A Philosopher's Blog

Virtual Cheating V: Virtual People

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2017

In this last in the virtual cheating series, the focus of the discussion is on virtual people. The virtual aspect is easy enough to define—these are entities that exist entirely within the realm of computer memory and do not exist as physical beings in that they lack bodies of the traditional sort. They are, of course, physical beings in the broad sense, existing as data within physical memory systems.

An example of such a virtual being is a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. These coded entities range from enemies that fight the player to characters that engage in the illusion of conversation and interaction. As it now stands, these NPCs are quite simple—although players often have very strong emotional responses and even (one-sided) relationships with them. Bioware, for example, excels at creating NPCs that players get very involved with and their games often feature elaborate relationship and romance systems.

While these simple coded entities are usually designed to look like and imitate the behavior of people, they are obviously not people. They cannot even pass a basic Turning test. They are, at best, the illusion of people. As such, while humans could become emotionally attached to these virtual entities, it would be impossible to cheat with them. Naturally, a human could become angry with how involved their partner is with video games, but that is another matter.

As technology improves, the virtual people will become more and more person-like. As with the robots discussed in the previous essay, if a virtual person were a person, then cheating would be potentially possible. Also as with the discussion of robots, there could be degrees of virtual personhood, thus allowing for degrees of cheating. Since virtual people are essentially robots in the virtual world, the discussion of robots in that essay would apply analogously to the virtual robots of the virtual world. There is, however, one obvious break in the analogy: unlike robots, virtual people lack physical bodies. This leads to the obvious question of whether a human can virtually cheat with a virtual person or if cheating requires a physical sexual component.

While, as discussed in a previous essay, there is a form of virtual sex that involves physical devices that stimulate the sexual organs, this is not “pure” virtual sex. After all, the user is using a VR headset to “look” at the partner, but the stimulation is all done mechanically. Pure virtual sex would require the sci-fi sort of virtual reality of cyberpunk—a person fully “jacked in” to the virtual reality so all the inputs and outputs are essentially directly to and from the brain. The person would have a virtual body in the virtual reality that mediates their interaction with that world, rather than having crude devices stimulating their physical body.

Assuming the technology is good enough, a person could have virtual sex with a virtual person (or another person who is also jacked into the virtual world). On the one hand, this would obviously not be sex in the usual sense—those involved would have no physical contact. This would avoid many of the usual harms of traditional cheating—STDs and pregnancies would not be possible (although sexual malware and virtual babies might be possible). This does, of course, leave open the door for accusations of emotional infidelity.

On the other hand, if the experience is indistinguishable from the experience of physical sex, then it could be argued that the lack of physical contact is irrelevant. At this point, the classic problem of the external world becomes relevant. The gist of this problem is that because I cannot get outside of my experiences to “see” that they are really being caused by external things that seem to be causing them, I can never know if there is really an external world. For all I know, I am dreaming or already in a virtual world. While this is usually seen as the nightmare scenario in epistemology, George Berkeley embraced this view in his idealism—he argued that there is no metaphysical matter and that “to be is to be perceived.” On his view, all that exists are minds and within them are ideas. Crudely put, Berkeley’s reality is virtual and God is the server.

So, if cheating is defined such that it requires physical sexual activity, knowing whether a person is cheating or not would require solving the problem of the external world. And there would be the possibility that there never has been any cheating since there might be no physical world. If sexual activity is defined in terms of the behavior and sensations without references to a need for physical systems, then virtual cheating would be possible—assuming the technology can reach the required level.

While this discussion of virtual cheating is currently purely theoretical, it does provide an interesting way to explore what it is about cheating (if anything) that is wrong. As noted at the start of the series, many of the main concerns about cheating are purely physical concerns about STDs and pregnancy. These concerns are avoided by virtual cheating. What remains are the emotions of those involved and the agreements between them. As a practical matter, the future is likely to see people working out the specifics of their relationships in terms of what sort of virtual and robotic activities are allowed and which are forbidden. While people can simply agree to anything, there is the deeper question of the rational foundation of relationship boundaries. For example, whether it is reasonable to consider interaction with a sexbot cheating or elaborate masturbation. Perhaps Bill Clinton, with his inquiries into the definition of “sex” should be leading the discussion of this matter.


