Infidelity & The Ethics of Personal Happiness
In an episode of This American Life from 2009, Ira Glass interviews Jessica Pressler about a blog post she wrote about the New York Time Vows column, which is used by newly-weds to announce (and to conspicuously display) their marital bliss. Pressler notes that couples have to lobby to be included in the column, which implies that there’s a certain amount of status that comes with it.
What’s strange is that the column has begun to include stories that euphemistically imply that one or both cheated on their previous partner. Outrageously, these individuals proudly announce their new love without the minimum of shame at having betrayed someone to get there.
But what we do not understand, what we cannot abide, is when said people, in the throes of connubial bliss, lobby to have themselves included in the New York Times “Vows” column, and then proceed to tell the reporter about how they cheated on their previous partner in a way that suggests they think of it not as something crap they have done to another person but instead like it is part of their personal love story.
It’s clear that this development signals the triumph of the belief that there ought to be no limits to an individual finding personal happiness. Traditional ethical standards like fidelity, honesty or commitment no longer have any sway, so much so that people shamelessly include their violation when narrating their life, almost to the point that courageously overcoming them is part of the drama of the story.
Pressler’s observation reminded me of something that happened at work a few years ago: the company I worked for at the time contracted with a freelance web designer to redesign the website because the employees who would normally have done it were swamped with other work. A few weeks before the site was supposed to go live, he emailed us to let us know he was pulling out of the project, which meant that our team would have to finish what was left on top of their other work. During the next meeting with him, the designer sensed that we were unhappy with him leaving on such short notice, and so he helpfully explained that the reason for the inconvenience was that he had got an offer for his dream job. This was intended as a justification, that the reason we should be understanding was that it was going to be really great for him.
In situations where you have to back out of a commitment, conventional ethical guidelines permit it in circumstances like a family emergency. Certain things are understood to transcend those commitments, such that one is forced to inconvenience others because of a higher duty. What’s new is that following your dreams is understood to have been elevated into this kind of transcendent duty that overrides quotidian ethical norms. The norm is “My hands are tied, I have to betray you. My personal happiness is at stake.” The notion of sacrificing one’s happiness for the greater good of sustaining the bonds of (professional or romantic) solidarity is outmoded.
This fact is also apparent in the fact that Pressler herself, even though she is clearly outraged at not only the ethical violation, but also it’s shameless inclusion in a heroic story of overcoming obstacles to find true happiness, isn’t able to quite make that judgment. For her, the ethical breach is in the way that the betrayed lover is further humiliated by the triumphant announcement, as if the problem is something like “First you betray me, and then to make matters worse, now everyone knows you betrayed me!” The problem for Pressler is tact, not ethics - she concedes that sometimes it’s necessary to betray a lover to find true happiness, but at least be tactful about it, don’t celebrate someone else’s misery.
She mentions a second problem in her interview with Ira Glass, one which seems like a uniquely journalistic concern: the Times appears to be taking the side of the new couple, in a violation of the journalistic ethic of neutrality and telling all sides of the story. The harm is not the outrageousness of boasting about betraying someone - that part is fine. The harm is that the betrayed lover does not have the reciprocal opportunity to tell her side of the story; as Pressler puts it, “they don’t get to say anything for themselves, it’s like, not their story any more, it’s someone else’s ‘love’ story.” Here, the problem is that the VowsÂ section is one-sided and forecloses the possibility of narrating other interpretations of the betrayal. This strongly evokes Rorty’s fundamental right of the individual, the right to narrate one’s own experience of suffering. (It seems so obvious now that I don’t know how I could have missed it: journalists and other writers have a unique connection to this Rortian ideal because it is a way of undergirding the social significance of their work.)
But I think Pressler is struggling with the limits of this right to self- narration. The VowsÂ column reporting one particular version of events doesn’t actually prevent other narratives from being reported in other venues. Could the betrayed lover not publish a blog, for example, to tell her side of the story? In the attention economy, this falls flat; it seems absurd, even offensive, to say that we can best address an ethical wrong by offering the victim the opportunity to narrate her suffering, no matter how obscure the venue, rather than justice. The limit of Rorty can be found in the commonplace insult, “Save it for your blog.”