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Dear Joseph,
I'd like you to settle an argument that's been raging between two of my friends and me for over a week now. I say that "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" was about the most immoral thing I've ever seen on TV; it seemed like a sort of legalized prostitution. My friends, whom I generally think of as pretty good people, argue that because no one was coerced to do anything, the show was not immoral. So tell me, Mr. Ethics, who's right? --Perplexed and Angry

Dear Perplexed and Angry,
For that .001% of Americans who might actually be unfamiliar with "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" let me briefly explain the TV special's premise. (Since I didn't see it, I'm basing my summary on what I've read.) An unmarried man, who was examined and found to have assets in excess of $2 million, remained hidden throughout almost the entire show and watched as 50 women (selected from some 2,000 volunteers) paraded themselves before him and the audience in bathing suits and answered a variety of questions. The women, hard as it is for me to believe, had agreed in advance that if the man selected them, they would immediately marry him on national television. At the program's end, the man did select one woman, and the couple was publicly wed.

Although the show appealed to the lowest form of human greed, I don't automatically condemn it as immoral, probably for the same reason that your friends don't. The women who appeared on the program knew exactly why they were going on (to marry a rich man), and the man knew exactly why they wanted to marry him (because he was rich). Such behavior is greedy, even loathsome, but it's not, in my view, immoral.

Immoral would be, for example, if a woman told a wealthy man that she loved him and wanted to marry him, when she knew all along that the only thing she loved about him was his money. Equally immoral would be a man who proclaimed his love for a woman only because he knew that that was the only way he could get her to sleep with him.

You dismiss the show, in my view justifiably, as being almost a form of legalized prostitution. Is prostitution immoral? In my view, it's not--in theory, anyway. (In practice, prostitution is very often immoral, because it involves young women being abused by pimps; many of these women come from emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive homes, so the choices they make to become prostitutes are often not really free-will decisions.)

I believe that prostitution is debasing to the human spirit and that it's unholy, because it transforms the act of loving into a business transaction. But if a woman freely chooses (that is, she could earn money doing other types of work) to accept money from a man in exchange for sex, I don't see the act in and of itself as immoral.

I realize that many people, particularly those on the religious right and feminists on the left, would disagree with me. I'm somewhat puzzled by the feminist objections, since feminists are committed to the belief that a woman should have the right to do what she wants with her body. Does that mean that a woman should have the right to do what she wants with her body only when she wants to abort a fetus but not when she wants to sell her body for sex? Again, I'm not advocating prostitution; it's about as unholy an act as I can imagine. I'm only arguing that if the relationship is entered into freely, it's not clear to me why this should be condemned as immoral.

"Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" reminds me of the famous story about George Bernard Shaw, who supposedly met a beautiful woman at a party and asked her if she'd sleep with a man for a million pounds. "I would," the woman answered.

"And would you sleep with someone for five pounds?" Shaw asked.

The woman grew indignant. "What do you think I am?" she asked.

Shaw responded: "We've already established what you are. Now, we're just haggling over the price."

The moment a woman--or a man--agrees to marry someone based on his wallet, she has converted the bonds of marriage into a form of prostitution. Yet, if this woman makes it known to the man that money is the only reason she's marrying him, then he's not being misled. If, however, she tells him that she loves him when she doesn't, that's far worse morally than prostitution, since it involves a serious deception through an emotionally exploitative lie.

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