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Virtual Cheating IV: Sexbots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2017

While science fiction has long included speculation about robot-human sex and romance, the current technology offers little more than sex dolls. In terms of the physical aspects of sexual activity, the development of more “active” sexbots is an engineering problem—getting the machinery to perform properly and in ways that are safe for the user (or unsafe, if that is what one wants). Regarding cheating, while a suitably advanced sexbot could actively engage in sexual activity with a human, the sexbot would not be a person and hence the standard definition of cheating (as discussed in the previous essays) would not be met. Put another way, sexual activity with such a sexbot would be analogous to the use of any other sex toy (such as a simple “blow up doll” or vibrator). Since a person cannot cheat with an object, such activity would not be cheating. Naturally enough, some people might take issue with their partner sexing it up with a sexbot and forbid such activity. While a person who broke such an agreement about robot sex would be acting wrongly, they would not be cheating. Unless, of course, the sexbot was close enough to being a person for cheating to occur.

While many people would just be interested in sexbots that engage in mechanical sexual functions, there are already efforts to make sexbots like people in terms of their “mental” functions. For example, being able to create the illusion of conversation via programming. As such efforts progress and sexbots act more and more like people, the philosophical question of whether they really are people or not will be a rather important one. While the main moral concerns would be about the ethics of how sexbots are treated, there is also the matter at hand about cheating.

Obviously enough, if a sexbot were a person, then it would be possible to cheat with that sexbot—just as one could cheat with an organic person. The fact that a sexbot might be purely mechanical would not be relevant to the ethics of the cheating, what would matter would be that a person was engaging in sexual activity with another person when their relationship with another person forbids such behavior.

It could be objected that the mechanical nature of the sexbot would matter—that sex requires organic parts of the right sort and thus a human cannot really have sex with a sexbot—no matter how the parts of the robot are shaped.

One counter to this is to use a functional argument. To draw an analogy to the philosophy of mind known as functionalism, it could be argued that the composition of the relevant parts does not matter, what matters is their functional role. A such, a human could have sex with a sexbot that had the right parts.

Another counter is to argue that the composition of the parts does not matter, rather it is the sexual activity with a person that matters. To use an analogy, a human could cheat on another human even if their only sexual contact with the other human involved sex toys. In this case, what matters is that the activity is sexual and involves people, not that objects rather than body parts are used. As such, sex with a sexbot person could be cheating if the human was breaking their commitment.

While knowing whether a sexbot was a person would largely settle the cheating issue, there remains the epistemic problem of other minds. In this case, the problem is determining whether a sexbot has a mind that qualifies them as a person. There can, of course, be varying degrees of confidence in the determination and there could also be degrees of personness. Or, rather, degrees of how person-like a sexbot might be.

Thanks to Descartes and Turing, there is a language test for having a mind—roughly put, if a sexbot can engage in conversation that is indistinguishable from conversation with a human, then it would be reasonable to regard the sexbot as a person. That said, there might be good reasons for having a more extensive testing system for personhood which might include such things as testing for emotions and self-awareness. But, from a practical standpoint, if a sexbot can engage in a level of behavior that would qualify them for person status if they were a human, then it would be just as reasonable to regard the sexbot as a person as it would be to regard an analogous human as a person. To do otherwise would seem to be mere prejudice. As such, a human person could cheat with a sexbot that could pass this test.

Since it will be a long time (if ever) before such a sexbot is constructed, what will be of more immediate concern are sexbots that are person-like. That is, that are not able to meet the standards that would qualify a human as a person, yet have behavior that is sophisticated enough that they seem to be more than mere objects. One might consider an analogy here to animals: they do not qualify as human-level people, but their behavior does qualify them for a moral status above that of objects (at least for most moral philosophers and all decent people). In this case, the question about cheating becomes a question of whether the sexbot is person-like enough to enable cheating to take place.

One approach is to consider the matter from the perspective of the human—if the human engaged in sexual activity with the sexbot regards them as being person-like enough, then the activity can be seen as cheating. An objection to this is that it does not matter what the human thinks about the sexbot, what matters is its actual status. After all, if a human regards a human they are cheating with as a mere object, this does not make it so they are not cheating. Likewise, if a human feels like they are cheating, it does not mean they really are.

This can be countered by arguing that how the human feels does matter. After all, if the human thinks they are cheating and they are engaging in the behavior, they are still acting wrongly. To use an analogy, if a person thinks they are stealing something and take it anyway, they still have acted wrongly even if it turns out that they were not stealing (that the thing they took was actually being given away). The obvious objection to this line of reasoning is that while a person who thinks they are stealing did act wrongly by engaging in what they thought was theft, they did not actually commit a theft. Likewise, a person who thinks they are engaging in cheating, but are not, would be acting wrongly, but not cheating.

