Break-up Ethics

A moral argument to plan your rebound?

Posted Jun 13, 2011

Summer is upon us, and for young people this often means it is break-up season. Think back to the end of your last relationship. If you broke it off, did you already have someone in place to cushion the blow of transitioning out of the relationship? Was there someone interesting enough that kept you distracted from the emotional storm inside? If you did not break it off, did your partner appear to have someone waiting in the wings?

Talking amongst friends about old flames, I realized this phenomena returning to the conversation. It seems that this was not only somewhat common, but that for some it was an intended strategy, consciously planned in advance. It is an exit strategy.

What is our duty at the end of a relationship? Is there any at all? Does a soon-to-be-EX deserve a minimum level of respect and consideration even when the relationship is circling the drain? There seems to be certain cases where the answer is no, they do not deserve respect and consideration; for example, if they are abusive, unfaithful, etc. (This is not to say that anything goes.) But what about when the romance has dried up without any obvious disasters? Or, perhaps you grew apart or your job was transferred or something outside the relationship influenced the decision to split. Maybe you just don't like them anymore. In these cases, do you have a duty to behave in a certain way? If so, what are the rules?

In philosophy there are two main camps for ethics: deontology and consequentialism. The former is the "golden rule" school and the later "the ends justify the means" academy. Put somewhat differently, something may be ethical based on the intrinsic nature of the action (deontology), or informed by the consequence of an action (consequentialism). There is a sense in which most people want to be a consequentialist, while having everyone else be a deontologist. That is, everyone else predictably follows rules based on the inherent moral worth of actions (or inactions), so that one may scam the system and reap the rewards. "You shouldn't cheat on your taxes because lying is immoral; I'll cook the books because I need to feed my family." (I'll be using a hedonistic, utilitarian flavor of consequentialism, where one seeks to promote the greatest amount of happiness for the most amounts of people.)

How would these camps view this action of recruiting a rebound in preparation for the end of the relationship? A planned rebound can act as a safety-net-distraction, or as the unconsciously sabotaging "final straw" that will force the break up. One could argue that there is an intrinsic value to honesty and transparency--one ought to end the relationship before it got to that point, or at least told their partner of their intentions. On the other hand, one could counter argue, that when the relationship ends both partners will be less happy and that having a rebound will reduce the total amount of sadness by increasing the total amount of happiness, even if only slightly. For example, if Pam breaks up with Roy, they will both be somewhat sad. If Pam has Jim in line, then Pam will feel better than she would if Jim were not in place. Furthermore, Jim has more pleasure now that Pam is willing to go out with him. So, if the end--total happiness or pleasure--justifies the means, then it is moral to preemptively plan your rebound.

Roy sad + Pam happier + Jim happier > Roy sad + Pam sad + Jim neutral

Following this moral logic, since the amount of happiness increases with a rebound (Jim), Pam is ethically required to act this way. If Pam is on the fence about having a rebound, though she knows it will make her happier, then she ought to hook up with Jim in service to the greater good. So, if you are breaking up with someone, and a rebound will make the three of you, at large, happier, then you have a moral obligation to act that way--the means justify the ends. Failure to act on this would be immoral from a consequentialist point of view. Even if you felt elements of guilt, if the net gain of happiness is larger than it would be otherwise, then you, as a consequentialist, ought to do so.

What if Roy finds out about Jim? If Roy knows about the rebound, wouldn't he be substantially less happy than if Jim were not on deck? So what is the relationship between knowing something, e.g., Jim is hooking up with Pam, and that act being moral or not? Do you think that the rebound is only really wrong if Roy finds out? What he doesn't know can't hurt him, right? Would it be more or less moral if Pam was guaranteed that Roy would never know about Jim?

And what about Jim? What moral responsibility does one have for the rebound? In this scenario, Jim is clearly used as a means to an end, namely, to help Pam rebound from her failed relationship. If Jim and Pam are just looking to hook up or casually date, then the moral consideration may be different than if one of them were looking for something more--Jim not-so-secretly desiring a relationship with Pam. If Pam uses Jim, and Pam has a pretty good idea that Jim is interested in a more serious affair, then the deontologist would scream that Pam is not fulfilling her duty of respecting Jim's moral autonomy. Or Jim might just say, "Why are you jerking me around, Pam?" But why should Jim's intention determine the morality of Pam's behavior?

Now that we have started to suss out some of these hypothetical situations, has your opinion of a planned rebound changed? Which camp are you in?