Friday, May 21, 2010

Adultery, fornication and marital relations

Start with this intuition: all adulterous actions are intrinsically wrong. Therefore, any action that is intrinsically just like an adulterous action is also wrong. Now the intrinsic character of a successful action is defined by the intentions or action plan—by what the end is and how it is intended to be achieved. Many cases of adultery do not, however, involve an intention to commit adultery. Sam knows that sex with Suzy would be adulterous, but he need not intend the sex qua adulterous. He might intend it qua pleasant or qua unitive-with-Suzy. The distinction is important. There are cases of adultery where there is an intention to commit adultery as such, as when Sam intends to make Suzy's husband a cuckold or make his own wife jealous. Such malicious cases are, ceteris paribus, morally worse than run-of-the-mill adultery done for the sake of pleasure or union.

Thus the intentions in run-of-the-mill adultery are the same as those in typical cases of fornication—to share pleasure with this person, to unite with this person, etc. If adultery is intrinsically wrong, so will these typical cases of fornication be. (And I don't think there are any atypical permissible cases of fornication, either.)

Moreover, so will cases of sexual activity within marriage when the intentions are the same kinds of intentions that typical adulterers and fornicators have. Thus, if Sam's intention is simply to share pleasure with Tamara, he is doing intrinsically the same thing as when he commits adultery with Suzy, even if Tamara happens to be his wife and Suzy doesn't. Thus, if there is to be an intrinsic difference between marital activity and adultery, the marital activity must involve intentions that adulterers cannot have, properly marital intentions such as to unite maritally with Tamara or at least to share pleasure with his own wife, Tamara. It is clear, thus, that it is possible to do something that is relevantly like adultery with one's spouse. Is this why, perhaps, when Jesus said that the man who looks lustfully at a woman has committed adultery with her in heart, he did not limit his remarks to the case of the married man or the married woman? Taking his remarks literally, to look lustfully at one's spouse is to commit adultery with her in the heart. Lust is an essentially non-marital attitude.

Now, for every possible kind of action, there are negative conditions that the intentions have to satisfy. For instance, so that a financial transaction, a hammering of a nail, a drinking of a cup of coffee, a sexual act or an act of teaching be permissible, it must not be done for a malicious ulterior end. However, sexual relations, unlike the hammering of a nail, must satisfy a positive condition on their intentions to be permissible. The intentions must be marital—of a sort that could not be satisfied outside of a marriage.

It is sometimes said that there is something wrong with a couple that stays together only because of their marriage vows rather than because they like each other. Be that as it may, if my above are right, there is something wrong with a couple that stays sexually together only because they like each other. The fact of being married needs to enter into their reasons.


Ryan said...

Dr. Pruss,

In the case of the married man sleeping with a married woman, where both consent, isn’t it true that a relevant aspect of both peoples’ intention is to break their marriage vow of sexual fidelity?

If so, isn’t that a sufficient difference of intention to distinguish the cases of (1) fornication and (2) lustful sex/actions with one’s own spouse?

Alexander R Pruss said...

There need be no intention to break their marriage vow. Here are two ways to see this.

Principle 1: If x intends to achieve a goal G in an action A, then x's intending to achieve G in A is at least in part explanatory of x's doing A.

But, except in the malicious cases I mention, an intention to break of the marriage vow does not contribute to an explanation of the action. Hence, according to Principle 1, there is no such intention. Suppose, for instance, that the man temporarily forgets that he and his intended partner are married. They intend to have sex. Then he remembers that they are married, and not to each other. His remembering that does not make his action any more likely (unless it's a malicious case), and does not contribute to the explanation of the action.

Principle 2: If x intends to achieve a goal G in an action A, then the action is at least in part unsuccessful if the goal has not been achieved.

Now, suppose Sam, who is married to Tamara, chooses to have sex with Suzy, and suppose this is not a malicious case. Suppose that unbeknownst to Sam and Suzy, their respective spouses die moments before Sam and Suzy sleep together. Unless this was a malicious case, their action is no less successful at fulfilling its intentions because their spouses died. But Sam were intending to break the marriage vow, the deaths of the respective spouses would have foiled him--would have made his action, at least thus far, a failure. Hence, Sam has no intention to break the marriage vow.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add: But Sam has an intention of doing an action A, which action he knows to be a breaking of a vow. But "intention of" creates an intensional context, so one cannot go from "Sam intends A" and "A=B" to "Sam intends B".

Raluca Enescu said...

The very reason why aduletry is wrong is because it violates a contract: two people promise fidelity to each other and then one of them breaks the promise.

In this aspect, having sex for pleasure with your own spouse does not violate the contract (unless if you promised to each other that you shall only do it for procreative purposes).

Bun when there is no "fidelity contract" such as a vow (if you don't have a relationship and have one night stands, or if you;re in an open relationship where it has been agreed you don't promise fidelity to each other) - then how could it be wrong? The key element- that of the contract- is missing.You;re not breaking a promise to anyone.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If what makes adultery wrong is that it is a contract violation, then the adulterous act is not intrinsically wrong. It's only extrinsically wrong due to the contract. In other words, the view that adultery is wrong as a contract violation is simply a rejection of the intuition in the first sentence of my post.

There are two ways of looking at the normative effects of marrying. One way sees the normative effect in the sexual arena as the creating of a permission to engage in sexual relations with this person, and other sees the normative effect in the sexual arena as the creting of a prohibition to engage in sexual relations with other persons. The traditional Western view of marriage has been the former, and on this view while marriage strengthens the default prohibition against non-marital sex, it is essentially a sexually permissive institution--it permits something that would otherwise be prohibited. The revisionary view is that marriage is essentially a sexually restrictive institution--it prohibits something that otherwise would have been permissible.

