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On Being a Third

This is a reply to Franklin's post on why is it unethical to be a third side in a cheating relationship – i.e., to have sex with someone in a monogamous relationship, without the other party's knowledge or consent. [Yeah, go read it now – or you won't understand what I'm talking about!]
First of all, I think his post demonstrates an absolutely great methodology of discussing ethical problems. I'm going to write a whole 'nother post some time about why it is so great and about its parallels to machine learning. So here, I'm going to stick to the same principle of discussion: identify which differences between his examples and the real issue caused the difference in my evaluation, and come up with other examples which illustrate these differences. 

I'll first explain my ethical evaluation, and then I'll try to justify it. For me, being a third is wrong in two cases – if the cheater himself thinks it is wrong, or if the cheatee is my friend.
Explanation: I think it is wrong to sleep with someone who considers it immoral, for any reason: e.g. he's married, or he's a catholic priest, or whatever. It is just not cool to push someone to commit a sin in their own eyes – like I wouldn't tempt a religious Jew to eat pork, for example. Also, it's a matter of self-respect – if someone believes that sleeping with me is immoral, then, you know what? He won’t get it. Sleeping with me shouldn't be something to feel sorry or ashamed for, ever.
So, if the husband or boyfriend really believes that sex outside of marriage is wrong, then he's off limits to me. On the other hand, if he just states this belief in order to avoid conflict, but in reality he feels that as long as the spouse never finds out, there's nothing wrong with it – then all bets are off! [Why would I be interested in such a liar to begin with is another question, but I feel it's a different question; the issue I want to investigate here is whether I'd be behaving unethically by having sex with him]
If the cheatee is my friend, then I have personal obligations to her. I couldn't lie to her about something as important as this – it will make me a cheater, too – not cool.

But [info]tacit had a good point! So, I had to think hard in order to refute his arguments, and this is what I came up with. First of all: a crucial difference between his analogies and the real thing was that in the analogies, it was the act itself that was immoral, while in the real thing, it was the lying and hiding it that were immoral. Here is one example that illustrates this difference:

Naomi was brought up in a religious family. Until her late teens, she followed all the rules and regulations of her religion without a shadow of doubt. Naomi's life began to change after she met Brent, a charismatic young atheist. Soon, she started to question her beliefs; after a year, she found herself completely disenchanted with her religion. The rituals no longer held any meaning for her… and yet, she kept on pretending. She still attended the prayer meetings with her family, as usual, although she didn't really pray. Whenever her parents could see her, she dressed modestly; whenever she felt confident that she would not be caught, she would ditch the long skirt and sleeves, put on some make-up, and go out with Brent, sometimes spending the night at his place, while her parents think she stayed at a friend's house. Naomi knew that if her family found out what she was doing, they'd be mortified. "Hell, they'd probably disown me", she said, "That's why I prefer not to come out to them. In a year, I'll leave home for college, and then I can live any way I want without hurting their feelings. It's useless to try and change them. They're my family, and I want to keep the bonds. They simply don't have to know!"

Here's the analogy: Naomi is, technically speaking, cheating. She has an (implicitly assumed) agreement with her family that she must behave in certain ways – an agreement that she decided to unilaterally bail out of, without informing them. It was Brent who caused her to rethink this agreement; he is also the one enjoying the fruits (together with her). Undoubtedly, if her parents ever find out, it will cause them great grief. So, was it unethical of Brent to allow Naomi to lead such a double life?
I say – no. It is Naomi's choice whether to follow the rules of a certain religion or not. It is her absolute right to say no; and therefore Brent is in his right to enjoy the fruits of her decision. Whether she decides to lie about it or not, is between her parents and her; even if he disagrees with her decision, I don't think he should in any way feel guilty for it.

The analogies,[info]tacit 's and mine, have a common form: we are trying to explore situations where person A has an agreement with person B to refrain from action X; then, person B secretly does X, which benefits him and person C, while harming A. The question is whether C behaves unethically in this situation. My first point, abstractly put, is this: if the action X is an immoral action regardless of the agreement between A and B (such as stealing or child abuse), then C is behaving unethically by his participation in it. On the other hand, if X is an otherwise normal thing, the only problem with it being the fact that A expects B to refrain from it  – then I don't see why C's behavior is unethical (again, assuming that B sees nothing wrong with action X himself and assuming that A and C are not friends).

I have another example that illustrates this point even more sharply – this analogy will get dangerously close to buying stolen goods. Suppose Sarah has won a $10,000 scholarship from some weird semi-religious philanthropic organization. She signed a contract where she agreed to a long list of conditions in exchange for the money. Among them: in the following year, she must put a certain amount of hours of volunteer work, maintain a certain grade average, not leave the country, and lastly – refrain from all drugs, including alcohol.
During the year, Sarah did everything as prescribed, except for the alcohol part ("This is just silly!"). Now, Jen, Sarah's good friend, has a birthday party, and everyone is, well… partying.
Sarah: "Jen, where do you keep the martini?"
Jen: "You do remember you can't drink, do you?"
Sarah: "Aw, come on. They're not watching me here, you know."
Jen: "But you signed a contract! If you drink, you'll be scamming them for $10,000!"
Sarah: "We've discussed this before. Let this awful burden remain on my conscience forever. Now, where's the martini?"
Jen: "Wait… You're in my house, and the drinks are mine. If I actually serve you a drink, then I'll be soliciting you in stealing $10,000!"
Sarah: "WHAT?!"

