Sunday, December 28, 2008


Why do humans sleep? Scientists may not know the answer to this question, but I do: it's because we're tired. Especially the parents.

I suppose, though, that that isn't the "why" the scientists are after.

Let me try again. My explanation for why humans sleep is something that will make sense to most parents of newborns, and indeed it occurred to me as I tried to get a baby of mine to go back to sleep one night.

My explanation is a simple evolutionary explanation. It may ultimately be question-begging, but don't let that deter us. So here goes. The traits we have are the traits our evolutionary ancestors had. These ancestors are the ones who lived to be old enough to reproduce. Not everyone lived to be that old. Some children died before they were physically mature enough to have babies and pass on their traits. Now suppose that "back in the day" there were two kinds of infants: those who slept a lot and those who did not. Other things equal, which would be more likely to survive? Yeah, parents, you know the answer to this question, and you know the why, too. Dare I say it? Very well. Parents need a break. Babies are lots of things (saccharin here), but they are also time-consuming, ear-splitting, arm-tiring, shower-shortening, laundry-producing, plan-ruining, conversation-interrupting, etc., etc. pains in the asses. Parents who did not get a break from their children because their children did not sleep would, I submit, be more likely to suffer from baby-rage and kill their children. These children would not grow up to reproduce and pass on their non-sleeping ways to subsequent generations. The children who were most likely to survive were the sleepers. The sleepers procreated and passed this trait on down the line to us.

So why do we sleep? In short, because our parents would have killed us if we didn't.

P.S. In assessing the above claims, please keep in mind that I am not a scientist, philosopher of science, or baby-killer. Thanks.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More Lying

I thought I’d post a follow-up to the Santa is a Tool post in light of some other posts that have been brought to my attention. Rob A. pointed me to a post by Steven Law. SL would “happily lie” about the existence of Santa Claus, and presents six arguments in favor of lying to children. As I said before, I am not an anti-lying absolutist. Yet I did not find any of SL’s arguments at all persuasive. Here they are:

1. “Educational Fibbing.” SL says that if we lie to our children, they will become good at detecting lies, which is a valuable skill to have. While it is true that we want our children to be good “truth-detectors,” this goal does not require me lying to my children. Our world is full of lies and liars, devious deceivers, fallacious reasoners, and so on. My children are lied to or mislead by others and this will continue for the rest of their childhood. They (or we) can investigate and learn from these lies just as much as they can from lies told by me to them. By letting others do the lying for me, I do not risk the downsides of having lied to them myself. (I’d add that SL’s example of educational fibbing isn’t quite lying—it is more along the lines of a practical joke, or pretending. To lie is to intentionally and knowingly state a falsehood with the aim that it be believed. Joking around about fairies in the garden shed, so as to elicit an immediate refutation from the hearer, is not lying.)
2. “It makes them happy.” Yes it does, at least in the short term. And for some, even in the long term. But plenty of other activities and interactions that don’t involve lying make children happy, too. I agree that if X makes your child happy, then that is a reason to X. But that reason has to be taken into account along with other considerations, like the negatives that accompany lying to your child. Since there are non-lying alternatives that may produce even more (and more lasting) happiness, why go the lying route?
3. “Gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it – to really believe - lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.” I’m not sure how much value knowing what it is like to be a true believer has. Perhaps it is helpful in dealing with true believers? In any event, life presents plenty of chances to be fully convinced of a thesis, only to later learn that the thesis is false. Every academic field and nearly all non-academic professions provide opportunities for developing confidence in a belief, as well as the tools to later overturn that belief. Indeed, some might say that the history of science best exemplifies this.
4. “Fun for adults.” This is only a very weak reason for lying which I believe is overwhelmed by countervailing considerations, along the lines of lack of trust. Also, do we really want to convey to our children that it is permissible to lie to innocent others for the sake of our own pleasure?
5. “Useful for controlling behavior.” This is the main reason the Santa myth persists, I think, in conjunction with #4. At best this is a temporary measure, most effective in December. The message it conveys is that the reason to be good is to get a reward. This may be your view—indeed this is the functional role of heaven and hell—but it is not mine. I do not think that egoism is the correct account of morality. We have reasons to be good even if doing so isn’t what will get us best rewarded.
6. “Protects children from upsetting or damaging truths.” Well, I don’t think this applies in the Santa case. (Plenty of non-Christian children grow up undamaged, despite the fact that they never believed in Santa.) In talking about other things, such as deaths, injuries, or terrible events, it is not clear that lying about them is better for the child. Is a child better off thinking that Spot is in doggie heaven instead of the truth (that he is in hell for crapping on my Persian rug)? I will remind readers that there are non-lying alternatives to telling the truth: remaining silent, being vague, changing the subject, saying that you don’t want to talk about it, or delaying the conversation.

