Can Tess Help Us Solve “The Dilemma”?

There was a movie released not that long ago called The Dilemma, about a weird-looking guy with an insanely hot girlfriend who, surprisingly enough, cheats on him. His best friend finds out, and – well it’s supposed to be a comedy, so I guess we can presume that hilarity ensues. I tried watching it on an airplane, but I turned it off after about ten minutes. (When — age spoiler alert — I saw Heathers in high school it was one of the formative experiences of my life, so it’s physically painful for me to watch Winona Ryder in bad movies. But I don’t think I could have finished it no matter who was in it.) But the dilemma of the title – the one faced by Vince Vaughan, whether or not to tell his “bro” that his girlfriend is stepping out – is one that many people have faced. I had a student a few years back who came to me for advice about what to do in a similar situation. Generally my advice to people who come to see me for advice is, don’t come to philosophers for advice. We tend to say things like: “Well technically speaking that’s not actually a dilemma . . .”  In this case however I was glad he did – not because I could help him, but because it gave me material I’ve been using in my introductory level philosophy course ever since.

Here is The Dilemma as my student faced it. Let’s call the couple in question Caravaggia and Tiberius. (If we’re going to pick names for people arbitrarily, why pick boring ones?) They had been together for some time. He was friends with both of them. Caravaggia had an affair a while back, which my student recently found out about. The couple had been, and remained, happy together. My student was confident that it had been a one-time thing. Caravaggia had not continued to see the person she had the fling with, nor had she had other affairs. He also sincerely believed that if he told Tiberius about the affair, it would end their relationship. He further believed that they were very well-suited to one another, and so would both end up worse off as a result.

We could doubt the facts as presented. How do we know she hadn’t continued to see her lover, or had other affairs? But let’s assume for the sake of argument that everything he says is correct. Should he tell Tiberius the truth? The reason I bring it up in my Intro class is because it can provide a particularly clear illustration of the different approach to moral problems used by Kantians and utilitarians. For Kantians, the question is straightforward. They are not big fans of lying. Kant himself believed that lying is wrong in any situation – even if for instance a psychotic killer is looking for your friend, and asks you where he might find him. He gives himself an out by claiming there are some situations where you can tell half-truths, like “He was at the butcher’s an hour ago”, but we’ll leave that aside. I think in any case most self-respecting Kantians believe that it’s impermissible to deceive someone in order to prevent him from making a fully informed decision about the course of his own future. Kantians are committed to the value of autonomy above all. That is to say, they think that rational adults have the right to determine the course of their own lives, and we shouldn’t deceive or manipulate them just because we think it is for their own good. For utilitarians, the answer is not so clear. They want to maximise happiness overall, and they don’t believe that anything is inherently right or wrong independent of the consequences it brings about. So they will weigh up the costs and benefits of telling and not telling. They will ask questions like: If they did break up, would Tiberius have trouble finding someone as good? (My student believed strongly that he would indeed have trouble.) But, is there a risk that he might find out later in life, when he he might feel even more hurt by the deception having gone on so long, and have even more trouble finding someone else – and now feel betrayed by his friend, my student, as well?

When I discuss this in class, most of my students are often horrified by such cold calculation as the utilitarian recommends, when it seems to them intuitively that there is a right thing to do. A surprising number justify their intuition with reference to the “bro code”, which I confess is not something that I, being of a certain age (see Heathers reference above), am terribly familiar with. But in any case most feel there is some code of right and wrong that dictates a firm answer in such a situation, and their intuitions spring from this. We owe our friends the truth, even if, paternalistically, we think they might sometimes be better off in ignorance.

So let’s ask Tess. This thought occurred to me when, in connexion with a totally separate project, I was looking at different stage adaptations of Hardy’s novel. The relevant facts are these: Tess is a young woman in Victorian England. She has an affair with Alec, and has a child, who dies. She meets a man Angel, who falls in love with her, and she with him. He is a man of upright morals, the son of a parson, and she knows that if she tells him the truth, he will consider her a fallen woman, and it will destroy their relationship.

