Saturday, September 23, 2006

Aiding Infidelity

I assume most people will agree that it's wrong to cheat on your partner. But is the person you cheat with doing anything wrong? Indeed, is it really the act that matters here?

Now, I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with non-exclusivity per se. Rather, I take "cheating" to essentially involve dishonesty. What's wrong is to mislead your partner into believing that the relationship is an exclusive one, only to violate that expectation behind her back. Such deceit implies a gross lack of respect.

So consider a would-be cheater who simply lacks the opportunity to act out their adulterous wishes. This person is no better, it seems to me, merely for being constrained by circumstance. It is the intention to cheat - should the opportunity arise - that constitutes disrespect. The act itself seems superfluous. (I think Jesus once said something similar about "committing adultery in your heart", right? Any Christians out there are welcome to comment with further details.)

If this is correct, then it seems that the wrongdoing has already been done long before the actual act of adultery takes place. Hence one's partner in infidelity is not really a participant in wrongdoing after all. Does that sound right?

One might object that the act has significance for the cheated partner. They would be more devastated upon learning that adultery actually took place. This is arguably irrational, at least if the above line of argument is correct; they should be just as devastated by the mere intention of their partner to betray them. But rational or not, the felt pain is real enough, and this may be a morally relevant factor.

Are we obligated to avoid causing people irrational mental anguish? I'm not so sure about that, actually. Appeasing irrationality may be a bad policy, as in being overly sensitive to "offending" homophobes or religious sensibilities. In general, I think it is important to uphold that individuals are not responsible for others' irrationality, and so not (wholly) responsible for their irrational suffering. But this may be a special case, for even if the cheated partner only has legitimate complaint against the intention, and not the act, still the two are closely enough related that causing pain by contributing to the latter might also be morally problematic. If they are already a victim, it may be callous (even if strictly true) to dismiss related hurts as "irrational", or to be careless about exacerbating their situation.

What do you think?



  1. Richard; I like the post; I thought I just could just disagree with your claim that 'it is the intention to cheat ... that constitutes disrespect', but found it all got a bit tricky!

    Does that claim stem from more general views about intentions, rather then actions, being what matters in morality, is it meant to follow from something special to the case?

    If it's the former, that's a big issue that's difficult to resolve here (I'd agree that the difference between the would-be phi-er, and the actual phi-er is one of circumstance, but that just shows difference in circumstance can make important moral differences).

    If it's the latter, I can't see that it does. The deceit is disrespectful because it deprives the other party of their autonomy, and it does this because it prevents them from making an informed choice about whether to be in the relationship. I don't see why information about one's intentions, and information about one's actual actions, can't both be required for the other party to make an informed choice. The other party might be concerned with actual actions.

    I think this brings us to the tricky part. Suppose your partner is concerned with actual infidelity. If you wait until a bit after cheating to tell them, you've deprived them of their autonomy for some time; you haven't given them relevant information that's been avaliable to you. It's also difficult to tell them when you're in the act (or just after)! So to avoid wronging them, one should really tell the other party before the infidelity takes place. But one doesn't always know what actions one will perform, especially when they involve the consent of another. So sometimes it will look as if the best you can do is tell your partner what actions you intend to perform.

    So, sometimes, even when the other party is concerned with actual infidelity, perhaps you should provide them with information about your intentions for them to make an informed choice. Make any sense?

  2. My claim was meant to be "special to the case". What strikes me as wrong about cheating is that it indicates that you don't value your partner in the right (respectful) way. By intending to have an affair given the opportunity, you are already being dishonest with your partner about how you view your relationship. They think you're committed to its exclusivity, when in fact you are not.

    I'm not sure what the action itself adds to this. You note that "the other party might be concerned with actual actions." But why? The gap between intention and action is merely one of external circumstance, so why should she care about that? [Perhaps there are more general lessons to be drawn here after all. But intentions do seem especially central to personal relationships.]

