S1E7 – C: The infidelity dilemma.

Cheating on your partner is one of the most critical offences one can make, and yet so many people do it. In this section, we take a closer look at the implications of cheating and what are the best actions to take after such offence.

It is believed that 15 to 20% of all “married people” have had a sexual encounter other than their spouse while married, a pretty high number considering the heavy damage it causes to people’s relationships. As we continue to explore how to make better ethical decisions, I thought this could be a good challenge to put the method to test. As such in this section we will handle the emotional, controversial and important question of how to handle an infidelity.

Just to clarify, we will not try to justify an infidelity, that will be a futile effort as this is clearly an unethical action which is even illegal in some countries. Instead, we will focus on the actions post-damage, on the possible way to handle the offence. Let me share with you an imaginary scenario to set the tone for this.

The Story

This is the story of Robert, a regional sales manager that got invited to a birthday party of one of his colleagues Elliot in a local bar. His wife was out of town due to work so she couldn’t go to the party. The party was a big success and the bar was packed, you know the drill, Thursday evening and everyone feels like having a drink. At this birthday party, Robert met Clara at the karaoke machine, and after a few drinks, one thing let another and Robert had a one-night stand.

To put more flavour on the salsa, Robert has been married for 8 years to Maria, with 2 kids. They have a solid relationship, with its ups and downs like pretty much any relationship but no particular reason to consider divorce. In this case, this was a clear one-night mistake, a mistake due to alcohol and the euphoria of the situation, this is a mistake that Robert clearly recognizes and would not want to repeat.

The dilemma will be analysed from three perspectives, from Robert (the husband), from Elliot (the friend who invited Robert) and from Clara (the lady that had the one-night stand).

Dilemma from the husband’s perspective

From Robert’s perspective, his wife doesn’t know anything that happened and so his dilemma is simple yet crucial, Should he tell his wife Maria about what happened?

Phase 1  – Evaluation of Injuries

1.1 Introduction of standpoints:

  • Standpoint A, tell the wife about it, inflicting a harm in the relationship, this comes with a risk of triggering a divorce and giving the two kids a fractured family
  • Standpoint B, don’t tell the wife, causing no immediate injuries to anyone but running the risk of the wife finding out, if this happens then the damages expected in standpoint A will happen in a larger intensity.

1.2 Clarifying Roles and Stakeholders:

  • Robert plays the role of a husband toward his wife.
  • Robert plays the role of a father toward his family.

1.3 Expectations in jeopardy:

  • Towards his wife, the expectation to be the one to share it with her.
  • Towards his family, the expectation to be responsible and seek the best for them.

1.4 Estimating Injuries:

  • Standpoint A (telling his wife) is critically unethical, Telling the wife will for sure cause a serious injury, which comes with a high risk of becoming a critical injury to the marriage and the family.
  • Standpoint B, (not telling Maria), has a probability of not causing injuries at all, but a probability of causing even larger injuries to standpoint A, critically unethical. If Maria finds out then a much more critical offence will be in question, certainly causing larger injuries than if Robert would come forward.

Is important to highlight that the injury intensity depends on the ability to repair the relationship between Robert and Maria. Some marriages are quite strong hence the injury is not as severe and can easily overcome such situations, becoming even stronger; on the other hand, many marriages cant handle such pressure and crumble with this kind of setback. The estimation of the intensity of the injuries is partly subjective and can only be done by Robert as he knows his relationship best.

Phase 2  – Decision Taking

2.1 Ranking of injuries

In both options, there are two probabilities to estimate. The probability of the marriage not surviving such infidelity and the probability of Maria finding out the situation by herself. Based on the information available and common assumptions, we will estimate the probability of divorce as very high and the probability of finding out quite low. Hence the choice with the lowest injuries would be Standpoint B, to not tell the wife.

2.2 Legal aspect of each option

Even if infidelity is punishable in some parts of the world, for this dilemma we will work with no legal implications in this decision.

2.3 Beyond expectations

The idea of being altruistic or seeking social change doesn’t really fit in this situation.

2.4 Conclusion and Observations

We conclude that the best option is for Robert not to tell his wife about the infidelity. Even if its unethical it is the one with the potential to cause the least damage so long is not found out.

I’m guessing many of you find this solution disgusting, but as stated earlier, we are looking for a consistent ethical methodology, the objective is not to please everyone, the objective is to remain consistent in operation so that we can confidently use it to minimize injuries.

As an observation, during the evaluation of the dilemma we completely disregard the personal remorse of Robert. This helped us to focus entirely on the damage to the wife and the family and don’t get our judgment clouded by self-interest issues.

From the colleague’s perspective

Now let us switch perspectives and look at it from the friend, Elliot’s perspective. He is the friend that organized the party and found out about the one-night stand because Clara asked him about Robert. Elliot has met Robert’s wife, Maria, several times so they are so to say acquaintances.

The dilemma at hand is then a very common question for any friend in such a situation, should Elliot tell Maria about what happened?

Phase 1  – Evaluation of Injuries

1.1 Introduction of standpoints:

  • Standpoint A, tell maria about it, causing harm in his relationships with Robert, with a high risk of causing a large damage to Robert’s family in case this triggers a divorce
  • Standpoint B, not telling Maria, which comes with a risk of her finding out, and feeling betrayed by Elliot for not telling her (so long she knows he knew).

1.2 Clarifying Roles & Stakeholders:

  • As a friend for both Robert and Maria
  • Robert’s family can be indirectly affected.

1.3 Expectations in jeopardy:

It is a common expectation to tell your friends if there has been any offence towards them. However not because one meets someone, one instantly develops such expectations. In this situation, the main question is, is Elliot so close with Maria for her to expect him to tell her about the infidelity? In this story Elliot is not so close to Maria, hence the expectation doesn’t apply. if they would have been childhood friends, then this would be a different story.

