Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Tell My Friend’s Husband That She’s Having an Affair?”
I am a man (if it matters) and friends with a married woman, ‘‘Jane,’’ and her husband, ‘‘Peter.’’ The friendship is more with Jane than with Peter. Jane and I have known each other for years and work in the same profession, and I knew her before she married Peter, and I am closer to Jane. But Peter has become a friend since the marriage. Peter and I share some typically ‘‘male’’ interests and occasionally ‘‘bro bond.’’ Jane and I are quirky ‘‘intellectuals.’’
Jane is having an affair with ‘‘Martin,’’ whom Jane has known most of her adult life. I know about the affair because Jane confided in me years ago. In fact, this affair was also a part of Jane’s previous marriage, and Jane confided this to me as part of her divorce from her first husband, whom I did not know. Jane thinks Martin is her true life’s ‘‘soul mate,’’ and I think she may be right. Peter does not know about the affair. If he knew about it, I think he would divorce Jane in a minute.
Jane and Martin likely will never be together. Martin is married with children, and he lives in another country, and neither Jane nor Martin can change countries — it would end either person’s professional career. Martin visits the United States once or twice a year on business, and during those visits Jane and Martin spend a weekend together, usually in a hotel. Jane lies to Peter when this happens; she tells him she’s away on a business trip.
I don’t judge people’s sexual lives, and I’m very liberal philosophically. I’m less comfortable with adultery, because it involves lying, but usually I don’t feel the need even to have opinions about other people’s affairs. Recently, I found myself lying to Peter about Jane’s affair. Just casually at dinner with the two of them, the subject of Jane’s ‘‘business trip’’ came up, and I was unexpectedly faced with either chiming in with Jane about her trip or blurting out about the affair or awkwardly excusing myself. Jane said something like, ‘‘Did you get the pictures I texted of the Golden Gate Bridge?’’ and I knew she had not been in San Francisco. ‘‘Yes, they were great,’’ I said.
What should I do? If I continue to be friends with Jane and Peter, I end up in some small way lying to Peter, who is also a friend. But I am not going to tell Peter about the affair — that’s not my role. If I distance myself from them, I feel like I’m just taking the ethical path that ‘‘keeps my hands clean’’ but doesn’t do anything positive. What use is that?
And probably the strangest thing is, deep inside, I think the affair may be good for everyone. Jane and Peter have a good marriage, and Jane needs this outlet with Martin. Maybe just allowing the lie to roll forward in perpetuity is the best thing.
But I sometimes conjure the following: Peter finds out after many years, his marriage is destroyed, he is deeply hurt and he says to me: “You knew about this the whole time? You helped her lie to me about this for years?” I don’t know what I would say. Name Withheld
My response: People who respond to so-called ethical situations by saying “You should always be honest” or “You should always do the right thing” don’t realize that people aren’t either ethical or not. Many situations pit different values against each other, like this one.
Over coffee a few weeks ago, a longtime friend told me she believed in absolute right and wrong. I told her I’ve met others who believe in absolute right and wrong, but they divide between them in different places. How do I tell who is right? She just said she was right and they were wrong.
I didn’t find her response compelling. I told her about my friend’s grandfather’s pictures of himself in his Nazi uniform and asked how she felt about this man who fought for his country, may have been killed had he not fought, and may have had nothing to do with what we now associate with them. She said anyone who fought for the Nazis was simply wrong. She said that even if the alternative to fighting was death, he should have chosen death. Despite the many holes I saw in her perspective, I chose not to pursue this conversation thread. I wonder what she would have done at my friend’s grandfather’s house.
Your situation is less historical but as interwoven with conflicting values. I suggest not approaching it by asking others what you should do, which introduces yet more values, none giving an absolute answer.
I suggest instead two perspectives. First, I suggest you consider the results of your actions on others instead of measuring against any abstract absolute measure of ethical right and wrong. If one existed, you would have measured your situation against it and found your answer. Considering the effects on others is another way of saying to think and act with compassion and empathy. I believe they will help guide you more than abstractions.
