The ethics of disregard. (A VD-day post about relationships.)

Tell me I’m talented,
Tell me I’m cute,
Tell me I’m sensitive,
Graceful and wise,
Tell me I’m perfect — But tell me the truth.

— Shel Silverstein

Rather than turn the blog black, as I’m tempted to do for VD-day, I’ll offer up some thoughts about 21st century dating. (If for no other reason, even a long post is less work than the CSS hacking necessary to change the colors and nothing else in a site put together like this one is.)

One feature about 21st century dating that has always struck me as kind of weird, but is I suppose a symptom of some sort of happy liberation or another (woo-hoo*) is the “I don’t really like you, but let’s sort of date anyway” scene. I’ve seen numerous examples of this lately, including one guy who managed to pull this sort of trick on two quite attractive and charming women in a row (well, didn’t quite manage the first, because she sensibly kicked him to the curb when he tried, but managed on the second, and tried on the first). I never understood why anyone on the receiving end of the “I don’t like you” would participate in this kind of a scheme. And then I realized: it’s because the other partner tends to slip it in on a lubricant of oily lies!

I think there are some important issues at play here, about manipulation, deception, and how people ought to treat one another in a sexually liberated world so as to be able to freely negotiate even unconventional relationships without treating one another like mere objects (means, even) toward the pursuit of one’s own sexual/romantic ends. I’ve been meaning to take a closer look at this behavior for a while; today seems appropriate. So this is my Valentine’s day message to you: don’t treat your lovers like shit. If it saves one couple from ugliness, my work will have been successful.

With no further ado, lengthy ethical lecture begins.

Passed hand-to-hand in the traditional internet fashion, one of those interracial dating discussions, and more importantly, this comment, finally passed through my consciousness. The context is not that important. What’s important is the sentiment expressed by the following:

A Jewish guy in one of my college classes said he would only marry a Jew once he was old enough to be ready for that kind of commitment, but was perfectly happy to date the goyim until then. He was completely flabbergasted when the shiksas came down on him like a ton of bricks. It was hilarious; the poor guy truly could not understand the idea that ANY woman would be offended by the attitude that she’s not marriageable, but perfectly fine for a rather meaningless sexual relationship.

The sort of behavior to which the shiksas objected seems, sadly, quite common. Some of the men involved in the “PUA” movement actually have a name for a particularly nasty variant of it: “pump and dump.” But it can come in less openly hostile variants too, like the behavior of the man referenced in the above quote. Let’s talk about the ethics of this kind of behavior.

First, I want to get the specific boundaries of the behavior at issue defined. Suppose there are two people, let’s call them Alice and Barry. (Since this appears mostly to present in the form of men doing this to women, I’ll keep those genders, but, of course, it can and does happen the other way around, and in homosexual relationships.) Alice and Barry both have some kind of sexual/romantic interest in one another. Alice wants a serious and committed relationship with Barry — or at least wants to be a candidate for such a relationship in the normal course of things. Barry wants some kind of sexual relationship short of a serious and committed relationship with Alice, something on the spectrum from “pump and dump” to “casual dating.”**

Let’s further specify that the reason Barry does not want a serious and committed relationship with Alice is because Alice is lacking some quality (X) that Barry finds indispensable in a serious partner. (Particularly, it is not because of something about Barry, such as a general and sincere desire to be single, or about the circumstances, like physical distance between the parties.) Perhaps Alice is not Jewish, and Barry is, and is serious about his religion. Or perhaps Alice’s breasts are just too small. Whev.

Suppose Alice and Barry sit down to discuss the details of their interaction. And suppose Alice says the following to Barry: “I’d like a relationship with you.” Barry has three plausible answers, each of which, it seems to me, has a different ethical implication.

1) “I’d like a relationship with you, too.”

2) “I would only like a casual thing with you, because of factor Y,” where Y is a lie that avoids imputing some kind of deficiency to A.

3) “I would only like a casual thing with you, because you lack quality X, which I find indispensable in a serious partner.”

It should be obvious that 3) is, in many cases (and particularly for the case of a person who wants to have serious and committed relationships only within his/her own religion, for reasons that will be detailed below), a perfectly permissible response, one that allows Alice to make a decision about whether she wants to engage in a sexual interaction with Barry with eyes open, not only about the likely prospects for such an interaction over the long term, but also about the regard in which she is held by Barry. To some extent, then, the shiksas were wrong: the man’s plans in the quoted text weren’t unethical as such, for there is a way to bring them about without doing anything wrong to anyone.

