Doing ourselves no favours

While I have no data on this, my impression is that the average person takes a somewhat fundamentalist or absolutist view on morality, by which I mean that they subscribe – in theory, if not in practice – to a core set of fundamental or foundational principles, where “being good” is a matter of maximising their adherence to those principles. This may however be a mistake, and furthermore, a mistake that can result not only in decreased happiness for the person herself, but also in their incurring increased harms on others.

First, let’s consider an argument for my claim that this fundamentalism can result in increased harms (or decreased happiness) to the self. If one were to believe that the moral injuction to be honest was to be followed at all costs, the first and most obvious cost that you could incur would be the guilt experienced in cases where it was necessary to lie, or to avoid telling the truth. It’s no doubt common experience for all of us to have been in situations where truth-telling seemed a sub-optimal strategy for all concerned, and yet these cases rest in somewhat of a moral grey area on the fundamentalist view: the view can’t justify them, yet we all seem able to present arguments why – in this particular instance – it was right to avoid telling the truth. So a (perhaps unecessary) tension is immediately created: you’re breaking the rules, you know why you’re doing so (and others may concur with your reasons), yet the rules themselves are held to be absolute. This tension can result in feelings of guilt or shame for the party faced with these situations, and these feelings may linger on, especially in cases where the violation of the absolute rule is an ongoing event (as in cases where a lie is perpetuated over days, months or years).

As for moral absolutism resulting in increased harms for others, I’m thinking here of cases where we feel compelled to tell people things, on the basis of our commitment to honesty, that serve no good other than allowing ourselves to claim that we satisfied our own strict moral code. The lover who feels an obligation to confess his infidelity is one example, and one that admits to two very different interpretations, depending on the actual facts of the example used. In one case, we could imagine an unfaithful lover who is in fact no longer a lover, in the sense that he no longer cares for the person he is meant to be committed to. In such cases, his infidelity is perhaps foremost an escape-hatch, a distraction, a disavowal or denial of the reality that he no longer cares for his partner. In such cases, of course I’d suggest that he be honest, and confess to his infidelity – but not because it’s important to be honest.

The reason why this case calls for honesty is simply that none of the three people involved are rationally pursuing their best interests, and none of them therefore have the best possible chance of flourishing. The tensions involved in living this lie result in decreased happiness, and the various ways in which this is the case need not be spelled out here, as we all know them well, whether through personal experience or through books and films. Honesty, in this instance, is simply a mechanism for getting lives back on track, rather than an intrinsic good.

The second sort of situation of infidelity is the one we also know very well through popular media, if not through direct experience. This is where an infidelity is not repeated or regular, but rather the result of a momentary temptation, perhaps brought on by euphoria (whether drunken or not) or other circumstance. Here, the unfaithful party has difficult decisions to make, but these decisions arguably rest on one crucial factor: was the infidelity a genuine sign that they no longer cared for their primary partner, or was it (more) simply a case of making a mistake – importantly here, a mistake that sets no precedent for future behaviour, and a mistake that the party has no intention of repeating. As a sidenote, a discussion that needs to occur in this regard is the curious double-standard that we seem to have over mistakes involving sex, on the one hand, and mistakes involving, for example, financial dealings. Our “duty of care” to our partners can be equally compromised by either of these, yet the one – sex – is consistently held to be the deeper betrayal. I’m not sure if this can be justified – and suspect that it cannot be – but will leave that issue aside in this post.

In this second sort of infidelity, I’m utterly unconvinced that a persuasive argument can be mounted for honesty to be obligatory, in other words that it’s necessary for the unfaithful party to always confess what he or she has done. Again, the offending party needs to determine whether or not this instance was a symptom of some larger problem, and if so, there is at least one good reason to be honest and to disclose your sins. But if this was a mistake that sets no precedent, or is not indicative of some larger problem, it seems far more likely that disclosing the infidelity would result in increased harms for both parties in the couple concerned, in that trust would be compromised, suspicions might be inflamed, and the offended party may develop feelings of insecurity in terms of wondering what they were doing wrong in order to “inspire” the unfaithfulness. There are of course many possible complications here, not least the possibility that my position may allow for people to excuse constant infidelity on the grounds that they don’t believe these to be precedent-setting, or indicative of larger relationship trouble. Such individuals would quite plainly be deluding themselves, though, and I cannot consider such self-delusion to be a counter-argument to my position.

The general point is that honesty is a virtue which forms part of the broader toolkit we have in our moral lives. To be sure, it’s an important one, in that there is in intimate connection between honesty and trust, and trust is arguably a prerequisite for most fruitful engagement with other beings. But is honesty more important than benevolence? Or charity (of “spirit” or otherwise)? Maximising the possibility that our encounters with others leads to happiness, or flourishing of some sort (again, broader issues need to be introduced here, such as the wrongs of maximising your own utility at the expense of others), should be our primary concern, and we should deploy whichever of those tools (in whatever required amount or proportion) makes that outcome more likely. Much of the time, this may require honesty – but in cases where it does not, there seems little reason to introduce unecessary disutility by beating ourselves about the head with a “fundamental principle” that we cannot justify as being fundamental, or as applicable without exception.

The balancing of these virtues into as harmonious a whole as possible is no easy task, and I can certainly see that the safest route – at least for most people – may be to discourage reflection on these principles and instead to insist on an absolute set of rules. On the other hand, I don’t see how we can hope to become smarter, and better at living with each other, if we don’t start paying attention to how complex our moral interactions and obligations actually are, and in doing so realise that a fundamentalist approach may not be the most optimal strategy. Again, it boils down to education – for people to be able to make decisions responsibly, they need to understand the factors influencing those decisions, as well as the effects of those decisions. This educational task is impossible when our minds are bound by sets of inviolable rules that we cannot understand or justify, and which are – in many cases – impossible to justify at all.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.