Another approach is to consider the matter objectively—the degree of cheating would be proportional to the degree that the sexbot is person-like. On this view, cheating with a person-like sexbot would not be as bad as cheating with a full person. The obvious objection is that one is either cheating or not; there are not degrees of cheating. The obvious counter is to try to appeal to the intuition that there could be degrees of cheating in this manner. To use an analogy, just as there can be degrees of cheating in terms of the sexual activity engaged in, there can also be degrees of cheating in terms of how person-like the sexbot is.

While person-like sexbots are still the stuff of science fiction, I suspect the future will see some interesting divorce cases in which this matter is debated in court.


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Virtual Cheating III: “Robust” VR

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2017


As noted in previous essays, classic cheating involves sexual activity with a person while one is in a committed relationship that is supposed to exclude such activity. Visual VR can allow interaction with another person, but while such activity might have sexual content (such as nakedness and naughty talk) it would not be sexual activity in the usual sense that requires physical contact. Such behavior, as argued in the previous essay, might constitute a form of emotional infidelity—but not physical infidelity.

One of the iron laws of technology is that any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Virtual reality (VR), in its various forms, is no exception. For the most part, VR is limited to sight and sound. That is, virtual reality is mostly just a virtual visual reality. However, researchers are hard at work developing tactile devices for the erogenous zones, thus allowing people to interact sexually across the internet. This is the start of what could be called “robust” VR. That is, one that involves more than just sight and sound. This sort of technology might make virtual cheating suitably analogous to real cheating.

As would be expected, most of the research has been focused on developing devices for men to use to have “virtual sex.” Going with the standards of traditional cheating, this sort of activity would not count as cheating. This is because the sexual interaction is not with another person, but with devices. The obvious analogy here is to with less-sophisticated sex toys. If, for example, using a vibrator or blow-up-doll by oneself does not count as cheating because the device is not a person, then the same should apply to more complicated devices, such as VR sex suits that can be used with VR sex programs. There is also the question of whether such activity counts as sex. On the one hand, it is some sort of sexual activity. On the other hand, using such a device would not end a person’s tenure as a virgin.

It is certainly worth considering that a user could develop an emotional relationship with their virtual sex partner and thus engage in a form of emotional infidelity. The obvious objection is that this virtual sex partner is certainly not a person and thus cheating would not be possible—after all, one cannot cheat on a person with an object. This can be countered by considering the classic epistemic problem of other minds. Because all one has to go on is external behavior, one never knows if the things that seem to be people really are people—that is, think and feel in the right ways (or at all). Since I do not know if anyone else has a mind as I do, I could have emotional attachments to entities that are not really people at all and never know that this is the case. As such, I could never know if I was cheating in the traditional sense if I had to know that I was interacting with another person. As might be suspected, this sort of epistemic excuse (“baby, I did not know she was a person”) is unlikely to be accepted by anyone (even epistemologists). What would seem to matter is not knowing that the other entity is a person, but having the right (or rather wrong) sort of emotional involvement. So, if a person could have feelings towards the virtual sexual partner that they “interact with”, then this sort of behavior could count as virtual cheating.

There are also devices that allow people to interact sexually across the internet; with each partner having a device that communicates with their partner’s corresponding devices. Put roughly, this is remote control sex. This sort of activity does avoid many of the possible harms of traditional cheating: there is no risk of pregnancy nor risk of STDs (unless one is using rented or borrowed equipment). While these considerations do impact utilitarian calculations, the question remains as to whether this would count as cheating or not.

On the one hand, the argument could be made that this is not direct sexual contact—each person is only directly “engaged” with their device. To use an analogy, imagine that someone has (unknown to you) connected your computer to a “stimulation device” so that every time you use your mouse or keyboard, someone is “stimulated.” In such cases, it would be odd to say that you were having sex with that person. As such, this sort of thing would not be cheating.

On the other hand, there is the matter of intent. In the case of the mouse example, the user has no idea what they are doing and it is that, rather than the remote-control nature of the activity, that matters. In the case of the remote-control interaction, the users are intentionally engaging in the activity and know what they are doing. The fact that is happening via the internet does not matter. The moral status is the same if they were in the same room, using the devices “manually” on each other. As such, while there is not actual physical contact of the bodies, the activity is sexual and controlled by those involved. As such, it would morally count as cheating. There can, of course, be a debate about degrees of cheating—presumably a case could be made that cheating using sex toys is not as bad as cheating using just body parts. I will, however, leave that to others to discuss.

In the next essay I will discuss cheating in the context sex with robots and person-like VR beings.


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Virtual Cheating II: Sexting & Virtual Worlds

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2017

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.

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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Cheating Teachers

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2011
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Back in the Bush era, Washington imposed standardized tests as a measure of success in public education. The Obama administration, presumably enthralled by the mystique of assessment (and the influence of the folks selling the tests), continued this policy.

