An ethical dilemma

This is a true story from a few weeks back; a bit of the anarchy perhaps, a musing of ethics and just me trying to consolidate my understanding of a complex issue.  The story goes like this…

A married guy is witnessed by a female friend at a sexual health clinic.  The friend knows that the man goes away on ‘hunting trips’ and that he hasn’t had sex with his wife for a long time; his wife just isn’t interested in sex at the moment.  The man has a family, two children aged 10 and 12.  What does she do? Tell the wife? or keep quiet?  Well, in this case, the female friend confronted him but was not going to tell his wife.  Her rationale was ‘protecting’ her friend and their family, it would jeopardise their family and cause undue pain and suffering, acting out of compassion perhaps.

She was adamant that overall happiness of the family was more important than the truth.  I was adamant that the truth was more important.  This discussion led to me rethinking ethics in an attempt to understand my belief and hers. It also led to a very heated discussion.

Position 1:

We have a duty to truth, because living with truth is hugely important.  Being happy but deluded is, for me, missing the point of being alive.  Ignorance is bliss as they say, but yet we all look down on ignorance as being a lesser realm of existence.  And this view runs fairly fundamental to my view of life.  My view, yes, life can be hard, the truth can be hard, but I want it real, at least with the very important stuff.

A part of this belief comes from something similar to the experience machine of Robert Nozick.  The experience machine allows a person to have any experience in an unreal world, the experience feels just like the real thing.   The experiencer could, for example, be president, an olympic champion, Don Juan or, in this case, the wife of this man, happily married.  The point of this is that we would value the real experience as greater than the fake experience, being in real life is better than being in the thought machine.  We hold this as true, despite their being no palpable difference between them in terms of experience, the fake vs the real.

This doesn’t so neatly apply to the circumstance of the husband and his family.  The wife of the deceitful husband would suffer some damage from inaction as her husband could not possibly be 100% committed emotionally and physically while being deceitful.  Its therefore questionable which course of action actually will generate more net happiness.

The second point I have about this is based on Kantian ethics:

“Act only on that Maxim through which at the same time you can will that it should become a universal law.”

What happens if we make ignorance for the sake of happiness a universal to all mode of being.  In other words we extrapolate its use for everything.  In Kantian terms, lying to protect others becomes a Universal Imperative (something everyone must do), so we make ignorance to protect others our method of achieving happiness.  Clearly this would be bad.  We need truth, right?  Without truth what do we have that we can trust? Nothing?  So this would lead to a completely irrational view of the world, causality would cease to be useful as the truthful basis of our assumptions and premise would be flawed.  Would this be okay? No! it would not.  If the truth of the world ceased to make sense to us, if we lost trust in the statements of others, then we would trust nothing and keep meeting circumstances that plunge us painfully from unreality into reality.

My final point, is that the person has a right to know. They have a right to make their own judgement about the situation.  Its their life and we have no right to withhold information about the nature of their existence.  To do so, for me, would be to deprive our lives of a fundamental principle of life, the truth of our reality.   My opinion is that the truth allows us to make decisions, perhaps we need to face the uncomfortable truth that marriage can involve infidelity and that we will be challenged to either forgive it, walk away or suffer from it.  But that is the reality, and for me, I want my life to not just be some ignorant bliss of delusion, I want to know something about the nature of life, the universe, myself and others, the real deal; warts and all!

So for me, I would rather know the truth than live in some happy make believe ignorant bliss.

Position 2:

Upsetting the family by revealing the truth of the husbands infidelity would cause a loss of happiness to all of those concerned.  This is essentially a utilitarian view of ethics in which we act in a way that produces more net happiness to everyone.  In simple terms, saving two lives is better than saving one life, or 2 > 1.   Note: the featured image for this post is an ethical cartoon along these lines known as ‘The fat man problem.’