  • Towards Maria, no expectations are in jeopardy. (as explained above)
  • Towards Robert, Elliot is expected to be a friend and seek the best for him. This doesn’t mean to support him getting one-night stands, but more not doing actions that would jeopardize his marriage.

1.4 – Estimating Injuries: Risk applies

  • Standpoint A (telling Maria) –  would cause a critical injury to the relationship with Robert, a betrayal of trust and support, with the risk of causing even larger injuries to the family. This option is critically unethical.
  • Standpoint B (not telling) – Given that there are no loyalty expectations with Maria, not telling her doesn’t cause any issues, even if she later finds out that Elliot knew about it. This option is ethical.

Phase 2  – Decision Taking

2.1 Ranking of injuries

The standpoint that causes the lowest injury is Standpoint B (not telling Maria)

2.2 Legal aspect of each option

There are no legal implications involved in this dilemma.

2.3 Beyond expectations

Given that Elliot has no role expectations towards Maria, he could decide to go beyond, be “altruistic” and talk to her. This however wouldn’t be supported as this will be causing a critical injury (to Robert and his family), hence is not a valid option.

2.4 Conclusion and Observations

We conclude that the best decision to take is for Elliot not to tell maria, he is simply not close enough to develop the social expectation.

From this perspective, we can easily visualize how closeness and history have an impact on the social expectations that apply to us. In this case, everything unfolded based on the question of how close are Elliot and Maria to justify the need for him to tell him. This situation highlights why Social expectations are dynamic and never set, situations, context and history build up such expectations and have a high influence on every dilemma.

From Clara’s perspective

Now let us take a little spin on this dilemma and look at it from Clara’s perspective, she is the person Robert had a one-night stand. After the party, Clara had the chance to speak to Elliot and she found out that Robert has a wife. She feels so guilty about it and now is facing a dilemma, should she call the wife to apologize for the damage?

Phase 1  – Evaluation of Injuries

1.1 Introduction of standpoints:

  • Standpoint A. Apologize to Robert’s wife, if Clara apologises she might be accidentally informing Maria about something she didn’t know, causing a larger damage to her.
  • Standpoint B. Not apologize. At first glance not causing any trouble but in the case Maria knows, then it would have been appreciated if she showed remorse from her actions.

1.2 Clarifying stakeholders:

  • As an acquaintance to  Robert,
  • As an offender to Maria and potentially Robert’s family.

1.3 Assigning expectations:

In episode 6, I highlighted that there are social expectations that appear after an ethical injury (ethical cycle), where expectations to judge, repair and validate apply to multiple stakeholders. These expectations are raised based on the awareness of the stakeholders of the situation, hence if nobody knows, the expectations never get set. With this said,

  • Towards Robert, Clara holds no relevant expectations
  • Towards Maria, If she Maria is aware of the infidelity, Clara is expected to apologise since she contributed to the injury caused. If Maria doesn’t know, then no expectation is in place.

1.4 – Estimating Injuries.

  • Standpoint A, this position causes injuries only if  Maria doesn’t know. Apologizing might lead to critical injuries to Maria and Robert. This has the risk of being critically unethical
  • Standpoint B, This position only causes injuries If Maria knows, not apologizing would be considered a serious injury. This has the risk of being seriously unethical

Phase 2  – Decision Taking

2.1 Ranking of injuries (select the lowest)

On injury level, Standpoint B would cause the least damage. Given that Clara is not aware if Robert told her about it, the safest route would be to assume that he didn’t tell her.

2.2 Legal Implications

There are no legal implications involved in this dilemma

2.3 Beyond expectations

Since Maria doesn’t know, then Clara could decide to go beyond expectation and apologize to her, even if nobody is expecting her to do it. This however would not be justified as this would be causing a critical injury to Maria and Robert’s relationship.

2.4 Conclusion and Observations

To put it in simple terms, if Maria knows the best would be Standpoint B (to apologize), but if I Maria doesn’t know then should follow standpoint A (not apologize). With the given information, the best option will be for Clara to not apologize, as this runs the risk of causing a bigger problem.

I assume this was an easy dilemma to solve, especially if we remove the “remorse” feeling of Clara from the equation. If we were to follow a doctrine similar to Virtue ethics, where the idea is that the person should always display the greatest virtues, such as honesty, loyalty, and justice. Then Clara would have had a strong reason to tell Maria, regardless if she knew or not. This approach would be very selfish and with a high danger of causing larger injuries, hence I consider it essential that one shouldn’t confuse our own morality with the ethical objective, what matters is the injuries to others and not to have a piece of mind.

Section remarks

With this last perspective I conclude the evaluation of this dilemma. According to a survey, more than 50% of the people that cheated on their partners confessed to their spouse about their affair, this is certainly a complicated situation with so many aspects to consider. I believe it is worth it to summarize what happened in each perspective:

  • In the first perspective (Robert’s) we explored the importance of risk assessment in the injury intensity assessment. If the risk of breaking the marriage wouldn’t be so high, we would have chosen differently
  • In the second perspective (Elliot’s), we visualized how important is the closeness between people to establish social expectations of loyalty. If Elliot and Maria would have been close friends, we would have chosen differently
  • In the last perspective (Clara’s), we noticed how important is the awareness of the victim and judge on the situation to formalize reparation expectations. If Maria would have known about the infidelity, we would have chosen differently.

Although multiple aspects influence the decision, we are able to come to conclusions thanks to the consistent rule-based consequentialist approach of the DREMSI method. I am aware that this makes seem a bit too mechanical, but this is precisely the point if we want to be consistent.

We now move to the final section of this episode, where we get to analyse a Freedom of Speech dilemma.

NEXT S1E7 – D: Freedom of Speech dilemma.

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