Shortly after standardized tests became the major focus of education, I heard rumors of cheating through the educational grapevine. Unlike the usual sort of cheating, this was allegedly being done by teachers and school administrators. I did acquire some confirmation regarding the rumors and heard that some people were punished for their misdeeds.

Given this background information, I was not at all surprise when it was revealed that the Atlanta Public School system has allegedly been a hotbed of cheating. I do admit that the extent of the alleged cheating was a minor shock: 44 out of the 56 schools investigated were accused of harboring cheaters, 38 principles were accused, 178 teachers took the Fifth and 82 confessed to cheating on the tests (typically by replacing erroneous answers with the right ones). The cheating seems to have been systematic in nature, rather than just the work of a few bad apples.

Such dishonesty cannot be condoned, especially when it involves educators. We are supposed to teach and enforce principles of academic integrity and ethics. As such, for us to break them is a double offense. That said, I do understand why teachers and administrators would resort to cheating.

First, these standardized tests were imposed on the schools rather than being developed internally as an effective education tool. People generally react poorly to such impositions and are often naturally inclined to resist them (just ask the Tea Party folks).  Second, the state made the test results very important and linked them to such things as raises and funding. While this did cause teachers to switch from actually teaching to engaging in test preparation, it would also motivate people to cheat-especially given the fact that these standardized tests are of somewhat dubious merit in terms of assessing student ability and teacher effectiveness. Third, while the state imposed on the schools, little (or nothing) was done to provide more funding and support for education. In fact, many states have been busily cutting into teacher’s benefits and salaries while often linking job security to the test results. This has proven to be a recipe for disaster. Fourth, many educators (myself included) have serious and well founded doubts about the effectiveness and merits of the standardized tests that have become an obsession of the state. When people believe that something is bureaucratic bullshit, they tend to try to subvert it and get around it.

It should be noted that I am not justifying the cheaters’ actions, but providing an explanation as to why they might have believed it was acceptable to cheat. To accuse me of justifying these actions would be to fall victim to the fallacy of confusing an explanation with an excuse.

Those engaged in the cheating should, of course, face the consequences of their actions.  As educators, they are expected to act with integrity and honesty. However, this situation should also be taken as indicating that standardized testing in public schools needs to be reassessed. Unfortunately, the companies that sell the tests have a rather strong lobby, hence I suspect that nothing will be done to address this blight on education and hence the problems will continue.


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Responding to the Cheater

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2009

If you determine that your partner has been cheating on you, there arises the question of how to respond to this revelation. The following are some suggestions.

Get Tested

It is an extremely good idea to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. While people often worry they will be ridiculed or humiliated, this is almost certainly not the case. Health care professionals are trained to be professional about such matters and often tend to be sympathetic towards people who have been betrayed by their partners.

Even if you and your partner practiced safe sex, it is still a good idea to get tested. Even with due precautions it is still possible to become infected. You owe it to yourself and any future partners to be sure that you are not infected.


Some people believe that a cheater will always be a cheater and hence can never be trusted. While some people might be incorrigible cheaters, it seems unlikely that every cheat is beyond redemption and incapable of changing their ways. After all, people do change in the face of experience and some people do change for the better. Think of wrongs that you have committed in the past and ask yourself if you have been able to become a better person and not repeat your mistakes. Think of wrongs that you have done that you hope will be forgiven or, even better, wrongs that have been forgiven. If you can think of such things, then you might be able to forgive the cheat.

If you think that forgiving the cheat is about doing something for them, keep in mind that such forgiveness is mainly for your benefit. Bearing a grudge and refusing to forgive a person can wear on you-causing stress and perhaps even making you a worse person. This is not to say that the cheater should be pardoned completely, just that letting the anger go can be good for the heart and the soul. Holding onto the anger can have terrible effect on your next relationship by impairing your ability to trust others.

Because of the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation can sometimes occur. Sometimes the person who has been betrayed is able to forgive the cheater and the relationship can be restored to a semblance of its previous state. Some people do learn and are able to change from a cheater to a loyal partner. While this can happen, it is a good idea to be wary of people who merely pretend to be reformed cheaters. While people can and do change, people also tend to stick with established patterns of behavior.


When you are wronged it is natural to want to wrong the person who harmed you in return. On one hand, there are good reasons to punish the cheater. On the other hand, there are good reasons not to do so.

One reason to punish a cheater is the psychological need for revenge. You might, it could be reasoned, feel better after punishing the person and thus be better able to move on. Of course, not everyone has this need and it can be argued that this need shows a character defect. However, the need is understandable. One reason not to punish for revenge is that doing so can make you a worse person-a vengeful human being.

