Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: What Should a Congregation Have Told a Betrayed Wife?

January 22, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “What Should a Congregation Have Told a Betrayed Wife?

I was a member of a Christian congregation for many years. A married father of two children started helping a widow in the parish. Evidently, they later started seeing each other. His wife thought something was up, and she asked people in the congregation whom she considered friends if they knew anything. Everyone denied knowing anything. The father ended up divorcing his wife and marrying the widow. The wife subsequently found out that some of the people she had asked about the situation had lied to her face, even as she was breaking down in front of them. She says that for a long time she was suicidal — not because her husband had cheated on her but because she had been abandoned by everyone in the parish, which must have meant that God had abandoned her, too.

What are the criteria for determining what to say to a betrayed spouse when you know a spouse is cheating and when he or she asks directly what you know? What would have been the ethical culpability of those who lied to her face if she had killed herself? Name Withheld

My response: To your first question about criteria of what to say in such situations, first, the First Amendment restricts government from abridging freedom of speech. I’m not aware of any authority that everyone agrees to. Different people have different opinions, which means many will disagree with any absolute pronouncement. My understanding of the First Amendment is in part for situations like this.

What are we left with? You have to decide for yourself what you think is right and act on it. You haven’t shared enough for us to go on. Was she asking in ways that made people feel comfortable sharing? The opposite? People speak in the contexts of relationships. Maybe everybody believes she will be better off now and felt they were helping her. A one-paragraph description can’t tell enough to determine. In the absence of enough information, I can only say what has worked best for me, which is to try to imagine the situation as best I can from the perspectives of everyone else involved, the options available to me, the consequences of acting on those options, and how people would feel about them. Then I do what I think best given these considerations.

As for ethical culpability, again, not knowing the relationships, who can say? Who knows how she posed the questions? Maybe she would have killed herself sooner had they not lied. She didn’t kill herself and maybe she would have had they spoken otherwise. I don’t see the point in sane adults taking responsibility for other sane adults’ behavior. There is no objective measure of ethical culpability, nor definition of such an abstract philosophical concept, that everyone would agree to. You’re free to conclude what you like, though many will disagree with you. If there was an objective measure, you wouldn’t have asked.

The New York Times response:

You don’t have the right to expect strangers to answer questions about a spouse’s infidelities. It’s not their business, and it’s not your place to make it their business. But here the woman was asking fellow members of a community committed to marriage as an institution and to helping one another be faithful to their marriage vows. (That is, if your congregation is anything like most Christian churches I’ve known.) People who realized what was going on could have taken it up with the pastor, encouraging him or her to discuss the matter with the unfaithful husband and the adulterous widow, both of whom were members of the congregation. The betrayed wife might also have been entitled to assume that the church was a community of people who would ordinarily be truthful with one another, especially about matters on which the church has a strong position. Once her marriage had broken down, sympathy for her and expressions of support would also have been appropriate. So she wasn’t wrong to feel that the church had let her down. Its members failed her in her time of need.

Would those who lied to her have been culpable if she’d killed herself? Although suicide isn’t typically a rational response to difficult circumstances, we can be implicated when harm comes to others through our failure to act with appropriate care. So people who behaved in a way likely to upset a person they knew was suicidal might be partly culpable. But it’s not, in general, reasonable to act on the assumption that people will commit suicide if they find out you have wronged them. This woman’s line of thought — that abandonment by members of her church meant abandonment by God — is the sort of confused thinking that suicidal people often engage in. It’s more a symptom of the problem than a cause of it. (Of course, you can feel bad because you were involved in a terrible outcome even though you can’t be blamed for it: That’s what philosophers call agent-regret.) Even putting aside this hypothetical tragedy, though, your fellow congregants have something to answer for.

After a long, stormy marriage I divorced at the old age of more than 70. About a year ago, I met a very attractive, rather young unmarried woman who had a young daughter and was in need of some support. She seemed willing to put up with an old man, although the age difference between us, as we both agree, clearly prohibits marriage or any other official relationship. Strictly speaking, we don’t have a quid pro quo relationship, although it is not far from that either. However, we both enjoy each other and agree with Woody Allen, who wrote in the screenplay for “Love and Death” that sex without love is an empty experience, “but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.” Should we continue to enjoy such a meaningless experience while it lasts, or do you feel obliged to talk either one of us into having some second thoughts or perhaps even scruples? Name Withheld

My response: I don’t know what you mean by a relationship being “official” or “quid pro quo,” nor why you would call experiences you seem to value “meaningless,” nor why you speak so obtusely about relationships that you quote others’ jokes instead of frankly sharing how you feel. Are you saying that sex without love lacks scruples? Are you saying you can’t love her?

