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Adultery And Responsibility

One thing that has baffled me for a while is how my conception of adultery diverges from that held by people whose views on relationships and sex I otherwise agree with. Today Amanda states a view that I've heard numerous times (especially on the Brunching board):

... the cheater is the one with a S.O. to cheat on. Again, women are not obligated to force men to be faithful by taking a universal oath not to sleep with married men. It's common sense not to do it. However, the husbands in question stood up before their families, communities, and a god they presumably believed in and vowed fidelity.

To me, on the other hand, it seems obvious that it's wrong to sleep with someone who's committed to someone else*. Perhaps the difference is in part simply an instance of the larger question of when one's contribution to a harm is indirect enough that you're no longer responsible for it. My utilitarian leanings are strong enough to feel that responsibility maps pretty closely to causality (i.e., you're responsible for anything that you could have made happen differently -- except in situations where there's positive motivational effects from apportioning blame differently). For example, we might differ on whether it's OK to offer a vegetarian a dish with meat in it -- after all, I never promised that that person would abstain from meat.

But I think there disagreement on the adultery question is also rooted in differing concepts of marriage. The "not responsible" case is based on a very contractarian model of marriage. Marriage, including the fidelity clause, is a private agreement between the husband and wife. Thus nobody who wasn't part of that contract has any obligation to respect it or avoid facilitating the breach of it.

There are, however, certain private transactions that we do expect to be honored as a society. Take buying and selling property. If my parents sell their house, I can't go ahead and waltz into the new owners' living room on the rationale that I never agreed to the transfer of property. Private property transactions are expected to be honored by the rest of society.

What makes the institution of marriage really work is its social embeddedness. It's not merely a contract. It's a social role that the rest of society is expected to recognize, and in recognizing it implicitly support it. Some people don't feel that such an institution is necessary, and thus they advocate abolishing marriage in favor of individually-tailored contracts. While I'm sensitive to the need for flexibility and diversity in the types of relationships people form, I also see the utility of a limmited number of widely understood templates that allow (and expect) the people around you to adjust to, so that privately conceived relationships aren't continually bumping and scraping against a wider society that's indifferent to their existence.

*I shouldn't have to say this, but keep in mind that I'm not at all diminishing the responsibility held by the married cheater.


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