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Public Divorces and Media Privacy

photograph of Bill and Melinda Gates

On May 3rd, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their decision to divorce. The announcement sent shockwaves through the business community as well as the philanthropic world, and surprised many members of the general public. Since the announcement, little by little, media outlets from The Wall Street Journal to The Daily Mail have been publishing news stories speculating on the reason for divorce, and also providing very personal aspects of the Gates’ married life. This coverage raises important questions about the role of the media in reporting on the private lives of the rich and famous and the role of individuals in consuming this private information.

Where should we draw the line when it comes to media coverage of relationships and dating? Is it moral to seek out such intimate information about a stranger’s life?

Coverage of high-profile relationships is by no means new. For decades tabloids and mainstream news have covered the intimate details of the personal relationships of public servants to Hollywood socialites. While many celebrities make their living primarily from remaining relevant in the public eye, a whole host of other professionals, like athletes, politicians, and philanthropists have also received their fair share of scrutiny. In 2009, news of Tiger Woods’ litany of affairs dominated the news cycle for weeks. In 2019, during Jeff and McKenzie Bezos’ divorce, details of his consistent public infidelity came to light. Would we know, or care to know, any of these details about our coworkers, acquaintances, or even strangers?

Many of us accept media scrutiny of the rich and famous but would be appalled if a local news channel or paper ran a story on the affairs of everyday people. Though there are designated celebrity news platforms which specialize in tabloid gossip, even conventional news sources partake in running stories which reveal embarrassing and personal details of public figures. Clearly, these stories get more clicks than criticism, but that does not necessarily make such stories ethical.

The field of celebrity gossip carries its own set of ethics. These include seeking permission by subjects whenever possible, avoiding content which could harm a celebrity’s reputation, and maintaining credible sources of information. In the case of Bill and Melinda Gates, several pieces of information released by the press arguably both invade their privacy and damage their reputation. For example, the media recently reported on the details of Bill Gates’ annual trips to visit his ex-girlfriend for a weekend, a condition reportedly negotiated during the Gates’ marriage arrangements. As this arrangement appears to be consensual, private, and holds a high potential for damaging the Gates’ reputation there does not appear to be an ethical reason to report on it if not given permission to do so. Other details of the decision to divorce are more ethically fuzzy, such as Bill Gates’ association with Jeffrey Epstein serving as a motivating factor for the divorce. While this information is private, there is also an interest in the public knowing who was closely associated with a convicted child predator. As more information comes out about the Gates’ divorce, it is important to analyze information reported through the critical lens of journalistic ethics.

Should individuals seek out news concerning the personal lives and relationships of celebrities? Whether or not we believe that the media should cover such stories depends on what value derives from access to this information. While it makes sense to publicize clearly immoral actions of public figures, from violent behavior to fraud and deception, why should we make public the relatively amoral details of their personal affairs? Perhaps we seek out this knowledge because we believe that those we idolize, buy products from, or even vote for, should be “good people.” To some, a string of affairs might communicate a lack of trustworthiness, and a divorce could communicate a lack of perseverance. If we demand these qualities in our business or political leaders it makes sense that we would want to know these details in their personal lives. However, is setting such moral standards reasonable considering the fact that about 1 in 5 Americans engage in infidelity at some point in their lives and roughly 40% of marriages end in divorce? Knowing the sordid details of Bill Gates’ divorce will likely not impact the way that people interact with Microsoft, or even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It might, however, affect the level of space Gates is given in influencing public discourse. This function of accessing celebrities’ personal information is based on the utility it brings to exercising our own relationships with these celebrities. Perhaps this is similar to how we might judge a coworker or friend: if we found out they behaved in a way contrary to our values, we might limit the degree to which we trust or revere celebrities who do similar things.

