The inconsistent morality of Ashley Madison

Rob Slane  ·  Oct 01, 2015

Ashley Madison, the adultery-promoting internet dating site, recently received a taste of its own relativistic medicine and apparently found it didn’t go down too well. For those who aren’t aware, Ashley Madison is a dating site with a difference, operating not on the principle of bringing singles together, as is usual for such sites, but rather with the intent of bringing married people together to commit adultery. And they are not in the least bit bashful about it, as their marketing slogan suggests: “Life is short. Have an affair.”

But having set themselves up as mocking the idea that adultery is morally wrong, they have found themselves on the receiving end of behavior which they apparently do think is morally wrong. Back in July, a group of anonymous hackers broke into their website and took the details of over 33 million accounts. According to most media reports, the hackers “stole” the details, the irony of which should not be lost on us, since “stealing” is prohibited by the Eighth Commandment, which comes just a little after the one Ashley Madison has been happy to help others break.

So wronged does Ashley Madison perceive itself that its parent company, Avid Life Media, has offered $500,000 Canadian dollars for information on the hackers. Not only this, but Canadian police seem to be very concerned as well. In a statement addressing the as-yet-unknown hackers, the acting staff superintendent of the Toronto police, Bryce Evans, made the following comment:

“I want to make it very clear to you your actions are illegal and we will not be tolerating them. This is your wake-up call.”

In other words, while adultery and setting up a company to deliberately facilitate adultery are OK, hacking an adultery-promoting company is a very great sin and a grave crime.

Now, I have no desire to defend the hackers in this case. They had no right to release this information, since it was not theirs to release, especially as it may even be the case that some of the people in the database did not personally supply their details to the site. But at the same time, this does not lead me to have any sympathy with those who did give their information to an adultery portal, or with the people behind Ashley Madison. In fact, it seems to be a fairly good practical example of Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

At this point secularists come up with a couple of standard objections. First, the hackers released private details into the public domain, which is a breach of privacy and is wrong. Adultery, on the other hand, is a private thing between two individuals. The answer to this is “No it isn’t.” Adultery is the breaking of vows which were made in public, and which involves other parties (i.e., the wronged spouse/spouses, children, etc). So though the act of adultery itself is done behind closed doors, the meaning, the significance, and the repercussions are very public.

A second objection is that by releasing the details into the public domain, the hackers have done a great deal of harm. For instance, there were a couple of unconfirmed reports of people committing suicide after the details were leaked. Adultery, on the other hand, is between two consenting adults and so does no harm. The answer to this is “Really?” Well, apart from destroying the marriage covenant, ruining the life of the other spouse, devastating children, and cheapening the virtues of fidelity, honesty, and truthfulness in society in general—apart from these things maybe it does no harm! Which is another way of saying it does a huge amount of harm. As for the suicide issue, it is not unheard of for people to kill themselves after finding out that their spouse has cheated on them.

What this case highlights, among other things, is the bankruptcy and disingenuousness of moral relativism. Think of the Ashley Madison slogan again: “Life is short. Have an affair.” The expanded version of that goes something like this:

Life is the product of random processes and so has no lawgiver, no transcendent morality and no ultimate purpose. It is also fleeting and so the only thing that makes it worthwhile is to try to cram as much fun into it as possible, indulging yourself in anything you like that you think will bring you pleasure. This means that the constraints of being faithful to your spouse and denying yourself a “good time” with someone else is anathema to the good life and to your basic human rights. So come on, drop your silly prudery, register with us and we’ll take all the hassle out of setting you up with someone else who just wants to enjoy themselves.

It reminds me of an advertising campaign a few years ago by a prominent secular organization, the British Humanist Association. It paid for a series of advertisements on London buses with the slogan, “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy yourself.” I always wanted to fine tune it a little. Something like, “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and go ahead commit adultery, steal, lie, cheat—whatever takes your fancy, just make sure you don’t get caught.”

Secularists would no doubt respond, “Oh come on! When we said you could enjoy yourself without worrying, we didn’t mean you could do anything you like. There are limits, even if this improbable God is really unreal.” Which is almost funny. There they were telling us that the lack of God meant that we could stop worrying and enjoy ourselves, but probe a little further and you find that actually there are still things we need to worry about, things we shouldn’t do, and there are limits to how much we can enjoy ourselves. Apparently there are standards after all. Who determines them, though, is never very clear!

Arguing against moral relativism almost always elicits the following response: “Are you saying that people who don’t believe in God are bound to do all these things like lying and stealing and committing adultery? Are you saying that we can’t be moral without God?”

To answer the second question first, in an absolute sense, no we can’t be moral without God. We can display moral characteristics, but we can’t be moral. If God exists, He is the absolute source of morality and therefore true morality consists of absolute conformity to Him. If we deny Him, or any of His laws, we are by definition immoral. And we are all—by nature—in that boat. On the other hand, if God didn’t exist, the source of morality is what? Man? Hardly, since men don’t agree on what is moral, and their moral standards are constantly shifting.

The first question is a little more nuanced. Many unbelievers live lives that in many ways conform to an outwardly moral standard. They don’t steal. They don’t commit adultery. They are happily married and they love their children. And so they are outraged at what they perceive to be the insinuation that not believing in God inevitably leads to them being—as one unbeliever said to me recently—“a mess of hedonistic instinctive behavior.”

But it is important to note that this is not the point we are making. It is indeed true that many of those who do not believe in God live monogamous lives where they love their children and are honest. Yet why do they do so? Essentially, it is because they believe it to be expedient. The anchor point is therefore not God and His laws, but rather utilitarianism—the idea that morality should be guided by whatever maximizes utility, or that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (John Stuart Mill).

Of course, the problem with this is that while some people might make a calculation that this looks like monogamy and a good relationship with their children, others could just as equally conclude it looks like signing up for Ashley Madison. So while Mr. Smith chooses to live out his utilitarian faith (and it is a faith) by being a faithful husband and loving father, Mr. Jones could well choose to live out his utilitarian faith by being a serial adulterer, fathering 10 children by 10 different women, taking drugs, and by lying to get whatever he wants. And here’s the rub: Mr. Smith cannot say that what Mr. Jones does is wrong, because Mr. Jones shares the same fundamental presuppositions and values—there is no God, and the ultimate goal in life is to maximize happiness. If Mr. Smith does at any time condemn Mr. Jones’s behavior as wrong, all he has done is to jump out of his ordinary circle of ethics to borrow from an entirely different code altogether (probably the Judeo-Christian one).

This is just what Ashley Madison has done. Having proclaimed “Life is short. Have an affair,” they ought to be able to accept “Life is short. Hack a company and release their details.” This is completely consistent with their own ethical system. Yet somehow, when their relativistic ethics failed them and they jumped into the Judeo-Christian ethical system to take issue with those who decided it would maximize their happiness to hack Ashley Madison. No prizes for guessing why!


Rob Slane lives with his wife and five home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com.