Several people, (including my husband) asked if I would UBT last Sunday’s New York Times column in “The Ethicist” by Kwame Anthony Appiah — Should I Tell My Friend’s Husband That She’s Having an Affair? Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. and is the author of ‘‘The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.’’
Kwame, hey, don’t invite me to your revolution, okay?
The ramparts must be manned with muddle-headed philosophy majors holding wet noodles, making gentle suggestions.
“WHAT DO WE WANT?! Don’t know really…. it’s a gray area…” “WHEN DO WE WANT IT?! Hey, just text me later…”
The gist of Appiah’s godawful column is man-friend of cheater woman wonders if he should tell cheater’s husband about cheater’s long (and continuing) affair with Martin, especially since cheater asked man-friend to lie for her.
Appiah says hey, there are no good outcomes here, and your friendship with Cheater trumps any consideration of Chump. So, keep your mouth zipped, but expect Chump to be deeply hurt if he finds out. (But with any luck, he’ll never know!)
Now to feed this crap to the Universal Bullshit Translator.
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.
You’re auxiliary kibble supply and you probably harbor the hope that Jane will sleep with you some day, as she’s not exactly faithful with husbands. So your orientation and gender do “matter.” (No parentheses.) Why else would you keep a “professional” relationship for years, in which Jane reveals very intimate things about her marriage and sex life.
But Peter has become a friend since the marriage. Peter and I share some typically ‘‘male’’ interests and occasionally ‘‘bro bond.’’
We grab a beer, watch football, and I never tell Bro who’s fucking his wife.
Jane and I are quirky ‘‘intellectuals.’’
She’s not a Bad Person — she’s quirky! And smarter than you!
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.
Based completely on what Jane tells me, I think they’re soul mates. And really, a Love for the Ages trumps fucking over some first husband, or deceiving a second. When you’re SOUL MATES everything’s OKAY!
Peter does not know about the affair. If he knew about it, I think he would divorce Jane in a minute.
Peter has good sense. We must protect Jane from consequences and Peter’s moral sanity.
Jane and Martin likely will never be together.
Soul mates torn asunder by the cruel, cruel forces of monogamy?
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.
Well careers are more important than soul mate connections. Less important than honesty, chumps, and children. But those careers sure are powerful enough to keep soul mates apart…
Martin visits the United States once or twice a year on business,
… until those convenient clandestine fucking opportunities arise.
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.
Of course she does.
I don’t judge people’s sexual lives, and I’m very liberal philosophically.
Thanks for the caveat. You were slipping dangerously close to making a moral pronouncement and the UBT would hate for that to happen, as it would have no narcissistic prattle to translate.
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.
I’m not comfortable with adultery, but not so bothered by it that I have opinions about it. It’s more like a soft pillow that needs adjusting, or a scratchy sweater. Slightly irritating, but nothing to get that worked up about.
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?
The UBT is really glad you asked. (A thousand chumps are chanting “Go fuck yourself!”)
You should: a) Recognize you crossed a huge moral line from Lies of Omission (not telling Peter about the affair) to Outright Lying (actively collaborating in a conspiracy to keep him a chump).
The UBT think you can either confess to Peter what you know and apologize for lying to him, or you can continue to be a douchebag.
It’s gonna be Door Douchebag, isn’t it? (sigh)
(By the way, what must Peter think of these intimate, casual three-way dinners his wife has with her old “professional friend” who’s seen travel pictures he hasn’t seen?)
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.
I tell myself that lying about and concealing an affair are Small Things.
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?
I want to be neutral about infidelity and still think of myself as an ethical, positive person!
And probably the strangest thing is, deep inside, I think the affair may be good for everyone.
I see a unicorn! There it is in the misty forest!
The UBT is glad you know what is Good For Everyone. Keep lying to Peter. It’s really What Is Best for Him. Chumps don’t need votes. Pat a chump on the head today!
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.
Jane’s outlet “need” for Martin supersedes everyone else’s needs. Lying is the foundation of a Good Marriage!
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.
I’d hate if this shit blew up on me. Can you help?
Quirky intellectuals. Marital betrayal. You seem to have wandered into an Iris Murdoch novel. Let’s see if the plot can be untangled.
Let’s all be quirky intellectuals in an Iris Murdoch novel!
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.
The UBT is scratching its transponders. The UBT wasn’t a philosophy major.
What you owe people depends, in part, on what they’re entitled to expect
Are you saying you owe people monogamy, because they’re “entitled to expect” it, because, like, it was promised to them?
and this depends on social understandings about different kinds of relationships.
Huh. Maybe you’re not saying that. It all depends on “social understandings.” What if my understandings are anti-social? What if they have a small phobia of spiders and public speaking? Is it okay to lie to the Different? If it’s my cousin or my mother? Lying to my cousin is okay, but my MOTHER is DIFFERENT? It depends?
Gah. The UBT’s sockets hurt.
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.
Ethics are a big game of Rock Paper Scissors! Man, where were you at the recent G-20 summit?!
Bob was planning to blow up an Austin night club for ISIS. Is this wrong? It depends on our social understandings. Were there fedora-headed hipsters? Bearded slackers? Was the hummus locally sourced? What would be the loss to humanity of 142 Austin hipsters? Would Etsy sales go down? Would their mothers cry? Would Oklahoma cheer? Is it wrong to kill hipsters? Should I tell someone about Bob’s bomb? I’m not friends with hipsters.
NO! If Bob is your friend, your loyalty to him supersedes any ethical obligation you to have to hipsters!
WTF, APPIAH! How did you get this job as “Ethicist” at the New York Times?!
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.
Well, if the soul mates can’t be together, you might as well shut up then.
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.
Yes, it’s Peter’s Public Institution that will be hurt in all this. I hope he takes his Public Institution for an STD check.
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.
Yes, ending your friendship with Jane gets a toxic, cheating, liar out of your life. Win WIN thinks the UBT.
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.
OMG, the Chump Trifecta! The Chump Must Already Know! (So my silence is okay.) Infidelity Makes Marriages Stronger! (So my silence is okay.) Nobody Really Knows What Goes On In A Marriage. (So my silence is okay, because Peter might really be an asshole who deserves to be cheated on.)
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.
Sure there is — dump Jane as a friend. Tell Peter. And tell Martin’s wife. Protect the people who are being harmed by Jane and Martin. According to you both, there is little harm in the truth, because being lying to and having your health risked makes marriages more AWESOME. So, please, TELL.
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.
Life is messy. It’s like a Jackson Pollack painting or one of Thomas Kincaide’s lesser works. It’s a distressing shark pickled in a moral tank of formaldehyde ala Damien Hirst. I suppose it’s all in the title of Bronzino’s painting, “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Chump.” Or written in the gum on my shoe. If the day comes when Peter asks you why you helped Jane conceal her betrayal, you can tell him the truth:
“I’m a moral coward.”
He won’t forgive you. But he just may be armed. I hope you run fast.