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Some thoughts on ethics

On another forum, I am engaged in a conversation regarding ethics, which came about as a result of a conversation around the ethics of cheating in a monogamous relationship (or by violating the agreed-upon terms of a polyamorous relationship).

A surprising (to me, anyway) number of the people involved in that conversation hold that ethical constraints apply only to first-order consequences of one's actions, but not to indirect or second-order consequences; for example, it is not ethical to cheat on a partner, but if you are the person a cheater has sex with, your actions are not unethical, because you are not violating any agreements with the cheated-upon person.

I've been thinking a great deal about the nature of ethics and responsibility as a result of that conversation, and I've put together a series of questions designed to examine a person's ethical system, and look for contradictions in that system.

The first four questions concern the ethics of lies of commission and lies of omission. The next three questions concern being the active participant in a series of actions covering a very large range of common moral perception. The next six questions re-visit those situations from the perspective of a passive beneficiary of those actions and of an active beneficiary of those actions; that is, does one's ethical responsibility vary if a person benefits from an action after the fact, or if the person receives the same benefit by creating the situation before the fact? The last two address something I've seen commonly: people often find that their assessment of the ethics of an action changes with their assessment of whether or not an injured party is a "good person" or a "bad person."

I'm interested in seeing the results of many people's answers to these questions. So, onward!




Poll #1054950 Ethics

Do you believe that it is unethical to directly and deliberately tell a lie to a friend or lover for the purpose of gaining something that you want, knowing that the friend or lover would not give it to you if you told the truth?

Yes
139(95.2%)
No
7(4.8%)

Do you believe that it is unethical to directly and deliberately tell a lie to an acquaintance or stranger for the purpose of gaining something that you want, knowing that person would not give it to you if you told the truth?

Yes
133(91.7%)
No
12(8.3%)

Do you believe that it is unethical to knowingly and deliberately lie by omission, by withholding information, to a friend or lover for the purpose of gaining something that you want, knowing that if you did not withhold that information, you would not get what you wanted?

Yes
130(90.3%)
No
14(9.7%)

Do you believe that it is unethical to knowingly and deliberately lie by omission, by withholding information, to an acquaintance or stranger, for the purpose of gaining something that you want, knowing that if you did not withhold that information, you would not get what you wanted?

Yes
115(78.8%)
No
31(21.2%)

If a person is in a monogamous relationship, and that person chooses to cheat (where "cheat" is defined as "engage in outside sexual activity without his partner's knowledge or consent in circumstances whereby he is certain that his partner would not approve"), is the cheater behaving unethically?

Yes
143(97.9%)
No
3(2.1%)

Issues of legality or illegality aside, since illegal is not necessarily the same thing as unethical, is a person who takes property from another without the knowledge or consent of the property owner behaving unethically?

Yes
141(98.6%)
No
2(1.4%)

Is a person who engages in sexual activity with a child, were "child" is defined as "pre-pubescent," engaging in unethical behavior?

Yes
139(96.5%)
No
5(3.5%)

If a person is in a monogamous relationship, and chooses to cheat by the definition above, and you actively facilitate that cheating by knowingly and deliberately having sex with that person in situations which you know in advance violate that person's relationship terms, is that unethical?

Yes
133(91.1%)
No
13(8.9%)

If a person is in a monogamous relationship, and you persuade that person, who otherwise would not have cheated, to have sex with you in violation of the terms of that relationship, is that unethical?

Yes
137(94.5%)
No
8(5.5%)

If a person knowingly and intentionally obtains stolen goods, with full awareness that the goods are stolen, but does not actually steal them himself, is that unethical?

Yes
135(92.5%)
No
11(7.5%)

If a person commissions another to steal goods for him, knowing in advance that he is commissioning an act of theft, but he does not steal them himself, is that unethical?

Yes
143(98.6%)
No
2(1.4%)

Is person who obtains photographs of others having sexual intercourse with children, who has not directly been involved with the sexual intercourse, who has not in any way actively involved himself in the abuse of any child and who will not now or at any point in the future actively involve himself in the abuse of any child, behaving unethically?

Yes
117(83.0%)
No
24(17.0%)

Is a person who commissions the act of producing photographs of others having sexual intercourse with children, but who does not himself engage in any acts involving abuse of children and who will not now or at any point in the future actively involve himself in the abuse of any child, behaving unethically?

Yes
142(97.9%)
No
3(2.1%)

If you enter into an agreement with a person, as a result of which you owe that person money (for example, by accepting a loan or accepting goods or services) and then you violate the terms of that agreement by not paying him, is that unethical?

Yes
142(97.9%)
No
3(2.1%)

If you enter into an agreement with a person, as a result of which you owe that person money (for example, by accepting a loan or accepting goods or services) and that person then does something which you find offensive or which hurts you (but does not cost you money), and then you violate the terms of that agreement by not paying him, is that unethical?