Second, I suggest you take responsibility for your actions instead of asking others what you should do. You didn’t create the marriages or other relationships. You didn’t ask to know secret information. You didn’t create others’ promises to each other. You can’t change the past. But you are in the situation and only if you view yourself responsible for your actions can you empower yourself to do what you consider right.
It may help also help to look at the situation from a systems perspective. We live in a world where marriage customs impose behavior inconsistent with how people act, asking people to make lifetime vows many people can’t understand when they make them and that society no longer supports like it did generations ago. While a systems perspective doesn’t change the situation nor absolve anyone of their responsibility, it helps depersonalize it and lower the intensity of your emotions.
In summary, I recommend instead of asking others to tell you what you should do, to take responsibility to think and act with compassion and empathy, considering that people are acting within systems that influenced their actions. This combination leads you to plan what to do, sensitively and with consideration, instead of wallowing in analysis.
The New York Times response:
Quirky intellectuals. Marital betrayal. You seem to have wandered into an Iris Murdoch novel. Let’s see if the plot can be untangled.
First, it does matter that you’re a man. What you owe people depends, in part, on what they’re entitled to expect, and this depends on social understandings about different kinds of relationships. Your connection with Peter, as you describe it, doesn’t seem to involve much intimacy. He probably wouldn’t expect you to share secrets with him. Still, not sharing intimate details is one thing: not telling him his wife is cheating is another. It’s a betrayal of your relationship with him, and abetting her deception looks like an even more substantial betrayal.
But telling Peter about what she’s been doing would be the betrayal of another relationship, yours with Jane. It’s a bond of longer standing and of greater closeness. So you’ve been faced with a choice of two betrayals. And, in the rock-paper-scissors of these relationships, the loyalty owed her trumps the loyalty owed him.
You can also try to take into account the consequences of exposing Jane’s secret. The dishonesty would come to an end, sure. But you’re convinced that the marriage, which you consider a good one, would come to an end, too. And because Jane and Martin can’t get together, you might think that no one would be better off. The expected outcome, alongside the nature of your bond with Jane, weighs in favor of your decision to maintain your silence.
That’s not quite the end of the matter, though. What you don’t know can hurt you. Peter’s marriage may seem great to him, but there’s something seriously wrong with it. Jane is engaging in adultery. So she’s not only lying to him but also betraying their commitments to each other, commitments that the public institution of marriage dignifies and aims to help sustain. At the same time, your keeping him in the dark is — insofar as you’re taking his interests into consideration — paternalistic and thus disrespectful. She’s also drawing you into her web of deceit in ways you’re entitled to resent. (You can at least be honest with Jane about that — about your discomfort with the pretense.) And then you’ve got to wonder whether a life of continual deception isn’t exacting a toll on her too. Yet, as you say, ending your friendship with her fixes nothing.
Of course, all this assumes you’re reading the situation correctly: Nobody really knows what’s going on in anybody else’s marriage. Conceivably, after weathering the revelation, Jane and Peter might forge a truer, purer bond, with the added strength of a healed fracture. (Not that I’d take this bet.) Maybe Peter already realizes or suspects something is wrong.
But if your assessment is accurate, you are in a deeply compromised moral situation — one in which the cure is worse than the condition. As is so often the case, there’s no way out from under the net. It’s a distressing bind. Moral narcissism is about being more concerned with the cleanliness of your hands than with how your conduct shapes the lives around you. Your sensitivity to this pitfall is commendable. So is the fact that what you’re doing — though the least bad option — bothers you. Life is messy, and the best outcome often has something deplorable about it. I suppose it’s all in the title of the great Bronzino painting that one of Iris Murdoch’s characters found so captivating: ‘‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.’’ If the day comes when Peter asks you why you helped Jane conceal her betrayal, you can tell him the truth. He won’t forgive. But he just may understand.
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