Pretty Little Lies: On the Morality of Seductive Deception

Have you ever lied to get someone into bed?

If you answered “no”, congratulations. You are in august company. Immanuel Kant definitely never did, since he was a Kantian about lying, and (as far as we know, and perhaps not coincidentally) he died a virgin. If it’s true that Abraham Lincoln never told a lie, then it follows logically he never lied to convince someone to sleep with him. But I think it may be just the three of you. The rest of us have done it, most of us more than once.

The law on this is, at least in most jurisdictions, clear. It forbids something called fraud in the act, which means having sex with someone without them knowing you are doing it, or without them knowing who is doing it. But it does not punish people for fraud in the inducement – in other words, lying your way into bed. Fraud in the act is exceedingly rare. There are a few cases involving doctors telling patients they are doing one thing and actually doing another – you can figure it out from there – and a few cases of a person A sneaking into bed with someone B, with whom they are not involved, under cover of dark, and having sex with B without B realising that they, A, are actually not B’s partner. (Most of the documented cases occur in comedies by William Shakespeare.) By contrast, as I have said, fraud in the inducement is an everyday occurrence. Given that the law protects people from fraud in other realms, one might think that it is only consistent to allow them to recover for damages done by sexual deception. But it is not hard to see why we have avoided going down that road. Any society that criminalised fraud in the inducement could easily find its legal system overwhelmed with cases, most involving perpetrators who are otherwise law-abiding and exemplary citizens. And an inducement-fraud law might well make dating impossible, since we would live in fear that anything we failed to disclose could form the basis for a legal action against us.

Something can be immoral without being illegal, however. Assuming we are trying in good faith to be moral people and do the right thing when possible, I am curious what rule we should apply to govern seductive deceptions (let’s call them). With most moral problems, we can find among our stock of conventional views a general rule of thumb, and maybe two or three competing ones, which we can at least use as a starting point for critical reflection. We may accept one of these rules as is, revise it, or toss them all out and start fresh. With seductive deceptions I don’t even think we have a single rule of thumb that most people would be able to produce off the top of their heads. It’s the wild west out there, and internet dating just opened the frontier. Millions of people now have to decide what information to put into their profiles and what they can leave out, on top of the more traditional one of what to reveal once you are actually face to face.

One obvious rule would be a prudential one: don’t tell a lie that, if you got caught in it, would get you dumped. But I think as moral philosophers we can do better than mere prudence, and in any case it would be nice to have a rule that could govern even those people looking for one-night-stands or short-term flings, for whom such prudential considerations would have little interest.

There are two extremes, each of which suggest their own rule:

1. The Kantian Rule: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
2. The Cowboy Rule: The rule is, there are no rules.

As I have said, I doubt anyone subscribes to the Kantian Rule, for the obvious reason that anyone who does risks dying a virgin. Some people might brashly claim to subscribe to the Cowboy Rule – all is fair in love and war, as the old cliché has it. In fact, however, we can test our intuitions by thinking about cases where someone fails to disclose having an STD before they have sex. Nearly all of us would be horrified by such behaviour, which means there are few genuine cowboys among us. As with most moral problems, we need a solution that lies in between the two extremes.

I have to confess, this is a problem I am still working on. I devoted a class period to it, and the discussion with my students helped a lot. We came up with a few other possible rules, which I’ll explore in a future post. For now, I want to leave you with a test case that, at least in class, split people fairly evenly down the middle. It is, I confess, an autobiographical one. I once met a woman who I really liked, but whom I knew to be a passionately-committed vegetarian. So during our first real conversation I claimed that I too was a vegetarian, and talked to her earnestly about the immorality of eating meat. We hit it off, and ended up sleeping together. The relationship never became very serious; it ended after a few weeks. And I never owned up to being, as I am, a frequent eater of meat. Was what I did immoral? At the time I didn’t think twice about it, and, since I have reason to believe that we both regarded the affair as enjoyable enough while it lasted, I have never felt any guilt about it. But perhaps I should. You can be honest – it was a long time ago, and I promise my feelings won’t be hurt if you tell me I was a bad person.

Image: Arthur Hacker, “Circe Enchants the Companions of Odysseus” (1893)

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