A second reason to punish the cheater is that they deserve punishment. Some might argue that punishing the cheater is like punishing a criminal-the punishment is needed to set things right. This has a certain appeal. After all, we do owe others for the good they do us, so it would seem (by analogy) that we owe them bad for the evil they do us. Of course, doing wrong for wrong seems to merely double the wrong being done, thus providing a reason not to do this.

A third reason to punish the cheater is to deter them from doing it again. As philosophers such as Hobbes and Glaucon (in Plato’s Republic) have argued, if people can commit their misdeeds without fear of punishment, then they will continue to commit those misdeeds. But, if they are punished, then they will be much less inclined to commit their injustices in the future. One reason not to do this is that it is not clear that cheaters will learn to be more loyal from being punished.

If you decide that the cheater needs to be punished, then there is the question of the nature of the punishment. Before considering what action to take, it is very important to be aware that law enforcement officials generally do not consider cheating to justify taking action against a person.

People often entertain the idea of doing physical harm to the cheater or his/her property. For example, every time cheating is discussed in my ethics classes someone (for some reason it is always a woman…) brings up keying the cheater’s car. Laying aside the immorality of such deeds, harming a person or his/her property is generally illegal and doing so can end with criminal prosecution. In the past, courts were often lenient in such cases-even acquitting men who killed their spouses for cheating. However, those days seem to have fortunately passed and vengeance for cheating is much less well regarded in the courts. While fantasizing about torching the cheater’s prized Trans Am can have some psychological benefit, actually doing so would probably result in a law suit or even jail time.

People sometimes entertain the idea of exposing the cheater to the world thus shaming them and warning others. Of course, doing so will also reveal to the world that you have been cheated on and might cause you some embarrassment.

Some people say that the cheater is punished by not having them as a partner anymore. While this does reveal a certain degree of arrogance, it is certainly a peaceful and legal approach. Of course, the cheater might or might not consider this a punishment-they might simply move on to a new relationship (or, more likely, relationships) without any suffering on their part.

Perhaps the best way to “punish” the cheater is to move on and create a loyal, healthy and loving relationship with another person. A true cheater will never be able to have such a relationship and although the cheater might believe s/he is happy, this is almost certainly self delusion. In a sense, by denying themselves loyal and healthy relationships, the cheaters are punishing themselves.

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Spotting Cheaters

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on December 20, 2009

Not surprisingly, there have been numerous attempts to determine the percentage of people who cheat. The main reason to know this is to gauge the likelihood that you will be a victim of cheating. Based on a sampling of various surveys, about 20% of women and 40% of men claim they have cheated. However, these percentages are untrustworthy for three reasons.

First, if there is one subject that people lie about, that subject is sex. Second, cheaters are most likely also liars-hence they certainly cannot be regarded as an honest source of information about cheating. Third, social expectations probably influence the answers people give. For men, there is a certain machismo associated with cheating-so some men might claim they have cheated even if they did not do so. Although there have been great strides in equal rights, women are still socialized to regard cheating as extremely bad, so women are probably less likely to admit to such indiscretions. Given these facts, it seems unlikely that the actual percentage of cheats will ever be known. However, based on anecdotal evidence it seems likely that cheating occurs at fairly significant levels and is hence something to be concerned about.

While you should be concerned about the possibility of cheating it is very important to know that even if it is true that 40% of all men cheat and 20% of all women cheat, it does not follow that your partner has a 40% or 20% chance of cheating on you. Individuals are more or less likely to cheat based on their personal characteristics. So, for example, if your boyfriend is loyal and devoted, he does not have a 40% chance of straying.

Whatever the percentages, people do cheat and it is a good idea to be able to spot the signs of cheating in order to minimize your health and emotional risks. Fortunately, there are signs that a person is cheating. The signs presented below are not exhaustive-there are other signs of cheating.

Before presenting these signs, I am obligated to give the following warning: It is very important to keep in mind that these signs are not conclusive and that a person could exhibit some or even all of these signs and not be cheating. Accusing an innocent person of cheating is an almost surefire way to put an end to a relationship so it is wise to approach this sort of situation with due caution. Along with the signs I provide possible alternative explanations and some suggestions on how to deal with such situations. In any case, the responsibility lies with you-I assume no moral or legal responsibility for any actions you might take or not take based on my advice.

Unusual Communication

The sign: Your partner receives an unusual number of phone calls, text messages, emails, etc., seems unusually interested in them and is rather vague about them. For example, s/he will break off what s/he is doing with you to respond to a text message and when asked about it will say something vague about “a friend.”

