Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: When a Friend Cheats Often on Her Husband, Should You Keep Quiet?

August 21, 2016 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, “When a Friend Cheats Often on Her Husband, Should You Keep Quiet?


More than two years ago, my best friend’s husband discovered that she was cheating on him with her business partner. They decided to work on their marriage and go to counseling, together and separately. I’ve had long conversations with my friend, and she confessed to me that she has slept with more than 10 other men while being married and even slept with an ex-­boyfriend while she was engaged. She has gone to addiction support groups; however, she’s still seeing and sleeping with the man she was caught cheating with, engaging in threesomes with him and sleeping with other men. She even brought him to my birthday party, where there were only a few friends celebrating (none of whom know her or her husband).

She travels a lot for work, so it’s not hard for her to hide her affairs from her husband. They’ve been married for about a decade and don’t have any children. She says she’s too scared to get divorced, because she has never been on her own. She said she wants to remain married, because she might wake up one day and want to be married to him.

I haven’t communicated with my best friend in a few months, because I’m disturbed by her behavior. My husband and I used to be close to her husband, but we haven’t spoken with him since all this happened. He’s a really good guy, and I fear that his potential for finding true love with someone else is being thwarted by her selfishness. So my question is: Do I keep all this information bottled up because her spouse is in the dark, or do I tell her husband about her continued affairs and lose a best friend? Name Withheld

My response: There is no absolute right answer to your question. You can justify either choice you suggested. You can also come up with other options, which I recommend you do, and none of them would be absolutely right either. With seven billion people on the planet, you can find millions who would support any choice you want.

I suggest that the relevant question is not what you do, but to consider the results of acting on each choice and deciding for yourself what outcomes you prefer. Keeping silent is one option with some possible results. Telling him is another. Telling her first that you’ll tell him and giving her the option to do it herself first is another. And so on.

I suggest you consider what responsibility you want to take and consider your actions taking active charge of your life instead of asking other people to choose for you and trying to abdicate responsibility.

My first Harvard talk covered this. I recommend clicking the link and watching it.

The New York Times response:

Aristotle may have exaggerated the importance of good character to friendship; a decent person can be the friend of a charming rogue. Still, friends have to think well enough of each other to be able to enjoy each other’s company. This is not a friend to hold on to. So the prospective loss of this friendship — already well underway — isn’t much of a reason to keep quiet.

There is, however, another reason not to tell her husband: It’s that you were told these things in confidence, as a friend. Does that outweigh the considerations in favor of revealing what’s happening? That’s the only real decision here, and it will involve gradients of affection and loyalty (toward the husband, whom you like; toward the wife, with whom you are, or were, close) that only you can gauge. But a continuing relationship with the couple implicates you in a deception of which you justly disapprove.

I used to work for an online publication where my salary (which was minimal, as it was more of a part-time hobby) was based on the percentage of the site’s hits that my articles garnered. From time to time, I would open up my articles in new tabs to rack up extra hits. I know that other writers did the same. Was it ethical for me to give myself the mildly dishonest advantage that others were giving themselves? S.K.

My response: Did you sign a contract? If so, you probably signed something saying you wouldn’t do such things. If so, if you broke your contract, I would worry more about your integrity and trustworthiness than how to label your behavior.

Or do you think people have integrity sometimes and not others?

What kind of person do you want in your life? Because what you do all the time determines who you are, not just what you think people notice. Here are a couple relevant posts:

Personally, I can’t believe someone would sacrifice their integrity for so little. What did you get, a few dollars?

The New York Times response:

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and neither do 50 or 500. If you couldn’t tell the publication you were doing it and keep the job, you shouldn’t have done it. Nor, of course, should the others. In the realm of online media, counterfeit clicks are the road to perdition.

Alzheimer’s disease has occurred in numerous maternal and paternal ancestors of mine, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins (my extended family is rather large). A few years ago, when genotyping for genetic diseases was first offered to the public, I sent off my samples for analysis. I was quite surprised to find that I am homozygous — I carry two copies of a gene variant — for ApoE₄, which is strongly associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. After making this discovery, I asked my brother if he was interested in being genotyped for this disease, though I did not tell him that I had already done this for myself. He told me that he would not want to know whether he had the variant.

About 10 years ago, knowing that I have a high probability of developing Alzheimer’s disease, I began being tested annually by a clinical psychologist for evidence of dementia. Last month, for the first time, my test indicated that I had developed a significant memory deficit (I am now in my early 60s). It was described by my therapist as dementia, which is likely to be of the Alzheimer’s type.

My first instinct is to tell my brother about my condition. However, I feel that I may be violating his wishes in that if I have the disease, there is a high probability that he may develop this condition as well. My brother and I live about 500 miles apart and see each other only every year or two. I want to tell my brother the truth about my condition, but I fear I will betray his trust if I do so.

What to do? S.B.

My response: I can’t believe an adult would struggle over this question.

The New York Times response:

Given that there’s currently no reliable treatment for Alzheimer’s, I can see why someone might feel that not much good will come from knowing the sort of thing that you discovered. But you handled it rationally and can now make plans for yourself. Your brother didn’t want genetic information, and you respected his choice. Surely, though, he’ll want to know if you’ve been diagnosed with an illness. You don’t need to raise the issue of what that means for him (though, with your greater knowledge, you can help him with questions that he may have about it). The prevalence of Alzheimer’s in your family must already have alerted him to the darker prospects here.

In the coming years, this situation — in which one family member learns something about her genome that has statistical relevance for others — will arise more and more often. Hiding from the truth is going to get harder, and so we’re all going to have to face the future with more information, both pleasant and unpleasant.

I work at a large university and supervise graduate students. Some faculty members have research grants that provide salaries for graduate-­student assistance. My colleague and I do not presently have research grants. When graduate students apply to study with my colleague, he tells them that they must work for him, helping him with his research, for no pay. I maintain that this is unethical. If I do not have a grant to support a graduate student, they may work on their own thesis and gain knowledge from me. Hopefully, we’ll publish articles together. I don’t require, however, that they save me time and effort in my own job.

My colleague is pulling the same stunt as advertising and fashion firms do when they hire interns who are willing to work for no pay, which I believe is not ethical and is illegal in some circumstances.

What do you think? Name Withheld

My response: Large universities have ombudsmen. Talking to yours would do more than tell you what someone else thinks. Independent of how you label people’s activity, the institution will respond with action that affects you and your colleague. Going through channels designed for this purpose will help people resolve disagreements and mediate disputes and it will do it more effectively than anonymously writing a fourth-party newspaper columnist.

The New York Times response:

Exploitation happens whenever you take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position. A graduate student in your own department is such a vulnerable individual. (That’s why your university and department ought to have policies in place to set appropriate standards.) Offering people a chance to do interesting, skill-­honing work would be fine, if they could be sure that they wouldn’t suffer if they declined. But that isn’t possible in the situation you’ve described. So, yes, your colleague needs to be schooled in how to treat his graduate students properly.

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