Her having a daughter suggests she’s an adult herself or you would have mentioned if she had her daughter in her teens. So if she’s an adult, society seems to agree that she can drive a car, enlist in the military, sign contracts, take on debt, and so on. Everyone has their opinion. If you believe your age difference prohibits love or “official” relationships, whatever that means, then act according to your values and keep repressing your feelings and retarding the relationship’s development. You could try adopting different perspectives too.

The New York Times response:

You are two consenting, unmarried adults, and nobody is disadvantaged by what you are doing. It might be that your friend’s daughter would be embarrassed if she knew the basis of your arrangement. But she doesn’t have a right to know about her mother’s sex life, and there’s no reason to think she’d be negatively affected, except by being embarrassed. If parents were obliged to avoid doing things that might mortify their children, they’d lead extremely straitened lives. (Indeed, in their children’s teenage years, parents might be required to disappear altogether.) My guess, though, is that if you keep up this empty experience long enough, it might turn into something meaningful for both of you.

More and more of my friends are self-publishing books; some I purchase just to support their writers. In this new situation, a dear old friend wants me to give him a five-star review on Amazon and post it on Facebook. I’ve seen a few pages of his book, and it’s a piece of self-indulgent drivel. I don’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings, but I don’t want to sell out either. What do you suggest? Name Withheld

My response: Since you asked, grow up.

The New York Times response:

If you are such good friends, wouldn’t it be better to give him, gently, your opinion of some of the book’s weaknesses? Possibly without actually using the words “self-indulgent drivel”? Self-published books have taken a long dive since the days of Jane Austen, and the new ease of making them, in the digital era, has turned a river of putrefaction into a sea of sewage. The best way to ensure that the few worthy efforts are picked out is by authentic reviews. Please play your part and refrain from recommending your friend’s unwelcome contribution.

I am a senior in high school. In a group chat on Facebook, my friends make cruel, sexist, objectifying comments. In addition, they throw around slurs. The comments are made under the guise of humor; the slurs are directed at other members of the group. However, they are still clearly terrible. It deeply pains me to see these comments. Over time, every member of the group except me has joined in this comment-making culture. I have drifted away from the friend group. I rarely spend time with them in or outside of school, but I have been friends with some members since I was 4. I’ve never had a friend group aside from this one. I don’t believe my friends to be bad people, just deeply influenced by toxic masculinity. At school, I have an overwhelming workload, and I have plenty of problems to navigate at home. My attempts to change the nature of the group chat have been aggressively rebuffed. I feel I must stake my relationship to the group on changing the culture of the chat. I am tempted to wait until college applications are submitted, to fully challenge the chat culture, as I feel social instability would ensue and be detrimental to my college-application process. Do I have a moral imperative to act now? Name Withheld

My response: No. And if you act as if you do, I predict you will not achieve your goals, but will instead lose friends but feel self-righteous. I’ve written about this many times. I recommend starting with my post, “Don’t be Walter: an example,” and following some of the related links that get listed at the bottom of each post automatically.

The New York Times response:

You’re right to object to the conversations you describe. Their effect is to establish a presupposition that people in your set share a contempt for those groups at whom such abuse is typically directed. Not dissenting leaves this assumption in place — but dissent is hard work. Who wants to be the one person in the group who objects every time a slur is made? So it’s natural to do what you’re doing: to pull away.

Are you obliged to do more? That depends mostly on two things. One is whether there’s anything you can reasonably do that would change the norm. You have tried and failed here already, so you may think the answer is no. The second issue is what the costs to you would be. In your view, they might include a negative effect on your college admissions — a high cost, when the prospects of changing your friends’ behavior are modest. (And getting into the right college will help you find a decent group of new friends!) So cut yourself some slack.

At some point, though, you might try talking to people in your group one on one and in person. You’d be doing a favor to your (perhaps soon to be ex-) friends and the people they’ll interact with in the years ahead if you let them know, when you can, that what they’re doing is shameful.

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