Let’s say that all this is happening right now, in our day. Angel is a nice guy, and they are in love, but he happens to have some outdated ideas about female virtue. We can imagine ourselves as a friend of the couple, who knows about Tess’s past. We know that if Angel knew the whole truth, he would leave Tess, with possibly tragic consequences. (You can read the novel.) Do we have an obligation to tell him? Here, I think, our intuitions are less Kantian. It doesn’t seem so awful to just keep our mouths shut. That’s because most of us don’t consider something like a premarital relationship to be a stain on a woman’s character, as the Victorians did. But Angel does, and, if we truly believe in autonomy, we should think he has the right to his opinions, and to govern his life according, and that as his friend we owe him the truth in order to help him do so.

In another sort of society, such as perhaps the Na of China, Caravaggia’s transgression might look as trivial as Tess’s does to us. This is not to say we should just become moral relativists. For a utilitarian, the point is not that there are no bad acts. Rather, they believe that for something to be wrong, you have to be able to point to a harm. That harm may be actual or potential, but it has to be real – it can’t just be the violation of some abstract code. If we have a case where a person has had an affair and her partner will never find out, it may seem difficult to point to the harm done by keeping our friend in ignorance.

For reasons that I will get into in the future, I think there are ways for a utilitarian to argue that we should tell our friend the truth. Utilitarianism is a complex theory, and it doesn’t just spit out single answers to difficult problems. I also did not mean to argue that we should not tell our friend the truth. It is something I think I would genuinely struggle with – I’m glad I’m not in my student’s position. My objective was more modest: to undermine the righteous certainty which my students and others so confidently assert when faced with this question, and with which they dismiss all attempts to introduce consequentialist reasoning. I am more sympathetic to consequentialism than many philosophers, and in any case I have a duty, when teaching Intro Phil, to present it as sympathetically as possible. But I also have an allergy to righteous certainty, and I think Hardy’s novel is a very good illustration of where it can lead you.

Image: Raisa Kanareva, Portrait of a beautiful young victorian lady in white dress (

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  1. In favour of the student keeping his mouth shut, time passing tends to dull the pain of old sins. If you were to find out that your wife slept with someone else in the first (monogamous) year of your relationship, and that was ten years ago, and you have every reason to believe it’s never happened since, the emotional trauma now would be vastly smaller than it would a mere month after the infidelity.

    Does utilitarianism admit post hoc justifications for decisions? If Caravaggia and Tiberius lived happily ever after, does that justify the student’s silence? If one argues that the student was wrong at that time, does waiting it out change the moral calculus?

    Posted January 16, 2012 at 12:05 am | Permalink | Reply
    • I think that utilitarians want to look at all available information. So certainly a decision can be proven by time to have been utility-maximising. However, I think that inasmuch as it is a moral theory, meant to help us make the best decisions, it has to be committed to something like: you should do what is best given the information that is available to you at the time. You are deciding whether to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Unbeknownst to you, he is a terrorist planning an attack on innocent civilians. I think it’s hard for a utilitarian to praise you, exactly, if you pull the trigger. However, if you have an honest, reasonable belief that a given course of action will maximise happiness in time, then I think you have every right to claim vindication if time proves you right.

      Posted January 17, 2012 at 12:06 am | Permalink | Reply
  2. neil

    A distinguished economist who is a expert in the application of economic principles to sexual questions writes: “Your question of whether or not to tell a spouse that they have been cuckolded is not difficult for an economist who would simply apply the principles of Pareto optimality: Can someone be made better off without making others worse off? The only one made better off in the situation is the teller since they clearly want to get the information off their chest. But in doing so they only make the couple worse off. In theory at least (one thing is certain, no one will thank him later). So, they shouldn’t tell under that condition.”

    Posted January 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

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