The crux of this argument is that the ultimate goal is happiness or at least reducing suffering.  In doing so it also forces us to make an assumption as ‘the judge’ about what brings about the most happiness.   Do we really know what course of action will cause the most happiness?  Happy now or happy in future?  Perhaps the marriage will breakdown and they both discover knew things about themselves, perhaps they go on to have more successful and fulfilling marriages or relationships in future.  Perhaps their children learn a lesson about the importance of truth, or perhaps they forgive each other and they both understand each others humanity better.  Either way, this is all deprived by keeping quiet and turning a blind eye.  Perhaps they have an unbearable nightmare that none of them recover from.  Perhaps the wife kills herself, who knows!

Say there is a nuclear attack, no-one will survive, the missiles are flying as we speak.  Why burden people with the knowledge, why make them less happy?   Would this be right?  I would rather have the chance to express something meaningful to the people I love, even though it might be laced with tears and sadness. Perhaps others might prefer to live these last minutes in peaceful ignorant bliss.

So, I see some value in the utilitarian ethical approach, but I don’t subscribe to the end point, for my reality, the end does not justify the means, for me the means becomes the end, or rather there is no end, only means.


Finally, I don’t profess to have a definitive answer to ethics.  Ethics is a value judgement, its ultimately an assessment about what is valuable.  But, this incident has caused me to reflect a lot on my sense of ethics, whats important for me in this life and this world.  I accept that others will have different views, but for me, give me the truth, I’ll handle it.



Author: Simon

Author of Trainee Gestalt counsellor

14 thoughts on “An ethical dilemma”

  1. I’d also rather know the truth and know it immediately. But I need truth to come from the right source. In this case, the husband should be the one to tell, not the friend. If the friend tells the wife, she might not believe her, their friendship will be ruined and the husband will probably weasel out of it if the wife confronts him. Truth may
    be real but that doesn’t mean we will want to believe it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This has been an interesting read. I have had said to friends in the past, that if you are dishonest with your partner and I know about it that I will first come to you and ask you to be honest. If not, with reluctance, I would tell them the truth. I would not be a true friend otherwise. I’d prefer not to be involved in these types of matters. In saying this, I have had partners deceive me. A lot of learning has resulted independent of the relationship lasting or not. There is a massive growth opportunity involved for all. While this may mean uncomfortableness and less happy times, with time the pain and anger, even disappointment passes. It is up to the individuals to glean their lessons. Around the matter of ethics… being truthful is important for me. As painful as it can be, I would prefer the truth every time. Great post, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A tragic position to be placed in – between two people that you know – but if one is a Believer in Yeshua, and following the dictates of what G-d wants…not for any other reason than that, truth is the most important value.
    For fairness to all in the end, due to the fact that eventually all the ugly secrets find their way to the light and do so causing more and more pain, truth is again most important, that you get light’s antiseptic value to what is essentially darkness in motive or action. Ripping the bandage off a suppurating wound is horrible…gangrene being permitted to destroy is worse.

    Truth, however is not always valued to the one being hurt by it…and thus one has to act not on emotion, but on principle, and be prepared for it all to be your fault for speaking the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A tragic position to be placed in – between two people that you know – but if one is a Believer in Yeshua, and following the dictates of what G-d wants…not for any other reason than that, truth is the most important value.

    For fairness to all in the end, due to the fact that eventually all the ugly secrets find their way to the light and do so causing more and more pain, truth is again most important, that you get light’s antiseptic value to what is essentially darkness in motive or action. Ripping the bandage off a suppurating wound is horrible…gangrene being permitted to destroy is worse.

    Truth, however is not always valued to the one being hurt by it…and thus one has to act not on emotion, but on principle, and be prepared for it all to be your fault for speaking the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, truth is relative. What’s true for you may not be true for someone else. And truth is also a matter of perspective, such as, the sun rises in the east… but only on the planet. Outside the orbit of the earth, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Truth changes with one’s perspective. I say, live your own truth, it’s really all you can do anyway.

    In the example you postulate, the truth is the imperative, happiness be damned. Ignorance must be eliminated for truth reigns supreme. I ask you this, If one is concerned about rights, what right do you have to impose your belief about truth on someone else? The unknowing wife may prefer to be in the dark with her life an illusion of stability. One does not know what she wants or even what she needs, but that is the nature of an ethical dilemma, if it was clear cut, it wouldn’t be a problem.

