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Everyday Philosophy: “Is it OK to ghost the people you date?”

Nicole has been dating someone for a while but it’s not working out from her point of view. Is sudden radio silence an ethical option?
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Credit: Adrian Swancar / Adobe Stock / Big Think / Ben Gibson
Key Takeaways
  • Welcome to Everyday Philosophy, the column where I use insights from the history of philosophy to help you navigate the daily dilemmas of modern life.
  • This week’s question concerns the ethics of ghosting someone you went on a date with — not because their behavior raised red flags but rather because things simply weren’t clicking.
  • To help unpack this week’s dilemma, we call upon the works of Immanuel Kant and the modern philosopher Nicole Dular.

“I recently met a guy on a dating app and we went on a few dates. He was nice enough, and there were no red flags, but after the fourth date, I could tell things weren’t clicking, at least for me. Last week, he sent me a text inviting me to a group outing to meet some of his friends. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything and decided to ghost him. I’m feeling guilty and conflicted. I’ve been ghosted before, and I know how it feels. It felt awful. Is it ever OK to ghost somebody who really did nothing wrong?”

— Emily, California

Ghosting was only added to the dictionary four years ago. If you asked your grandma if she’s ever ghosted a boy, she’ll likely look at you sideways. Ghosting might seem like a modern phenomenon but it’s probably only as old as awkward breakups. Emily doesn’t text back, but Georgina in the 16th century didn’t return letters, and Sibi the Babylonian stonemason moved villages to avoid a hard conversation. Return to Sender is Elvis Presley’s jangly lament of a ghosted relationship. So, there is precedent for ghosting.

But while the methods might have changed, the dilemma stays the same: Is it ever okay to avoid an awkward conversation and leave someone in the lurch, cut all ties, and keep schtum?

To give Emily some ethical guidance, we have a library of philosophical literature to dive into. We have religious edicts and moral philosophy. We have diarists, poets, and wise old men on a bench. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve got your attention for four hours of intellectual history, so we’re going to have to narrow the scope. We’ll draw out two archetypal representatives of a “for” and “against.” Along the way, I hope to find an answer to Emily’s question, one she’s free to ignore at her leisure (it is, after all, likely not what she wants to hear).

For today’s dilemma, I’ve chosen Immanuel Kant and Nicole Dular. I chose Kant because ghosting dances a precarious line between rudeness and deception, and he had a lot to say about both. And I selected Dular because she’s a modern philosopher who knows what ghosting is and she knows it’s not the same for everyone. While both certainly have their merits, I think only one wins the day. 

Immanuel Kant: Would you want to be ghosted?

So, why would Kant disapprove of Emily? It centers on his first “categorical imperative,” which states you should only do something if you would want that maxim universalized. A maxim is a moral rule. Essentially, the first categorical imperative is an 18th-century version of “What if everyone did that?”

Few people want to be ghosted. “It felt awful,” Emily wrote about her own experience. What’s more, if everyone ghosted all the time on a whim and without a qualm, it’d arguably make people less likely to form meaningful relationships.

But ghosting is also about feedback. Let’s see things from the boy’s perspective. He’s been on a few dates. He’s worn his best shirt, tried his best lines, and given it his all. And yet Emily’s ghosted him. What did he do wrong? How can he improve for next time? Now, of course, there isn’t necessarily a reason for him to change. The problem might be Emily. Or maybe the two just have zero chemistry. The point is that ghosting has denied the boy an opportunity to grow because Nicole chose to withhold potentially insightful feedback.

So, by Kant’s first categorical imperative, ghosting is wrong because, in a world of ghosters, people are denied valuable information that could radically improve their lives.

Nicole Dular: Ghosting is a form of self-defense for women

The problem with Kant is that he was writing about moral maxims — often abstract, idealized, theoretical ones. But when it comes to real-life relationships, there’s nothing idealized about them. They’re messy, hormonal, and slippery in more ways than one. What’s more, every relationship is unique. It involves unique actors with unique dynamics, so it’s hard to imagine how we can universalize relationship maxims. For example, once a year, at Christmas, and after a bottle of wine, I might kiss my wife. Most people will agree that “Kiss my wife” is an acceptable rule. What is not acceptable is that everyone may kiss my wife. Romantic maxims are tailored to individuals, and we can’t deal with the blanket “This rule applies to everyone.”

So, too, with ghosting. In 2021, the philosopher Nicole Dular argued that it’s not only permissible for women like Emily to ghost a boy; it might even be praiseworthy. Dular asks the question: If Emily didn’t ghost, would the alternative be any better? Would explicit rejection mean a better outcome? Well, no. Dular argues that “a woman’s explicit rejection of men often results in acts of misogyny toward them, [and so] ghosting is a preventative measure to stave off acts of misogyny.” 

For instance, Dular suggests that when a girl rejects a boy, they are often met with three harmful replies: argumentation (“Oh, but you’re wrong”), guilt-tripping (“But you’re breaking my heart!”), or denigration (“You’re an ugly bitch anyways”).

So, let’s lay out some premises for Dular’s argument (I love premises).

1. It is good to minimize harm.

2. When a girl explicitly rejects a boy, more often than not, it leads to misogynistic abuse.

3. Misogynistic abuse causes harm.

Therefore, more often than not, ghosting is good.

But what about Emily and her boy? This boy doesn’t sound like a predatory threat propping up the patriarchy. He sounds like a boy looking for love. He’s outside the “more often than not” set of boys — not all men! But, even here, Dular argues Emily is right. “Even if you’re a ‘nice guy’,” Dular says,”you shouldn’t be surprised that ghosting is a thing women do to protect themselves.” This boy shouldn’t assume Emily is going to take a gamble on him when the overwhelming and safe odds, from Dular’s perspective, are that he (as a man) is more likely than not to abuse her for her rejection.

Where the dice fall

Dular does make a good point. When you are taking any action, it’s a wise question to ask, “Is the alternative any better?” And here we find the difference between Dular and Kant. For Kant, the alternative is better. Outright and honest rejection might be hard to hear, but at least it treats people with dignity and trusts them to deal with your decisions. What’s more, even if we accept a world of ghosting would help combat normalized misogyny, it also rips at the very fabric of what relationships mean. It denies people honest appraisals and any kind of closure.

But Dular is also right that relationships cannot be treated in the abstract. We need to look at ghosting as a “real-world, non-ideal” case study. We should look not at “ghosting” but at “Emily’s ghosting.” So, ultimately the debate comes down to Emily. If she fears a misogynistic reprisal then, yes, perhaps she is right to ghost. This is both a kind of self-defense and a challenge to a culture that says men have the “right” to abuse a rejecting girl. But if Emily is ghosting simply out of an aversion to awkward conversations or because she doesn’t want to witness the upset she causes, then perhaps that’s not the best reason to ghost. In that case, I think Kant’s respect for humans and human relationships comes out on top.

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