So I don't think SL has given us any conclusive reasons to lie to our children.

Just today, at Parenting Beyond Belief, Dale McGowan says that it “is terribly important to lie to our children.” The thing is, what DM defends is not lying at all (something he admits an editor of his pointed out to him). As I said above, to lie is to intentionally and knowingly say something false with the aim that it be believed. To joke that the sun is 20 feet away (one of DM’s examples of “lying”) is not a lie at all. If, after hearing this, your child became hysterical with fear about the impending solar-terrestrial collision—that is, demonstrated evidence of having believed you—that would be the exact opposite of what you intended.

another post, DM defends lying about Santa. His defense is largely an extended version of SL's #1. In any event, lying about Santa is quite a different animal than joking that “monkey lungs” are for dinner. When DM says the latter, he has no expectation that he will be believed. But when he tells his child that Santa exists, I suspect he not only expects that he will be believed, but that that is the point. So don’t be moved by the acceptability of monkey-lung playfulness with our children to endorse lying about Santa.

One possible defense for DM is to say that when he tells his kids that Santa exists, he actually does not have the aim that they believe him, and thus it is not, on the standard definition, a lie. Rather, it is a kind of test or critical thinking exercise. (Whether this justifies it is another matter.) He could support this interpretation of his own acts by reference to his satisfaction when his kids discover for themselves that Santa does not exist. He could go further by saying that were his kids to still believe in Santa when they are 15 years old, he would be very upset by this. At that age, he does not intend his children to believe him when he says that Santa exists. The problem with this is that up until the age at which he can reasonably come to expect his children to discover the truth about Santa, he is indeed lying to them. When they are too young to figure out that Santa does not exist, DM cannot intend that his falsehood elicit that response (one cannot intend what one believes is impossible). When they are that age, he is indeed lying to them.

DM advances his own reason for lying to children, distinct from the ones that SL offers. DM writes: “Many nonreligious parents, in the admirable name of high integrity, set themselves up as infallible authorities. And since (like it or not) we are the first and most potent authority figures in our kids’ lives, turning ourselves into benevolent oracles of truth can teach our kids to passively receive the pronouncements of authority.”

Hold on a minute. My general refusal to lie to my children does not imply that I am infallible or an oracle. This is because sometimes, not lying to my kids means that my answers to some of their questions is “I don’t know.” Or, “It could be X – let’s find out.” Or “What do you think?” Or even, “Yes I know, but I’m not going to give you the answer.” There is no necessary connection between a failure to lie and aspirations to (or impressions of) omniscience. Indeed, honesty and fallibility go hand in hand.

UPDATE: Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a related Santa post entitled "Santa Claus is for Parents."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Wait for it" Photo Update

In case you didn't believe me, here is some photo evidence that these billboards exist. There are variations, too, keyed to various career choices. How many fewer engineers do we have as a result of this ad? And I can't decide whether we are more or less safe because of this one (click "see full size image" at the top).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Need to Know

As a normal adult (you’ll have to take my word for it), I have a right to privacy—at least that is what many people believe. I’m not talking about a legal right (though I have that, too). Rather, I’m talking about a moral right, say, the kind of thing that makes it wrong for a guest in your home to sneak a peak in your diary / medicine cabinet / dungeon, etc.

While I have this right to privacy, I was not born with it. It seems silly to talk about a newborn’s right to privacy. So when did I get it? And why? More generally, at what age do children acquire a right to privacy? In particular, I am interested in the child’s right to privacy against his parents.

I am led to these thoughts by an incident a few months back, when #2, barely three years old, insisted on closing the door while using the toilet. The boy gets credit for good manners, but I wanted to know why. “I want privacy!” he said. This is lingo he picked up from his older brother, of course. But is he entitled to privacy? Is his five year old brother?

