Wednesday, 22 July 2015

On Marriage and Ashley Madison

It's been in the news recently that Ashley Madison, a dating website which facilitates extramarital relationships, has been hacked, and that the hackers are threatening to publish their entire database, effectively naming and shaming the users of the site. This throws up an interesting philosophical point: do the users deserve to be punished?

At this point, it's necessary for me to declare an interest: I have personal experience of adultery which has caused me considerable emotional distress. I am also a Christian, so some people might think my views on such a subject to be outdated, even though I'm fairly liberal-minded. However, for the sake of argument, I will rationalise as best as I can, and try to put forward both sides of the argument.

Several have put it to me on Twitter, not the least of them the (in)famous Old Holborn, that they do not deserve such treatment. That their rights to privacy as an individual trump everything else, that they ought to have total freedom of agency and it is no business of anyone else's what they do in their spare time, or who they do it with. That ultimately, no one else has the right to blackmail another with their self-imposed morality. This is reinforced by the fact that the hack is illegal, and publishing the information would be a breach of data protection laws - most likely in several countries due to the international nature of the website.

I agree with this statement. People do have rights of privacy, and ultimately it is up to them what they do with other people in their spare time. The hack is illegal, and the conduct of the hackers is effectively blackmail - shut down the website or we'll name and shame.

Now, it's often said that anything that comes before the word 'but' in a statement is effectively rendered irrelevant. I phrase I disagree with, as it tends to paint everything in black and white and reduce nuanced position to artificial soundbites.



These people are married. Ashley Madison specialises in facilitating affairs between married people. And that is where I have to draw the line.

So? You might say. What difference does that make? They're still individuals with their own choices. True, but they are individuals who have voluntarily entered into an agreement with someone else - an agreement which is very specific on the obligations it places on both parties, and limits people's freedom of choice and action.

Wedding ceremonies vary according to religion (or lack of it), but the general gist is the same: the parties to the marriage take vows, effectively making a promise to the other. For the sake of argument, I've lifted excerpts from the Church of England website, but you get the general idea.

[Name], will you take [Name] to be your husband/wife? Will you love [them], comfort [them], honour and protect [them], and, forsaking all others, be faithful to [them] as long as you both shall live?

I do.

And then later:

I, [Name], take you, [Name], to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold  from this day forward;  for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.

And again:

[Name], I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.

The emphasis is the author's own.

But there were have it: a promise to stay with that other person, to share everything with them, and to be faithful to them, no matter the circumstances, until death. That is what marriage is: a promise of exclusivity, taken in the greatest solemnity and seriousness. It is not something that should be lightly cast aside, just because you're feeling a bit horny on a Friday night.

So, this being the case, does the notion that a married person is still an individual with free agency hold? They are still an individual, but their agency - their ability to make free choices - is limited by the undertaking they have given. They have sworn to put their spouse first and foremost in all decisions. Shagging someone else is a straightforward repudiation of that promise. They're free to do it, in the same way that I am free to promise to build you a house and then scarper with the money. But you'd be a fool if you didn't expect to suffer some consequences as a result of that dishonesty.

Now, I'm not an idiot, nor am I naive. I understand that relationships fail, and marriages are not exempt from that. Some marriages, without any person being to blame, will not work out - people can fall out of love just as quickly as they fall in love. However, I do not see that as an excuse to commit adultery. There are proper, mature and decent ways of resolving this. Get a divorce, or at the very least separate before you start seeing someone else. But going behind their back with someone else's spouse, potentially fucking up their marriage... I cannot see any moral justification for that.

So my position on the Ashley Madison users is this: they shouldn't have been hacked, they shouldn't have their details published. But if they are, and they suffer the consequences of their actions, I won't have much sympathy for them, and they should have thought about it before they decided to break the most solemn promise they've ever given.