    It would be bizarre for someone to say: "I don't mind you trying to have an affair; but if circumstances are such that you succeed, by damn, I will be furious at the betrayal!" Surely this is no permission at all. To intend to act is ipso facto to intend to successfully act, so I don't think it'd be possible to take oneself to be following a rule that granted one permission to try but not succeed. It's rather paradoxical. You're merely trying, after all, which the rule allows; but what you're trying to do is succeed -- i.e. something that the rule explicitly bans. So even here, I think the intention alone indicates disrespect for your partner's wishes -- you are trying to violate them, after all.

    If you tell her you're trying to sleep around, and she's okay with that so long as you tell her if anything actually happens (at which point she'll get angry), then I guess it's okay for you to do just that. I don't actually think that's "cheating" any more, since there's no dishonesty: you were up front about your intentions and she had no objection. Subsequent anger on her part would be purely irrational. (Again, that's not to dismiss it entirely: presumably if you cared about her you'd want to avoid causing such upset, all else being equal. But I don't think you've "wronged" her.)

    On your last point, I guess if your intention was precise enough that it amounted to an actual plan (with high likelihood of success), then telling your partner about it would really just be to report the action in advance. Perhaps that resolves the puzzle? Alternatively, it seems reasonable to just tell her at the first convenient opportunity afterwards. A couple of hours' delay doesn't really seem to qualify as a deprivation of autonomy here! (Unless she had no idea that you were even trying, but that brings me back to my earlier point.)

  3. Thanks for the in-depth reply! It brings out something I haven't properly considered about the way in which intentions are central to personal relationships. Becuase, with respect what you say in the first paragraph, I'm intially tempted to say that what intentions you have bears on how you view the relationship, but your partner's concern may be with how the relationship actually is, so there's a gap to exploit there. But this does seem a bit perverse, just as we'd expect if how the relationship actually is is constituted in part by how you view the relationship (and hence by your intentions).

    But I don't think that threatens what I initially said, because it seems to me that how a relationship is also depends on how you act. You say it'd be odd for one party to a relationship to be concerned only with the other's actions, and not intentions. I agree; but this doesn't show that it's only intentions that matter. Even if it is true that if you are conerned with actual infidelity then you should be concerned by a partners intention to commit infidelity, it doesn't follow that one cannot be conerned by your partners actual actions over and above this.

  4. "If this is correct, then it seems that the wrongdoing has already been done long before the actual act of adultery takes place. Hence one's partner in infidelity is not really a participant in wrongdoing after all. Does that sound right?"

    Not to me, for all that's worth. I think it becomes intuitively clearer if we think about a situation where the persons play analogous roles, but the moral failing is greater. For example, suppose Bob plans to kill his wife Alice, just for fun. He's been planing this on his own for months. He asks his friend Cindy to go pick up some poison from the store and Cindy complies, knowing Bob's plan. Isn't Cindy, Bob's partner in crime, also a participant in the wrongdoing?

  5. If you make a promise to some knowing that, under certain circumstances, you will break that promise then surely the likelihood of the circumstances matters.

    For example, if you secretly know you could resist advances from anyone except Beyonce Knowles, surely it is better to shut up about that than try to ask your partner for a special exception to the promise you make to them.

    I think there is a a threshold of probability below which it is better to make the promise despite the chance you will break it.

    The situation of the person you cheat with raises the issue of the moral status of inducing someone to break a promise. My gut says this is wrong but I am having trouble coming up with a good justification. I think it's fine for employers and unions to do it, for example.

  6. Jesus doesn't say that adultery in the heart is tantamount to adultery in the flesh, just that lust is wrong because it is adultery in the heart. He doesn't compare the relative wrongness of adultery in the heart and adultery of the flesh.

    There is one Christian doctrine that's relative to this. According to I Corinthians 7, the husband's body belongs to the wife and the wife's body belongs to the husband. Some have been offended by this because some have ignored the reciprocity here and just seen the wife's body as belonging to the husband, but the text has it going both ways.

    If you took that literally, it would be easy to get an argument going. Someone who has sex with me (who is not my wife) would be using her property without her permission for something only she has a right to, and she could argue that this is what marriage entails and thus I have given her this right to exclusive use of my body sexually.