Yes, says the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to the U.N., “child” means any human “below the age of eighteen years.” The privacy of such children is protected by Article 16 of this Convention, which states that “No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.” And furthermore, “The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Can we look to this quasi-legal document for moral guidance on the question of a child's right to privacy against his parents? No, because this document is about “arbitrary” interference with a child’s privacy. A right to privacy is partial at best if it only protects someone against arbitrary interference. What about non-arbitrary interference? That is usually the kind of privacy at stake within the family. If I end up violating my children’s rights to privacy, it won’t be arbitrary. To the contrary, it will be because I have their best interests in mind, and I’m concerned about their capacity for looking out for those interests.

It might be helpful to say a bit more about what a right to privacy is. This is not very easy to do, but for a start we can say that if someone has a right to privacy, she has a right to be free from the coerced or involuntary disclosure of certain facts about herself (coerced = “tell me or else,” or general threatening environment; involuntary = spying, searching). Ultimately we would need to specify at least two things. First, which facts? And second, against whom is this right to privacy? Because answers to the second question may vary with answers to the first, it may make more sense to speak of a person’s rights to privacy.

Note that a person’s right to privacy can be violated even if she is not thereby harmed by the violation. Even though some violations of privacy can lead to harm, they needn’t, and it is worthwhile keeping "privacy violation" and "harm" distinct. Acts that constitute privacy violations that are also harmful can be objected to on grounds of harmfulness. Since even newborns have certain rights not to be harmed, even they are protected from such privacy violations. But this is not the same thing as saying that the newborns have a right to privacy.

As I said, I’m interested in the privacy rights children have against their parents. I’ve also said that newborns don’t have rights to privacy. Why? It is not because they can’t assert their right, or complain when it is violated. Rather, it is because they cannot take care of themselves in any way. Because they cannot take care of themselves, they have no right to keep information about themselves to themselves.

As children grow up, they come to be able to take care of themselves, in two important ways. First, they come to understand what it means to take care of themselves. In the jargon, they come to have a conception of the good. Second, they get better at managing themselves and the world, such that they think and act successfully in realizing their conception of the good.

As children are better able to take care of themselves, parents are relieved of some specific duties towards their children. (I don’t have to literally put food in #1’s mouth, for example; he is just fine at doing it himself.) As parents are relieved of these duties, they no longer need the information required to perform these duties. Since they wouldn’t be failing in their duties if they lacked this information, to obtain such information from their children coercively or involuntarily would be to violate their right to privacy.

So here is a proposal for an account of the moral right of privacy children have against their parents. It comes in the form of a necessary condition of a privacy right. To make things “easier” to read, I’ll use some abbreviations:

C = child

R = right to privacy

P = parent

F = some fact about C

Let’s call it the “Need to Know” account:

A necessary condition of C having R against P in respect to F is that the successful execution of P’s duties in respect to C do not require that P knows F.

One reason this works is that we have a good sense of what P’s duties in respect to C are. A full version of the Need to Know account would need to spell those out, along with an account of what it means for a child to sufficiently "take care of himself."

Additionally, there may be other necessary conditions of a right to privacy besides Need to Know.

Is the Need to Know account generalizable as a necessary condition of the right to privacy outside the parent-child relationship? Comments, counterexamples, etc., welcome.

Creative Engagement with Children Conference

I came across word of an upcoming conference on "creative engagement with children." I don't know much about the organizing group,, but the list of suggested topics for the conference looks interesting, and the fact that it is being held at Oxford speaks in its favor. The deadline for submissions is Friday, February 6th.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


How safe should we strive to make our children? To simplify matters, let’s ignore that there may be different kinds of safety and just suppose that degrees of safety lie along a simple continuum. At one end of the continuum is “completely safe,” where risk of injury and death is as close to zero as possible. At the other end of the continuum is “dead.” Clearly we want to avoid the latter. The question is how close to the former we should aim.

