Thursday, June 22, 2006


I exchanged emails with a fellow who questioned my ethics. When I mentioned I was against infidelity, he accused me of being swayed by Christian doctrine. To an atheist like me, "them's fightin' words." As we discussed it further, he explained that though an affair might cause my wife pain, NOT having an affair might cause me pain. So by choosing not to have an affair, I'm putting her needs before mine. He thinks this is a perverted version of "love thy neighbor as thyself." For many people, he claims, this has morphed into, "love they neighbor MORE THAN thyself."

I replied as follows:

I agree that it's very important to take care of yourself. I'm not religious, and I don't believe that morals/ethics exist in the cosmic sense. But I do believe that we must develop some sort of rules to live by. At rock bottom, the specific rules we choose are arbitrary. Without being able to refer to a god, I really can't prove that my rules are superior to your rules.

My rules are pragmatic, based on this goal: maximizing the total amount of happiness in the world. I can't defend this goal. If you say that under your system, happiness is not important (or it's less important than other things), then I must grant you the right to disagree. Or I must use force to compel you to follow my rules. (If I was religious, I could say that my rules are correct, because they are God's rules. But, being an atheist, I don't have that option.)

So under my rules, my happiness doesn't count per se. Nor does my wife's. Both of our happinesses count only in-so-far as they add to the total amount of happiness in the world.
Now there may be some situations in which I enter a zero-sum game: if I engage in behavior X, i wind up happy and my wife winds up unhappy; if I DON'T engage in behavior X, I wind up UNhappy and my wife winds up happy. In either case, the total amount of happiness remains the same. So I need some method of choosing an action when all options lead to the same amount of happiness/unhappiness.

Whatever method I choose is arbitrary. I could flip a coin. Or I could follow some rule, like the "Christian" one of my neighbor before myself. I don't necessarily follow this rule, but I don't see anything wrong with it. Under my utilitarian system, I must have SOME way to make choices when all outcomes lead to the same amount of happiness/unhappiness. So why not the Christian method? Or why not choose, as you do, to put yourself first? (The anti-Christian method?)

In theory, I can't fault that method. It's just as good/bad as the "Christian" method or flipping a coin. In practice, my concern is that -- unless practiced diligently and objectively -- I might start to fudge, acting selfishly when the situation is NOT a stalemate, but justifying it in my brain AS a stalemate. Since I've set up a system that allows selfishness in stalemate conditions, it's very tempting to SEE stalemate conditions when it serves my purposes.

But regardless of what tie-breaker you use, it's best to look really closely at the situation and ask yourself, is it REALLY a tie? Is it REALLY the case that any choice will lead to the same amount of happiness/unhappiness? Such cases are rare.

Is there anything I could do that would be a compromise? Allowing both me and my wife some level of happiness. (I should amend my "happiness" rule here to say that two people being somewhat happy is better than one person being completely happy while the other is miserable. Again, I can't defend this rule, but it is a rule for me. Were it not, I would have to allow a serial killer to go on a spree if it would make him very very very happy. It might make him SO happy that his happiness would trump the unhappiness of his victims and their families. I sidestep this by saying that it's better for all the victims to be a little happy than for one serial killer to be extremely happy.)

My first thought is -- BINGO! -- have the affair and don't tell my wife! I'm happy, because I get sex (or whatever I want out of the affair). She's happy (or at least not more unhappy then before) because she doesn't know about my affair. Everybody wins. I'm SURE this is the exact reasoning that many people use in these situations. I'm sure, because I hear people use it: "What's the harm if no one finds out...?"

I will admit that there is no harm -- under my utilitarian system -- in a "perfect world." In this perfect world, we can commit "perfect crimes" and be 100% sure (or even reasonably sure) that no one will ever find out.

But we don't live in this world. Sure, it's possible to have an affair that always remains a secret, but that's not the norm. Usually, the truth will out.

I've been with my wife for 12 years. We're both smart and probably better at subterfuge than most people (we're actors, so you could say that we lie for a living!). And we've both tried to keep secrets from each other. It almost always fails. Even if it's something really small, like a surprise gift, the secret will probably be blown.

And I KNOW -- every time I have a secret -- that my wife will probably figure it out. I've learned from experience that if I try to keep a secret from my wife, there's a 90% chance that my plan will fail. Since I know this, it MUST be factored into my moral calculus. And I have to think long term. Having a secret affair isn't about keeping it secret for the next couple of weeks or months. It's about ALWAYS keeping it secret. So before cheat, I must be reasonably sure that my infidelity will remain a secret until my wife dies. If -- ten years from now -- she finds out that I cheated on her ten years earlier, she'll be very upset.

We can say she's irrational or influenced by Christian ideology, but that doesn't matter (under my pragmatic system). What matters is that, given her psychology, my actions are LIKELY to cause her pain. And I know that her pain will last much longer -- and it will be much more intense -- than the happiness I'll get from the affair. I also know that she'll get really angry at me and cause ME pain. So my affair will ultimately cause a ton of unhappiness for both her AND me. And that's not supportable under my rules.

If you really think you can easily keep secrets from your long-term spouse, then you're smarter (or more cunning) than most people -- or you've never been in a really long-term relationship (with someone with a bit of intelligence and/or gut instinct). There are a million ways I might get caught. My wife KNOWS me. She knows my every expression and micro-expression. She knows when I'm upset and trying to mask it. She knows when I'm lying. Plus, I'll probably trip up and call her by my lover's name or something. Alas, I don't have complete control over myself or what I say in my sleep.

Let me turn the tables and ask myself, "Is it okay for my wife to have an affair if I never find out about it." My guess is that many religious people -- or people influenced by religion -- would say, "Yes, affairs are just WRONG." I disagree. It's FINE for my wife to have an affair, as-long-as I don't know about it and NEVER find out about it. It's NOT fine if I do find out about it. Now, I can't expect my wife to see into the future, but I can (and do) expect her to make reasonable assumptions about the likely outcomes of her actions. And she knows that it's LIKELY that I'll find out if she has an affair. And she knows that when I do find out, I'll be in pain. Therefore, via my ethical system, she's wrong to have an affair.

Yes, humans are animals. We have sexual needs. All this means is that, under my system, we are likely to transgress. But that likelihood is unrelated to whether or not a transgression is a transgression. Yes, I will be tempted, and I may give into temptation. In which case, I will have done something wrong. And it's likely that my wife will find out. So this becomes the new State of the World -- one in which my wife IS going to discover my affair, get deeply unhappy/angry and the result will be tons of unhappiness for her and me (and maybe for my lover). So I now need to deal with that State.

What's the best way to deal with it? There are now two possibilities:

1) I keep quiet, in which case my wife ultimately discovers that (a) I had an affair and (b) I tried to keep the fact from her.

2) I confess, in which case she discovers that I had an affair.

2 is better (less painful) than 1. Of course, if I confess I make it impossible for her to ever not-know, which would be the best outcome. But I've already reasoned that to be an extremely unlikely outcome, so I'm best off confessing.

I'll fess up and admit that even if I knew I could keep it an eternal secret, I wouldn't do it. It hurts me to do things that I know would hurt my wife, even knowing she'll never find out. This is irrational. I suspect that this sort of irrational empathy is part of my (and most people's) genetic makeup. But I stand by my rational reasons, too. She WILL find out.

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