The Skinny on the Ethics of Dating

When does an impolite boyfriend become unethical? Chronic rudeness on this or other fronts may indicate the presence of more serious moral disorders.

A reader named Pria asks whether the man she describes as her “boyfriend – so-called” is impolite or unethical.

“So-called” arranges dates at the last minute, then breaks them even later, leaving Pria home alone on a Saturday night “watching old movies and tweezing my pubic line … to kill the time”.

Her friends say she can and should do better but Pria wants more. She wants them to agree with her that the “inconsiderate, self-centred” bloke is more than just rude. He’s immoral.

What, she wonders, do I think?

Ethicists like to draw a firm distinction between ethics and etiquette but the truth is that the categories overlap.

At their most trivial, manners are about preserving class distinctions through the enforcement of rigid, and at times nonsensical, codes of behaviour for when one is in the company of (relative) strangers.

Proscriptions against putting your elbows on the table or touching the Queen unless she extends her hand first are good examples.

But at the pointier end of etiquette, the distinction between manners and morals all but disappears. Prohibitions on interrupting may serve the more superficial goal of smoothing the rough edges of conversational engagements but also provide a way for individuals to indicate their moral respect for others through the other-centred act of listening.

A person who constantly interrupts may show not just that he is ill-bred, but so self-absorbed that the only person’s ideas and feelings he deems worth hearing are his own. From the sound of it, Pria is right. “So-called” seems to be afflicted not just by a deficit of manners, but of morals, too. Yes, it is rude to cancel arrangements at short notice. Sometimes, however, it cannot be avoided.

When the inconvenience caused by such breach of etiquette is accompanied by an apology, a sincere promise to avoid it happening again and reimbursement for all wasted depilation and hair-styling efforts (just joking, sort of) it can and should be forgiven.

But chronic rudeness on this or other fronts may indicate the presence of more serious moral disorders. A man who continually backs out of arrangements with a woman is communicating a number of things.

Among them is, “My time, and all the terribly important things I do with it, is more important than yours.” To say this to another, or imply it through your actions, is imperious and high-handed. Not just rude but morally arrogant.

It could even be indicative, in extreme cases, of narcissism – extreme selfishness and excessive self-love resulting in an inability to sustain long-term relationships. If “so-called” is “just not that into” Pria – and it certainly sounds this way – he should have the decency to say so. It’s not a crime not to love someone – you either do or you don’t – but it is wrong to treat someone as if she were unloveable.

If “so-called” can’t or won’t love Pria, he needs to do the right thing and let her go, so she can find someone who will.

The fact that she has not demanded this, and may even have acted like a doormat in some ways when it came to “so-called’s” repeated antics, does not entirely excuse him from walking all over her. He needs to take a good hard look at himself and, for her own good, Pria does, too.

Publication history

The Skinny on the Ethics of Dating  The Sun-Herald