Here are some reasons why we ought not aim to make our children “completely safe”:

it would consume time, effort, and resources better put to use pursuing other goods for our children. Sure, I could spend time lining my children’s clothes with bubble-wrap. Or, I could use that time and energy to have fun stomping on said bubble-wrap with my kids.

our children would miss out on a number of other goods were we to try to make them completely safe. Road crashes are the top cause of unintentional injuries in children. Pursuing complete safety would mean never traveling anywhere by car, except to avoid something even more dangerous than car travel. “Sorry, we can’t go to the [school/museum/playground/ice cream shop/pool/grandma’s]. Ever.”

some activities that are risky may be valuable, such as, I don’t know, walking outside. Or learning to swim.

risk-taking can be pleasurable, even thrilling. Isn’t that what makes slides and roller coasters so much fun?

if we deprive our children of exposure to danger, we deprive them of one of the best ways of learning how to exercise judgment in the face of danger. In short, making them less endangered may make them less safe. Of course there are ways to overdo it.

I think we all accept these points when we think about them. We may talk about keeping our kids “completely safe” but we don’t mean that literally (except David Benatar, who would like us to keep kids completely from harm by not bringing them into existence). So what do we mean?

Perhaps we mean that we don’t want to expose our children to danger if it isn’t worth it. So we do some ill-informed cost-benefit analysis on the fly to judge whether the probable benefits of some activity outweigh the probable harms, or rely on rules of thumb that themselves are presumably ultimately justified by appeal to some kind of cost-benefit analysis. Yet these analyses are hard to do, and it is unclear that we are doing them. Would the value that I and my kids get from all the trips in the car this year outweigh the badness of the one in 20,331 chance each of us has of dying because of an accident during one of them?

There is a sense among some that nowadays we are overprotective of our children. We are certainly more protective of them, in some ways, than previous generations were of their children. (And less protective in other ways: for example, many of today’s parents let their children view things on television that would horrify previous generations of parents). I haven’t looked for any research on changes in how safe children are, or how dangerous the world is for children, or how much time and effort parents are putting into keeping their children safe. I suspect these descriptive investigations are difficult enough. Adding normative questions on top of all this makes things very tricky.

Clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg (the steep, slippery, and hypothermia-inducing iceberg—keep away!). If nothing goes awry, I’ll be revisiting this topic in future posts.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Exciting Developments in Boredom

Over the past year or so there have been some items in the news on boredom (NYT, Boston Globe). And just the other day John Holbo put up a lengthy post on boredom and idleness at Crooked Timber.

I’ve been thinking about boredom and children recently. Boredom is unpleasant, and it is its unpleasantness that people tend to pay the most attention to. If we focus on its unpleasantness, it is normal to immediately think about its alleviation. Since we empathize with our children, when they tell us they are bored, we tend to do two things: (1) think to ourselves, “ah, what I wouldn’t do to have time to be bored, you little…” and (2) try to get the kid unbored. We also try to prevent boredom before it strikes. Witness the popularity of DVD players in minivans.

I think this approach to boredom misses a few things. First, while it’s true that boredom is unpleasant, lots of other things are unpleasant, and we don’t always take something’s propensity for causing unpleasantness as reason to avoid it (think of the pain associated with lots of exercise; or drinking, for that matter). One of the researchers mentioned in the NYT article says that boredom has “the power to exert pressure on individuals to stretch their inventive capacity.” Boredom may get your mind to wander in directions it wouldn’t have the opportunity to if it were distracted with activity or entertainment. You might end up thinking about new things, or old things in new ways, or to have what is sometimes unclearly referred to as a “moment of clarity.” Call these the “goods of boredom.”

Second, though there are goods of boredom, we should be interested in our children’s ability to escape boredom once it is contracted. One thing that makes a person interesting is his ability to see the world as interesting, and this ability is a key to escaping boredom. So, to regularly alleviate a child’s boredom through distraction or entertainment is to deprive the child of the practice of finding something interesting. This means not only that the child will continue to torment you with wails of “I’m bored,” with the expectation of you solving his "problem"; it means that you will be depriving your child of one of the ways by which to become an interesting person (and the goods that come along with that).

Third, if a child is pretty good at escaping boredom once it is contracted, then she may be less susceptible to boredom in the first place. This child might experience less frequently the goods of boredom, but that’s only because she is, or is on her way to becoming, an interesting person.

