A Philosopher's Blog

Virtual Cheating I: The Wrongness of Cheating

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2017
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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.



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Davis & Ad Hominems

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on September 4, 2015

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has been the focus of national media because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As this is being written, Davis has been sent to jail for disobeying a court order.

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film)

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As should be expected, opponents of same-sex marriage have tended to focus on the claim that Davis’ religious liberty is being violated. As should also be expected, her critics sought and found evidence of what seems to be her hypocrisy: Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth marriage. Some bloggers, eager to attack her, have claimed that she is guilty of adultery. These attacks can be relevant to certain issues, but they are also irrelevant in important ways. It is certainly worth sorting between the relevant and the irrelevant.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is consistent in her professed religious values, then her actions are clearly relevant. After all, if a person claims to have a set of values and acts in ways that violate those values, then this provides legitimate grounds for accusations of hypocrisy and even of claims that the person does not really hold to that belief set. That said, there can be many reasons why a person acts in violation of her professed values. One obvious reason is moral weakness—most people, myself included, do act in violation of their principle due to the many flaws and frailties that we all possess. Since none of us is without sin, we should not be hasty in judging the perceived failings of others.  However, it is reasonable to consider a person’s actions when assessing whether or not she is acting in a manner consistent with her professed values.

If Davis is, in fact, operating on the principle that marriage licenses should not be issued to people who have violated the rules of God (presumably as presented in the bible), then she would have to accept that she should not have been issued a marriage license (after all, there is a wealth of scriptural condemnation of adultery and divorce). If she accepts that she should have been issued her license despite her violations of religious rules, then consistency would seem to require that the same treatment be afforded to everyone—including same-sex couples. After all, adultery makes God’s top ten list while homosexuality is only mentioned in a single line (and one that also marks shellfish as an abomination). So, if adulterers can get licenses, it would be rather difficult to justify denying same-sex couples licenses on the grounds of a Christian faith.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is right in her professed view and her refusal to grant licenses to same-sex couples, then references to her divorce and alleged adultery are logically irrelevant. If a person claims that Davis is wrong in her view or acted wrongly in denying licenses because she has been divorced or has (allegedly) committed adultery, then this would be a mere personal attack ad hominem. A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.

If a critic of Davis asserts that her claim about same-sex marriage is in error because of her own alleged hypocrisy, then the critic is engaged in an ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim she makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with her actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove her claims are false. As such, Davis’ behavior has no bearing on the truth of her claims or the rightness of her decision to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Dan Savage and others have also made the claim that Davis is motivated by her desire to profit from the fame she is garnering from her actions. Savage asserts that “But no one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof of that in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in.” Given, as Savage notes, the monetary windfall received by the pizza parlor owners who refused to cate a same-sex wedding, this has some plausibility.

If the issue at hand is Davis’ sincerity and the morality of her motivations, then whether or not she is motivated by hopes of profit or sincere belief does matter. If she is opposing same-sex marriage based on her informed conscience or, at the least, on a sincerely held principle, then that is a rather different matter than being motivated by a desire for fame and profit. A person motivated by principle to take a moral stand is at least attempting to act rightly—whether or not her principle is actually good or not. Claiming to be acting from principle while being motivated by fame and fortune would be to engage in deceit.

However, if the issue is whether or not Davis is right about her claim regarding same-sex marriage, then her motivations are not relevant. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to yet another ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hominem. This is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self-interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). This ad hominem is a fallacy because a person’s interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person’s interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Christian, so his claim is false.” Or, if someone claimed that Dan Savage was wrong simply because of his beliefs.

Thus, Davis’ behavior, beliefs, and motivations are relevant to certain issues. However, they are not relevant to the truth (or falsity) of her claims regarding same-sex marriage.


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Should Spitzer Resign?

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2008

Many people, including those at major newspapers and in government, have been calling for Spitzer to resign because of his alleged involvement with a prostitute. This raises the specific question about whether he should resign or not as well as the more general question about when public officials should step down in regards to illegal and immoral actions.

As it stands, it is alleged that Spitzer is facing the following legal and moral accusations.