Yes
136(94.4%)
No
8(5.6%)

Tags:



Comments

( 74 comments — Leave a comment )
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springdew
Sep. 13th, 2007 11:33 pm (UTC)
Wow, I got first post!

I've been the other woman before, and I used to think there was nothing wrong with my position. With time, my values have changed, and I see my past self as having been an accessory to a hurtful deception and a poisonous position in life. I never got caught, but it was still harmful, and that's unethical.
tacit
Sep. 24th, 2007 02:31 am (UTC)
That's basically the position I'm coming from; participating in such a situation is harmful, even if it's not me in the position of violating a relationship agreement.
(Deleted comment)
shinyobject
Sep. 13th, 2007 11:39 pm (UTC)
Is ectropy when the universe tends toward a more ordered state?
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shinyobject
Sep. 13th, 2007 11:39 pm (UTC)
In pretty much all of those situations, those actions are unethical.

Add-ons:
1. Usually. Take a situation where you steal from someone, something they did not value and never notice is missing, and give it to someone who really needs it (or use it yourself). I don't think this is unethical, but stealing in general is.
2. This doesn't mean I don't do some of them. Sometimes I value practicality over ethics.
3. It's hard to define "unethical". Is it that they're they bad bad people for doing this? Is someone hurt by their actions? I'm going by whether I'd be mad if someone did that to me, but there are many other ways to define it.
xaotica
Sep. 13th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC)

unfortunately a lot of these fall into gray areas for me. for exa. "If a person knowingly and intentionally obtains stolen goods, with full awareness that the goods are stolen, but does not actually steal them himself, is that unethical?"

were they mp3s stolen by illegal downloading, a laptop stolen from a 20something's college dorm room, or someone eating a chocolate bar which my roomate took from my shelf in the kitchen? makes a difference to whether i'd answer yes or no...
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xaotica
Sep. 13th, 2007 11:55 pm (UTC)

most of the time when it comes to an ethics situation i don't concern myself as much with whether it is considered ethical, only with the impact it will have on other people and myself if it happens. almost all of these fall into a moral gray area with me even though they seem very yes or no at first glance.




tacit
Sep. 24th, 2007 02:40 am (UTC)
So what impact would you say it would have if you knowingly slept with someone who was cheating on a partner?
(Deleted comment)
7owti5
Sep. 14th, 2007 01:54 am (UTC)
YES. I said "yes" to all of the poll questions, but I know still have bootleg stuff.

I'm not a hypocrite as long as I admit that I don't always act ethically, right? ^_^
phoenixgeisha
Sep. 14th, 2007 12:13 am (UTC)
Whatever happened to the "not necessarily" answer?

The world isn't black and white, ya know?
tacit
Sep. 24th, 2007 02:44 am (UTC)
Indeed, one can certainly find situations which will ethically excuse almost any act--stealing in order to provide one's family with food, for example. But what I'm looking for is a baseline--assuming the lowest possible case (eg, you steal something simply because you want to have it, you buy a flatscreen plasma TV from a fence even though you know it's stolen because you want a flatscreen plasma TV and you don't want to pay full price).

I've posted some musings previously on a foundation of ethical systems, but that's not really what I was interested in here.
red_girl_42
Sep. 14th, 2007 12:16 am (UTC)
I too could see a lot of possible gray areas, but I assumed the simplest, most straightforward situations in my answers. There are always exceptions to every rule--if you spend too long haggling over the rare exceptions you'll never get a sense of what people really believe.

In terms of your original example, helping someone cheat on their spouse...

To me it's unethical because I believe it's unethical to behave in a way that you know will hurt other people. If I have sex with a monogamously married man, I will surely cause harm to his marriage and hurt his wife. I don't think that's okay.
ktar
Sep. 14th, 2007 12:21 am (UTC)
I have to stop answering surveys like this. Gogo result skewing.

People like me normally wouldn't even be picked up by random sampling.
punzel
Sep. 14th, 2007 12:47 am (UTC)
What is 'unethical?'
Is 'unethical' bad?

For illustration: When I sleep in my car, I often wear medical scrubs. They keep me safer because they don't LOOK like pajamas, but they sleep like 'em pretty comfortably. When I get out of my car to to go the bathroom, I don't look like a homeless person.

I'm letting people make assumptions about who I am and what I do for a living. I know it's not ethical, as I define ethics, but the illusion, which is dishonest in the service of pragmatism, protects my safety and is unlikely to cause harm. (Well, as long as I wash my hands thoroughly when I'm being scrutinized in public bathrooms.)
tacit
Sep. 24th, 2007 02:47 am (UTC)
Re: What is 'unethical?'
I'm letting people make assumptions about who I am and what I do for a living. I know it's not ethical, as I define ethics, but the illusion, which is dishonest in the service of pragmatism, protects my safety and is unlikely to cause harm.

Okay, so now I'm curious. Why is doing that unethical?

