Once again, Christmas is upon us. Once again millions of parents in the Western world will fulfil their role in the Santa Claus fable.
Presents of mind: Santa and child
For fear that young and impressionable eyes may be reading, let's not be too explicit about what's under discussion here. But how many will stop to think about moral implications of this seasonal subterfuge? How many will ponder the integrity of this festive fraudulence?
As children, we are told that lies are bad. We are not told why. It is a rule to be followed, not questioned. The truth is that no one follows the rule all the time. We are all economical with the truth from time to time, whether to conceal a plan for a surprise party, to avoid revealing our true feelings on a host's unpalatable dish or to compliment a partner's new but hideous dress.
As for non-verbal deception, many women try to "trick" men by wearing make-up to enhance their beauty and, I confess, I have occasionally used a touch of gel to cover my receding hairline with the few strands of hair that remain.
In the words of the philosopher David Nyberg, "communication absolutely free of deception of all kinds is suitable only for people who like each other very little, or don't plan to be together very long". Absolute truth is not necessarily an ethically desirable goal, nor is it widely perceived to be.
In my own study on deception, 88% of respondents believe it is acceptable to deceive someone if it is in that person's best interests.
So what, if anything, is bad about deception? Why is there a strong presumption that lying and deception are morally wrong?
Without truthfulness, we could not trust others and without trust, all activities involving human communication would be severely undermined
As individuals, we rely on truthful information to make rational decisions about our lives. If the driver of the car in front indicates a right turn, we believe this is what he will do. We do not expect him to turn left.
Without truthfulness, we could not trust others and without trust, all activities involving human communication would be severely undermined. Indeed, even fibbers need truth-telling to be the norm for their trickery to work.
The success of their fiction relies on the expectation that, in most cases, people will tell the truth. In short, if people consistently lied, society would rapidly collapse under mass confusion. Truthfulness thus fulfils a vital social function.
But this does not mean we should never lie. It simply means that truth-telling should be the norm and lying the exception. After all, society seems to function even in the notoriously deceptive month of December.
Some philosophers have claimed that lying is always wrong, regardless of the consequences. As such, it should be avoided at all costs. On this view, someone who lies to free a hundred innocent children from a ruthless kidnapper would still be committing a moral wrong.
To justify their position, moralists appeal either to God ("from whose mouth nothing false proceeded" wrote Augustine), to the purpose of language itself (which is apparently to communicate truths), or to the fact that lying robs men of their dignity and prevents them from making rational decisions about their lives. None of these reasons seem to me totally convincing.
The original St Nicholas', as imagined in a recent BBC show
Sometimes, we are faced with situations when doing the right thing requires us to commit a moral wrong. Think of the pilot whose only choice is to fly his plane on its present course where it will crash into a crowded city or steer it towards a sparsely populated suburb. The second option may be bad, but it is better than the first.
Similarly, there may be cases where lying is necessary to prevent an even greater wrong. This could explain the tinge of guilt or regret we may suffer when uttering a lie, even if we deem it appropriate.
Telling the truth is important, but kindness, moral support or maintaining hope may be even more important.
Lying to be kind
Deception may occasionally represent a greater respect for a person's well-being than truth-telling. The difficulty lies in assessing which duty is the weightiest: shall I tell my partner that her new dress is beautiful or shall I express my distaste for the offensive garment?
Shall I tell my host that her canard à l'orange tastes sweet or, more accurately, like feet? It is a delicate balancing act. Inevitably biased, we find it difficult to assess the situation from the other person's perspective. We tend to overestimate the benefits of the lie and underestimate its negative consequences.
A lie that is as white as Santa's beard for one person may be as dark as night for another.
"Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive" wrote Sir Walter Scott. Quite true, but the web weaved by truth may be even more damaging. The key problem is identifying, explaining and justifying the circumstances when deception is preferable to honesty.
Daniel Sokol is a medical ethicist at Imperial College, London, and author of Medical Ethics and Law. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org