Who is right, Sarah or Jen? If I understand correctly, Franklin and most commenters on his piece would agree with Jen. But I think Sarah is right. Unlike the previous example, I do agree that Sarah is behaving unethically, and I agree with Jen that Sarah is actually scamming the organization for $10,000. But it is indeed fully on her conscience, not Jen's, even if Jen serves her the drink. The distinction between this and the case of stolen goods is very subtle… I'm not sure I want to go there, this post is getting ridiculously long already. I'll just say that the core of the difference, to me, is that humans and human liberties are not property.

My second point is that when we consider the ethical evaluation of a certain action, we should take into account the expected consequences of the action (the gain/harm) vs. the expected consequences of inaction.
I see three important differences between this approach and the one used by some commenters on Franklin's post: first, by expected, I mean mathematical expectation: we must weigh all possible outcomes by their respective probabilities. It is unreasonable to decide by worst case outcome alone – if we thought in this manner, we would never leave home (since by driving for work, we risk killing someone!)  So when C considers which harm will be inflicted on A's relationship, he must consider the harm in case that A finds out, weighted by the probability of her finding out, vs. the harm in the case where she doesn't find out, weighted in a similar manner.
Next, some people appear to give a completely different weight to harm than to gain, sometimes even going as far as completely disregarding the feelings of B and C, and the consequences to them from denying themselves to act on these feelings. I think this is just totally unfair!
And finally, most people fail to compare action to inaction. I don't mean to pursue the line that "he's a cheater, he sleeps around all the time, what difference will another affair make?" – although it's a very valid point, too. I mean something else. All those who claim that cheating harms relationships because "lies create walls that block paths to intimacy" (which is true!) forget one important thing: if the cheater is a person who really believes that it is completely OK to sleep around as long as the spouse never finds out – then he is already cheating by the very fact that he hides this important part of his character from his partner. The act itself really doesn't matter as much as his willingness and readiness for it. The lies are already there, and paths to intimacy are already blocked, even if he doesn't actually sleep with anyone else. To illustrate this, here's my last and favorite example:

Alex is against abortions, while Sheila is pro-choice. But Sheila was in love with Alex, so when she heard his very strong opinion on the subject, she decided to lie to him about it and not to reveal her views, in order not to lose him.
Now, what I want to stress is this: Sheila is being a lying bitch already. Of course, if she now actually has an abortion without telling Alex, the harm to the integrity of their relationship will be greater. But not by much. The main harm is already there, in my opinion. So, if Sheila now goes to have an abortion, does the doctor who gives it to her behave unethically? (Yeah, suppose she mentions to him that she must hide the deal from her husband).

So, taken together, I think that these considerations justify my point of view. Sex or love are not unethical or harmful by themselves; the harm comes from all the lies, which are on the cheater's conscience alone. Also, harm should be weighted against gain, with all the risks taken into consideration; and finally, almost all "baseline" harm is there already. So, for now, my opinion still holds.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 4th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
So much to say
So I'll say just two things -
1. What struck me in Franklin's questionnaire, and also in your little discussion here, is that you two seem to insist that rationality comes before ethics. You cannot be inconsistent if you want to be ethical. That smells dubious to me. It's not totally trivial to explain why, but I'll try - I do agree that rationality is the correct way of viewing the world, in the sense that if you want to entertain a very detailed world view, it WILL be rational. However, people can be extremely ethical (or, to use a better word in my mind - good) without expounding rationally anything. They don't have to concern themselves with consistency to be good. Now, we are all limited beings, and none of us have really good models that account for all of the possible social phenomena. So our models wing it. Thus, they all fail around the edges. I think consistency is a poor guide in this sort of discussion. Also - analogies. Unless used as a rhetoric device.

2. Ok, that'll wait for a post of my own on what is ethics. Damn you, Ola!
May. 4th, 2009 03:43 pm (UTC)
Re: So much to say
I disagree with you on all points, but in order to explain why, I must write that post that I intended to (about my view of ethics, method of reasoning about ethical problems, and its connections to machine learning). And it's going to be long :-)

Indeed, so much to say. Damn you back! :-)
Jan. 25th, 2013 03:13 pm (UTC)

although at this juncture I no longer lie and am fiercely monogamous....

still PPKS
Jan. 25th, 2013 03:15 pm (UTC)
Sorry, what's PPKS? Google didn't help me at this :-)
Jan. 25th, 2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
russglish - Подпишусь Под Каждым Словом...
Jan. 25th, 2013 03:18 pm (UTC)
Да, это Гуглу пока трудно осилить! :-)
Jan. 25th, 2013 03:19 pm (UTC)
мое почтения. рада что Ч. навел нечаянно на Вас.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )