sorts of other reasons for action besides "that it will give me pleasure." For these other acts, the fact that the act will be unpleasant, or will cause an overall reduction in my experienced pleasure, may be beside the point. I've done many unpleasant things I do not regret--for instance, undergoing a prostate exam.

So if the point of having kids was to feel good, then the data under consideration would clearly be important. It would show that in acting reproductively, I've acted counterproductively. That indeed would be regrettable. Further, it would be stupid, and while it is okay to be stupid some of the time, it's not when people's lives are at stake.

Luckily, for me, I didn't have kids to feel good, or at least not solely to feel good. I did expect that I would feel good as a dad. (I sometimes do, and not just when everyone is leaving me alone.) But feeling good was not the point of the project. What was the point?

Sometimes I wonder this myself. A bit of Darwin and Schopenhauer may convince you that there is no point, as in a "justifying reason," for having kids--that it is just a devious natural impulse, like when you scratch an itch. But I did have reasons for wanting kids:
- my wife wanted kids (this verges on circularity, I realize, but as any husband knows, that "wife wants X" is a fairly heavily weighted item in the "pro-X" column on the balance sheet),
- I thought it would be interesting,
- I would come to love them, and loving is good,
- Our dogs could not learn how to talk (we now know this is a virtue, not a deficiency),
- My wife and I are pretty decent people, and it wouldn't hurt to have more people like us around,
- We were curious what it was like to be parents,
- It would be fun.

This list seems kind of thin. Perhaps there was something else on the list at the time--something else besides the above and the biological impulse. I'll think about it some more. In any event, only the last one comes close to "it will cause pleasant feelings." So I don't feel like the pleasure and parenting data undermines my choice to be a parent, such that I should regret it.

This is not to say that pleasant feelings aren't valuable. Some of them are. They gain their value from context. So while the pleasant feelings one gets from floating in a pleasure-generating machine have little value, pleasure in the right context does. Parenting can be such a context. The pleasure we experience during parenting is valuable because parenting is a valuable activity. That needs more of an argument, obviously, but the great thing about this being a blog is that I can say that the post is long enough already and that I am going to end things right here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Today is Election Day. Schools are closed in our county so Wife and I will be taking the kids with us to vote. My oldest, #1, is five, and he understands the concept of voting. At his school last week they had a mock vote for kids his age. Instead of political candidates, though, the vote was over which juice is better, apple or orange. As it turns out, comparing apples and oranges is not only possible, it’s child play.

And while we are on the topic of comparing apples and oranges, I can’t help but link to this video
. It’s a heroic and humorous attempt at overcoming incommensurability via the use of an NCAA tournament-like chart to compare everything. Yes, everything. You’ll be interested to learn that oranges are better than apples (though apples are better than Regis Philbin). These folks also tackle questions such as whether seahorses are better than English people, whether penguins are better than Miracle-Gro, and whether slow food is better than democracy.

I think democracy wins. And that takes us back to our topic for today. We are supposed to teach our children that voting is important. Yet it is a mystery exactly why this is so. The familiar rational choice argument against voting is that in any state- or nationwide election, one vote—your vote—will not make a difference. Instead of waiting in line to vote, you could do something better with your time, such as volunteer at a charity, or earn extra money to buy gifts for your kids. If these two sites
are to be believed, we can infer that you have a much greater chance of getting hit by lightning than making a difference in the popular vote results of a presidential election. If it’s alright for me to not worry about getting hit by lightning, I ought not to worry about failing to cast the tie-breaking vote.

My kids and I sit out on the front stoop to watch the lightning. We play soccer in the rain. No one objects. But if I tell my kids that voting is not worth it, I anticipate complaints. Heck, I feel bad saying it. Why? One counterargument to the rational choice conclusion is that it is incomplete. According to this counterargument, the relevant calculation is one in which you monetize the benefit to the country that would obtain by your preferred candidate winning, and multiply that by the chances of your vote making a difference. If that amount outweighs the monetized value of whatever else you’d be doing if you weren’t voting, then you should vote. Whether this makes it rational for you to vote depends on your estimate of how valuable your candidate’s win would be and how much good you can do in the amount of time it takes to vote. These might be difficult to figure out. But even if we could, something seems strange about an answer to the question “Why are you voting, Dad?” that involves a calculator.

