Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

The Third Alternative

43 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 May 2007 11:47PM

"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 (if I recall correctly), 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.  Where do false dilemmas come from?  Some 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.

 

Part of the Overly Convenient Excuses subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Privileging the Hypothesis"

Previous post: "The Proper Use of Humility"

Comments (75)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 07 May 2007 12:34:39AM 6 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 May 2007 12:51:05AM 20 points [-]

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 the child first questions Santa Claus, he should be given a vaguely plausible set of physical and moral rationalizations - i.e., the reindeer actually travel through the nineteenth dimension, and rich kids get better presents because they have a higher hedonic baseline, etc. This will give the child experience with vague philosophical-sounding rationalizations, not just blatantly obvious lies.

Need I go on? Why would the present myth be optimal unto any purpose, even a Noble Lie, if it was not designed that way?

Comment author: beriukay 25 March 2010 12:22:44PM 22 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Ender 29 October 2011 09:34:19PM 2 points [-]

I think I wrote an essay for a middle-school english teacher to the effect that any belief that I had in [the belief in] Santa Claus dragged my belief in [my belief in] God along as it went away (Which would have been around... when I was three or five; my parents didn't really try very hard to convince my siblings or me that Santa actually existed).

I don't remember a time when I believed in more than a belief in Santa, or, though my parents tried a little harder on this front, in God. My mother read to me from a kid's bible (with stories like Noah's Ark (the one with all the incest in it, for anyone who doesn't know) set as poems), but I could tell she didn't believe the stories (she probably figured she ought to make an effort, just 'cause).

Nonetheless, my father only recently began to imply outright that Santa Claus wasn't real.

Comment author: Mets 01 November 2013 02:44:26AM 1 point [-]

Why is it that people use "belief in god" as "belief in Christianity" and "no belief in Christianity" as "atheism"? Even disregarding other religions, there's a whole range of positions between them.

Comment author: pnrjulius 27 May 2012 03:17:47AM 5 points [-]

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.

Comment author: DaFranker 11 July 2012 03:07:53PM 1 point [-]

The rest of Eliezer's original writing seems to allude to this. If children are trained to take bribes and go for the most convenient excuse (and to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma by teaching-through-example), then they are quickly self-persuaded that it is to their benefit to not apply the principle to religion unless they know they are being abused by this more than they can abuse it and others through it.

Comment author: bokov 24 September 2013 06:03:17PM 9 points [-]

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!

Comment author: lavalamp 24 September 2013 11:50:22PM 4 points [-]

"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."

Comment author: Anna2 07 May 2007 02:58:02AM 0 points [-]

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 associated to the birth of Jesus but i'm pretty sure that there is either a moral and ethical story behind it or a marketing strategy.

Obviously if the story survived this long, there must have been something good and worthwhile about it.

Anna:)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 May 2007 09:46:53AM 9 points [-]

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.)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 May 2007 09:48:25AM 0 points [-]

Gah. And somehow I managed to miss that Jeremy had posted a comment with the essentially same content just before me. Ignore me, folks...

Comment author: conchis 07 May 2007 12:44:48PM 9 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 27 May 2012 03:19:55AM 4 points [-]

I agree. In real life, when the trolley is about to run over the five children, you stop the trolley. You don't flip a switch that moves the trolley over to one other child, much less toss a fat man off a footbridge. And if you can't stop the trolley, you try to find a way; you don't give up and pick the slightly-less-bad option.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 27 May 2012 03:56:06AM 8 points [-]

In my experience, in real life what most people do in a crisis is stand there and dither.

Comment author: BloodyShrimp 24 September 2013 04:54:14PM 1 point [-]

I used to do this, but the crises made it exceptionally difficult to get the checkerboard pattern right.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 24 September 2013 05:02:33PM 0 points [-]

Ba-dum-ching.

Comment author: conchis 07 May 2007 12:49:39PM 6 points [-]

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?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 May 2007 01:38:15PM 8 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Nancy_Lebovitz 07 May 2007 01:39:21PM 2 points [-]

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" of that kind--lying to someone who doesn't have the capacity to check on what you're saying.

