David Bruce (born 1954): Sex and Lyi

The situation:

You are a guy, and you have been on a first date with a woman that you really don’t care for, but who you know does care for you very much. You realize that she is receptive to having sex with you. You realize that if you do have sex with her, you will never call her again. You also realize that she will be very hurt and know that she’s been used when you don’t call. At the same time, you realize that you sleep alone more often than you like to admit. The choice is yours: 1) sleep with the woman and promise to call her, although you realize you never will, or 2) say goodnight to the woman, and never call her.

What I would do:

In a situation such as this, I would say goodnight to the woman and never call her. So what if I sleep alone more often than I like to admit.

What Aristotle would tell me to do:

Aristotle believed in the mean between extremes and in being virtuous. With the mean between extremes, I would try to avoid excesses and deficiencies of character traits and instead aim for the Golden Mean. (Of course, I would keep in mind that for actions such as adultery there is no mean — just a little adultery is still an excess.) In this situation, two different means between extremes come into effect:


Boastfulness (Excess)

Truthfulness (Virtue)

False Modesty (Deficiency)  


Promiscuity (Excess)

Sex with someone you love — many people would say, are married to (Virtue)

Chastity (Deficiency)

First is truthfulness. In this case, there is an excess and a deficiency. The excess is always telling the truth even if it unnecessarily hurts someone. In this case, if I were to tell the woman I didn’t like her and never wanted to see her again, I would be engaging in an excess of truthfulness. (If I were married to the woman and wanted to divorce her, then I would owe her an explanation, but in this case, the woman and I are on a first date. I believe that the woman would rather that I never call her again than to hear why I really don’t care for her.) Lying is a deficiency and should be avoided, so I shouldn’t lie to the woman. The second mean relates to sex. I have no doubt that Aristotle would regard chastity as a deficiency of sex in the case of normal adults. (Of course, chastity is all right for children. Also, priests can have a good reason for being chaste.) Still, we know that Aristotle was concerned about society and man’s place in it. I believe that Aristotle would regard sex between committed, caring adults to be the best sex possible. Since Aristotle was concerned with actualizing human nature, I think that he would agree with Colin McGinn that sex involves a contract between consenting adults. As Mr. McGinn wrote that

having sex with someone is a sort of personal contract, an agreement carrying certain responsibilities. This contract involves not knowingly risking the transmission of disease, not betraying your partner’s confidence, acting afterwards with kindness and consideration, not telling lies about your long-term intentions, and so forth.

Source: Moral Literacy (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1992), p. 56.

With these things in mind, I believe that Aristotle would advise me to say goodnight to the woman and never call her.

What the Will of God would tell me to do:

Two verses from the Bible are relevant here. The first is from the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not lie.” The second is from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Flee fornication” (I Cor. 6:18). With these verses in mind, I think the will of God would be for me to say goodnight to the woman and never call her. Somehow, I think God is in favor of commitment and marriage and families.

What a Utilitarian would tell me to do:

Utilitarians are concerned with providing the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarians also believe that we must consider the happiness of every person affected by an action. I believe that saying goodnight to the woman would result in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Something important to keep in mind here is that in determining what I ought to do, I must consider everybody affected by my actions. In this case, clearly the woman will feel very unhappy if I never call her after sleeping with her. She will realize that she has been used — never a good feeling — and this unhappiness will outweigh whatever pleasure was felt by us during the sex act. In addition, I personally would feel guilty because I used the woman. Most of us have been dumped at one time or another, and so we can empathize with someone who has been deliberately used, then dumped. I suppose some guy could say that he is so fantastic in bed that the pleasure of the sex act will outweigh the pain of being dumped, but in my opinion that man is overestimating his ability in bed. (And if he really is that good, think of the woman’s pain when she realizes that she will never again sleep with someone that good!)

I believe that a rule utilitarian such as John Stuart Mill would advocate a rule saying not to deceive someone in order to sleep with her when you know you will dump her in the morning.

What the Categorical Imperative would tell me to do:

If I sleep with the woman tonight, then dump her in the morning, the maxim of my action would be this: “It’s OK to lie to a woman in order to get her to sleep with you even though you know you will dump her the next day.” The first thing to ask is whether this maxim is universalizable. Although many people in fact act this way, this maxim is not universalizable. To understand this, remember Kant’s example about the lying promise a man made in order to borrow money even though he knew he could never repay it. He makes the lying promise to borrow money, yet if everybody made lying promises to borrow money, soon no one would be able to borrow money because all possible lenders would laugh in the would-be borrowers’ faces. Lying to a woman to get her to sleep with you is similar. The lie works only because many men keep their promises to call the next day. If we attempt to universalize the maxim, we see immediately that no one would ever be able to sleep with a woman after making a lying promise because the woman would laugh in the man’s face. Instead, jewelers would sell many wedding rings, and sex would happen after marriage.

The next thing to do is to determine whether the maxim is reversible. Of course, it is not. Many men would probably say that they would love it if women would sleep with them then never call them. (Sex without responsibility! A young man’s dream! If this is torture, then nail me to the wall!) However, that situation is not similar to the situation of the young woman who really, really likes the young man who lies to her in order to get her to sleep with him. To make the situation similar, think of a young woman who uses you, then cuts your heart out and stomps on it. Furthermore, the man is willing to deceive someone else’s daughter, sister, or mother in order to get her to sleep with him. Is he willing for someone to do the same to his daughter, sister, or mother?

In addition, reversibility means that you have to put yourself in the used woman’s place. No one wants to be used and then dumped, and this woman has been. No one would want to be in the used woman’s place. So, the maxim fails the test of reversibility. Plus, you want to use someone’s daughter; are you willing for someone to use your daughter, once you begin to have children?

Another test involves asking whether the man is treating the woman as an end or as a means. If he regards her as valuable in herself, then he is treating her as an end. If he treats her as valuable only for something else, then he is treating her as a means. In this case, the man who makes a lying promise is clearly regarding the woman only as a means to an orgasm. The woman isn’t valuable to the man — only the orgasm is valuable to the man.

Clearly, the categorical imperative would tell me to say goodnight to the woman, and never call her.

A final comment:

In this situation, all four ethical theories are in agreement about what one ought to do. It’s nice when ethical theories agree like this; however, often the theories don’t agree. When they don’t agree, spend some time thinking about why they don’t agree. Often, it’s because the theories were developed to tell how we ought to relate to other humans — when it comes to animals or fetuses, it’s unclear whether animals or fetuses should count as much as humans. All I can advise you to do is to consider each of the four main ethical theories you have studied and try to determine which one is most relevant to the ethical issue you are considering.




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