It is no secret that people cheat in their relationships (although it may be a secret to their partners). Given that infidelity is so frequent, it is worth asking whether it is moral to sell cheating and whether it is acceptable to celebrate those who have affairs. Famously, the website ashleymadison.com advertises their find-someone-to-cheat-with service using the tagline “Life is short. Have an affair.” Now they are using Newt Gingrich as their poster boy. I have to admit, I love their billboard (pictured above).
It is difficult to determine how many people cheat, but the most reliable statistics suggest that 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women have cheated on their spouses and that the number of women cheating is increasing every year. If you consider people under 35, this number is about 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women. For people over sixty, the lifetime rate of infidelity has increased dramatically in recent years.
It is harder to find statistics on unmarried couples, but the best I can discover tell us that 30 to 40 percent of those relationships involve at least one instance of infidelity. Also, I once heard a claim from what I recall to be a reliable source that while men cheat more in relationships, women cheat earlier. I don’t remember where I heard it so I can’t confirm the statement.
Regardless of the statistics, the fact of the matter is that cheating is frequent enough that there is a tremendous market to be tapped. (Excuse the pun.) And, while the products involved in cheating range from mouthwash, to lingerie, to birth control, only Ashley Madison and Las Vegas have managed to make it the centerpiece of their advertising campaigns. (Remember, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.) Are they wrong to do so?
The question of whether or not it is actually immoral to cheat is another question; for the time being, let’s just assume it is. Our concern now is whether it is immoral to provide tools to help people do immoral things. The folks at Ashley Madison and Vegas tourism can honestly report that they aren’t forcing anyone to do anything, they’re just providing a wanted service. This is no different from what the liquor-store owner might say about dozens of activities, from cheating to binge drinking. Encouraging vice is so central to capitalism that one of its central texts is subtitled “Private Vices, Public Benefits.” That book was first published in the year 1705.
These questions have many versions for other contexts: do we give heroin addicts clean needles so they don’t contract HIV? Do we sell radar detectors so people can speed without getting caught? Questions of infidelity are further complicated by the fact that adultery, like other “immoral” activities, is legal in most countries. You can’t get arrested for it; you’re just a bad person if you’re doing it.
The argument against all of this is pretty straightforward. Helping someone engage in immoral acts encourages immorality, therefore it is immoral itself. Finding ways to encourage people to fall off the wagon just isn’t very nice. You don’t taunt someone on a diet with a Ding Dong; you don’t knowingly give a recovering alcoholic a bottle of scotch, and you don’t encourage cheating.
But again, these arguments run counter to our daily experiences. Virtually everything we see tells us the opposite: get people to buy your product even if what they do with it is unethical. And, if this is the case, why shouldn’t we celebrate those who engage in bad behavior? The Republic Party, the “family values” party, doesn’t seem to have a problem with Newt Gingrich’s bad behavior. Why should anyone else?
In the last blog entry I asked whether hypocrisy was a vice. Here we are even further down that road. If our culture endorses bad behavior, if we cover the infidelities of the famous with glee, if we write books, make movies and television shows, and sing songs about all those whose exciting lives involve cheating on their partners, then why shouldn’t we just be up front about it? And, if we are up front with it, why not make some money in the process?