That five minutes brainstorming is an interesting idea. Would another five minutes spent on looking at your preferred alternative from the points of view of all the interested parties also be a good investment?

Comment author: pnrjulius 27 May 2012 03:21:07AM 0 points [-]

Would another five minutes spent on looking at your preferred alternative from the points of view of all the interested parties also be a good investment?

Almost certainly. After all, it's five minutes. We've got a lot of those.

Comment author: mantis 08 September 2012 12:37:56AM *  2 points [-]

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.

That would depend on whether there are any morally and practically important differences between the environmental, labor, etc. practices found inside your borders vs. those found elsewhere. Protecting the income of free, paid laborers from competition by slaveowners whose victims can produce the same goods less expensively seems pretty morally and practically important to me.

Comment author: Rob_Spear 07 May 2007 02:02:12PM 0 points [-]

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 which is a moral judge, and which is always observing. Civilization rests upon the internalization of such ideas - without a broad cultural morality, we are back at traditional human pastimes like feuding and lynch-your-neighbor. Are you sure that praise'n'spaceships will work as well? Am I sure that my Santa-analysis covers everything important that Santaism provides?

Comment author: pnrjulius 27 May 2012 03:23:43AM 0 points [-]

I guarantee you that if your children grow up reading John Stuart Mill, they will become well-rounded moral individuals (at least as well as kids who grow up hearing about Jesus and Santa).

So there; it's not even hypothetical. There are like, actual books you could read to them; On Liberty and Utilitarianism. Pretty advanced reading I suppose... maybe we should be working on children's book versions?

(Actually, as far as children's book versions of moral philosophy, you can do worse than Dr. Seuss.)

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 07 May 2007 02:51:11PM 1 point [-]

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?

Comment author: pnrjulius 27 May 2012 03:24:30AM 1 point [-]

Behaving morally because you think Big Sky Daddy is watching is not a conscience. It is to a conscience as a crutch is to a leg.

Comment author: Rob_Spear 07 May 2007 04:13:48PM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Tom_Crispin 07 May 2007 04:32:59PM 7 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 27 May 2012 03:25:33AM 2 points [-]

Right! No wonder teenagers don't trust their parents; they know for a fact that their parents have lied to them in the past!

Comment author: bokov 24 September 2013 06:09:40PM 1 point [-]

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."

Comment author: joe4 07 May 2007 05:04:16PM 1 point [-]

"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 coerce people into following your morals. If you think about it, it really is a brilliant method of social control if you can scare your followers enough.

Many children are taught that god exists and they have to accept that at faith. It doesn't take long for a kid to figure out that Santa doesn't exist; it is nearly impossible to indefinitely perpetuate that lie. Religion on the other hand... how do you disprove something that MUST be taken completely on faith.

I hope we can someday find a better way to instill morals into kids other than to tell them they are going to be punished by a moral judge at the end of their lives if they are bad.

Comment author: michael_vassar 07 May 2007 05:26:27PM 8 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 27 May 2012 03:26:33AM 0 points [-]

See also Kohlberg.

Comment author: Jeremy_McKibben 07 May 2007 05:42:07PM 0 points [-]

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 that children with an internalized sense of morality are happier, you would be making an argument for something preferable, but not for something truthful (though I would certainly raise my children in the way you prescribed).

Eliezer, I will concede that parents only have a finite amount of time with which to maximize their children's sense of wonder, and it is also plausible that the number of alternative ways to do so is infinite. However, my argument was that there need not be a choice between Santa and the alternatives. If we consider that there is diminishing marginal wonder for any activity we select, then the choice among alternatives becomes similar to the choice a firm with a finite amount of capital makes between alternative factors of production. Like a firm maximizing the return to its investments, we will want to allocate time towards the activities with the highest marginal wonder, and it is plausible that Santa will be one of those choices before the highest marginal wonder is less than the cost to our time. It becomes even more likely once we consider the transaction costs of using the "market" of available alternatives--we must discover them and make use of them in the most efficient manner possible (e.g., driving the kids to a museum once a week). Santa, in comparison, is the cultural default and requires little time or energy to reinforce. Most of the work is done by the children's peers, and to discourage the belief would use valuable time that could have been allocated towards activities with a higher marginal rate of return. Since you seem to accept that there is some limited benefit to Santa, the opportunity cost of the time spent convincing our children of a truth that they will come to realize anyway will only add to the deadweight loss of wonder.