But things are never so simple.

3) is also the least optimizing response for Barry. In most real-life situations, Barry won’t say that, because Barry knows that he won’t get laid if he says it. Telling a prospective sexual partner that she has some kind of personal deficiency is not sexy. (And yes, this applies the other way around too: despite what the media would have us believe, men have refused sex with women at some point in human history. No matter how attractive the female Barrys of the world think they are, it is possible and permissible for men to say no.)

This is particularly the case if the reason that Barry doesn’t want a serious and committed relationship is because Barry thinks Alice has some objective deficiency, something that makes him/her a less valuable partner in general, rather than just some incompatibility. For example, rather than a religious incompatibility as in the quoted text, suppose Barry thinks that Alice is stupid. Alice is physically attractive, so Barry wants a romp through the hay, but Barry would never date anyone that dumb. Or suppose Barry thinks Alice is physically unattractive.*** In such cases, 3) might actually be ethically dubious even though it is honest, because it involves offering rather nasty insult to the other person (and even if Alice accepts the sex under those circumstances, perhaps because she is really really attracted to Barry, chances are that it’ll be very hurtful to Alice — one of those nasty lust versus self-esteem things, and not something that an ethical Barry should participate in). It might be that the only permissible choice for Barry is to turn down Alice flat, rather than tell her that she’s worth fucking but not good enough to date. But that is a closer question.

Even, however, if the issue isn’t some personal deficiency, but some kind of non-insulting incompatibility, like religion, it is likely that Alice will respond to strategy 3) by refusing to enter any kind of sexual relationship. As the quoted text suggests, people tend to take offense at the notion that others view them as a quick fuck or a fling rather than as someone who is seriously dateable or marriageable. It doesn’t matter whether that offense is rational, it happens. And Barrys, knowing that, are likely to choose one of the lying options. For that reason, the shiksas in the quoted passage are, I think, still right to be offended at the man’s intentions, for even if he thinks he intends to be honest, chances are he won’t be.

But perhaps the dishonest choices are permissible? 1) is obviously not permissible. It leads Alice into a sexual interaction under false preferences. (Alice may be flatly unwilling to do a casual thing.) It’s not rape (at least, not by any sane definition of rape), but it is very serious deception in order to extract sex from someone else. (If I may break out the Kant, it certainly treats Alice merely as a means, not as an end in herself.) And (even being utilitarian here) it will undoubtedly lead to lots of pain and unhappiness for both parties down the road, as Alice suddenly finds herself dumped after putting all kinds of time, money, emotional investment, etc. in what she thought was a budding relationship, finds out Barry was lying, recriminations galore, etc. So much for 1).

How about 2)? To make this more concrete, suppose that Barry tells Alice “I’m not ready for a serious relationship: I’m on the rebound.” And further suppose that this is in fact a lie, that Barry is simply not ready for a serious relationship with Alice, because of Alice’s deficiency.

There are several reasons why 2) is still completely manipulative and unethical. Let’s run through a list, because I suspect this is a tempting offer for many prospective Barrys who don’t want to do the savage “pump-and-dump” behavior captured in 1), but also don’t want to pass up sex with someone with whom they want to have sex because of the inconvenient fact that they don’t really like them that much.

- It’s still a lie, and subject to the general moral opprobrium against lies. And it’s a manipulative lie: it’s a lie told in order to get someone to do something that they wouldn’t do if they knew the truth, for the benefit of the liar.

- It’s the sort of lie that is likely to be particularly hurtful when discovered (and it will be discovered), for precisely the same reasons that are at issue with respect to 3): if the deficiency is about some kind of perceived-objective quality (“you’re too ugly”), Alice will be seriously, seriously hurt (and pissed) when she finds out the real story. Moreover, this might be something that is a serious issue for Alice. Suppose, for example, that Alice knows that a lot of people think she’s ugly, and feels bad about it. When Barry tells Alice that he is genuinely physically attracted to her, it might make Alice feel really good. It might even help Alice’s self esteem, which s/he might have been struggling with for years, for all Barry knows. And then imagine the extra pain and humiliation (“what a fool I was, to think Barry might have been interested in me, when nobody can be attracted to my ugly face” Alice might think) that Alice will suffer when the truth comes out. This strikes me as the absolute nadir of sociopathic cruelty. Even if the deficiency is about something like religion, Alice will be hurt that Barry can’t see past it.

