The morality of cheating in a relationship is one of the most popular paper topics in my Ethics course. As might be suspected, the students tend to condemn this sort of cheating and have always focused on the “traditional” form of cheating—that is, people having “naked time” together when one or more of them is in a committed relationship. With the rise of such things as sexting, virtual worlds and sexbots, I’ve tried to encourage the students to write on what can be called “virtual cheating”-if only to give me something slightly new to grade. Since no student has taken on this matter, it falls to me to write about it.
As just noted, traditional cheating involves people having sexual interactions in person when one or more of them is in a (supposedly) committed relationship. Virtual cheating, by its very nature, is not traditional cheating: the people either do not interact sexually in person (they sext or engage in virtual activities in a virtual world, such as a video game) or a person is engaged in sexual behavior with a non-person (such as a sexbot). While most regard traditional cheating as wrong, it is not clear if the alleged wrongness of traditional cheating applies to virtual cheating. Answering this question requires sorting out what, if anything, makes traditional cheating wrong.
One stock approach to arguing that traditional cheating is wrong is to “mix norms” by going from religion to ethics. For example, my students usually point out that the Ten Commandments forbid adultery and then typically just say this makes it wrong. The problem is, obviously enough, that religion is not the same as ethics. What is needed is a way to transition from religion to ethics. One easy way to do this is to use divine command theory. This is the view that what God commands is good because He command it. Likewise, what he forbids is wrong because He forbids it. Assuming this theory, if God forbids adultery, then it is wrong. In regards to virtual cheating, the question would be whether virtual cheating is adequately similar to traditional adultery. This is a matter that will be addressed in a later essay.
Another stock approach is to engage in more norm mixing by going from law to ethics. While there are excellent reasons not to equate legality and morality, the moral theory of legalism (also known as legal positivism) says that what is legal is moral and what is illegal is immoral. Since some places still consider adultery a crime, this would make cheating immoral in such places. Legalism actually provides the easiest way to address the ethics of virtual cheating: one just needs to consult the law and the answer is there.
A third approach, and one my students almost always use, is the utilitarian option. On this view, the morality of an action is determined by its harmful and beneficial consequences. If more negative value is created by the action, it is morally wrong. If there is more positive value, then it is morally good (or at least acceptable). The moral arguments against traditional cheating focus on the usual negative consequences: emotional damage, physical damage, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and so on. Interestingly, students almost always mention cars being keyed. Moral arguments for cheating focus on the alleged benefits: pleasure, emotional fulfillment, and so on. The utilitarian approach, interestingly enough, would make it easy to bypass the question of whether virtual cheating is cheating or not. This is because what would matter is whether or not the consequences of the actions created more negative or positive value. Whether the actions are cheating or not would be irrelevant. Unless, of course, the cheating aspect was relevant to the consequences.
A fourth approach is to embrace a rule based approach, such as the deontology of Immanuel Kant. On this view, the action itself is wrong or right—it is not a matter of consequences. The religious arguments that are used to try to show that cheating is wrong tend to also be rule based arguments. The rules, in that case, would be those attributed to God. While deontologists can embrace very different rules about who one should embrace, Kant’s categorical imperative and his view that people are ends rather than means would seem to support the view that cheating would be morally wrong. The question about virtual cheating would be whether it is cheating. Alternatively, rules about the activities I am grouping as virtual cheating would settle the matter without addressing whether they really are cheating or not.
A fifth approach is that of virtue theory—the sort of theory endorsed by the likes of Aristotle and Confucius. On this view, a person should strive to be virtuous and the incentive is usually that virtue will make a person happy. Since cheating would seem to violate such virtues as honesty and loyalty, then it would appear to be morally wrong under virtue theory. In the case of virtual cheating, the concern would be with the effect of such behavior on a person’s virtues.
A final approach is a rights based approach. Ethics that are based on rights purport that people have various rights and it is generally wrong to violate them. In the case of cheating, the usual argument is that people engage into a form of contractual ethics by agreeing to a committed relationship. This gives each party various rights and responsibilities. The usual contract is one of exclusive sexual interaction. Since traditional cheating violates this right of exclusivity, it would be wrong. In the case of virtual cheating, it would also be a question of rights—typically based on an explicit or implicit contract. Naturally, contractual ethics can also be cast in the form of rule based ethics—the contract forms the rules.
In the next essay I will move on to the matter of virtual cheating, beginning with considerations of sexting and “cheating” in virtual worlds such as video games.