First, he is accused of having been involved with a rather expensive prostitute. Prostitution is illegal where the event is alleged to take place and Spitzer, a former attorney general, is obviously well aware of that. As governor, he is expected to uphold and follow the laws of the state. As such, breaking the law in this manner seems to be grounds to expect him to resign. Obviously, not all law breaking should be grounds for resignation. Minor violations, such as having an expired meter or a typical speeding ticket, should not result in an official resigning. More serious violations show both a disrespect for the law and poor judgment-qualities that are certainly undesirable in an official who is supposed to have good judgment and respect the rule of law.

In moral terms, paying a prostitute for sex can be regarded as an immoral action. Some will contend that prostitution is itself inherently immoral. For example, Kant would regard it as treating another rational being as a means only (a means of income for the prostitute and a means of pleasure for the “John”). Having sex with a prostitute while married (assuming one is not married to the prostitute) seems to be a clearly immoral action-it violates the agreement between the two people who are married (unless they agreed to have an “open” marriage, which I suspect it not the case with Spitzer).

If Spitzer, like Bill Clinton, “merely” had an affair, then the claim that he should resign would be less well supported. In this case, he would still most likely have committed an immoral act. He would have also committed a criminal act. Interestingly, adultery is a class B misdemeanor in New York-just like prostitution. As such, they are legally on par. However, adultery is rarely prosecuted and is generally regarded with less stigma than prostitution. As such, people are generally less inclined to insist that adulterers be punished or resign from office. If having sex with a prostitute is worse than having an affair, then there would be less reason for the “mere” adulterer to resign. Most people see affairs as bad (although a significant number of people have them) but they tend to regard prostitution as worse. This might be in part due to the fact that almost everyone knows that prostitution is illegal while few people are aware of laws against adultery (mainly because these cases are almost never prosecuted).

The general question here is whether immoral acts justify a call for resignation. The obvious answer is that it depends on the action. Minor immoralities obviously do not justify such calls-if only on the practical ground that no one would be fit for office. When it comes to more serious moral lapses, the answer depends on the severity of the lapse and its relevance to the office. Spitzer, like many who have been in similar straits, initially tried to present the matter as a personal problem that would require him to earn back the trust of his family. Presumably, it was to be accepted that the action was not relevant to his remaining governor.

While the specific situation does not seem to be merely a private matter, the response is one worth considering. A person can have serious moral failings in certain areas, yet these could be quite irrelevant to his or her capability and reliability in office. For example, a person might be faithless in his or her sexual relations, yet quite competent and reliable as an official. Some people regard Bill Clinton as an example of this. As another example, a person might divorce his loyal wife in order to hook up with a hot, young woman. This seems morally reprehensible, but would not entail that he is unfit for office. As another example, someone might have been utterly ruthless in business and focused entirely on making money within the limits of the law. The person might be vilified for that, but it would not entail that they should not be in office.

While politicians seek the limelight and hence cannot expect to have fully private lives, they are still entitled to the same private-public distinction that everyone else should have. After all, your boss might be sleeping with her pool boy, but that does not entail that she should be fired from her job. Or, as another example, a co-worker might be an insensitive bastard to his wife and family but as long as it does not enter the workplace, there would be no justification to fire him. When the line is crossed into the public realm, then it becomes relevant. For example, if the boss is making moves on a worker or the co-worker is abusing other employees, then it becomes a matter for which they can be fired. The same applies to those in political office.

The second matter is that it has been alleged that Spitzer used state funds to pay for the prostitute. This is both immoral (theft, corruption, betrayal of trust, and so on) and obviously illegal. In this case, the immorality and illegality of the alleged act are quite relevant to the matter of resignation. If the allegation is true, then he has shown that he has acted in a way that a governor should not act. As such, he should resign.

Since I am aware that anyone can have a moral failing, I tried to have some sympathy for him. However, I find myself failing in this regard. As many pointed out, he was rather arrogant in his behavior and this makes it hard to be sympathetic. I do feel bad that someone, for whatever reason, made the wrong choice. I am sorry about the damage that has been done to the citizens of New York.

I do feel sorry for his wife and children. If the charges are true, he has betrayed and hurt them in a very public way. While it is easy for his enemies to rejoice in his failure, they should pause and think about how this will hurt his family. It is tempting to cheer the fall of such a person, but such cheers should always be tempered by the knowledge that such people do not fall alone.