Ethical and Unethical Adultery Advice: There is Carolyn Hax, and Then There Is Emily Yoffe

Sometimes, you just have to tell your slimy boss “No.”

Emily Yoffe is Slate’s advice columnist, in its “Dear Prudence” feature. She specializes in extreme situations: a recent column involved a teenager who realized that his mother had breast-fed him far too long because she was sexually aroused by it, and then had him fondle her breasts for years after he stopped be willing to suck on them. He asked what he should do now that his mother was subjecting his younger sister to the same treatment. (Emily did get that one right: she told him to call child services on his mother, and to seek professional help for himself.)

Last week I congratulated Carolyn Hax for her advice to a woman torn between the adulterous relationship of one friend with another friend’s husband. Notwithstanding the persistent argument of one crusading commenter who felt that I should have stood for universal adultery whistleblowing on friends and strangers alike, Hax gave, as usual, practical, ethical and measured advice.  She suggested that the inquirer tell the cheating husband that his secret was out, and that she would not lie to protect his illicit affair.  I believe that’s the right ethical balance. Hax’s advice to the woman was to be proactive in both extracting herself from the split loyalties and to be a catalyst for either disclosure or ending the affair. I also noted that the ethical duty on the questioner may be different when the betrayed spouse is an especially close friend, or a family member. Then loyalty and trust could require disclosure.

That same week, Yoffe got an inquiry from a “well-paid assistant of a successful business mogul.” Among her duties, she told “Prudence,” is to facilitate her boss’s extra-marital affair: lying about his whereabouts to business associates, deceiving his wife when she calls, and even buying gifts for the illicit lover. “Next month he’s going on a weeklong business trip,” she wrote. “He only needs to be gone for two days, but he’s taking his girlfriend with him and staying longer. I know I’m doing wrong by his wife. But I love my job, and I’m not sure what I could or should do to behave honorably in this situation.”

Isn’t the ethical answer obvious? You can’t behave honorably in this situation, you dummy! If you care about behaving honorably, tell your boss to cheat on his wife on his own time, using his own funds, with his own lies, and not to make it company business, or yours.  And why do you love a job that requires you to facilitate the conduct of a creep like that?

This was Yoffe’s response, however:

“I thought one of the ways you know someone is a “successful business mogul” is that he has an assistant who picks out jewelry that suits the taste of both his wife and his mistress. How your boss conducts his affairs is not your affair. As long as you are not being asked to do something illegal, his personal life is his business—your job is just to make it run smoothly. I assume you don’t have trouble telling callers he doesn’t want to talk to that he’s in a meeting when he’s not. I do understand your discomfort at lying to his wife. So if that duty makes you feel too morally compromised, you should seek other employment. If you want to stay, that means your terms of employment require you to make all aspects of his life as frictionless as possible.”

Unbelievable. Take Yoffe’s advice license away: she is operating a column under the influence of unethical rationalizations.

Her answer begins with an “Everybody does it” riff, with a touch of Occupy Wall Street bigotry: “Big deal; aren’t all business leaders scum?” Next is a contradiction in terms: if it’s not the questioner’s affair, it’s not legitimately part of her job description to abet it. Then she dives into the “It’s legal!” excuse. But the questioner wasn’t asking if it was illegal to keep covering for her boss’s affair, Emily, she was asking if it was wrong. Obviously it is wrong to lie for and assist a cheating spouse, boss or not. Then Joffe embraces the “it’s your job, so you’re not accountable” fallacy—the Nuremberg defense, essentially. “I was following orders, so I’m not culpable.” Oh yes you are. It is the assistant’s job to make his life run smoothly, but when that job metastasizes into  “help him harm his trusting family using lies and deception,” the job has become an unethical job, the job of a henchman,  a hatchet-man, and a minion. Finally, Yoffe puts forth the bizarre argument that as long as routinely doing something unethical doesn’t make the questioner feel “morally compromised,” then there’s nothing wrong with it after all.

Essentially, Yoffe’s position is that doing something wrong isn’t, as long as you are being paid to do it for someone else.


Source: Slate

Graphic: Fan Forum

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

11 thoughts on “Ethical and Unethical Adultery Advice: There is Carolyn Hax, and Then There Is Emily Yoffe

  1. Good one. Well seen and well said. Soldiers bear some responsibility for unjust wars too–“I was just following orders” isn’t fully legit even in the army.

