philosophy, Relationships
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Mating in the Modern Era: Attraction, Advantage & Lies

In part two of Mating in the Modern Era, I’m discussing the ethics of attracting a fit

photography of couple holding hands

“Trust me…”

partner! In part one, I discussed choosing “fit” partners, meaning someone who is evolutionarily well-adapted for modern survival.

Human beings use deceptive techniques to attract a mate.  This isn’t unique to our species; all animals do this.  It’s important to understand that evolution sanctions highlighting our best features and hiding our defects.  Evolution tells us: Each human being should maximize his evolutionary interests by attracting a “fit” partner.  But have human beings created game-changing circumstances that raise ethical issues about attraction and advantage?

Is Attraction a Game of Deceit?

The current concern is that body modification is unlimited.  Even brain chemistry and hormones can be modified, too. Plastic surgery can alter appearance beyond recognition to create a fresh identity.  The ethical issue of intentional deceit raises some questions: 

1)      What do we alter in order to present a more attractive image? Are all these areas fair game?

2)      Even if intentional deceit is sanctioned by evolutionary needs, is body alteration for the purpose of attracting a partner “innocent” or blameworthy? Where do we draw the line?

3)      Do we owe potential partners an explanation of the changes we have made to our appearance?

Why would enhancing certain desired features with surgery or covering up congenital abnormalities be considered a form of deception? To answer this question, we first need a little social epistemology talk!

What is Testimony?

Testimony is often used in a religious context.  It refers to recitation of an individual’s powerful religious experience, followed by shouts of belief and “Praise Jesus!” from the crowd. As a child I watched Sunday morning religious shows, because hey, who doesn’t love a good story? But what I mean by testimony is communication for the purpose of inviting belief in a statement, but not necessarily a religious one. You can comment “Amen.” if you like, though!

“You’d better not be bullsh*tting me…”

There is an expectation of truth in social communication.  We rely on “testimony”, meaning that we trust the truth of information supplied by others.  Testimony is a type of evidence – it’s acknowledged to play a part in rational thought. Think about all the facts you think you know; most of these facts were not tested by you but relayed to you by other people, books, or the internet.  As a society, the attitude regarding testimony is that false statements (even as trivial as Facebook statuses) deserve moral outrage and resentment.

man and woman holding heart boards

The evidentiary status of testimony extends to non-verbal communication.  For example, we take appearance to be a true indication of biological information.  This is a serious issue in our society. Consider the fact that people have been murdered in cases of mistaken gender identity.  In other cases, men have gone to jail on statutory rape charges because they mistook age.  If we have a moral attitude towards testimony, then it clearly extends to non-verbal communication, too.

Perhaps your reaction is to say, “People shouldn’t make assumptions, and it’s their fault if they judge incorrectly.” Well, that is certainly a good motivation to try to judge correctly.  However, it still seems that testimony is crucial for social interaction; therefore, it must be morally permissible to gather information from non-verbal communication. (Demonstration by the “Ought implies can” Principle: If we cannot have fruitful social interactions without using non-verbal evidence, then we can’t actually be expected not to use it.) Moreover, we are retroactively justified by the facts in most situations and acknowledgment of this has the effect of naturally reinforcing our reliance on appearances.

The Mal/intention of Non-verbal communication

So far two commands are clear:

  1. Evolution commands us to compete via enhancing our appearance of evolutionary “fitness”.
  2. Social reliance on testimony commands us to always present a truthful image.

Can you see how these two commands are at odds?  How can we do both?

The Lengths We’ll Go to for Love

Cosmetic surgery allows us to change our height, fat distribution, breast size, musculature, eye shape, jaw shape, etc.  Dentistry gives us beautiful teeth and an attractive jaw line, even if nature gave us crooked yellow nubs. Psychiatric medications can change our personality through anti-depressants, anti-anxiolytics, and stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall).  In combination with sex-reassignment surgery, hormones feminize the function of his central nervous system to change gender.

These alterations are often done in attempt to gain a better partner.  We don’t tell our potential mate about them, because that would make the effort wasted. Why advertise health with a straight, white smile, only to say “Oh, I had braces because they were awful before”?  That would be self-defeating, so we keep this information private.  In fact, isn’t it considered rude to ask questions such as “Did you have braces?”, “Is that your real hair colour?”, or “Are your breasts real?”

Art of Attraction is Skillful Lying

Doesn’t it seem, then, that the art of attraction is how skillfully we can perform the lie? The power to attract is the advantage a con-artist.  We think that if our partners don’t see the flaw or see what they like, then it should not matter – we have a right to be loved!

Imagine two men who are interested in the same woman.  Phil is tall, physically healthy, confident, intelligent, and has a friendly personality.  He is that way because of some biological advantages, upbringing by mentally-balanced parents, and money for activities that help his personality grow.  Phil is lucky – it’s a matter of happenstance equivalent to winning the lottery.

Chris is 5’2, a hard worker, and has anger issues.  He is that way because of biology and financial strain growing up with parents who were absent working long hours. Chris is great at computer programming.  He forges a university diploma to get a great paying job and takes a year off work to get painful leg-lengthening surgery to four extra inches of height and takes anti-anxiety meds to conquer his nervousness and sweating when approaching women.  As a result, he increases his “luck”, becoming more attractive overall, and manages to date Marie, a woman who was previously “out of his league”.

What if Marie was attracted to Chris because he is educated and taller than her; it’s important to her that her children have a height advantage and have educated parents to guide them.  Those are simply her preferences with real evolutionary meaning.   Does she have the right to be upset if she finds out that Chris was only 5’2 and is self-educated?  Didn’t he deceive her?

But Chris – should he have to give up on “out of his league” women because he was born unlucky?  That does not seem quite right, either. Why should Phil have all the advantage just because he was born lucky?  In Chris’s eyes, the only thing he is guilty of is leveling the playing field and shouldn’t be blamed for that.

Full disclosure? Or caveat emptor?

Because of the conflicting commands outlined earlier, it’s difficult to see where intentional lying for evolutionary advantage becomes morally wrong. Marie cannot be blamed for feeling deceived when she finds out the facts about Chris, since we rely on truth of testimony.  Nor can Chris be blamed for presenting an enhanced image of himself.

Maybe there are facts about us that we surely need to disclose.  Suggestions could be genetic diseases, infertility (it is important for some people that their children be biologically-related), sex-reassignment surgery (since it relates to bearing children), psychiatric illness, and drug ab/use.  At the same time, it seems that we have real justification for maintaining an advantageous image and letting others believe it.


Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. About what kinds of information do you rely on testimony? Do you ever ask people for sources of their information? If you ask for sources, can this be damaging to the relationship in that it shows lack of trust, doubts their intelligence, or causes offense?
  2. About what kinds of things is it ok to lie about? For example, imagine you are making an online dating profile.  Your hair is dyed red, but it’s naturally brown.  Many men add two inches to their listed height. Does anything bother you about this?
  3. If a person is born unlucky (biologically, socio-economically, and socially), does s/he do anything wrong by “leveling the playing field”? Should the person just accept that s/he does not deserve to “win” in a biological and evolutionary sense?
This entry was posted in: philosophy, Relationships


I’m a independent philosophy scholar, writer, and business school graduate. I believe each one of us has a purpose and my mission is to blog about things that will help you discover yours! I’m inspired by my friends, my colleagues, the beauty of nature, Western philosophy and Eastern wisdom.

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