I think it’s safe to say that, no matter what the content of the deficiency, Alice will be very hurt when it comes out, and will be extraordinarily angry. Alice probably will hate Barry for life — this is the kind of behavior that makes breakups much messier than even the ordinary messy breakup.

- It deprives Alice of her own will and agency in the interaction. Perhaps Alice doesn’t want to have sex with someone who doesn’t think of him/her as dateable. Again, this is particularly compelling when the deficiency is something that’s supposed to be objective. Perhaps Alice has enough self-respect to refuse to have sex with someone who thinks she is stupid, or ugly, or whatever. But it’s also a real issue with more benign incompatibilities like the religion thing. Who is Barry to tell Alice that she ought to be willing to sleep with people who only marry within their own religion? Perhaps she isn’t so willing, and s/he ought to be given the choice. (Or perhaps Barry is just convinced that he is so hot that Alice would never say no to him, such that it’s not worth the trouble to be honest with her and find out. In which case Barry ought to be castrated.)

- It creates false hopes. Even if Barry insists over and over again “this is just a casual thing, I’m on the rebound and horny,” an Alice who doesn’t know that she falls short in some way of Barry’s standards will hold out the hope that once Alice is no longer on the rebound (or once the divorce papers go through, or once the pair don’t live so far apart, or once Barry’s career is stable, or whatever bullshit excuse(s) Barry offers) their compatibility (which doesn’t exist, but Alice doesn’t know it, because that’s what Barry lied about) will follow its natural course. Not only is creating false hopes harmful and nasty on its own, but it is another way in which 2) is manipulative: perhaps A is only willing to participate in this casual thing in the hopes that the external barriers will drop away, whereas if Barry were honest with Alice, explaining to him/her that the barriers are intrinsic to Alice (and hence unlikely to just go away), she would not be so willing.

It seems blindingly obvious that Barry must tell the truth, or must not start a sexual relationship with Alice at all. If Barry disregards this, Barry is to blame when things go south.

But suppose Alice and Barry don’t have the conversation? Well, then, I think this depends on the conditions under which Alice and Barry are interacting. In some contexts, sexual interaction doesn’t suggest the possibility of more. At one extreme, if Alice and Barry are strangers who meet at a bar, go home, and fuck like rabid weasels, that interaction has a precise social meaning: “one-night stand.” It would not be reasonable for Alice to assume that there’s the possibility of anything serious coming out of it. At the other extreme, suppose Alice and Barry have known one another for a while, each knows that the other is disposed to have serious relationships, Alice and Barry have had romantic/emotionally intimate interactions rather than just pure animal lust, etc. The social background of that setting pretty clearly licenses Alice to assume that she is at least under consideration for a serious and committed relationship in the ordinary course of affairs (pun unintended). For the lawyers in the crowd, think of trade usage in contract law. The meaning of an utterance or action is best interpreted in light of the ordinary social meaning attributed to it, unless there’s some special reason for the parties to know otherwise. (Philosophers in the crowd can substitute various interpretive claims as appropriate.) If Alice is not in fact so under consideration, then Barry is obligated, on pain of again leading Alice on under false pretenses, to have the conversation, and thereby obligated to explain the truth (and thereby, in most circumstances, not getting laid — tough tootsies).

It is never right to lie to get sex.

* I’m sure someone will want to tell me that this kind of behavior is a form of feminism, or of the secularization of society and the consequent removal of silly moralistic norms from people’s love lives, or whatever. To which I say: those are good things, but, in virtue of their being good things, they cannot license people to treat one another like crap.

** My spies are almost godlike in their ability to turn up and randomly inform me when illiterate people say sensible-despite-illiteracy things on this topic.

*** Why, then, is Barry sleeping with Alice at all? Who knows. Perhaps Barry has some kind of fetish that Alice satisfies, but that can’t sustain long-term interest. Or perhaps Barry just has a really unhealthy relationship to sex.


9 Responses to “The ethics of disregard. (A VD-day post about relationships.)”

  1. ben wolfson Says:

    I think the way you’ve set things up is highly tendentious.

    where Y is a lie that avoids imputing some kind of deficiency to A., or >because you lack quality X, which I find indispensable in a serious partner.

