I don't recall ever hearing of Ashley Madison prior to news of of the recent hack, but since that happened, it's hard to open a news site or social media site without seeing a story about the effects of this hack on clients of the company. The widespread interest in this story seems driven in large part by titillation, but also by schadenfreude at the unmasking of hypocrites.
Reactions to this story intrigue me in part because I am writing a paper called "True Loyalty," which talks about what we can learn about fiduciary law from common understandings of loyalty. It seems safe to say that we care about loyalty a lot, at least in this context. But the impulse to flag hypocrisy wherever it surfaces (especially when it is connected to people we already dislike) is troubling to me. This impulse is much in evidence in the political arena, but, as a matter of personal well being and public good, I think it is worth guarding against this impulse, choosing instead to be generous in the face of limited knowledge.
Thinking more specifically about the Ashley Madison situation ... in my volunteer church work, I counsel regularly with people who are having marital problems. More often than I would like, I find myself crying with people who have wronged their spouses or with the spouses who have been wronged. My sample is limited to those who are seeking help, but, in these cases, the person who has cheated wants desperately to take away the harm they have inflicted on their spouse. They are struggling to deal with the tragic disjunction between their principles and their practices. They want to make things right, but they seem to sense that they lack the ability to do that, which is why they are in my office. After you do this a few times, it's hard to see a story like Ashley Madison without feeling anything but sadness for everyone involved.
How would a generous, charitable person think about this Ashley Madison story? I have been pondering this a lot since reading a Facebook post by my friend and former colleague Steph Thai, who has given me permission to repost some of her thoughts on this. Steph is a great example of generousness of spirit, and she began her post with this introduction: "There's so much schadenfreude in the whole Ashley Madison hack. And I understand that; I reveled in that feeling for a long time as well. But I don't think it's good for me, so I've been totally stifling it." She then offers some reasons to be more generous in our assessment of those who are on the list of Ashley Madison clients, and I want to highlight one of those reasons:
"People make mistakes. People go through rough patches, and explore things, and sometimes it goes somewhere but sometimes it doesn't. And I think it should be okay to wrestle with one's own instincts. We all do. And we all do stuff that goes against even our own principles sometimes."
How much better the world would be if we could all remember this!