From where I'm standing, it isn't a lie, either of commission or of omission--I know many people who like to wear scrubs for the sake of comfort, enough so that I would not find it reasonable to draw any conclusions about a person's occupation or socioeconomic state based on the fact that person is wearing them. Is that unusual?
kiwitayro
Sep. 14th, 2007 01:00 am (UTC)
If a person knowingly and intentionally obtains stolen goods, with full awareness that the goods are stolen, but does not actually steal them himself, is that unethical?

i think it's interesting to then compare these results with: "would you do it anyway?" which would then lead to "under what circumstances?"

i mean, stealing is wrong & all, but sometimes it's for the greater good.

"Incredible as he is inept
Whenever the history books are kept
They'll call him the phony king of England
A pox on the phony king of England!"
tacit
Sep. 24th, 2007 02:48 am (UTC)
'Course, that opens up a whole philosophical floodgate of questions about whether or not an unethical act can ever be "for the greater good"..
redtheda
Sep. 14th, 2007 01:04 am (UTC)
I didn't do the quiz because for one thing there was way too much "maybe, it depends, I don't know". And for a lot of them, my answer was, "Do I think it's unethical? Yes. Have I done it, and will I probably do it again in the future? Yes."

And, well, um, I have ADD, ya know? My attention span just isn't that long today, LOL.

I wanted to respond to the central question, though - "for example, it is not ethical to cheat on a partner, but if you are the person a cheater has sex with, your actions are not unethical, because you are not violating any agreements with the cheated-upon person."

For me, ethics aren't just based on agreements. It's the spirit of the law vs the letter of the law, you know? I don't want to hurt someone regardless of whether I have agreements with them or not. I don't step on someone's foot even though I don't have an agreement not to step on their foot.

Moreover, being with someone who is cheating isn't good *for me*. If they can't keep their agreements to the other person, how on earth can I ever expect that they will keep any to me? I think that some people think poly is just cheating with permission, but to me they are diametric opposites. Poly is about open and honest communication, and you can't have that in a cheating situation...which is why I'll never get into one. Same thing for "don't ask, don't tell".

Ethical or not, it's just plain not a healthy relationship model.

Out of curiosity, which forum is this, if you don't mind sharing?
merovingian
Sep. 14th, 2007 01:04 am (UTC)
A lot of thigns here would fall, in my opinion, under the category of distasteful or stupid but not actually unethical.

Some of them are not even that.

I can tell you that I have withheld knowledge from a lover to get something I wanted, which I wouldn't have gotten if they knew. Specifically, I've had surprise parties for lovers, which gives me the joy of a pleasant surprise. I don't feel guilty about that.

I've also kept personal stuff private with friends who would be uncomfortable hearing it, when it's none of their business. That happens less and less, though, because it often causes everyone more trouble than it's worth.
dreamlogic
Sep. 14th, 2007 01:48 am (UTC)
If a person is in a monogamous relationship, and chooses to cheat by the definition above, and you actively facilitate that cheating by knowingly and deliberately having sex with that person in situations which you know in advance violate that person's relationship terms, is that unethical?

My initial thought is that it would depend, for me, on my relationship with the person. Is this someone I hooked up with once (or a few times) after meeting at a club, with whom I have no further relationship? Or is it a friend?

If I was having sex with someone with there was more than sex involved (friendship, emotional/mental connection, caring), and I found out that they were cheating on someone else by doing so, I'd stop, due to loss of respect for the person's dishonesty. But I don't feel I need to respect a person to have sex with them if it's purely about sex on both sides, no caring involved. I wouldn't agree with what they're doing, and I wouldn't engage in it myself, but I'm not inclined to consider it unethical on my end. However, I am inclined to think it unethical to persuade said person to cheat where he or she might not have otherwise.
7owti5
Sep. 14th, 2007 02:02 am (UTC)
Facilitating cheating is such a slippery one, and I'm so glad you brought it up.

Earlier this year, I guess you could say I facilitated cheating when my husband and best friend kinda fell for each other in a big horny frenzy. When I asked both of them if they could tell me honestly that this wouldn't happen again, they said they could make no such promise. So, I told them they had 6 months to get it out of their systems.

You couldn't really call it a poly relationship, but you can argue that I facilitated cheating (my very catholic friend says that I am just as guilty of adultery as the 2 of them). OTOH, I thought I was being a realist. :-/ I still don't know how I'd classify that whole episode.
sterno
Sep. 14th, 2007 06:04 am (UTC)
Is it cheating if it's with permission though?

I mean, cheating at it's core is breaching a set of rules. If the arbiter of those rules is you and your husband, and you mutually agree to a modification of the rules, then I don't see how it's cheating. Now, if you believe that God is the arbiter of those rules as your catholic friend does, then I suppose that it would be cheating regardless.

Tremendously practical of you for sure :)



(no subject) - 7owti5 - Sep. 14th, 2007 06:21 am (UTC) - Expand
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