    I agree, it’s not your secret to tell. But if you love your friend, seeing them deceived and hurt is hard to watch, I suppose asking the husband to tell or stop the infidelity, might ease your conscience at being an unwitting witness to his behavior. Perhaps asking your friend if they want to know, presenting the information as a hypothetical then letting them take it from there, would serve the purpose of both telling and not telling?

    Either way, believing one knows what’s best for everyone is a construct of a highly evolved ego which is the first thing one might want to look at when philosophizing on what’s “right” and thus by default, knowing what’s “wrong”. There’s often more to a story than we can know.

    I have an example in which the truth is denied on a daily basis by millions of people, and you are all the happier for it. Research the humane treatment of the meat we eat, and think about that truth while chowing down on chicken nuggets. There is some real ugly truth to bacon, no one wants to know about. Truth is not always easy to swallow nor wanted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very interesting points. I think for me, I value truth, I don’t eat meat as I know something of how meat arrives at my table. I avoid dairy as I know something of the plight of cows. Truth has enabled me to make meaningful choices. Do I always need the truth, do I need to know that you think my hair style looks like a skunk after a fight with a raccoon? No! I don’t. I don’t know the whole truths, solder recovery from electrical devices kills thousands, Tantalum production funds war in DRC, a child dies of starvation every 8 seconds, truth changes my behaviour in a positive way. But, the truth that offers compassion to the would around me.

      Do I accept others have different priorities, yes, I do too. In the end we agreed to respect each other’s positions, my view is that I want a partner to tell me. My friends view is that she would rather not know. I suppose we try to do what we feel is right for our personal sense of ethics while sometimes having to hold onto things that our unpleasant or disagreeable for the sake of respecting others. I guess that’s called compassion. it gets tricky when others actions cause suffering to another. Ethics!! Tricky… without a measure of suffering or happiness that’s contextualised, I guess we make a judgement for what’s best, it’s certainly not a clear cut answer.

      It’s lovely to hear such an elegant counter argument, thanks so much for taking the time to share this!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for receiving it in the spirit in which it was given. The anonymity of the Internet can foster such negative responses, I find being careful and reasoned and doing my best to NOT point a finger at others, works well at getting my message heard.

    This was fun 🙂

    I also refrain from dairy, I know too much about the industry. The problem with truth sometimes is, once seen, it cannot be unseen.

    BTW, I think your skunk/ raccoon hairdo is marvelous.


  7. this hits a little close to home. a friend told me of a ‘psychic dream’ she had of my husband having an affair. This was 9 years ago. she even dreamed the woman’s name correctly. at the time, we had a 6 month old child and had just moved from london to la. i had quit my editing job, lost my mother, lost my dog and was adjusting to taking care of a colicky baby and a lonely 7 year old. I invested, researched, snooped and discovered that my husband had been flying all over the world for 6+ months with a woman every time he had a ‘work trip.’ me home, with a new baby, new city, few friends–he in exotic locales like Turkey or France or Australia with his mistress. so of course we split. i confronted him, he denied it, etc etc the divorce was insanely ugly. i wanted to die. no family in LA, taking care of a baby solo. the first 2 years he barely came back & moved back to UK. so nine years out and i’m still taking care of two boys solo and barely have any time to go out or date or meet people. my ex didn’t want to get caught and asked me back a few times over the years.
    to embrace the ‘truth’ and my ‘dignity’ i said no. but it’s been insanely hard. harder than most can know or realize. i’m exhausted most of the time and have to fight for nearly every smile.
    but i embraced yoga. i teach now, and did 5 trainings. i finished writing two more books. i gave up alcohol and coffee and dedicate myself to my yoga, my writing, meditation and my boys. i am a better person and a better mom because of it all. but i am still very alone and do this all by myself and day to day i tell myself i’ll be ok. no time to date, no time to go out and it’s just what it is.
    many women have shared with me that they hate my friend for ‘ruining’ my life by telling me as they are convinced that he would have broke it off with his mistress and we’d just have stayed together and gotten stronger after the baby got older. i now struggle and work hard and am alone. but i’m not living with a liar and i’ve embraced my spirituality. i’ve forgiven him and see that life is journey to wholeness. there is good in every situation. but i do strongly believe that my friend over-stepped her boundaries by telling me her dream. i believe that we only give physic information (like advice too) when asked for it. the Universe has a way of opening our eyes at the right time. i would have found out eventually. i almost died after she told me. i stopped eating. my milk dried up and i couldn’t continue to breast feed my baby. i cried nonstop and couldn’t function. i needed care, but had no family or money to hire a therapist. it was a horrible situation and the timing wasn’t good as i was so weak and sleep-deprived from a colicky baby. nor did this friend offer to help with the baby. So…be kind. Allow the Universe to guide you. Always meditate first and ask your guides if this is your role, your responsibility and your need to reveal truth. we sign up for all of our teachers. i signed up for this lesson, but it was the Universe’s need to reveal the cracks at the right time when i could step over them, rather then fall into them and nearly die. I can never take back my oldest son seeing me not wanting to live. but i’ll never be in that place again, so for that, i’m grateful.