Ryan said...

Dr. Pruss,

You wrote: "But 'intention of' creates an intensional context, so one cannot go from 'Sam intends A' and 'A=B' to 'Sam intends B'."

I was thinking along the lines of your quote. But, using your example above, don't you think we can say "Sam intends B" if 'Sam realizes that A=B"?

Alexander R Pruss said...

No, I don't think knowledge lets you make the move. Intentions are a matter of the will, and knowledge by itself does not change what you will. Suppose Sam intends to kick Fido the dog. He finds out that Fido is male, but this is completely irrelevant to his purposes. The content of his will is the intention to kick Fido the dog. The additional information that Fido is male, and hence that kicking Fido the dog is identical with kicking Fido the male dog, does not affect his will.

Joost said...

Dr. Pruss,

Speaking about this, I read you have a forthcoming book about sexual ethics. Do you know when it will be published?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's under review. I hope not to hear back from the publisher before my modality book is done so my mind doesn't get clouded.

Alexander R Pruss said...

However, I've been emailing MSs to some people who have asked.

Mikaël said...

Great article ! I don't share your views about sexuality, but I share your great sense of logics and read with happyness your thoughts.

Personaly, I defend, on the very same premises and logic, the view that adultery and so-called 'polyamorous relationships' are morally permissible.

In response to Ryan: if the moral problem in adultery is just a breaking of contractual obligation, then adultery is not worse than promising to wash the dishes but finally not washing them.

Moreover, if adultery is just an extrinsic question of contract, isn't it an unbearable oppression to compel ones partner to contract for sexual and love exclusivity? So why not compel him/her to contract for not wearing yellow T-Shirt?...

Finally, the 'contract view' of adultery's wrongness seems disrespectful of body's dignity and unity with soul. It considers body as a simple object which is owned by oneself and which can be given to another person in exchange of its own body. All things consider, I prefer roman catholics view of the question of adultery, fornication, etc., despite I don't share it.

Sincerely yours,


PS: Excuse me for my english, I'm a frenchman.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Thanks for the kind words. I agree that the contract view is problematic. I like what you say about the body as an object. The contract view does make it sound like that.

But I think the contract view can be defended against one of your objections:

"Moreover, if adultery is just an extrinsic question of contract, isn't it an unbearable oppression to compel ones partner to contract for sexual and love exclusivity? So why not compel him/her to contract for not wearing yellow T-Shirt?..."

It doesn't seem to me to be unbearable to contract with someone to not wear yellow T-shirts in exchange for a benefit that one deems to be worthwhile. If you paid me $5,000, I would be willing to promise never to wear a yellow T-shirt. I probably wouldn't agree for $100, because I could imagine that in the future I might want to do something that would require me to wear a yellow T-shirt (maybe I would want to volunteer for some activity where volunteers are required to wear yellow T-shirts).

Similarly, it does not seem intolerable to promise fidelity in exchange for a promise of fidelity.

Mikaël said...

Thank you for your thanking :)

Yes, I agree with your objection but mine have to be understood on my personal view about love and sexuality: I don't care about exclusivity in love and sex (I prefer talk about 'exclusivity' than 'fidelity': I'm FOR fidelity but fidelity is not exclusivity: for instance, I can be faithful with my friend and having more than one friend at the same time) but 99% of women (including my own wife...) don't share my view about 'free love' and 'open marriage', so I had to make concessions in order to not remain celibate...

So, it's 'oppressive' in pretty the same way that voluntary accept to exercise an ungrateful job under orders from a bad boss because there is no other real possibility (apart unemployment) is oppressive.

However, since I'm a classical liberal, I neither want to coerce bad bosses for making them 'altruists' nor want to coerce women for making them 'polyamorous'-friendly...

But this does not prevent me from thinking that bad bosses are immoral and that insist for exclusivity is immoral too ;)

So, I'm not fully happy :(

Yours, sincerly

Mikaël said...

Dear Alexander,

I don't know whether you speak french or not, but in the case you do, let me tell you about my own philosophical blog:

Could I have your authorisation for I proceed to the translation of your article in french for my blog? Of course, I would note the referencees and URL of the original article...

Another question: do you know or have you got a good rational and secular argument against plural simultaneous love relationships (in the case there is absolutely no possibility of child conception within these relationships, because, for instance, there is no sexual intercourse [despite there can be other sexual activities])?

(That could help me not feeling oppressed by amorous and sexual monogamy my wife requires... ;))

Thanks in advance.

Yours, sincerly.

Mikaël said...

Well... since you have not responded to my request, I have only put a link to your article with a summary and personal comments (in french, sorry) in my blog:

Yours, sincerly

Alexander R Pruss said...

Oh, sorry. Yes, of course, you can post, translate, etc.

I didn't respond because I was still thinking about your question about good secular arguments against multiple simultaneous love relationships. It's not an issue I've thought about much, in part because it's not been a major issue for the students I've been teaching. I'll think some more and get back to you.

Mikaël said...

OK, thank you! Well, so I'll be patient... ;)

Mikaël said...

Dear Alex,

As I said you, I created a link to your article in my blog, with personal comments. There were be other comments from my readers. One of them think I have misunderstanding your thoughts. I have explained that according to you, a marital intention is an intention to have non-contraceptive sex (which is either stupid or egoistic within adultery or fornication). I've not based my judgement on this very article, but I've done on your whole writings and the intuition that if "unite maritally with someone" don't concretely differ from "unite with someone", then they don't differ at all. Am I right?

Yours, sincerly.

Mikaël said...

Oops, sorry for grammatical errors, I wrote it quickly.