In effect, we may have to choose how much time to allocate towards lying about Santa, but it seems unlikely that there will be a strict choice between Santa and the alternatives, given the diminishing marginal wonder of the different activities in our choice set.

Perhaps the status quo bias you pointed out later in your post has its roots in an unconscious (but rational) cost-benefit analysis. In addition, as we would say of a firm trying to maximize its returns, there is a good deal of uncertainty that alternatives will provide the same wonder that we know Santa has provided and will continue to provide (in addition to the other benefits you enumerated). In this case, it makes quite a bit of sense to avoid the alternatives altogether, assuming that the opportunity cost of our time is high and our information about the alternatives is scarce. In conclusion, you may be demonstrating an unusual bias in opposition to the status quo, and have justified it with a false dilemma between the "best" and the "good."

Sorry for the long comment. I could provide a dozen caveats to this analysis, but I sense the highest marginal return to my time lies elsewhere.

Comment author: Rob_Spear 07 May 2007 06:27:12PM 1 point [-]

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.

Comment author: TGGP5 07 May 2007 06:38:03PM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: michael_vassar 07 May 2007 06:56:29PM 3 points [-]

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 distinction. Evolutionary psychologists have discovered a few instances of non-old-fashioned Pseudo-Pavolvian conditioning, such as the development of aversions to foods as a result of sickness hours after eating (still not months or years after) and immediate acquisition of certain phobias (for instance, fear of snakes) without the need for repetition, but these are due to very distinctive context-specific mechanisms. There is no evidence that any analogous distinctive Pseudo-Pavolvian mechanism is at work in generating "Santa efficacy".

Comment author: joe4 07 May 2007 07:06:37PM 3 points [-]

"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?

Comment author: Rob_Spear 07 May 2007 07:32:05PM 1 point [-]

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?

Comment author: conchis 07 May 2007 08:34:34PM 0 points [-]

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?

Comment author: ohdotoh 19 September 2009 06:04:39PM 5 points [-]

'They' is a gender neutral pronoun and like Schrodinger's cat it shows the superposition of he and she in an unknown state. Until observed, the human is simultaneously male and female.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 09:55:33PM *  1 point [-]

It's ugly, though. "They" is a plural. I just used it in my last post, but I didn't like doing it; now it is gender-sensitive, but ungrammatical.

I also used the phrase "a new man", because "a new person" doesn't have the history of use that invokes the noble/creepy feelings that I wanted to communicate. I couldn't think of any gender-neutral way around it.

If we took a vote, I'd vote for "it". It also has a nice, dehumanizing ring to it, which would probably be good, given our anthropic tendencies.

Comment author: Johnicholas 19 September 2009 10:01:53PM 7 points [-]

I can't help linking Hofstadter's very funny and apropos "Person Paper":

http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html

Wikipedia points out that the singular or indeterminate-number "they" has a pretty long history in the english language - Shakespeare used it, for example.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 September 2009 10:06:23PM 1 point [-]

When you are speaking of people, "anthropic" is the right stance!

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 10:13:44PM 2 points [-]

What an anthropic thing to say!

"Anthropic" means human-centric. I want humans to think of "people" as a more general term, not as a synonym for "human".

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 September 2009 10:15:27PM -1 points [-]

People are human.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 10:23:22PM 2 points [-]

That's not a statement with a true/false value; it's a philosophical/ethical assertion.

In any case, regardless of whether that statement is extensionally true at present, it will not be in the future, and we need to prepare for that future in advance.

Additionally, philosophy routinely finds it useful to ask hypothetical questions. Equipping ourselves with mental categories that make us incapable of comprehending hypotheticals about people from most possible worlds will lead to error.

