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My 4-year old son is asking incredibly good questions about God. As for myself,

My 4-year old son is asking incredibly good questions about God. As for myself, I do not partake in the idea of religion. My wife does. Together we decided to let the children make their own decisions. To that end, on Sundays they go to Sunday School with their Mom and I sat home to “do chores.” My son is questioning nearly everything they are telling him. “Why did God make man first then a woman if they are equals?” “If God made man, where was God before we were there to talk about him on Sundays?” “How did God make God before was us?” (real quotes). I’m amazed, proud, and confused. How do I answer these questions without dashing his chances at the illusion of “it’ll be alright” that Christians harbor in their lives? Do I have an moral obligation to tell him I don’t believe in that “stuff”? Or am I better off to string him along? I hate to discourage this sort of dialogue; I love wondering at the world. The Church people tell him to stop asking questions. Is that healthy?

It's really too bad that there is this common image of religious peopleas simply swallowing what someone else has told them. I don't know manysuch folks myself, though I am sure they do exist. And if the people at your son's church are telling him to stop asking questions, that's even worse: Questioning is not opposed to faith but an integral part of it, and a faith based upon just not questioning is not a faith that will survive very long. Maybe you and your wife should find a different church if this one is not serving your son well.

But whatever you decide on that score, there is no reason you can't engage your son's questions. The three you report are very different. (And, not to torpedo your pride, not uncommon: Children are amazing.) The first concerns the second creation story in Genesis. (If you don't know, there are two such stories, drawn from two different traditions.) Assuming your wife isn't committed to literalism here, then the first thing to tell your son is that this is a story, and then you can discuss what that aspect of the story might mean. I'd strongly recommend Marc Gellman's Does God Have a Big Toe? first for you and then for your son as an example of what it means to engage these stories. (You don't have to be a Christian, or a Jew, to do so. We can talk intelligently, after all, about Shakespeare.) The other two questions are much more philosophical. I'm not sure what the second question is getting at. Perhaps your son is struggling with the idea that there might be something that is non-physical. If so, then that's a nice question to discuss. (Where is love? Where are numbers?) The third is indeed a classic question. Did God make God? If not, what does that mean? And, again, one can certainly wonder about what precisely it is supposed to mean that God "made" man. That's part of the creation story, and it's not a part one has to take literally any more than one takes any other part of the story literally.

I've really enjoyed reading the answers to the questions posed on this site and

I've really enjoyed reading the answers to the questions posed on this site and I've come up with a question that was inspired from an experience my 5 year old daughter recently had. My question is this: Why is it wrong to snitch on a friend? I can see in cases of minor mischief that snitching on a friend would seem to be unloyal but just how far should our duty to our friendship extend? I'm asking this from the context where you know your friend has done something wrong and in which you were not involved but your friend has requested you remain silent on their behalf.

I know that you’re primarily interested in the more sophisticatedquestion concerning the extent of our obligations to friends, but I’mstuck on childhood “snitching,” or as it’s known in my family,“tattling.” “Don’t be a tattle-tale,” I’m often tempted to tell my fiveyear old when she tells me of some minor indiscretion of her fourteenyear old sister. Why not? Didn’t her sister do something wrong? Andshouldn’t wrong-doers be held to account? And isn’t it my job as aparent to enforce all morally legitimate norms?