    I don't think it needs to be interpreted literally, of course, but it's easier to frame the argument that way. But whatever that one line might mean, clearly Paul intended to say at least that husbands and wives have some right to their spouse not having sex with other people, and if that's true then it's not just the spouse who does something wrong, because the other person is doing something only the person's spouse has a right to do (not that it's a right to do it whenever they feel like it, of course, but it's a right no one else has).

    To argue for something like this philosophically, you'd need to make the case that marriage vows bestow this sort of right not to be cheated on. My first thought at what that might look like is that each spouse is bestowing the right not to be cheated on onto the spouse rather than just obtaining an obligation not to cheat. With that, I think it follows that anyone who sleeps with the spouse does something wrong because it violates an exclusive right.

    This probably won't convince anyone who doesn't already agree, but it is how I've always viewed marriage vows. It's also what people seem to assume when they jealously get angry at a rival lover (although that happens with non-married cases as well to a lesser degree, but if there is some commitment in such relationships then maybe the right occurs there too.

  7. In many cases, the person that someone cheats with not only engages in the act with them, but also helps them develop the intention. In other words, the cheater doesn't have the intention to cheat until after they've began to get into a relationship with the person who they cheat with.

    You're using "intention" as an idealized concept, so that a pre-existing intention plus an opportunity provided by the external world is guaranteed to lead to the act. But in reality, when someone has some inclination to cheat it's not clear if the person is going to follow through on that inclination until the act has commenced. Someone who seems to have the intention to cheat may back off once the opportunity is near at hand, often because it just feels wrong. Actively seeking out opportunities to cheat, or attempting to cheat, gets pretty close to actually cheating, although there's still a gap. Someone who confesses and apologizes after cheating (without getting caught), and says that they've had a change of heart and will never do it again, seems to be in a much worse position than someone who confesses, apologizes, and pledges fidelity after merely attempting or intending to cheat.

    I'm curious, Richard, do you think that other forms of dishonesty are similar to infidelity in the primacy of intentions? Is intending to lie, or intending to break a promise, as bad as the act? Or is there something special about infidelity?

  8. There is no moral obligation for any (free) person to tell anyone, or ask for anyone else's consent (except their direct partner) for their sexual involvement. They never provided any promises to the cheated-on person not to be involved in that action!

  9. Yikes, lots to respond to here!

    Russ - "Even if it is true that if you are conerned with actual infidelity then you should be concerned by a partners intention to commit infidelity, it doesn't follow that one cannot be concerned by your partners actual actions over and above this."

    Good point. This is also brought out in Blar's insightful comment. I neglected the import of actually going through with an act after facing the full reality of it. Given our limited imaginations, we may require more direct experience in order to fully grasp matters. So it's one thing to form a tentative intention in the abstract, and quite another to go ahead when the prospect is immediately before you. The person who intended to cheat, but thinks better of it "once the opportunity is near at hand", can be seen as overcoming a kind of moral ignorance. Upon becoming more fully aware of their potential actions, they rescinded their old intentions. One who goes ahead with the act is thus worse, for having forsaken this final opportunity for redemption.

    (Technically, I think we can still separate this "final decision", or "immediate intention", from the act itself. One might decide to go right ahead, committing themselves to the action, but then get thwarted at the last minute by some external contingency. I think this person would be just as bad as one who succeeded in their immediate intention to act. But one with an abstract intention might redeem themselves before ever forming an immediate intention; this person is not so bad.)

    "do you think that other forms of dishonesty are similar to infidelity in the primacy of intentions?"

    Yeah, I assume so, subject to the above corrections. (I admit I haven't given much thought to it, but I can't see anything special about infidelity here. You?)

    Devil's Mind - As a general principle, that seems overly simplistic. We can have obligations we never asked for. It might be wrong for me to bad-mouth you to your partner behind your back, for instance. Even though I never promised to refrain from poisoning others' opinion of you, still it would be less than admirable for me to act in such a way. So if seduction is more legitimate, I think that's something that needs to be argued for independently. It also goes beyond the scenario I initially considered, as Blar notes.

    (My opinion? Trying to demolish a good relationship sounds kinda bad; unless you would be replacing it with a relationship that was even more valuable, I suppose. But who's to judge these things? Wouldn't it be paternalistic to refrain from offering yourself to someone merely because you think they're better off as they are? Surely the decision ought to be theirs. So perhaps I ought to endorse seduction after all? I'm really not sure what to make of all this...)