One might argue that it is our civic duty to vote, our responsibility as citizens of democracy. Call this the civic responsibility approach. This sounds nice, but the point of philosophy is to move beyond nice-sounding rhetoric. If my vote will in fact not make a difference, then the civic responsibility approach is asserting that I have a duty to do something that will have no relevant effect. Call an act that will make no difference “futile” and a duty to perform such an act a “futile duty.” If the duty to vote is indeed a futile duty, then that seems to be a mark against believing it is actually a duty.

Are there other futile duties that we do accept? Sure. I have a duty to refrain from shooting an innocent person, even in cases in which there are a sufficient number of other simultaneous shooters to guarantee the person’s death. I have this duty even though it does not make a difference to the outcome.

The question, then, is whether there is a worthwhile difference between the futile duty not to contribute to a murder-in-progress and the futile duty to vote. I’ll leave that to another time. Even if I couldn’t come up with an account of why there is a difference, I’d still need an argument in favor of the civic responsibility approach, for the inevitable “why” that would follow any assertions about a duty to vote.

“What if everyone did that?” we might ask. If everyone skipped voting, that might be bad. But in any event, the question I’m asking is whether I should vote, not whether no one should vote. Asking “what if everyone did that” is a lousy way of checking to see whether one is acting correctly. As my grad student buddies and I joked, if the only acts that were allowed were those that everyone could do without a problem, then it would be wrong to “get there early to beat the rush.”

So I do not know how to explain to my children why one should vote, or even how to answer the question of whether, when they are old enough, they should vote. This will probably not stop me from heading to the polls today, carried on by the social inertia to which the study of philosophy was supposed to help me be less susceptible.

Update: Does voting kill?

From "Why?" to Lie

Children force the question of honesty on parents frequently. One way they do so is by asking “why?” all the time. Kids ask this question in response to commands, requests, explanations, stories, movies, and so on, and on, and on. Good for them for being so curious. “Why?” is a big way of learning about the world. The problem is that we parents all suffer from a shortage of patience, communicative skill, and knowledge. These shortages, alongside an occasional desire to shield children from certain harsh realities, take turns providing an impetus to lie: it is quicker, easier, and in the short term it maintains the useful illusion of parental omniscience.

Lying is a regular and highly institutionalized feature of parenting. I try to fight it as much as I can (more on that another time). It is just interesting to note the opposed interests here: the child’s interest in managing in the world, and the parent’s interest in managing the child.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Happiness and Parenting

Some research about happiness and parenting has been in the news over the past year or so. See this article in Newsweek, for example, or this post at The central finding is that having children makes people less happy. While people often are told that having children leads to happiness, and even report that their own children make them happy, as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness,

“if we measure the actual satisfaction of people who have children, a very different story emerges… Couples generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home.”

Most people when they read about this cannot believe it. Or if they do believe it, they consider themselves exceptions. Of if they don’t consider themselves exceptions, they will argue that the research is based on a mistaken conception of happiness. What makes the conception of happiness mistaken? It focuses on how people feel.

If it sounds strange to you that people would object to a conception of happiness that focuses on how people feel, then you haven’t spent much time hanging out with philosophers. Not many philosophers are on board with Jeremy Bentham, who had a simple hedonistic view that happiness just is pleasure. For Bentham, to ask whether you’re happy is to ask whether you are experiencing pleasant sensations, or the lack of unpleasant ones. Instead, many philosophers, inspired by Aristotle, think of happiness as a concept that refers to “a good life.” And since a life full of pleasure is not necessarily a good life—if it were, then wealthy heroin addicts would have the best life—then it is a mistake to think that happiness is just pleasure.

The thing is, even if pleasure is not the whole of happiness, it is a significant chunk of it, as Aristotle recognized. (A life largely filled with unpleasant experiences would not be a good one.) And since it is a significant chunk of our happiness, insofar as we care about our happiness, we should care about pleasure. And insofar as we care about pleasure, we should care about these findings.

Okay, so the findings are important. What should we think about them? Should learning this information cause us to regret having had children? Or to advise our friends not to have children? Other things equal, the fact that something will be unpleasant is a reason against doing it. So in the choice between having kids or not, what makes it the case that other things are not equal?

I’ll be returning to this question and related ones periodically.