“Life is short. Have an affair.” Will adultery go viral?

The cover of this week’s BusinessWeek is devoted to their feature on the so-called “adultery economy,” and the lead article is on a “dating” business that specializes in hooking up married people with people married to other married people. On a slow-business-news Valentines Week, BW is getting all edgy by implying that this sector of the economy might be taking off.

It occurs to me that “cheating” in a marriage is a better example than Heath’s case of a surgeon cheating her patient with an unnecessary procedure, which Bethany discussed in a post here yesterday. Heath wanted highlight one important difference between ethics in adversarial institutions (like sports or business), on the one hand, and in relatively non-adversarial institutions (like the practice of medicine — at least in some domains), on the other. In the former, participants will feel the tug of incentives to cheat when they see their rivals getting away with cheating; but in the latter, one person’s cheating does not make cheating any more attractive for others.

The Pat Benatar song notwithstanding, marriages, and families more generally, are non-adversarial institutions. It may seem like one’s competing with others in the “market for spouses,” but once you find one, despite occasional disagreements and arguments, you are really supposed to be cooperating within this institution, not competing. (Of course, the terms of cooperation, and the hierarchical power structures, in families have not always been fair; but that doesn’t make them internal forums for competition.) So adultery, or cheating on your spouse, is a pretty clear example of cheating within a non-adversarial institution.

And surely Heath’s (and Bethany’s) point holds: learning that others are cheating on their spouses gives you no additional, compelling incentive to do the same.

All the free publicity BusinessWeek has just given the “adultery site,” AshleyMadison.com, will no doubt be good for business. But in answer to the question in the sub-title of this post, adultery is never likely to be as contagious as, say, steroids were in baseball, EPA is in cycling, or diving is in soccer. It will always be there, like a non-infectious disease, but there won’t suddenly be an epidemic.

That’s good news for all those who believe in the true spirit of Valentines.

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