Zjamel’s boyfriend Bernard seems to be spending more time with Ethel than with her. Finally, Zjamel asks the question: “Are you having an affair with Ethel?”
Bernard is, in fact, having an affair with Ethel but doesn’t regard it as “serious.” Ethel is married, and Bernard sees himself as committed to Zjamel over the long term. He doesn’t want to upset Zjamel, who has been depressed lately, and so he answers, “Of course not, darling.”
Zjamel now feels much better. After a few months, Bernard and Ethel get tired of each other, and everyone forgets about their little fling.
Was Bernard’s lie ethical?
Dilemma 7 in 101 Ethical Dilemmas by Martin Cohen.
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As I discussed in response to Hiding the mail, rationalistic Western ethics is designed for regulating society at large and offers less guidance for intimate relationships. But let’s see how far we can go with this one.
We first have to set aside the issue of whether Bernard ought to be consorting with a married woman, or even ought to have two girlfriends at once. The issue before us is whether he should be honest with Zjamel about what he is doing. Some readers may already see Bernard as a creep, but the purpose of ethics is not to judge character. Its purpose is to judge actions.
We are tempted to minimize Bernard’s duplicity because everything worked out in the end. But suppose it hadn’t. Suppose Zjamel found out about the affair and broke up permanently with Bernard. For all Bernard knew, it could have gone either way. What matters is not the actual outcome but what Bernard could reasonably believe at the time.
But perhaps Bernard could reasonably believe that his dishonesty was best for all concerned. Given his long-term commitment to Zjamel, it was the choice that maximized expected utility and therefore passed the utilitarian test.
Even if we grant this, Bernard’s dishonesty may run afoul of the generalization principle, which it must also satisfy. Lying is normally ungeneralizable because if everyone lied, no one would believe the lies. How about lying to spare someone’s feelings? Same result. If everyone lied to protect feelings, then Zjamel would have no reason to believe Bernard, because her feelings are at stake.
At this point many will complain about the unrealistic strictness of textbook ethics. Immanuel Kant, the father of the generalization principle, is widely quoted as saying that lying is always wrong. An ethical system that fails to recognize the occasional necessity of lying is useless as a guide. It also takes the fun out of life. How about flattery, or surprise birthday parties?
Whatever Kant may have said (and he in fact made conflicting statements on this), the generalization principle doesn’t always condemn lying. It depends on the reason one lies. Lying to withhold information can be OK, as when one lies to secret police to conceal the whereabouts of an innocent suspect (see comments on Anne Frank in my response to Concealing layoff information).
A “white lie” like flattery can also be OK. It relies not on deception but a certain amount of ambiguity as to whether the flatterer really means it, and the fact that we like to pretend it’s true anyway. We can tell when flattery becomes dishonest rather than kind. Surprise birthday parties are OK because we mislead the honoree only for this socially sanctioned purpose, which makes them generalizable.
Bernard’s assurance to Zjamel could be interpreted as a white lie. Maybe Zjamel already knows more or less what he is up to; that’s why she asks. Maybe his denial of an affair actually tells her (truthfully) that the affair is temporary, not that it is nonexistent. Communication in intimate relationships occurs on several levels, and ethical analysis must be sensitive to this. However, if Zjamel is genuinely deceived, Bernard has one more ethical problem to add to his collection.