While there is considerable debate about the right moral theory to apply to the ethics of cheating in a relationship, it is generally agreed that what makes cheating is that a person in a committed relationship is engaging in sexual activity with a person outside of that relationship. As such, cheating involves three main factors. The first is that the cheater is in a relationship that is supposed to exclude cheating. The second is that there is sexual activity. The third is that this activity is with a person outside of the relationship.
These factors would, on the face of it, exclude sexting and “cheating” in virtual environments (such as video games) from the realm of cheating. Or, more precisely, the sexual activity factor would exclude these activities. After all, sexting is just the exchange of texts and in current virtual environments, there is no sexual contact. For example, if two players in World of Warcraft decide they are going to have a “virtual affair”, the most they can do is chat with each other, strip down to their virtual underwear and awkwardly bump their characters together. I will address more “robust” virtual interactions in an essay to follow. As such, these virtual and textual realms preclude the possibility of cheating in the traditional sense: at most, one is bumping ugly code rather than bumping uglies. That said, there does seem to be an intuitive appeal to the claim that such virtual cheating is real cheating in a moral sense. The challenge is making the case for this.
Since the physical infidelity aspect of cheating does not occur in purely virtual cheating of this sort, the obvious alternative is to focus on emotional fidelity. That is, the commitment is not just to sexual exclusivity but also emotional exclusivity of a certain sort. This does require being careful about specifying the boundaries of this exclusivity. To use the obvious analogy, just as sexual exclusivity does not exclude all physical interaction with people outside the relationship, emotional exclusivity does not exclude all emotional interaction with people outside the relationship. Physical cheating, obviously enough, is much easier to define and there are clear boundaries between sexual and non-sexual behavior. To use an easy illustration, hugging a friend is not sexual behavior. Naturally, I do acknowledge the obvious grey areas, but these rarely create significant problems for sorting out cheating. They can, however, creates some practical problems, such as when a person is trying to explain how they were just giving a friendly massage and everyone just happened to be naked.
Emotional cheating is rather more difficult to define, although the obvious avenue is to focus on emotions connected with sex and romance. There is a rather broad area of concern about emotional fidelity; that is the question of what it is appropriate to feel about people outside of one’s committed relationship. Fortunately, the discussion is focused not merely on feeling, but the expression of feelings through sexting and virtual behavior. While I obviously am aware of the problem of other minds (one never knows what another is really thinking or feeling…or if they are thinking or feeling at all), it is reasonable to take the emotions expressed in sexting and virtual behavior at face value. Naturally, it is reasonable to consider that the person’s feelings do not match the behavior—but this is more of an epistemic problem than a moral problem in the context of this discussion. As such, if a person is expressing emotions via sexting and virtual behavior that should be exclusive to their relationship, then they are engaged in virtual cheating. This rests on the reasonable assumption that the expression of romantic and sexual feelings should be limited to the committed, exclusive relationship. The next obvious point of concern is why virtual cheating matters.
Traditional cheating is of concern for the obvious reasons: unplanned pregnancies, STDs, questions of property rights and inheritance, emotional damage, physical damage and so on. While virtual cheating cannot cause STDs or pregnancies, it can cause emotional damage and thus can potentially be morally wrong on utilitarian grounds. If the people in a relationship have agreed to emotional fidelity, such cheating can also be a violation of a person’s rights or the moral rules. There is also the obvious practical concern that virtual cheating can lead to physical cheating. To borrow from Plato’s arguments about the corrupting influence of art, even if someone starts out just “joking around” with sexting and virtual behavior outside of their committed relationship, there is a clear psychological path in which that “kidding around” can lead to real infidelity.
In the next essay I’ll look at the ethics of cheating in more “robust” virtual realities.