    Love & Light,

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Laura for sharing your story. It sounds like a journey through a hell and I am truly glad that you came out of it the way that you have.

      I can be quick to act, too quick at times, and too quick to judge too. My friend thankfully had the wisdom not to act with haste, she confronted the husband, she vowed not to tell her friend, but told the husband that he needs to consider his actions and the consequences. I felt at the time that the husband should reveal it to his wife, perhaps the chance encounter at the clinic was to give this message, I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I would want to know, I respect that others might not and that its certainly not my place to assume that my belief or desire is everyones.

      I’m training in Gestalt therapy which is quite a journey, hearing, feeling and sharing others darkest places. Its really hard to hold back sometimes, to let people make their own realisations as part of their journey. Hard to allow someone to experience their own suffering, it sounds so counter intuitive and I struggle with the idea that sometimes its just something that we have to let happen to allow healing to take place at its own pace. As a man, I choked back tears for years, a man should not cry, right. But by embracing my pain and my suffering I can begin to let it wash away, my dark corners exposed to the light of day. Perhaps, these events, although so hard need to come out so that healing can happen. Its hard to find meaning in such suffering, but I see many beautiful people that are beautiful because they have been through hell. My friend is a good example of someone that has been through hell and come out of it radiant and beautiful. I it seems perhaps this applies to you too.

      Peace, love and a big hug!
      Thanks for sharing.


  8. I don’t believe in black and white thinking. Yes, truth is often good, but perhaps authentic is better. Is it the truth that the husband slept with someone? Maybe he decided to get tested so he could donate blood? You never know! Sometimes STDs show up a long time after the initial infection.
    Maybe he was going to apply to volunteer there? You don’t know.

    And about the truth… sometimes, sex is separate from love! Listen to Esther Parel’s podcasts on relationships. You’d be surprised, but relationships are complex. Maybe the wife agreed to him doing whatever he did, but doesn’t want the world to know, etc.
    in short- do no harm- don’t get in the middle -! And for yourself, be authentic in order to feel you are being your best self in the world. That’s my 2 cents. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A lot of nice things were already said in the comments. What I do not understand is the following: Why is the husband going to the sexual health clinic? Did anyone ask the husband about his agenda? Is it necessarily problematic for a partner who is not interested in a sexual relationship if the other enjoys sexual relationships with others? Is the husband capable of showing love despite the lack of a sexual relationship? Did the husband ever ask the wife about her feelings of him having sexual relationships with others? What if they already agreed on all of it and just don’t want to out themselves?

    I see the decision logic behind the story but in my point of view it is very much flawed because there is no either/or decision at hand. There are many paths that one can go from this point and many of them will lead to suffering or happiness and some to both.
    I think we should not base our ethics on the question of lease suffering/greatest amount of happiness. I think both are equally necessary for us to understand life, to understand ourself, to understand the nature that we live in.
    One could argue that we should always judge our actions on how much they limit others in showing affection. Suffering people and happy people can both show affection although not all suffering and not all happy people can. I claim that there is no common human trait to which everyone can be reduced so we need at least a full set of different ethics to manage our worlds. A set of ethics that allows differences and individuality and does not claim to know what’s best for everybody.

    Liked by 1 person

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