Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cheating, Twice Removed

Dear Viny,

Am I morally responsible for my significant other's bad relationship decisions? For example, I have a standard that I won't date people who are cheating on someone. But my significant other doesn't share that value--he has no moral problem dating people who are cheating on their significant others. To what extent am I responsible for his decisions? Should I support relationships that he has with these people? Should I get to know them as friends?

Juana B. Ethical


Dear Juana,

Oh, goody! An opportunity to play armchair philosopher! Hang on just a sec, while I pack my virtual Meerschaum with virtual tobacco and adjust my virtual pince-nez.

Let's suppose Person B takes $100 from Person A. Then, Person B and Person C blow the stolen cash on a sumptuous dinner. Person C didn't steal the money, but – it could be argued – s/he really shouldn't be eating all that escargot at Person A's expense. The question you are asking is essentially this: are you, as Person D, somehow culpable if you allow Person C to nosh on fancy edibles with Person B? That is, are you somehow indirectly harming Person A? I think the answer is a pretty clear No. You are not morally obligated to body-tackle Person C at the door of the restaurant.

Okay, that was fun. Thanks for indulging me. Unfortunately, cheating and stealing aren't analogous, real-life ethical dilemmas can't be solved in a pithy paragraph, and we're going to drive ourselves nuts if we have to start thinking about what it would look like if letters of the alphabet could fuck each other.

I sense, beneath your questions, palpable concern about the fact that you and your significant other do not agree about whether or not it is okay to date cheaters. You're not just wondering whether you should support his relationships with people you yourself wouldn't consider dating; you're also wondering, “What does it mean that we disagree with each other about something as seemingly fundamental as morality? And do you have any practical suggestions for how I can reduce conflicts that might arise, given our differences?”

I'm guessing that you have a problem with dating people who are cheating because: 1) you don't want to feel as though you are benefiting at someone else's expense; 2) you don't want to be complicit in a lie; and 3) you don't want to be involved with someone whose actions seem unethical to you.

I'm guessing that your significant other doesn't have a problem dating people who are cheating because: 1) he doesn't think anyone is being actually harmed; 2) he himself isn't breaking any promises, given that you and he have agreed that dating other people is fine; and 3) he doesn't feel it is his place to dictate how other people should conduct their romantic relationships.

Your position is perfectly reasonable. Your partner's position is also perfectly reasonable. Each of you has trouble accepting the other's position not because it seems unreasonable to you, but because you worry that accepting the other's position means you will have to re-shuffle your own ethical priorities. For example, your significant other seems to share your belief that people should be honest – it's just that, for him, “respecting others' autonomy is good” may outweigh “cheating is bad.” You, on the other hand, seem to agree with your partner that adults should be allowed to make their own decisions – after all, you don't like the idea of policing his dating life – but for you, perhaps, “encouraging ethical behavior is good” outweighs “controlling others' behavior is bad.”

In other words, both you and your significant other most likely share many of the same fundamental values. You just disagree about how to rank these values relative to one another. I assume you've heard the phrase, “The devil's in the details.”

You can minimize conflict between you and your partner by focusing on the values you share, and attempting to conduct yourselves in ways that honor your shared values. You can minimize conflict within yourself by avoiding situations in which you are forced to choose between two moral principles you hold dear.

I really value honesty. I also really value loyalty. Years ago, I had an experience (described in greater detail here) that showed me which of these principles I value more.

In my mid-twenties, I fell head over heels for a man who was engaged to be married to another woman. He wasn't being honest with her, but I told myself that his lies were none of my business. I figured I was being honest in my own relationships, and I was therefore in the clear, ethically speaking. Well, that approach worked just fine – until my husband and I were invited to my lover's wedding, and I had to sit there during the ceremony, feeling like a dirty little secret. It got worse, too. Eventually, my lover's lie became my lie: his wife called me up and asked me, point blank, whether I had checked into a motel with her husband on a certain night, and I made up a story to cover his ass.

Forced to choose between loyalty to my lover and honesty to his wife, I went with the loyal lie. After my lover and his wife divorced – over his infidelity, although it was never made explicit – I told him that I was determined to avoid another Sophie's Choice scenario: if he wanted to date other people, he had to tell them about me. At that point, I was willing to put our relationship on the line for what I thought was right.

Usually, when we want our significant other to toe the line, all we can really say is, “If you do X, I'll be mad at you.” It is only in extreme cases that we are willing to say, “If you do X, I'll leave you.” And when we say that, we have to mean it. Most of us don't mean it. Most of us are consistently going to put loyalty to our partner above our other moral principles – with one exception. Faced with a choice between loyalty to one's old partner and a smorgasbord of sexual delights with an exciting new partner, many of us will choose the sex. It may not be ethical, but it's human.

So, Juana B., here's my advice: choose both.

Polliwogs & periwinkles,

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