Another reason we might seek out this information is not to make judgments, but to revel in the rich and famous’ inability to fulfill happiness despite their massive privilege. Knowing that even Bill Gates is not immune from divorce shatters the image that immense wealth automatically creates the perfect life. Those who do not enjoy such privilege yet have happy marriages might feel satisfaction knowing that they have something that Gates does not. Alternatively, realizing that even those who wield the most power in society might still have imperfect personal lives might change one’s priorities or path to seeking long-term happiness. This function of celebrity gossip might be considered immoral if one believes that we should not use others simply as a source of entertainment, pleasure, or wisdom – especially without their permission.

Finally, answering these questions requires grappling with celebrity privacy, and how much we believe their choosing the spotlight justifies having the painful details of one’s most difficult moments on full display. While fame comes with higher scrutiny, perhaps we should reconsider where we think the lines should be drawn. Perhaps those who choose to use the media to amass wealth and followers should expect no less attention  when it comes to difficult or painful topics. However, perhaps we might believe that no one deserves such details on display, regardless of their position in the public eye. Tabloids have notoriously caused acute mental distress to celebrities and profited off of humiliating personal experiences while doing so. While many might enjoy reading entertainment news, they might not be comfortable with the range of methods taken to obtain this information.

Privacy is something nearly everyone values in their personal lives, especially concerning the most intimate details of close relationships. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we would be comfortable with our relationship drama splashed across the front page before clicking on the next celebrity divorce story.

Why Would Anyone Marry?

black and white photograph of "Just Married" in back window of vintage car

“Marriage is wonderful when it lasts forever, and I envy the old couples in When Harry Met Sally who reminisce tearfully about the day they met 50 years before. I no longer believe, however, that a marriage is a failure if it doesn’t last forever. It may be a tragedy, but it is not necessarily a failure. And when a marriage does last forever with love alive, it is a miracle.”

                                                                           —Peggy O’Mara, Mothering

On May 3rd, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce, stating that after lots of “thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” ending their twenty-seven year union. Whatever their reasons for divorce — the announcement being understandably vague — we should pause here to think about an important philosophical question, namely: why would anyone marry? Choosing to enter into a marriage is among the most consequential decisions one can make, affecting potential future children, well-being and happiness, and so on. A good marriage can be a major blessing, but a bad marriage can be hell.

Here’s a rough argument against marriage: no one wants a loveless marriage; it is something that, if we knew it would happen, would likely encourage us not to wed to begin with — to be stuck in a loveless marriage is a potential horror show. Often enough, the love couples feel for each other, entering a marriage, will fade and sometimes cease. To avoid this fate, we should be reticent prior to taking the vows. As the philosopher, Dan Moller, explains:

“Reduced to a crude sketch, the argument [against marriage] is simply that, (a) most of us view the prospect of being married in the absence of mutual love with something like horror or at least great antipathy; (b) the mutual love between us and our spouse existing at the inception of our marriage may very well fail to persist; and hence (c) when we marry we are putting ourselves in the position of quite possibly ending up in a loveless marriage of the sort we acknowledge to be undesirable.”

What’s partly hard about marrying is that emotions — an essential aspect of romantic love — have an autonomous element, not wholly governed by the will, even with the best of intentions. If romantic love is an essential aspect of marriage, how can marriage vows bind? When you cannot control something, you cannot be culpable for it — we don’t think people culpable for the ocean waves, by example.

Someone may object that marriage vows specify actions, not emotional states, and are thus under our control. As the philosopher, Justin McBrayer, argues:

“Notice how heavily [many generic marriage vows focus] on actions compared to emotions: support one’s partner, honor one’s partner, respect one’s partner, and so on. Even the emotional content is easily understood in a behavioral sense: to be a faithful partner in sickness and health clearly has a behavioral component. To see this, imagine the following thought-experiment. Suppose Landon makes the aforementioned promise to Hannah. Suppose next that he feels all the right things toward her (for example, he is in love with her), but that his behavior is wildly erratic – he sleeps around, is verbally abusive to Hannah, abandons her when she is ill, etc. Would anyone be willing to say that Landon has fulfilled his wedding vow? Surely not.”