    Jeremy - thanks for the info. I must say I find the property metaphor, and the whole idea of rights over other people's bodies, rather distasteful. You may be right that a lot of jealousy is predicated on this traditional idea. (I'm also reminded of "honour killings" and such in Muslim cultures.) But it does seem odd to me. Do you think a rapist harms the husband of his victim, in addition - and independently of - the obvious harms that she suffers?

    Nigel - I think there's an important difference between intending to break a promise, and simply believing that you might (if unlucky) be unable to keep it (despite your best intentions). If you had positive plans to pursue Beyonce, for instance, then that would seem more problematic.

    James - Your examples seem different because the actions involve causing material harm. But sleeping around isn't a material harm (assume no STDs or risk of pregnancy, etc.), it's a psychic one. What's damaged is your relationship, but as per my exchange with Russ, this entity is largely a psychological construct in any case. It was damaged as soon as you ceased to value and think about it the right way. At least as I see things, a relationship is a melding of minds, so what happens in the external world is of secondary relevance to them.

  10. Does the rapist who rapes my wife harm me indepedently of the harms to her? I'm not sure, but I didn't ground anything on harm to the spouse. It's a violation of my rights, not necessarily a harm (though obviously it's more strongly a violation of her rights, since it violates a lot more of her rights, including the right not to be harmed). I don't think consequentialists are going to accept any of this, so it doesn't surprise me at all that you're not going for it, but it seems to me to be the ordinary view.

  11. You may be right that a lot of jealousy is predicated on this traditional idea.

    Ah, but what is jealousy but the discovery of one's own relative insignificance? It is possible for human beings to see another as the end of their desires and if one feels this for another person, but has the sense that the other does not reciprocate, one will feel jealous. This has nothing to do with ownership per se - this only comes in when a person uses ownership as a mechanism to avoid being confronted with the reality they suspect - that they are loved to a lesser extent than they feel love for their partners. Some people - at the risk of sounding sexist, mostly women, in my experience - never attempt to bring the concept of property into a relationship - but that doesn't mean they aren't jealous. It's just that they never seek to enforce their jealousy. Jealousy has everything to do with the suspicion that things are unequal - which they are if, say, one member of the partnership has been unwilling to risk the unity of their relationship for the sake of adultery while the other has not. As for the whole committing adultery in your heart thing - your philosphising on this issue is lost on me but anyone who says they've never done this is a liar. As with the actually doing it issue, the problem people usually have with their partners 'committing adultery in their hearts' is the suspicion that they do it more readily than them...

  12. I am working through this very issue with my partner. She feels that the infidelity occured with the relation & desire before the actual act. I feel that most people deal with that choice every day and the actual act of infidelity is where the "loss of respect" comes into play. We are continuing to work with each other and the relation is much more open. she does not feel the need to deceive me and I feel much more open in my relation with her.

  13. why even try to find a "wong doing" if you reject the act as being the problem then you reject wrong doing. (ie the though is yet another act jsut one step removed).

    Then the problem is not the thought in your heart but the fact that you are such a person as would have that thought and actually thinking it is just evidence as opposed to 'the wrong' itself.

  14. G. - I was more just suggesting that it's the "act" of forming an adulterous intention, rather than the act of following through on it, that's the real problem here.

  15. I think that on a heuristical or "rule" level you can plausibly say that it's a bad idea to worry too much about irrational suffering most of the time, but I can't tell if that's what you are really saying. If you are saying that irrational suffering shouldn't be included in a final utilitarian calculation I would certainly like to know why not.

  16. we are talking about intentions a lot and its advance knowledge to the partner (the betrayed party) to scrutinize the implications of infidelity. But what if there was no intentions as such, but infidelity occurred due to some external factors, e.g. prolonged persuasion by partner in crime, being long deprived of sex or a bad night after a lean period in relation with the spouse etc? what rights of the betrayed party were violated here? and doesn't act itself determine the concept of infidelity in this case?


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.