This article is part of the column series, Thus Spoke the Undergrads. Submit your moral quandaries through this google form, and three student ethicists will guide you. Today, they tackle the following question:
You are not the first, and nor will you be the last, to be confronted with this question. The answer to it, however, is not as straightforward as you might think. Because of that, the three ethicists disagreed on what was ultimately morally permissible. That’s a free extra dose of drama on top of this already contentious scenario.
We can say right off the bat that, should you choose to expose your friend, your friendship with them and their girlfriend will be at best in turmoil, and at worst, terminated altogether. Not only did you disobey your friend’s trust, but you also directly caused an end to what the girlfriend assumed was a beautiful, healthy relationship, assuming that happens. This does not make you blameworthy, of course. Your friend’s cheating has caused this entire problem; you are not the reason for the bitter end of their relationship. Still, what you do will have pretty big repercussions. And you thought you could stay out of this. Nice try.
So, is losing these friendships a cost worth incurring? Despite your desire to preserve the status, your friend’s girlfriend still has a right to know this information about her own relationship. If you choose not to tell her, you are making a decision (whether to stay in the relationship or not) that belongs to her. This is a decision you have no right to make. You may, in fact, be making their relationship worse since you are complicit in hiding pivotal moral information the girlfriend needs to make an informed, consensual choice. And our ability to make informed choices is linked deeply with our autonomy as people. If there is an asymmetry of knowledge (if your friend knows more than their girlfriend), then the girlfriend can easily be manipulated by the friend, and the cheating may never end. It’s as if you're playing Twister, and your friend is flicking the spinner, telling you where to go while doing whatever they want.
Let’s move onto the idea that you can be mostly uninvolved here. It seems like you’re the type of person to try to avoid Total Drama, whether it be on an island or at a university. You may think that this situation is also like Twister, that dark and wicked game that warps us into one amalgamation of flesh, and a game that no one wins. You’d rather not play that game at all, and that makes sense. This is a problem between your friend and their girlfriend — they should sort out any trouble they’re having, not you. If their girlfriend ever learns the truth, they’ll deal with it without you, as they’ve dealt with the rest of the relationship on their own.
Of course, like in Twister, getting out of a knot isn’t that simple. Whether you like it or not, you’re knee-deep in this drama, and your warped body is already intertwined with your co-players: the friend and the girlfriend. And this time, your obligation to both of them is crushing. In our last two columns, we discussed how obligation binds you to act one way or the other and provides something of a neat answer for what the morally right thing is. Here, though, your obligations to both your friend and their girlfriend pull you in contrary ways, as if you had to put your right hand on the green circle and your left hand on the red. As a friend of the girlfriend’s, you should share what you know. Yet your role as a confidant means you agreed to keep your friend’s secret quiet. If they thought you would share it with their girlfriend, they probably would not have told you that they were cheating. In this situation, obligation gives us no decisive answer about what you should do.
But that is not a reason to do nothing at all. Good friends don’t knowingly let their friends make bad decisions. So, as the great friend and Twister player you are, it is your responsibility to help correct your friend’s mistakes and untie this knot. Perhaps the best way your friend can go about rectifying their dishonesty is through honesty. You should vehemently encourage your friend to come clean. If you do this, and if your friend listens, you’ll be safe from an obligation crisis AND maintain distance from the drama. Now that’s what we call “morally epic.”
Still, it was around here we began to disagree. The rest of the article is framed as a choose-your-own-adventure story of sorts; whose argument holds the most weight?
Ethan, ever the raging moralist, took the stance that, should you not share what you know, you would be morally blameworthy. The best option would be to convince your friend to tell their girlfriend the truth, but should that fail, you should be the one to let their girlfriend know the truth. You can warn your friend about the knife coming at her, but that wouldn’t change much. It may even make things worse; perhaps they’ll try to conceal their misdeed and convince their girlfriend that you are telling lies. Perhaps, in response to what seems like a threat, they’ll act like a cornered animal. Nor do you want to be the person to have to constantly enforce the threat of tattling. And do you really want to solve an ethical dilemma with blackmail, of all things? This is our last article of the year, so don’t come crying to us when that becomes its own moral quandary.
So, all things equal, it is better to live in reality than in ignorance, even if reality is a bit worse than ignorance. Your moral obligation to secret-keeping is superseded by your obligation to promote an environment of understanding and fairness between your friends. As you said, this relationship is for your friend and their girlfriend to sort out. They could never fairly do that if there was an asymmetry of information between them. And, unlike hiding the information, you sharing the truth allows the girlfriend to make a truly informed decision. In other words, you are empowering her to make a decision rather than making one for her. Hate me for being the snitch.
Claudia, on the other hand, believed that it was important to consider the girlfriend’s state of mind when considering whether or not to spill the beans. There is such a thing as the right place and the right time, especially when it comes to sensitive topics. If you are aware that the girlfriend is going through a difficult period and it may be an extra burden for them, then in a way, it could be unfair to be the bearer of such bad news while they are already struggling. Claudia likened this to kicking a dog while it is down, but Ethan didn’t like the imagery of dog violence. On the other hand, if the girlfriend seems not to be struggling with anything significant at the moment, then by all means go ahead — especially if you know the girlfriend well enough to make a value judgment about whether they would prefer blissful ignorance or painful truth.
Andi thought that the action you take should be based solely on how highly you value your relationship with the cheater. You will likely lose your friendship with them after breaking their trust — you could single-handedly end their relationship and their faith in your loyalty after informing the girlfriend of their naughty behavior. The possibility of friendship destruction could potentially be mitigated if you pose an ultimatum before telling the girlfriend: either your friend fesses up, or you do it for them. However, it is doubtful that any ultimatum will be well received, much less one that involves you spilling a secret that is not your own. If you are willing to test the limits of your friendship, then, by all means, go ahead — you will indubitably gain brownie points with the girlfriend, and maybe she’ll even want to date you if they break up! However, if this is your best and/or only friend, Andi thought that spilling the beans wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe you need to reconsider your judgment of character, but if they are all you have, Andi thought that the ethical worthiness of your actions would be rendered void by your subsequent loss of a homie.
So that’s what we think. But maybe, by the end of this fiasco, you will find out that this was actually all an elaborate plot to test your moral worthiness. You’ll Zoom the girlfriend, geared up to confess, but find that your friend is there with her. In your confusion, you’ll say, “but I thought you were cheating on her!” Unexpectedly, confetti will rain from above you, and a “you are a good person!” banner will unfurl behind you. Your friends will pop champagne and celebrate your moral virtue. You will all laugh heartily, and as you chuckle, you will smile, thinking about Andi, Claudia, and Ethan and how helpful this article was. You’ll say, “you know what? I’ll get all of my friends to submit questions to these fine people.” And that’s just what you’ll do.
The ethicists are Opinion columnists Ethan Magistro, Claudia Frykberg, and Andi Grene. Do you have juicy ethical dilemmas you want us to opine on? Send it in an email to email@example.com or fill out this anonymous google form!