There’s only one problem with this: it ignores the fact that emotions, like romantic love, are also essential to marriage. Of course it is clear that marriage vows, and marriage itself, includes the vow to do certain things — many married people expect their partner to be faithful to them, by example. However, it cannot be that actions and behavior is all there is to marriage — without an appropriate emotional component, it is not clear one would be in a marriage they would find fulfilling and satisfying. Imagine a different thought experiment: John treats his wife well, cares for her when ill, never cheats on her, and so forth, but simply doesn’t feel love for her at all. He is a good husband to fulfill his marriage vows because his nagging conscience won’t let him break them. We wouldn’t think though that this is a fulfilling marriage; it likely isn’t one John would have entered into had he known the result would be the death of love for his wife. Whether marriage vows include a behavior aspect is irrelevant — emotions seem a necessary part of marriage too.

So then we must wonder why people would marry — the people who marry usually do not want to end in a loveless marriage. There must be an upside then to marriage; benefits that contribute to our well-being. Likely they partly include the positive emotions many experience, especially in the early days of the marriage. However, there must be more to explain why so many people, despite the risk a bad marriage poses to living a good life, still choose to tie the knot.

It looks like, in addition to a romantic venture, marriage is a commitment device: by imposing costs on dissolving a marriage, the institution of marriage forces individuals to comprise and grow in a manner they wouldn’t if the cost of ‘walking away’ from a relationship were relatively low. And this can do several things: incentivize individuals in a marriage to work together, to engage in personal improvement for the sake of the union and family, provide a more stable environment for rearing kids, and make relationship-specific investments. Think of it like this: often time, but not always, couples will get along if forced to. Imagine, by example, you’re permanently handcuffed to someone — your fate and theirs are bound up. It would then make sense, assuming the other person is reasonable, to make the best of the situation by doing things like getting along and compromising.

This can, of course, be a bad thing if one of the partners is unreasonable; there are downsides to nearly anything. Our point isn’t to claim that marriage is always a good thing — we began the piece by thinking about why anyone would marry — but to highlight some marital benefits; whether the benefits outweigh the costs will likely vary from couple to couple. However, there are some downsides too if the cost of abandoning commitments is too low: it may be harder in some cases to find a long-term relationship if the cost of finding a new partner, whenever one is even remotely dissatisfied, is too low. To illustrate, consider a scene from Season 5, Episode 4 of Seinfeld, where Elaine has just dumped her partner:

JERRY: You’re out of your mind you know that.


JERRY: It’s an exclamation point! It’s a line with a dot under it.

ELAINE: Well, I felt a call for one.

JERRY: A call for one, you know I thought I’ve heard everything. I’ve never heard a relationship being affected by a punctuation.

ELAINE: I found it very troubling that he didn’t use one.

We don’t want to be trapped in a loveless marriage, obviously; but we should worry too if the cost of abandoning our commitments is too low — the ramification of that would extend beyond marriage to, among other moral practices, promises more generally.

Considering Custody Arrangements for Companion Animals

Two beagle puppies on leashes sitting in a field of green grass

In most states, pets are viewed as personal property in the eyes of the law.  Last year, California shook up the status quo by passing Assembly Bill 2274, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September. The law will allow judges in divorce cases to make more nuanced decisions when it comes to animal custody.  Prior to the passing of the bill, courts were required to divide community property roughly equally. Judges now have the flexibility to consider factors like which of the parties in the relationship provides care to the pet in the form of walking, feeding, accessing veterinary services, and providing shelter and protection.  Pleased pet owners in California claim that, in passing this law, California has rightly recognized companion animals as members of the family.

Most states continue the tradition of treating companion animals as property, but California is not alone in its move to recognize the unique importance and status of companion animals.  In January 2017, a law went into effect in Alaska that required courts to take into account the well-being of the animal when making divorce judgments about animal custody.  Alaska’s law goes further than California’s—in California courts are merely permitted to consider factors other than equity of distribution when awarding custody.  Alaska’s law also allows courts to include pets in domestic violence protective orders.