No, it’s my jobas a parent to do what is in my power to protect my children fromunjustified harm and to help them to develop their capacities to livegood, worthwhile, and morally decent lives. If they are being wrongedby someone else and if they do not yet have the skills or authority toprevent that wrong, then I must intervene. But the usual situationsthat motivate tattling aren’t like that. Most tattling is motivated byenvy. Tattlers tend to regard moral norms as arbitrary rules enforcedby parents that prevent them from having fun, and they don’t wantanyone else to get away with an illicit pleasure that they themselveswould like to have. Alternatively, in a bout of sibling or classmate rivalry, many tattlers seek to present themselves to the local god figure as “the good child” who knows and follows the rules, in contrast to those undeserving others. (Of course, my good child is never like this.) Because I don’t want to encourage these pictures of the point of moral norms (and also because tattling is really annoying), I amtempted to prohibit tattling. But I try to resist this temptation,because children often do find themselves at a loss about how toprevent injustices done against themselves and others, and aprohibition on tattling can seem like moral abandonment. So I try toresist the temptation to prohibit tattling, but I also try not to givesatisfaction to the envious tattler. You need to tell your sister whyher behavior upsets you. You don’t know why it upsets you? Well, let’sthink about it. What is wrong with what she did? Anything, really? Ifnot, then we shouldn’t worry about it. It’s not fair? Then maybe youcan help your sister to see why it’s unfair. And so on.

Ofcourse, as my five year old will tell you, this picture of our domesticlife is pure fantasy. Most of the time, in a desperate effort tomaintain my own sanity, I take the much easier route: “Don’t be atattle-tale.”

According to Goethe, the only people who are truly happy are those who are like

According to Goethe, the only people who are truly happy are those who are like children, who are made blissful by the smallest things, and if you try to see life as it is you would be doomed to despair. What would fulfill the requirements of being like children, and how would that make you happy?

The image of the happy child is often invoked as a model for adult happiness (you mention Goethe; Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section on the three metamorphoses, for instance, does so as well). While this seems an overly romantic view of a child's world, the model as such has at least the following components:

1. Children, it is said, lack a complex inner life, so that their responses to events are immediate, near-instinctive, and without the quality of angst that can often accompany adult retrospective analyses of actions taken, nor the having of second thoughts about the wisdom of having taken such actions. There is a kind of freedom that an adult could well experience in virtue of being able to act to a situation by assessing it swiftly and with clarity at the outset, without the conscious intervention of a range of beliefs and desires that typically precede (and stultify?) adult action.

2. Connected to the first component, children lack the baggage of the past, and have less ability to concretely imagine their futures (although they no doubt have rich imaginations) so that their perspective tends for the most part to be present-oriented. For adults, then, the model suggests a heavier weighting of the present than of either the past or the future as a component of happiness.

Does this model of the happy child give us as adults some ideas for how to make ourselves happy? Perhaps. If it forces us to ask what it is that one does see, as an adult, as one scrutinizes one's own current (and past) life and contemplates one's future; If it helps to pry us away from the felt heaviness of past decisions and commitments, and to ask: am I really stuck with a certain way of doing things or are there options currently before me that I cannot SEE? If it gets us to roll around on the floor,as children do, cracking up with laughter at a joke one came up with oneself ....(there are currently laugh clubs all over India, where the goal is to engage in belly-heaving laughter for no good reason -- a very hip kind of adult therapy!)

Is it morally wrong to tell children that Santa exists?

Is it morally wrong to tell children that Santa exists? Regardless of how much joy and excitement kids get from believing the Santa myth, it is an outright lie, so how can it be regarded as morally right? Should we always take the moral high ground and tell the truth where children are concerned, or should we make exceptions? When they find out the truth, aren't we teaching children that no one, not even their parents, can be trusted?

I have a very strong opinion about this matter, one that results in my condemning some of my very best friends: I think that there are no good arguments for teaching a child to believe in Santa Claus, or for not telling the child the truth the first time he or she asks. So I quite adamantly disagree with Roger Crisp.

