"Flirting is an art form. The accomplished flirt knows when to be subtle and when to be blunt," said Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steve Gimbel "But the game can be dangerous, especially if you are involved with someone. Does your lover have a right to be pissed at you for flirting? Like so much in ethics, the answer is it depends," he explained.
Gimbel defined flirting as the first steps of courtship without the intent of it going beyond that point. It is good-natured play. He equates flirting to romance as sparring is to boxing. And he adds that neither person will get hurt because both parties know that it is going nowhere.
"Flirting is different from engaged, friendly conversation. It is also different from hitting on or teasing someone. There's an edge to flirting because both of you know it isn't real. Flirting is for playing around, hitting on is for players," Gimbel said.
But is there anything morally wrong with flirting? Gimbel explained that on the face of it, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a flirt. Exclusive relationships require fidelity and that means not sharing one's most intimate side with anyone else, either physically or emotionally, Gimbel said.
"Flirts, like married actors who perform love scenes, are playing a part, only this one is not pre-scripted. The depth of true romantic involvement is something completely different from the shallowness of flirting," Gimbel stated. "A flirt is perfectly capable of enjoying a fulfilling and exclusive relationship. Of course, that requires a certain sort of partner," he asserted.
Gimbel explained that generally partners in a relationship come in two flavors: confident and secure or insecure and seeking approval. "Being with a flirt is a constant reminder that the person attracted to you is found attractive by those around you, and some people are comfortable with that but most people are not," Gimbel said.
That's because flirting for the most part, according to Gimbel, is indistinguishable from hitting on someone. If your partner has any worries about your faithfulness - reasonable or not - watching you flirt will be painful. Sexually charged attention directed at someone other than your partner can send an unintended message, Gimbel said.
"Part of being in an inter-personal relationship is to be concerned about your partner's feelings and flirting may have unintended consequences that you need to be aware of," Gimbel said. Sleeping around on your lover is ethically and morally wrong, according to Gimbel. For others though, it isn't the act but the consequences of the act that make the moral difference. It is the real world consequences that determine what your lover is feeling. As Gimbel said, there is nothing wrong with the act of flirting but context matters.
"Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said that the right to swing your fist ends where your neighbour's nose begins. You have every right to swing your fist or flirt with whomever you like, as long as you are acutely aware of where your neighbour's nose and your lover's feelings begin," he added.