The Ethics of Love

Former New York Times columnist Randy Cohen tackles the ethics of love in the latest in this Big Think series.
  • Transcript


Randy Cohen: He’s having an affair with his ex-wife, he’s sleeping with his ex-wife on the desk during office hours.  They just don’t seem to care that other people can see them.  Do you have to tell the wife, your friend?  And here I think there’s this… we have another guideline is, does she want to know?… and believe me, not everyone does.  Some people what to know absolutely everything when it comes to their marriages and what their partner is doing.  Some people don’t want to know.  There’s lipstick all over the collar that people do not see.  They willfully choose not to see it.  And that’s not a foolish thing.  That’s a meaningful decision that there are things that we might tolerate--we don’t like them, we don’t enjoy them, but we’ll put up with them.  But once you… but I can only tolerate it because I haven’t formally acknowledged that it’s going on.  If I know you’re cheating on me, and I put up with it, I’ll be ashamed, I’ll think less of myself.  I’m in effect giving you permission to do it.  So that, if you force that kind of knowledge on someone that they genuinely don’t want, you’re forcing a confrontation.  And when it comes to infidelity, it’s sometimes forcing someone to leave a marriage they might otherwise want to stay in.  And I would do that very, very cautiously. 

So how do you know when to do it?  When does the desire for friendship supersede it?  Well, There are a couple of criteria that you should consider when you’re trying to make this decision.  One is, do no harm.   So be wary of doing something that will be incredibly destructive to the marriage, but you also want to be mindful of doing something that could be incredibly destructive to your friendship.  Which leads us to the second set of factors you have to consider, the genuine duties of friendship.  You really do have to live up to them.  And now they clash.  The duties of friendship clash with the desire not to do harm in another person’s marriage.  And that brings us to the third criteria, which is, we’re dealing with adults here.  And the real duty of friendship in this situation is to honor the wishes of your friend.  Does he or she want to know?  And it’s part of your duty as a friend is the duty of knowledge.  Have some understanding of your friends.  And in this case, the duty then becomes, do what you’re friend would like you to do.

Well, what do you do if you’re not sure?   I think with your friends, many times you know.  If you’re not sure, well here’s the reform I propose: Do you know how the organ donor registration works in New York?  You know, you sign your driver’s license.  Well I think there should be a kind of infidelity registration, that on your driver’s license, there should be a box that you can check: I want to know if my spouse is cheating, I don’t what to know if my spouse is cheating. You check that box.  Then when your friend goes to the bathroom, you sneak her wallet out of her purse and you look at her wallet.  Write to Albany.