Prima facie, one shouldn't lie to one's children. More seriously, one has a duty not to try to positively convince them of things that are beyond false, that are preposterous. Now what is supposed to make inculcating belief in Santa Claus an exception to this prohibition? The fact that the child will experience joy while he or she believes it? That can't in general be an argument for inculcating preposterous beliefs, since there are many such preposterous beliefs that would bring a person joy, were a person successful in believing them: the belief that he or she is the most intelligent person in the world, that he or she will live forever, the belief that there are no calories or cholesterol in fettucine alfredo. There are also risks for the believer in believing preposterous things, some of which Mark Crimmins notes. In the case of Santa Claus the risk of losing trust in one's parents' testimony is, I think, non-trivial. There is also the potential devaluation of reason and making sense inherent in trying to get someone to ignore, or in encouraging someone to disregard perfectly sound considerations against a particular proposition: "But how do reindeer fly?" "It's magic"

So it's first of all not clear that the "joy" children get from belief outweighs the likely negative results of inculcating a preposterous belief. But the clincher is that children don't have to believe in Santa Claus in order to experience the "joy" the questioner refers to. Children can get enormous pleasure out of the pretense that there's a Santa Claus, just as they enjoy the pretense that there's a Big Bird or a Superman. What I strongly suspect is that it's not the kids' joy that's at stake -- it's the grownups' It's the parents that enjoy the fact that their kids are "innocent" enough to believe anything they're told, or that enjoy observing what kids say and do when they believe something that the grownups know to be impossible. Grownups don't have the right to such pleasures, and should give them up.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Good for you for figuring it out.

Merry Christmas.

What is the best way to introduce philosophy to children? Are there any books

What is the best way to introduce philosophy to children? Are there any books specifically designed for this purpose?

In the lower right-hand corner of this page, you'll find a link to the site "Philosophy for Kids", set up by Professor Gareth Matthews of the University of Massachusetts, who has long been very interested in philosophy and children. At his website, you'll find suggestions, as well as links to other relevant websites.

If I am an alcoholic do I have a duty not to have children? What if I have a

If I am an alcoholic do I have a duty not to have children? What if I have a pretty strong history of being verbally abusive? What if I know I carry Tay-Sachs? You see where I am going here; should there be some criteria under which I am morally obliged not to have children in light of the initial conditions under which they would be living?

I stuck my neck out on another question like this, so I suppose I should go ahead and compound my earlier error by responding to this one, too.

I really think that the ethics of having children is more complicated than your examples make it. Each example seems to give a reason not to have children--or at least not to have them as long as the reason continues to apply (for example, one would hope the alcoholic would dry up first, and then reconsider having kids). But a single such reason, it seems to me, does not necessarily rise to the point of duty. If considerations of initial conditions worked this straightforwardly, then most people would have a duty not to have children, because most people would find they have one or more failings that could (or even certainly would) have adverse effects on their ability to raise children. Consider: Are wealthy people the only ones who have the right to reproduce? Does poverty leave one with the duty not to reproduce?

I think that human beings have proven to be remarkable resilient in the face of all kinds of challenges--including especially those presented by imperfect (and sometimes very difficult and dysfunctional) parents, as well as those presented by difficult, painful, or "disabling" genetic conditions. (I put that into scare quotes, because I think there is--quite rightly--more than a little reason to be very cautious about saying that any specific such condition is "disabling" in such a way as to leave the person in that condition such that they would have been better off never being born, as your examples seem to consider.)

Instead, I would count each of your reasons as considerations that should be taken seriously as one deliberates about the decision. If the reason can be removed, then it seems that there would be some ethical impetus to remove it for the sake of the future child. But there are real limits even to this--realistically, how good does one have to be in order to take on this responsibility? My own intuition is that better people make better parents; but there are lots of good people in the world whose parents were neither good people nor good parents.

This question obviously has a large psychological component, but I think there

This question obviously has a large psychological component, but I think there is a philosophical aspect as well: I have a four year old that is vaguely aware of a death that recently occurred. I do not want him to be afraid that his family will suddenly and permanently vanish, but, as previously discussed on this board, it seems neither moral nor prudent to lie to him. Is there any theory of what happens when someone dies that is at least somewhat plausibly correct but that will not terrify the little guy?