Comment author: Toddling 22 January 2013 04:23:23AM 2 points [-]

This is interesting, because I've never found 'they' particlulary ugly or awkward. I do like 'it', though I suspect that the 'dehumanizing ring' to it would disappear if it were regularly used to refer to humans. The main reason I use 'they' instead is because, as far as I'm aware, it's accepted by a reasonably large contingent of authorities on the language as grammatically correct. I also find it less awkward than 'he/she' (I never know whether to say "he-she" or "he or she"), and popular alternatives like 'zie' (of which there are too many variations, none of which is used often enough that a general audience will not require an explanation). I think the main problem we'd have no matter what we chose would be effectively encouraging widespread use, and I don't have any very good ideas on how to do this.

Comment author: themusicgod1 09 March 2013 04:05:01PM 0 points [-]

Earlier on in internet history there was a movement to make 'tse' a gender-neutral pronoun. It didn't take, but I still use it.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 09 March 2013 05:41:37PM 0 points [-]

See also Spivak pronoun.

Comment author: themusicgod1 11 March 2013 03:57:46AM *  -1 points [-]

Or alternatively you could go more recent & use the Baltimore dialect and use 'Yo' as a gender-neutral pronoun.

(ref: Stotko, E. and Troyer, M. "A new gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A preliminary study." American Speech, Vol. 82. No. 3, Fall 2007, p. 262.)

Comment author: Omegaile 11 March 2013 05:56:45AM 0 points [-]

Someone in Sweden apparently did

Comment author: Karen_Lofstrom 07 May 2007 08:37:48PM 0 points [-]

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 Chinese lion dancers may believe in the lion when very young and enjoy the pretense when older.

It's dangerous to generalize, but it seems that most of these "pretend" customs personalize a more abstract principle; seeing through the pretense often involves rejecting the personalization but accepting the underlying belief.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 07 May 2007 09:40:43PM 0 points [-]

Karen, I think you may be on to something; could you elaborate?

Comment author: michael_vassar 07 May 2007 10:17:17PM 1 point [-]

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 evidence that ethical behavior is good, such as it eliminates some of the cognitive burden of lying, and it makes other people happy thus promoting vicarious pleasure. Sensitivity to these possibilities may lead to their better exploitation, and thus to a history of Pavlovian reinforcement from good behaviors.

That being said, much of Jewish and to a lesser degree Catholic law consists of the justification of reversion to preferred morality where it differs (usually in the sense of being much more ethical as modern seculars would understand the term) than the morality promoted by their theoretical authority figure, implying a (fortunate) failure of internalization of religious morality. More speculatively, some scholars have blamed the barbarities of the Soviets and NAZIs on (among other things) the reversion to a tribal/nationalist preferred morality which Christianity had advocated replacing, or simply to conformity or sadism in response to a moral vacuum. Unfortunately for this thesis, the Japanese, with a presumably more resilient internalized morality, committed comparable though somewhat lesser atrocities, suggesting, at best, that reverting to tribalism/nationalism is not much worse for outsiders than never having abandoned it. Unfortunately for this discussion, there are no obvious examples of maturely secular nations with universalist ethical axioms fighting major wars, but that fact could also be seen as tending to confirm the above speculation.

Comment author: Jef_Allbright 07 May 2007 11:25:09PM -1 points [-]

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 than simply as a cultural activity) is then seen more clearly as (1) promoting a complex set of values including the importance of wonder and honesty, but also the importance of third-party monitoring of behavior and direct reward, and (2) the rather ineffectual instrumental method of lying to children in the form of a myth. From this it may be seen more clearly that the Santa Clause myth scores poorly in terms of both values and instrumentality, and this is reflected in how little seriousness it is accorded in our society.

Other Noble Lies, for example Aryan superiority, White Man's Burden, Manifest Destiny, Separate but Equal, War Against Drugs, War Against Terror, etc., can be assessed similarly and the perceived "goodness" can be seen to vary in terms of context of shared values and scope of effectiveness.

While this analysis might seem disheartening due to the relentless ratcheting forward of increasingly effective methods as a result of technological progress, there is reason for hope as we see that same technological progress facilitating increasing context of shared values and decision-making, and while subjective values are impervious to direct attack, the do tend to evolve as a result of agents selecting preferentially for what tends to work.