People who cheat need to plan their cheating and people involved in cheating seem to often need a great deal of contact with the cheater. One likely reason is that they know the cheater is a cheater-hence are probably checking up on him/her. Someone who is a traitor cheater will be harder to catch by this sign-they will tend to tell the other person when to contact them. Stealth cheaters are most vulnerable to exposure by this method-the person s/he is cheating with is ignorant that s/he is involved with a cheater and hence has no reason to be discreet in communication.

Alternative Explanation: Many people have perfectly legitimate reasons to receive a great deal of communication-they might have many friends (or needy friends), it could be work related, and so on. People also have good reason to be interested in such communication-they might like their friends or be dedicated to their job. People often have good reasons to be vague about their communication-they might not think it is important or necessary to keep you informed about all their interaction with others. Also, many people seem to regard the phone or text message device as taking priority to a person who is actually present. I have even had students break off a discussion about a failing grade to respond instantly to the beep of their mobile phone. So, it is best not to always read too much into such behavior.

Resolution: Avoid the urge to snoop or press too hard into your partner’s communication. People tend to like some degree of privacy and resent such intrusions. Also, such behavior shows a lack of trust and might convey the impression that you are trying to unfairly control his/her communication. Such behavior might very well create a problem where there is not one. If the communication situation bothers you enough, a reasonable approach is to express your concerns to your partner and see if they would be willing to explain the situation or change their behavior. If the person becomes hostile about the discussion or seems secretive or evasive, then something might well be up.

Restrictions on Communication/Meeting

Sign: Your partner places seeming unusually restrictions on when and how you can contact them and when and where you can see them. Since most cheaters do not want to be caught they will obviously attempt to control your contact with them. That way they are not exposed-either by you catching them cheating or by you exposing them to someone else they are also cheating on.

Alternative Explanation: People can have good reasons for telling you when you can contact and see them. In some cases the person might seem to be placing restrictions, but is merely telling you when they will be available. In other cases people like having their space and prefer to set aside time for themselves away from you. In other cases, people like to keep their romantic relationships out of their workplace and hence will ask you not to call or visit them at work. All these can be good reasons and not signs of cheating.

Resolution: Do not assume the person is cheating and decide to immediately attempt to “catch” them by intruding into those restricted times and places. This will display a lack of trust and a lack of respect for the person that might be very harmful to the relationship. If you find their restrictions problematic or are otherwise concerned with such limits, then discuss these restrictions with the person. If the restrictions are reasonable, then the person should be able to justify them. If the person is evasive or becomes hostile, then there might well be something going on.


Sign: Your partner is secretive about certain things. They go places, but do not say where they went, what they did or who they were with. They have missing time in their schedule that they do not account for. They are overly concerned about you seeing their email, text messages or phone logs and take steps to prevent you from doing so or overact if you show interest in such things.

Alternative Explanation: Your partner might be a CIA agent. Seriously, there can be good reasons for such behavior. First, your partner might not even realize that they seem secretive-they might simply not feel the need to report everything they do to you. Second, people need privacy even in a relationship. Psychological space is critical to a person’s well being and even the most open person will act to preserve that space. Third, people tend to regard their phone logs, email and text messages as private-and rightfully so. Sharing such things is a matter of choice and there is no legitimate expectation to full access to your partner’s communication. Of course, there can also be problems other than cheating that are the cause of such secrecy-such things as alcoholism, gambling or drug addiction.

Resolution: Avoid the temptation to spy on your partner. Doing so shows a lack of trust and respect that can spell ruin for a relationship. Also, doing so might involve crossing the line into illegal activity-such as hacking their email accounts. A reasonable approach is to ask them about their apparent need for secrecy in such matters and attempt to see if they are willing to either be more open or reassure you about such matters. If they seem suspiciously reluctant, then they might be cheating. Then again, they might also be protective of their privacy.


Sign: Your catch your partner in inconsistencies. They initially tell you that they do not need to travel for work, yet suddenly start taking weekend business trips. They tell you that they always get off work at 5:00, but then cancel a dinner date because they suddenly have to work late. They tell you they went to lunch with a friend, but the friend has no recollection of that event.

Alternative Explanation: Apparent inconsistencies can often be legitimately explained. For example, a person’s work schedule or requirements might really change so that they do need to take business trips or work late. As another example, people do forget things, so the friend might have forgotten about having lunch. As with secrecy, there is the possibility that some other problem is occurring. For example, a person with a drinking problem might say he was helping a friend paint when he was actually at bar.