Opponents of the new California law argue that if judges are permitted to make custody decisions pertaining to pets, the courts will inevitably be clogged.  Child custody hearings already draw out divorce proceedings to unbearable lengths. If the court takes careful, conscientious care to place pets where they belong in every single divorce case, opponents argue that it will surely extend the time it takes to go through the divorce process to an unmanageable and undesirable length.

Opponents of the bill also argue that once custody hearings become the norm for animals like cats and dogs, there can be no conceivable end to the types of creatures who might be deserving of consideration in a divorce proceeding.  Further, some opponents argue that the factors involved in these kinds of decisions will inevitably involve anthropomorphizing animals to some extent. Though it may be true that animals can be harmed to some degree by changes to their living situation, typical companion animals simply don’t have the mental capacity to understand the nature of divorce or to be traumatized by it.  As a result, there is a reason for treating decisions about custody of animals very differently from, say, custody of children.

Supporters of the law argue that it is about time that legislators recognize that the interests of animals ought to be taken seriously.  Animals, after all, are not objects.  The common custom of treating animals as property fails to take into account that they are sentient beings, capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.  Some non-human animals are capable of a much wider range of experiences and emotions. Treating a companion animal no differently than one might treat a sofa or a desk lamp is an archaic and morally indefensible practice.  Philosophers from times long past may have viewed animals as automatons, but we know more about the psychology of animals than we ever have before. We know that they experience a range of emotions, and those considerations should be factored into custody decisions.

Other arguments in favor of the bill are more anthropocentric.  The bonds that human beings form with their companion animals are intimate and intense.  Many people are forgoing having children, and those people often take the care relationships that they form with their animals very seriously.  The custody of an arrangement for a pet, then, is tremendously important to the human caregivers. If one party in a relationship takes on more of these care obligations, that seems like a consideration that should be taken seriously.

One objection to the California law in particular is that it does not go far enough.  The law allows judges to take the well being of the pet into consideration when making custody decisions, but it doesn’t require the judge to do so.  As a result, the message is sent that the interests of companion animals deserve to be taken seriously when a particular judge decides to take them seriously, but not otherwise.  This feature of the law makes consideration of animal interests too strongly contingent on the whims of individual judges or on the attitudes of the parties seeking the divorce.

Ultimately, many argue that this law constitutes a step in the right direction for the cause of animal welfare.  That said, it is worth pointing out that our practices with respect to animals are far from consistent. We arbitrarily designate some animals as “companion animals” and we let these animals live in our homes.  For many, these animals become highly valued members of the family. The decision concerning which animals will become members of the family is largely based on species membership.  Cats, dogs, birds, and guinea pigs are animals we might consider bringing home to join our families.  Most people wouldn’t consider taking on a chicken, turkey, hogs, cow, or sheep as a companion animal. This is largely a matter of historical practice.  The new California law recognizes that the interests of animals deserve to be taken seriously, but, by focusing on companion animals in divorce cases, it places animals into different categories arbitrarily.  If the interests of companion animals deserve to be taken seriously, so too might the farm animals that we raise in inhumane conditions and slaughter unnecessarily for food.

The Ethics of Secession

A photo of a man holding a Catalan independence flag.

Secession has been a hot topic in 2017. At least two important plebiscites have been celebrated: Kurdistan and Catalonia. Predictably, both the governments of Iraq and Spain have strongly condemned them as illegal, respectively. Both governments are right: the laws of both Iraq and Spain do not allow for secession in the terms that the plebiscites propose it. But, then again, basically no country in the world (Ethiopia and Canada being notable exceptions) accepts the legality of secession. Yet, throughout history, secessions have happened multiple times. Technically, almost all of them have been illegal. Morally, some of them have been celebrated, some not. What, then, is the criterion to judge the morality of secession? What makes George Washington a hero, but Jefferson Davis a villain (if at all)?

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