Should You Tell Your Friend That His or Her Partner Is Cheating?

Is revealing an adulterous spouse to a friend good or right?

Posted Aug 20, 2010

An anonymous commenter to an earlier post on adultery asked:

So, if you know someone is a serial adulterer and is currently having another affair, would it be better to tell his wife? Is it better for her to know? Better for him perhaps? What about the longterm effects on his daughters? Will they be more likely to choose an adulterous husband because of their own father's behaviour? Rather like children of alcoholics?

Let's set aside the issue of serial adultery for now and just address the core question: if we know a friend's partner is cheating on him or her, should we tell our friend or not? This question is heart-wrenching, but exactly why is that?

On the one hand, you feel your friend is being wronged, and we don't like seeing wrong being done, whatever we feel the response should be—at the very least we want it to stop, especially when the one being hurt is someone we care about. But on the other hand, telling our friend would likely hurt him or her in some way. Even if we believe that our friend is being hurt by adultery he or she is unaware of, that hurt is not our fault—but we would be directly hurting him or her by revealing the truth, and we dont want to cause (further) harm to our friend (or other people involved, such as children).

In other words, it would seem to be the right thing to tell our friend, but it may not be the best thing in terms of the good. The commenter's questions were written in terms of "better," which implies a focus on the good: which action would result in the most good being done? This reflects a utilitarian outlook, in which the act that would produce the most good is morally required. But the pull of the right thing, which follows a general principle other than "do the most good," is very strong as well; we often hear people say, "it's OK, you did the right thing," when doing the right thing doesn't turn out well. This is a sign of a deontological approach to ethics, which corresponds more to duties, rules, or principles than to goodness or utility.

One of the arguments for deontological ethics is that utilitarianism is too demanding, not only in terms of the actions it demands (such as Peter Singer's calls for extreme self-sacrifice to help alleviate poverty), but also in terms of the knowledge and calculations involved. This is illustrated well by the reader's comment: What's best for the person who is cheated on? What's best for the cheater? What's best for the children? How do we compare these? How do we work in all the uncertainties, risks, and unknowns?

This sounds like an argument for rule utilitarianism, which recommends we follow simple rules that generally maximize the good, rather than try to calculate the consequences of uncertain actions (as would be required by act utilitarianism, discussed above). That's fine for simple rules like "do not lie": most of us believe that lying generally ends up badly, so it's easier—and, in the long run, better—to refrain from lying in general, even if occasionally a lie would be best. But it doesn't help much in the case we're considering here, because it's hard to decide what is generally the best action in the case of our friend and his or her adulterous partner.

So rather than try to do the best thing, whatever that might be, maybe we should just do the right thing—and in this case, the right thing would seem to be to tell our friend the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. OK, but those chips may hurt, and they may hurt a lot. Are we comfortable with that? We can always tell ourselves we did the right thing—even our friend may actually say that to is, while he or she is crying, punching a wall, or emptying one bottle after another. But doing the right thing doesn't feel so great when it results in hurt; that's the deontologist's burden, and it can be a heavy one.

This is yet another example of the never-ending debate between the right and the good. I've oversimplified a bit—philosophers have developed much more elaborate versions of these arguments, of course—but as always, I just want to show that moral decisions are not always easy, even when we know all the ethical schools, rules, and perspectives. In the end, it always comes down to judgment, and believing that you found the "right answer" that maintains the integrity of your moral character.

My personal opinion? I would ask myself, "What would my friend want me to do?" After all, it's his or her marriage, life, and future--what do I think he or she would like me to do? Respect what I think my friend would want: that's my right answer. Is it yours?

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You're welcome to follow me on Twitter - feel free to tell your friend that too!

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Other posts on adultery:

Adultery: Is It Ever Justified?

Adultery or Divorce—Is There a Right Answer?

Adultery: What About the Other Woman (or Man)?

Serial Adultery: Is It Chance or Character?

Adultery: What Should the Betrayed Spouse Do?

Are You in Love with One Person While Committed to Another?

Adultery: What Counts and Who Decides?