Resolution: Do not simply assume that they are up to something and try to ferret out the information by interrogating them or their associates and friends. This will show a lack of trust and respect that can be rather detrimental to the relationship. If the inconsistencies seem problematic, discuss your concerns with your partner. If they can explain the seeming inconsistencies, then things can be resolved. If they remain unexplained or the person seems evasive or worried, then there might be a problem.


The Sign: Your partner has become cold and distant. People commonly cheat to satisfy their sexual and emotional needs. Given that people do not have unlimited needs, it is common for cheaters to have less desire to have sexual and emotional relations with their partner. A reduction (or elimination) of the interest in intimacy can thus be a sign of cheating.

People who cheat also often want to feel justified in their misdeeds. One way this is done is by attempting to provoke the other person into behavior that the cheater can use to “justify” his/her cheating. This can be done by being emotionally distant and cold. The other person will tend to respond in kind-thus creating a situation in which the cheater thinks his/her cheating is justified.

Alternative Explanation: Coldness and distance are not always signs of cheating, but they are almost always a sign of some sort of relationship problem. A person might be cold or distant because of stress, illness, depression or other factors that will (hopefully) come to an end. A person might also be cold or distant due to more lasting reasons, such as an enduring depression, dissatisfaction with the relationship, or deep seated character or emotional problems. A person might also be cold or distant because they are reconsidering the relationship or even using this method to end the relationship. Some people are reluctant to directly end a relationship and instead attempt to make the situation intolerable to the other person so they will initiate the break up.

Resolution: If you value the relationship do not respond by retaliating against the person. Being cold and distant in return will only worsen matters and lead to further emotional harm for both of you. If s/he is cheating, s/he will feel even more justified in the cheating. If the cause is stress or other problems, retaliation just makes matters worse. Especially avoid any foolish gestures, such as moving to sleep in another room or making cutting remarks about the person’s behavior.

If your partner is cold and distant, the simplest and often the most effective means of dealing with it is by having a discussion about why they are being cold and distant. Try to determine if the cause is something that you can help them with and take the appropriate action. For example, if they are distant because of stress, help them relax and see if you can help reduce what is causing the stress. If they want out of the relationship, it is usually best to let them go. If they are cheating, it is almost certainly best to send them packing.

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Three Types of Cheaters

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2009

Put in very general terms, cheating involves straying outside a committed relationship in order to have sexual relations with another person or persons. People cheat for a variety of reasons, but there are two main motivations that are almost certainly present in every case. First, the cheater believes that s/he is not getting something she needs or wants from the existing relationship. For example, a person might not be receiving the amount or type of sex s/he wants. As another example, a person might not be receiving the emotional intimacy s/he needs. These unsatisfied needs are what motivate the person to stray outside the confines of the relationship. Second, the cheater believes that s/he is getting something of value out of the existing relationship or is avoiding something undesirable by remaining in the relationship. Obviously, if the cheater got nothing from being in the relationship, then s/he would most likely end the relationship rather than cheat. What the cheater gets from the relationship can vary greatly. One person might remain in a relationship out of love, but stray because her sexual desires are not being gratified. Another person might remain in a relationship for financial security, yet wander because his partner is emotionally distant. A third person might remain in a relationship out of fear of being harmed, yet cheat in order to attempt to have a relationship that is not based on threats and coercion.

While people cheat for a variety of reasons, it is generally desirable to avoid having someone cheat on you. Laying aside the moral harms, cheating is harmful in two very practical ways. First, there is the matter of physical health. There are many sexually transmitted diseases in the world and some of them, such as AIDS, are life threatening. If someone is cheating on you, the odds of you being exposed to one of these diseases increases significantly. Second, there is the matter of emotional health. Being committed and loyal to a person who does not reciprocate this loyalty can be quite devastating when this infidelity is revealed. The extent of this emotional harm increases the more you are committed to the person and commitment tends to increase with time. Given that both the chance of being harmed and the extent of the harm depends on the amount of time on is a victim of a cheater, it is reasonable to think that the sooner a cheater is exposed, the better.

To spot a cheater, you need to know what types of cheaters you might be dealing with. There are three types of cheaters: the traitor cheater, the stealth cheater, and the open cheater. Each of these types will be discussed in turn.

The traitor cheater is the classic cheater. The cheater is cheating with a person who is aware of the relationship that the cheater is violating. This is analogous to historical traitors who secretly betray their alleged loyalties to another party who is fully aware of their traitorous deeds. A traitor cheater can be hard to catch because s/he has a willing accomplice who will probably aid the cheater in concealing the cheating.

