Let’s say you’ve cheated on your partner. (Not you
, of course—you would never! Just play along.) You’ve had an affair and it’s over. Never mind why you did it and the right and wrong of the affair itself—these are important issues, no doubt, but they're not our present concern. Assuming you want your relationship to continue, the question you must face now is: should I tell my partner about the affair?
As we did with the ethics of adultery itself, we can ask what the three basic schools of moral philosophy—utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics—have to say about the issue.
Utilitarianism would guide you to tell your partner about the affair only if you would create more happiness (or less unhappiness) for everybody involved in the situation than you would by keeping the affair a secret. As simple as this may seem, this process is crucially dependent on countless factors, some of them based on the persons involved and others on how the decision will play out over time (which is anyone’s guess). If you tell your partner, how will he or she take it? How will your partner’s appreciation of your honesty compare to his or her disappointment and anger at what happened? Confession may make you feel better (or not), but does this justify hurting your spouse (above and beyond the implicit harm of the affair)—and should your happiness be considered at all given what you’ve done?
If that weren't enough, utilitarianism asks you to consider all the people affected by your decision. So, what about other people in your personal sphere, such as friends, family, and possibly children—how will they be affected? And what will happen to everybody involved over time as the revelation plays out? And if you don’t confess, what ramifications will that have—assuming the affair isn’t revealed eventually by someone else?
Utilitarianism is great for simple, back-of-the-envelope comparisons of good and bad, and it has the benefit of including the harm imposed on everyone affected. But for complicated moral problems dealing with many people, uncertain emotional reactions, and unpredictable ramifications, it often raises more questions than it answers. So onto the next school of ethics...
Deontology would ask you to assess the intrinsic morality of secrecy and confession themselves rather than their consequences. This has the benefit of sidestepping all the contingencies involved in the utilitarian approach, such as how your partner would take it and what would happen to your relationship going forward. But it actually doesn’t simplify things much overall, because the morality of truth-telling is not as clear-cut as it might seem. While lying is considered wrong in general deontological terms, there is no corresponding duty or obligation to tell the truth rather than keeping quiet, and any such requirement would depend on the particular situation. Certainly, if your partner asks you directly whether you had an affair, you would have an obligation to tell the truth—your partner reasonably expects as much. But if he or she suspects nothing and never asks about an affair, it is difficult to argue that spontaneous revelation is morally required (without resorting to utilitarian arguments like those above).
Deontology seems to offer a simple black-and-white solution to moral dilemmas that avoids the comparisons of hard-to-determine costs and benefits. But when you really delve into matters of right and wrong, they end up being almost as complicated—and just as deeply rooted in the specifics of the situation—as utilitarianism. (I could say that instead of black-and-white, we end up with fifty shades of grey, but that would be shameless Google pandering. Oh well... call me maybe!)
Virtue ethics focuses on moral character more than actions themselves, and therefore would have you ask what a virtuous person would do in your situation. Of course, a virtuous person would probably not have had an affair in the first place, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start practicing virtue now! Given that you did have an affair, what would a person of good moral character—the kind of person you want to be—do next? Would a virtuous person be honest even at the cost of hurting the one you love and risking your relationship, and or would a virtuous person practice discretion, suffering internally with the torment of what you did, and instead focusing your efforts on improving your relationship from this point on (and making sure you don’t repeat your mistake)? Hard to say—they both sound good, and they both sound virtuous in their own ways.
Virtue ethics abstracts from actions to focus on character, and in this way it presents itself as a long-term approach to moral behavior, investing in sound decision-making rather than evaluating one choice at a time. But without a strong foundation of what counts as a virtue—on which our greatest virtue ethicists disagree—it is hard to get a direct answer on what the virtuous person would do in the situation you’re in.
So what should you do when faced with the decision whether to tell your partner about your affair? The three basic schools of ethics don’t seem to be much help. They all concluded that adultery itself is generally immoral, but they seem much more ambiguous on the issue of confessing an affair.
Here's what I suggest. Ask yourself: what kind of relationship do you want? Chances are that you want a relationship built on trust, from which secure emotional and physical intimacy can develop. This doesn’t mean that each of you can’t have some secrets or that you have to tell each other everything that pops into your head. But you need to tell each other the important things, the things you both expect to know, the things that are relevant to the foundations of your relationship and that have the potential to affect it—in other words, the things on which the trust essential to your relationship is based. And what has more potential effect on your relationship and the trust holding it together than an affair?
Sure, it’s hard to tell your partner about an affair. It’s hard because it will hurt him or her. it’s hard because it may potentially destroy your relationship. And it’s hard because you are revealing a personal failing, something you are ashamed of and something that may make your partner think less of you. But look at it this way: you already betrayed your partner and compromised your relationship by having the affair. These facts will never go away, regardless of whether or not you tell your partner. But confessing your affair is the first step towards repairing the harm you’ve done by having it.
You may think you can bury the secret, resolve never to cheat again, and focus on making your relationship the best it can be from now on. But it will still be a relationship based on a cracked foundation, even if only you can see the cracks. Out of respect for your partner, you need to let him or her see the cracks too, because only then can you try to heal the relationship together.
Of course, your partner may not want to work on the relationship once you confess to the affair. But don’t keep your affair a secret just to save the relationship—that isn’t fair to your partner, and only serves to preserve a relationship with cracks that will inevitably spread. You owe it to your partner to let him or her make that decision with all the information you can provide. You don’t want the relationship to end, but neither do you want your partner to stay with you out of ignorance, mistakenly believing that you’ve been loyal. The fact is, you haven’t—and your partner deserves to know that so he or she can decide whether to give you another chance.
So my advice is to tell your partner about the affair, primarily out of respect for him or her—and your relationship. Your turn, readers, what do you think?
A list of my earlier posts on adultery can be found at my personal website here.
You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and my homepage/blog.