You're right, I think, that this is largely a psychological matter. So I respond here mostly as a fellow parent struggling with precisely this issue. Yesterday, Annabel, the pet goldfish of our our almost four-year old daughter, Lane, died suddenly while Lane was watching. Lane knew immediately what had happened: "Annabel died!" So we weren't confronted with the dilemma of whether to sneak out to a pet store during her nap to buy a fishy-doppelganger. But even though Annabel's death was surprisingly non-traumatic for Lane, it has raised in her all sorts of questions about her dead grandparents (one of whom she knew) and some other deceased pets. We reply that all these people and pets go to the same place. And when she asks where, we say that we don't know. This is border-line misleading, since we're atheists posing as agnostics. (I once replied that they all "went into the ground", but this seemed unnecessarily grim, and not exactly true about Anabel anyway, since she went down the drain.)

The problem for those of us without religion is that there isn't a very hopeful answer to give to these questions. Still, it's best, I think, not to beat around the bush, though I see no reason to elaborate unnecessarily. When we talk about these matters, I have been adding that I miss these people and pets, and that their absense makes me sad. This seems useful: it allows Lane to share feelings of loss, but to be comforted by the fact that her parents feel this way too. Or so I think. In the end, this may all come back to haunt us, or Lane. Where's AskPsychologists when you need it?

I am contemplating having children, yet can think of no good reason to have them

I am contemplating having children, yet can think of no good reason to have them. That is, all reasons seem to be selfish reasons. It seems impossible to do something for a person that doesn't exist yet. Are there any good reasons to have children that aren't selfish?

I think some philosophers would argue that there are good reasons not to have children, given population pressures. But I am inclined to take a rather different tack here, by asking you why you seem to suppose that self-interest is the same as the vice of selfishness. One of the things I found extraordinary in my own experience of having children was how much love I found I was capable of having and sharing. Did that bring value to my own life? Most certainly it did! Did it bring value to the lives of others? I think (and hope) so. Did I become a better person, all things considered? I think (and hope) so. And if I am doing a good job with my children (as I hope I am), then everyone with whom they come into contact is potentially better off. Plainly, not all parents are good people, and parenting does not always improve those who do it. But if you desire to have children, I think that is at least one indication that you could do something that is valuable not just for yourself but for many others, including not just the child(ren) you bring into being. Don't understimate the power of love, especially if the one who has it is also ethically conscientious!

Is it philosophically defensible, or morally right, to inculcate your child to

Is it philosophically defensible, or morally right, to inculcate your child to an organized religion when you yourself do not firmly believe in it? Along the same line, is there anything wrong about avoiding religious topics with your child with the intent that the child will choose her own set of beliefs when she becomes more mature?

The first sort of reasoning (not that I need to tell Jyl) goes bythe name "Pascal's Wager". It has been the subject of much controversy.The best recent paper I know is by Alan Hájek. See his"Waging War on Pascal's Wager", Philosophical Review 112 (2003), 27-56. Alan also wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Pascal's Wager, which is presumably a better place to start for those who are interested.

Letme offer a slightly different perspective on the question originallyasked. I don't think I'd want to say that it is permissible to"inculcate" one's children in a religion one doesn't accept. But thatis strong and fairly loaded language. I actually know two people whoare in the something like the following situation. (I could be wrongabout some of the details, so if anyone guesses who I've got in mind,don't assume I'm right. The situation is officially hypothetical.) Alexand Tony are white academics and have adopted two black children. Theybelieve very strongly that, as the church is and long has been thecenter of the black community, it is important for their children togrow up in a black church. So they attend one and take their children,even though they themselves are not believers. I don't myself seeanything impermissible about their doing so. In fact, it strikes me asadmirable. Note that it isn't obviously consistent with their broader goals to convey theirlack of belief to their children, since doing so could undermine theirchildren's involvement in the church.

So let's ask a more general question: Is it permissible to expose one's children in a serious wayto religious life even if one is not oneself a person of faith? Hereagain, I don't see why it shouldn't be, and I can well imagine goodreasons for wanting to do so. It doesn't have to be a fear ofdamnation.

That isn't, of course, to say there is some obligation to expose one's children to religious life. That would be a much stronger claim.