The only "Noble Lie" which might properly be considered essential is the seemingly unfounded belief in the intrinsic value of the self, without which there could be no decision-making and thus no action and the question of "goodness" would be moot. And that is only a lie to the extent that we believe the Self is discrete.

- Jef

Comment author: Tom_West 08 May 2007 07:25:58AM 0 points [-]

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 course, my wife *hated* the idea of being lied to by her parents upon discovery, and my children were far too logical for it to even be a possibility, so it Santa wasn't a factor for them. But for me, belief in Santa was definitely a plus.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 May 2007 07:47:52AM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: TGGP5 08 May 2007 09:19:57AM 1 point [-]

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 individual as well as prudish by nature (which might have not been the case had I been raised differently, though I can't say for sure) I am not inclined to enjoy my freedom to "sin" without consequence.

Comment author: joe4 08 May 2007 09:35:52AM 0 points [-]

TGGP,

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?

Comment author: TGGP5 08 May 2007 09:26:07PM 0 points [-]

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 that hypothetical. My behavior has not really changed much, but I am also a product of my surroundings, which would not be the same in that hypothetical. Perhaps "It is best not to speak of atheism, lest the servants steal the silverware", but I don't think they will start stealing (marginally more) conditioned on my beliefs, so I have no reason not to hold them.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 May 2007 10:48:43PM 0 points [-]

TGGP, joe, please divert further comments along the same lines to the Consolidated Nature of Morality Thread - that's what it's there for.

Comment author: Santa_Claus_(is_my_legal_name) 15 March 2008 11:47:31PM 0 points [-]

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

Comment author: ohdotoh 19 September 2009 05:55:41PM 0 points [-]

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 for our enjoyment and the enjoyment of our children. It serves as a rite of passage. Most children know in a primitive way that they have crossed a developmental threshold when they figure out the "Santa Claus Cover Up," and that they too are now Santa.

Finally the "Santa Claus Cover Up" is not just about the things we say it is about. We are all unreliable narrators of our motives and intentions because the part of our mind that does things can't use language and the part that can use language is just making stuff up. In setting up your false dilemma an option you overlooked was whether the dilemma described actually exists. Perhaps believing in Santa doesn't give children a sense of wonder, or encourage them to behave well. Then the entire quote becomes gibberish. Maybe children already have a sense of wonder and want to behave well and be rewarded for doing so. Then the "Santa Claus Cover Up" just provides them with a field to develop those talents on.

Comment author: thomblake 04 February 2010 09:20:49PM 3 points [-]

My favorite thing about this post is still that "Santaism" is humorously similar to "Satanism"

Comment author: DylanStafne 14 June 2010 09:52:54PM 2 points [-]

Sweatshop proponents make arguments like this. Yes, sweatshops are often chosen over prostitution and subsistence farming--but surely there's something even better.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 October 2010 05:53:09AM *  0 points [-]

But what about when our conscious motives for the search - the criteria we can admit to ourselves - don't square with subconscious influences?

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.

Comment author: Traddles 22 December 2010 04:56:51PM 2 points [-]

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 made by that part is that there are plenty of things in the world that are true that will instill wonder. To continue your argument: tell kids about santa AND give them science fiction AND take them to a shuttle launch AND tell them about invisible pink unicorns that watch over you at carnivals.

If you're going to allow fictional information to be presented as true for the sake of "creating wonder", why stop at santa? Why stop at culturally accepted fictions even? Why not create new ones as well? Or you could pull from other cultures too.

I suspect that it's one of those things where if you experienced it as a child, then it SHOULD be a part of childhood.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 December 2010 05:37:48PM 5 points [-]

I suspect that it's one of those things where if you experienced it as a child, then it SHOULD be a part of childhood.

Related observation: hazing rituals are particularly hard to stamp out. It seems right even to those who hated the experience.

Comment author: avichapman 02 May 2012 09:41:11PM 4 points [-]

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.

Huzzah!

Comment author: Fossegrimen 04 February 2014 05:59:32PM 0 points [-]

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.)