    Cuts things far too coarsely. For one thing, just a casual thing because that’s all I want is a perfectly reasonable response, even if there is no obstacle to the person’s becoming a serious partner—and also even if there is. Perhaps you like quality X, which I find indispensable. This may well be true! But the reason I want just a casual thing is that, well, I just want a casual thing. The casual thing can be with you because for casual-thing purposes the lack of X is fine. But plus-Xness or minus-Xness doesn’t change the fact that what I want now is just a casual thing.

    You might cultivate hopes that when I am off the rebound, or when whatever it is that motivates me now to want something casual is no longer the case, then I will want to start a serious relationship with you. I don’t see that you’ve been led on to think this is potentially in the offing. Even had you Xness, after all, you might not be in the right box for that, simply as a result of having been the rebound-or-whatever-casual-sex-person.


    - It deprives Alice of her own will and agency in the interaction. Perhaps Alice doesn’t want to have sex with someone who doesn’t think of him/her as dateable.

    If that’s what Alice doesn’t want, she should ask. Suppose to flesh things out that the factors Y and X are “on the rebound” and “you’re too young/immature”. Barry’s saying that he wants just something casual because he’s on the rebound is not saying “were I not on the rebound I would want a serious relationship with you, but I am, so I want this other thing”—which might make it, as you have it (somewhat severely), a lie. It is just saying that he wants something casual. It might well be that the reason he doesn’t want a serious relationship is the youth/immaturity of Alice. But that doesn’t have to be at issue. If Alice wants to know about that before sleeping with him, she should ask. (Although you’ve set things up so that Barry actually isn’t on the rebound, in real life that does happen, and Alice is not a mind-reader.)

    - It creates false hopes. Even if Barry insists over and over again “this is just a casual thing, I’m on the rebound and horny,” an Alice who doesn’t know that she falls short in some way of Barry’s standards will hold out the hope that once Alice is no longer on the rebound yadda yadda yadda.

    Here I am inclined to say: so much the worse for Alice! Again, consider the case in which Barry is just on the rebound/horny/working through something/whatever: what more is he to do? If you are explicitly told, multiple times, that a relationship is strictly ballroomcasual, and you can’t help but hold out hope for something more, maybe you should get yourself out of that relationship (such as it is), because you’re setting yourself up for a fall. (Of course, if Barry (I see I’m wandering in my pronoun/proper noun usage; I’m weak and require your understanding) can see that this is happening, he as well should take steps to curtail things. But these hopes needn’t always be so obviously nurtured. It’s also worth remembering that even in the case where there is no factor X, the hopes might founder on the fact that … Alice! … has become The Rebound Person, which is arguably silly, but not, I think, something for which we should hold Barry culpable, so-called affairs of the so-called heart being what they are. (Well, arguably Barry is using Alice as a means to an end, that end being getting some action, but he is taking steps to inform her that that’s it!)

    It’s really unclear to me how you can say that repeatedly saying that a relationship isn’t a serious one creates hope that it might become one.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    if Alice wants to know about that before sleeping with him, she should ask.

    Heh. Imagine that conversation.

    “Is it my immaturity?”
    “Is it my hairstyle?”
    “Is it my weight?”
    “Is it my shoes?”
    “Is it my grasping materialism?”
    “Yes! Congratulations! You win the why-I-don’t-like-you prize!”

    (Besides, Barry has an incentive to lie about that too, and to even go on and on about how amazing Alice is in just so many ways. Barry is trying to get laid. Observed behavior of people who approach matters like Barry is, alas, rather consistent with these incentives. Hell, I know of one Alice who outright asked a Barry, in this situation, whether he was “just not that into me,” and got back “I’m crazy about you!” The lies we tell one another…)

    You might be right about the false hopes part, I’m not sure, but I don’t see anything in the rest: romantic relationships are strongly intersubjective in a way such that Barry’s reasons for interacting with Alice in the way he does presumably matter to Alice, and reasonably. (Compare: the standard refrain that one lover only likes the other for his her looks/money/citizenship — which is taken to be an objection to said narrowly-interested lover’s attitudes.)

