What Is Really Wrong With Adultery?

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Over the last decade, philosophers have begun to ask the question: what is really so good about monogamy? Or, put in a different way, what is really so wrong with adultery? Their arguments for the morality of adultery, however, very much miss the mark.

It is one of the most commonly held views in Western society that adultery is wrong. This has been the case for many years: Anne Boleyn was branded as wrong by having an affair in the 1530s and equally, anyone would be seen as immoral for “sleeping around” behind their partner’s back today. The statistics on adultery then become quite shocking. A survey on which countries are the most unfaithful estimates that one in three couples in the UK cheat through extramarital affairs. Furthermore, hook-up site for extra-marital affairs, such as Ashley Morrison, have been used by over one-million Brits. The UK isn’t even the worst culprit, Germany and Italy come in at 45% of couples and Thailand grabs the record with 56%, meaning that over half of Thai couples are not loyal. But there is an even more shocking statistic. According to The Telegraph, only a third of Brits think that extra-marital affairs would cause a split in their relationship. So maybe adultery really isn’t that bad? Indeed, many philosophers have begun to suggest exactly that.

Dan Savage famously claimed that ‘monogamy makes us miserable’. Anderson furthered the claim in The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating by suggesting that monogamy fails both men and women. We get, according to Anderson, no benefit out of such an arrangement, but are set to lose a lot both emotionally and physically. But all of this views marriage and relationships as nothing more than emotions and sex (i.e. that they are about obtaining happiness and sexual pleasure). What they completely ignore is the value of trustful relationships and love itself.

The value of love in relationships that pre-exist ought to be preserved. Love between two people is a source of natural happiness itself and, while it may often cause pain and heartbreak (from arguments to splits) this is no reason to promote non-monogamous relationships. This is because such relationships do – in the long term – lift our happiness, as the value of love is an emotional and spiritual happiness. What exactly would happen to love if monogamy was abandoned? It would become more along the lines of ‘I prefer you to X, or Y’, rather than a statement of devotion and true care for a single individual. The days of Pride and Prejudice and the conventionally romantic Rom-Com are certainly becoming a thing of the past.

Simultaneously, the value of marriage would also deplete. Marriage would become simply an arrangement – perhaps for financial or pragmatic reasons – rather than a true expression of emotion and unity. The vows would change from devotion to one person, to simply having decided that this one is slightly better than any of the other options available. Others argue against this by suggesting that you could have extra-marital sex and devote yourself emotionally to one person to reserve love values. But can you really have emotionless sex continuously? Or, if you did, would that not make sex with your partner also emotionless and cause a lack in the deepening of your emotional bond. It seems that if monogamy is abandoned, both love and marriage lose their essential value, and this in itself is enough of a reason to hold on to the value and ethics of monogamous relationships, and label adultery as immoral – at least in the majority of cases.

However, there will be many sceptics of a ‘value of love’ type argument, so what about the more practical arguments pro-adultery? Another argument – that I encountered while at the Annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference in Sheffield – suggested that monogamy ‘restricts our sexual fluidity’ and leaves us ‘sexually unfulfilled’. But why should it be presumed that being able to fulfil every sexual desire and fetish is the goal? This argument completely ignores the value of sexual limitation, control and restraint. It seems that there is an intrinsic value in being able to control yourself sexually within the boundaries of your relationship and then, over time, exploring those boundaries with your partner. This whole journey of mutual sexual exploration vanishes if you can just hook-up with your neighbour, if your spouse happens to refuse to engage in BDSM. And sex, like everything else, ought to be a game of give and take.

DePaulo also argues that polygamy gives ‘a life full of safe and excellent sex’. She cites scientific evidence that non-monogamous couples are more likely to be cautious regarding safe sex (i.e. condom use) and are more likely to get tested for STIs. She seems to suggest that monogamy causes a culture of sexual ignorance. But is the answer to this simply not to educate and raise awareness? This could be achieved through a better approach to sex education in schools, awareness campaigns on television and a more open environment for sexual discourse in professional environments. It should not be presumed that the way to make sex safer is to allow people to engage in polygamous relationships. It would be like saying ‘we ought to allow the university to unfairly distribute bad marks because it seems to strive students on to then achieve better’. The argument simply does not work.

There is perhaps another avenue left to investigate. What about relationships where you mutually agree that you can have adulterous relationships? In this case, to have such a relationship would not break trust, or damage society (though it still might deplete the value of love). But this argument – which has been investigated by philosophers – totally misses the point. If you agree this can occur in the relationship, then this is not adultery. Adultery, by definition, is ‘extramarital sex that wilfully and maliciously interferes with marriages or loving relationships’. But, in the case that it is agreed upon, there is no malice intended. Malice comes from breaking trust and going behind another’s back. Hence, no adultery occurs here. But it still isn’t monogamy. But does this case not seem odd? Would society not crumble if all relationships were of this sort? What would become of the value of marriage if your spouse could legitimately sexually engage with the girl in the office, or the fit lad that works in the gym?

What can we learn from all of this? It seems that, if Britain continues to loosen its attitude to monogamy and adultery, then the value of love and marriage will quickly vanish. Furthermore, the arguments for polygamy are – on the whole – unconvincing. Even though this only skims the surface of the debate, it seems that society needs to remember that there is indeed something wrong with adultery.

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I'm a third-year Philosophy and History student whose interests (outside my love for Tudor history) pertain to issues on equality, sex and moral ethics and education. I'm also Philosophy Academic President 2016-17. @russb005

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