  2. Even if he is a business, she is participating in fraud. If he is staying in hotels on the company dime for his affair and if he is playing hooky from work for his affair, he is committing fraud. Now, the company and its board of directors may not care, but I will bet the IRS doesn’t allow the writeoffs and the dodged taxes that are going on here (if the company pays for your vacation, you have to pay taxes on the value). If the assistant has any type of moral fiber, she will look for another job. Telling her boss that this isn’t her job will almost certainly get her fired. Telling the board of directors or the controller what is going on is probably company policy, but will also get her fired, so that should only be done after another job is secured.

  3. “I thought one of the ways you know someone is a “successful business mogul” is that he has an assistant who picks out jewelry that suits the taste of both his wife and his mistress.”

    Too much sleazy television for Ms.Yoffe,a dislike of men, or just of the rich?

  4. You know what, I’m going to side with Emily Yoffe here. To be perfectly honest, I’d take the job and tell the lie in a heartbeat. Feeding my family is a higher ethical prerogative for me than worrying about the fate of a woman who failed to properly select a mate. Sure I feel bad for her and my inclination is to inform (as you know) but not when it interferes with my own economic well-being. She made her bed. Let her sleep in it. I’d probably find some clever means of tripping up my boss, but I’d place my own economic well-being as priority #1 before the secondary goal of saving some woman from her own mistake. It’s one of those things where it’s only an ethical duty so long as it doesn’t interfere with other higher ethical duties. I can’t be running around all day fixing everybody’s lives for them to my own detriment. After all, I’m not the fidelity police.

      • What? Just because it’s an ethical duty doesn’t mean it’s a GREAT ethical duty. It could just be a minor one you that is often trumped by other considerations. I can’t afford to lose out on a job because the boss’s wife is incapable is seeing through his machinations. She should have taken greater care in the first place. I’m willing to lend a helping hand by ratting out a cheater here and there when the opportunity arises… but don’t expect me to do ALL the work, Jack. The boss and his wife have to take some personal responsibility here.

        • You are using non-ethical considerations to trump ethical ones, and then adding rationalizations to the mess. You can get an answer that way, but it has nothing to do with ethics.

          • Feeding your family is an ethical consideration though. Some men choose not to. Some men strive to. It’s an ethical issue. And when the dumb boss’s wife muddles her way into the middle of that with her poor mating decision…. she’s on the backburner. Forget about her. She’s gotta take care of her own problems and not make them mine. It’s all about ethics. You can’t say it’s not ethics just because it’s a “gray” area. Gray areas are the MOST important part of ethics. The rest is easy stuff.

  5. I interpret the first sentence of Yoffe’s response as sarcastic gallows humor. But I concede that her second sentence strongly suggests that her first sentence is not intending any sarcasm.

    I don’t get Yoffe’s second sentence. If I am a paid, close direct assistant to someone, the mold is cast: How my boss conducts his affairs MUST and WILL be my affair. I have some experience very similar to the case Yoffe advised on (involving a boss and spouse). I did not have to lie or cover-up any corruption, but I did have to do gate-keeping, and resolve “loyalty conflicts.” Maybe I was lucky; maybe I was oblivious to a fault; but I felt no pinch of ethical conflict in my dealings with the situations involving my boss’s personal life. I just took matters head-on, and everything seemed to work out about as well (and as sadly) as could be reasonably expected.

    I just can’t believe that Yoffe could be so callous. Would SHE, if she were the boss’s wife, be so “understanding” about her husband’s assistant’s “discomfort” at having to lie to her? I cannot believe that as the assistant, she would simply “compartmentalize” and rationalize; that certainly is not the character of a reliable advice columnist who is upholding the Golden Rule. Yoffe’s next-to-last sentence was the closest to reasonable and wise, but it was meaningless while amidst all the rest of what she said.

    I hear where les9 is coming from, about avoiding fidelity-policing. I hear the sound of my own mental wheels where les9 mentions “find[ing] some clever means.” That is where I am coming from, insofar as absolutely avoiding compartmentalizing. There is a peace of mind that I simply cannot live without, which I am too simple a man to allow economic interests (“love” of a job) to compromise. Again, maybe I’ve just been lucky, or maybe I have some lenses in my eyes that I don’t know about, yet the rest of the world knows I have. But I would like to think that my state of satisfaction with my economic interests to date has been (and will continue to be) the result of acting to preserve, not neglect, that peace of mind.

    • Les’s fidelity-policing comment, like the rest of his jaw-dropping, unethical miasma of a post, has to be taken with a grain of salt. In the Hax thread, he advocated blowing the whistle on ALL adultery.

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