    I’m also really unsure what “simply having been the rebound or casual sex person” might mean. I’ve never placed anyone in that box, and I find it kind of confusing — if you actually think this person has the sort of qualities that interest you, then what motivates the putting in the box? And if not, well, see entire post.

    (Then again, I’ve never slept with anyone I didn’t consider attractive enough, in whatever relevant fashion, to be dateable either. I don’t understand that at all. But I’m assuming that there’s some kind of psychological demon that motivates it. Honestly, except in the context of the obviously-casual drunken bar pick-up, that seems both unappealing and cruel inherently. Cruel because people do bond and become attached — biologically! — in these emotionally and physically intimate situations (and I’m assuming, by leaving off the bar scene, that there is some level of emotional intimacy involved too) — it’s not like it’s something that is in the control of the other person. But, whev. I’m abstracting out from that more basic kind of fuckedupness.)

  3. Paul Gowder Says:


    Barry’s saying that he wants just something casual because he’s on the rebound is not saying “were I not on the rebound I would want a serious relationship with you, but I am, so I want this other thing”—which might make it, as you have it (somewhat severely), a lie.

    Isn’t it? I mean, that word “because” does work here, right? It’s at the very least deceptive to tell someone “P because X” when it’s really “P because Y” or even “P because X and Y” and one knows or ought to know that Y is the reason that really matters to the other person (because, in this case, Y is a negative opinion of the other person).

    Compare: “I’m selling this house so cheap because I’m getting divorced,” when the real reasons is that the seller is getting divorced AND the foundation is falling apart. We consider such a seller, rightly, rather a crook — and we’d do so even if he simply sold the house without mentioning the foundation problem. Even if the law didn’t penalize such a seller, we certainly wouldn’t invite him to our dinner parties. (The moral of the story being that “caveat emptor” and “I’m a dickhead” are two phrases that mean exactly the same thing.)

  4. Ed Says:

    Jesus Gowder, you suck all the life out of casual fucking. Who the hell are these “Barry” and “Alice” people that you are writing about? Most people are barely capable of walking, talking, and not urinating on themselves in public. The example of that Jewish guy, who is an obvious prick, has little or no relation to most people. Humans and their preferences are completely malleable. Most guys (ans girls) adjust their preferences dynamically to what happens around them and the situations that occur. This, “X” meets “Y” with an interest in trait “A” whith “Y” does not possess is just weird. The classic case is the following:
    Barry thinks that he can only really marry a person who is not an only child. One day he meets Alice, who is attractive. Seeing Alice (an only child), he has a faster physical than cognitive response, and so he imprints his mental image of Alice with a positive valence because he knows she’s pretty before she is an only child. He thus faces the dilema of trying to sort this out. Normally, he decides that he was wrong to think that only children are bad and adjusts his views. What does this mean? All it means is that Barry has a higher preference for physical aesthetics than for only children at that time. Later on, Barry may reajust his views or his distaste for only children may reassert itself, probably after he and Alice have had sex. But that doesn’t make Barry a liar. You see, to make Barry a liar, he would have to have willful/conscious mental state and most people do not have that level of awareness when meeting people. Unless, of course, they are PhD students, in which case the point is moot because it never gets to the sex.

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hah, I like that the conclusion is that people can’t help dicking one another over. It’s precisely the support for my growing nihilism that I’d expect from you, Ed. :-)

  6. Ed Says:

    It’s like Oprah says:
    “I wake up every morning expecting nothing.”

  7. Phoebe Says:

    Note to the Gentiles: the absolute easiest way for anyone, male or female, who happens to be Jewish to get out of a date/relationship is to offer up a, ’sorry, I only date/seriously date Jews.’ Since Jews make up such a tiny percentage of the population, this will work in a whole lot of cases, and is an easy out for those who want out but don’t want to offend. ‘He didn’t stay with me because I’m not part of a tiny minority religio-ethnic group’ sounds much better than ‘He thought I was boring.’ So, to those who’ve been in the situation of the offended “shiksa” in the above anecdote, I’d suggest checking up on whether Mr. Mensch married someone equally Gentile three weeks after your break-up.

  8. Paul Gowder Says:

    OMG Phoebe, this explains that one girl whom I chased for a few months 3 years ago… although she was pretty orthodox, long skirts and all (and a virgin at 26), so maybe it wasn’t bullshit.

  9. Phoebe Says:

    Oh, the very Orthodox are another story.

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