A stealth cheater is a person who cheats on one person with another person who is ignorant of the cheater’s other relationship. The cheater is thus cheating on both people because only s/he knows about the cheating and the others believe they are in a committed relationship.

Because the stealth cheater does not have a knowing and willing accomplice, they can sometimes be easier to catch. In fact, one of the people involved with the cheater might accidentally expose the cheat. For example, a person who is unaware that s/he is involved with a cheater might stop by the cheater’s place unexpectedly when the other person is there.

An open cheater is someone who, as the term states, is open in his or her cheating. While s/he remains in a relationship, no attempt is made to conceal the cheating. The notion of an open cheater might seem rather odd. After all, cheating seems to almost require secrecy by definition. However, such cheating does occur and occurs enough that there are slang terms for those who engage in it. People who are open cheaters have been called “swingers” and “players.”

The good thing about an open cheater is that there is no need to expose the person-they are open about the cheating. The bad thing about an open cheater is that s/he is still a cheater.

A single person might conceivably be a cheater of multiple types. For example, a person might be cheating with one person who is aware of his infidelity while he is also involved with a third person who is unaware of the first two. However, most cheaters tend to fall into just one type.

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Student Gambits: “I didn’t Know” & “It’s Too Hard”

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2009

Next week is the last week of classes at my university, so we are now in what I call the “time of great desperation.” This is the time when some of the failing students realize that they are failing and are hence in desperate need of something that will allow them to pass.

While some students do decide to make a last, desperate attempt to do passing work, others fall back on time worn gambits in the hopes that they will pay off. I’ll be discussing a few of the gambits that have been played this week.

A rather weak gambit is the “I didn’t know” tactic. This is played when a student asserts that s/he was unaware of some critical information such as a due date, a test date, how to do the assignment and so on. I counter this by providing all the relevant dates on the syllabus, by including a syllabus entry stating that students are responsible for knowing such information, by announcing dates every class, and by providing highly detailed guides to the papers. Students sometimes still attempt this gambit, but all this does is show that they did not go to class and did not get the required material for the course.

Another gambit is the “it’s too hard” tactic. A student will typically play this when his or her paper is late and use it in a bid for more time. The way to defend against this is to make sure that the paper, assignment, project or whatever is suitable for the course level.This can a challenge for new professors, especially if they did not w0rk as TAs during graduate school. Fortunately, help can be had from experienced professors who can provide suggestions and examples. For example, I have paper topics and guides at my web site for philosophy classes. Naturally, experience will also help a great deal here as you learn what can reasonably be expected of your students.

In my case, I have been a professor since 1993 and have fine-tuned my papers so that they are well-matched to the classes. That is, I consistently get a bell curve of grades. As such, when a student plays this gambit, I reply that the papers have been fine tuned for the classes. I do add that I am happy to listen to suggestions and, of course, am available to provide assistance. I also point out that the majority of other students who have taken the class were able to complete the paper with a passing grade and hence it hardly seems that the paper is too hard.

As noted above, students often play this gambit when the paper is late in the hopes of getting an extension. For example, I had a student email me on 4/15/2009 saying that he was having trouble with the paper because it was too hard. The paper deadline was 4/10/2009. While he had spoken with me briefly during my office hours, he had not even attempted a draft of the paper. I used my standard reply to this sort of tactic: the time to seek help when you are having difficulty on a paper  is before the deadline, not after.

A student who seeks help way before the deadline is probably really looking for help. A student who says the paper is difficult after the deadline is most likely just fishing for an undeserved extension.

Some students also employ this tactic in the hopes of substituting some other work for the paper in question. Shockingly enough, the suggested substitution is always supposed to be something much easier. I counter this by pointing out the obvious: in order for the students to be treated fairly, the students have to do the same sort of work. If one student gets an easy assignment, that would be like having a track race in which one runner gets to use low hurdles while everyone else is expected to jump the high hurdles.

That said, it is important to be sympathetic to and supportive of students who honestly find the work difficult. Students have different abilities and a good professor takes that into account. If a student approaches me for help because they really do find the paper difficult, then I help them to the best of my ability. In this case, the student isn’t playing a gambit-s/he is asking me to do my job-to teach her/him.

In the above discussion, I have just mentioned cases involving a very few students (usually just one). Now, if you have many students expressing concern about the difficulty of a paper, assignment or project, then it is well worth re-evaluating the paper, assignment or project. It might turn out that the concern is groundless (people naturally tend to complain about anything that is not really easy). However, the students’ might be correct-it might be unfairly difficult. In that case, you should modify the paper, project or assignment and work with the students to make sure that they have the proper chance to get the grades they deserve.