Make-believe stories exist and are sustained precisely because we believe in them
by Giles Fraser
Santa Claus meets with children at his office near Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland.(Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand via Getty Images).
Is it immoral to encourage children to believe in Santa? So asks Joseph Beihl over at the Philosophy Now magazine.
Yes, argue the philosophical Grinches, it is immoral to encourage children (or anyone, for that matter) to believe in things that aren’t true. Things that are not true are called lies, and we rightly think of lies as wrong.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
But Beihl is not so convinced.
“Asserting that truth is the norm of belief implies that the truth is out there, existing independently of our belief. While this inference is plausible when thinking about silver and gold, whiskey and wine, and the presents under the tree, for vast stretches of our realities it isn’t plausible at all. The parts I have in mind here are those parts that matter most to us and imbue our lives with meaning — the parts that provide us with reasons for putting the presents under the tree. These parts of our realities include our plans and aspirations, moral principles, and ethical convictions; and along with their sources — that is, our friendships, loves, and relationships of various kinds — they exist and are sustained precisely because we believe in them.”
- Joseph Beihl
Another example of ‘true lies’, as it were, is to be found in the language of human rights. For though the American Declaration of Independence credits the Creator with endowing human beings with rights, most people do not now believe that rights inhere in human beings in some metaphysical kind of way. In other words, human rights are not some feature of the world that can be said to exist independent of human story telling. And so, for the philosophical Grinches of this world, they must be therefore considered a lie — and thus immoral to propagate.
“What can be said about natural rights can be said about any of the normative features of our lives, and so, surely, about Santa Claus; to acknowledge their reality is not to indulge in frivolous make-believe, but rather to partake in the essential human practice of belief-making. So the reality of Santa is not to be found by taking a journey to the North Pole, but by venturing into the interconnected experience generated by the hearts and minds of believers.”
- Joseph Beihl
Good on you, Jospeh Beihl. One in the eye for the Grinches, philosophical or otherwise, is always welcome at this time of year. Happy Christmas.