I wonder if these thoughts could lead to a plausible virtue-theoretic account of boredom. Boredom is an emotion, like fear. Just as courage is the appropriate state to be in regarding fear (the mean between recklessness and cowardice), we can ask what the appropriate state to be in regarding boredom is. It may be easier to do the kid version of this first. If a kid has a deficiency in the value he is able to experience in being bored, he is an annoying, pestering, whiny, drain on one’s patience. On the other hand, if the kid has an excess of enthusiasm for boredom—“What do you want to do today, kiddo?” “Nothing.” “Aren’t you going to be bored?” “Yeah. That’s why I want to do nothing.” “But that’s what you did yesterday”—then we start to question our worries about overmedicating our children. So what are the names for these states, and for the state that the virtuous child displays in regard to boredom?

P.S. I am happy to report that my kids are pretty good at finding the world interesting. One of the favorite activities of kids #1 and 2 is taking all sorts of household objects (including dozens of old computer cables sent to them by their grandfather) and creating myriad inventions and devices with them. They are constantly solving “problems” with these inventions. It is very MacGyver of them. And by the way, have you seen MacGyver’s less virtuous counterpart, MacGruber?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Some stories are good for explaining important concepts to little kids. Some stories are hilarious. And some are both.

#1 and I love the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. Written in the 70s, they wryly depict the interactions of their eponymous characters. Frog is the calm, reasonable type, while Toad is easily agitated. The surface simplicity of the stories mask an ironic wisdom.

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is called "Cookies" and is in Frog and Toad Together. In it, Frog and Toad attempt to overcome weakness of will.

I've pasted the text below, but the story is best read aloud, slowly, page-by-page, in view of the charming illustrations.

by Arnold Lobel

Toad baked some cookies. "These cookies smell very good," said Toad. He ate one. "And they taste even better," he said. Toad ran to Frog's house. "Frog, Frog," cried Toad, "taste these cookies that I have made."

Frog ate one of the cookies, "These are the best cookies I have ever eaten!" said Frog.

Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another. "You know, Toad," said Frog, with his mouth full, "I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick."

"You are right," said Toad. "Let us eat one last cookie, and then we will stop." Frog and Toad ate one last cookie. There were many cookies left in the bowl.

"Frog," said Toad, "let us eat one very last cookie, and then we will stop." Frog and Toad ate one very last cookie.

"We must stop eating!" cried Toad as he ate another.

"Yes," said Frog, reaching for a cookie, "we need willpower."

"What is willpower?" asked Toad.

"Willpower is trying hard not to do something you really want to do," said Frog.

"You mean like trying hard not to eat all these cookies?" asked Toad.

"Right," said Frog.

Frog put the cookies in a box. "There," he said. "Now we will not eat any more cookies."

"But we can open the box," said Toad.

"That is true," said Frog.

Frog tied some string around the box. "There," he said. "Now we will not eat any more cookies."

"But we can cut the string and open the box." said Toad.

"That is true," said Frog. Frog got a ladder. He put the box up on a high shelf.

"There," said Frog. "Now we will not eat any more cookies."

"But we can climb the ladder and take the box down from the shelf and cut the string and open the box," said Toad.

"That is true," said Frog.

Frog climbed the ladder and took the box down from the shelf. He cut the string and opened the box.

Frog took the box outside. He shouted in a loud voice. "Hey, birds, here are cookies!" Birds came from everywhere. They picked up all the cookies in their beaks and flew away.

"Now we have no more cookies to eat," said Toad sadly. "Not even one."

"Yes," said Frog, "but we have lots and lots of willpower."

"You may keep it all, Frog," said Toad. "I am going home now to bake a cake."


And of course we must ask (again): are cakes better than willpower? Perhaps that depends on the cake.

Do you have any book recommendations along these lines?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wait for it

I got word of a worst argument in Britain contest being run at the University of Gloucestershire.

This reminded me of a billboard I once saw in Baltimore aimed at discouraging teens from having sex. Here is the billboard's text, in its entirety: "Sex can wait. Your future can't."

Now hold on a minute.

The billboard says that sex can wait.
If sex can wait, then sex is in my future.
According to the billboard, my future can't wait.
If my future can't wait, and sex is in my future, then sex can't wait.
But if sex can't wait, then this billboard is--how should I put this?--f*cked, since it started off by telling me that sex can wait.

Make up your mind, damn billboard.

UPDATE: Photo links here.