Adultery or Divorce—Is There a Right Answer?

Is getting divorced "better" than cheating? Maybe not...

Posted Mar 29, 2010

One persistent theme in the (largely fantastic and immensely gratifying) comments* to my post on the ethics of adultery was the option of leaving the relationship altogether, which means divorce in the case of married couples.

Several commenters (including me) noted that while that may be an obvious and relatively costless alternative for some (particularly unmarried couples), factors such as children and financial constraints may make divorce more difficult for others. In turn, this hardship may serve (at least in part) to justify adultery in the case of an extraordinarily dysfunctional relationship from which escape is just as extraordinarily difficult.

(Note my use of the word "may" above—every situation is different, and each person must use his or her judgment to make a decision he or she is ethically comfortable with, such as whether divorce will have a net positive or negative impact on his or her children.)

But I think an even more interesting question is this: even in the absence of children and financial ties, is divorce an ethical alternative to adultery? I presume most would say "of course," but I'm not so sure, and exploring that uncertainty is the subject of this post.

First, let's be clear what we're talking about here. We're not talking about mutually voluntary (bilateral) divorce, in which both spouses agree that disolution of the marriage is the best option for all concerned. And we're not talking about unilateral divorce (initiated by one spouse against the wishes of the other) for other reasons (besided adultery). We are talking about unilaterail divorce, initiated for the purpose of pursuing a romantic and/or sexual relationship with another person, as opposed to remaining married and engaging in adulterous acts.

You may wonder what got me thinking about this (which I've been doing for a while, long before I became a PT blogger). In the last post, I explained that one deontological argument against adultery centered on the breaking of a promise (the wedding vow). But doesn't divorce do the same thing? You know, all that "for better or for worse" and "til death do we part" language (or the rough equivalents)?

Divorce is legal, of course (at least according to civil law if not religious law, which may be as important, if not more important, to some), and in most states does not require a demonstration of fault, but that doesn't settle the ethical issue. For example, I doubt many people base their opinions on the morality of abortion, same-sex marriage, or torture on its legality at any given moment. (But the legality aspect will pop up again later.)

So why is breaking the "staying together" part of the wedding vows OK, but not the "forsaking all others" part—especially when divorce (by definition) ends the marriage, whereas infidelity may not?

Let's start with what's wrong with adultery, but approached differently than we did in the last post. The "wrongness" of adultery is usually traced to three sources: 1) injury or harm to the relationship from the deception usually associated with adultery, 2) injury or harm to the relationship from the adulterous act itself, and 3) the breaking of the marital vow, promise, or commitment. (I treat all three of those as components of harm to the spouse, which is why that is not a separate, fourth category.) In the terms of the previous post, the first two categories would be utilitarian in nature, while the third is deontological (with some utilitarian overtones), but those categories are of less use here.

So let's look at these issues, one at a time:

If the main issue is deception, then divorce does look better, since it does not involve deception (except possibly regarding motive) whereas infidelity often does.

If the main issue with adultery is promise-breaking, then divorce seems to be just as bad, unless one part of the promise is considered more important than another (which it clearly is in different cultures, as discussed in the comments to the last post).

If the main issue with adultery is harm to the relationship, then divorce imposes the same harm—in fact, on the average it does more harm to the relationship, since by definition a marriage cannot survive divorce (unless the couple gets remarried), but a marriage can survive adultery (and, if it doesn't, it ends in divorce anyway). Of course, some would claim that adultery can improve the marriage—if we accept this, at least in some (relatively rare) cases, this makes divorce look even more harmful to the relationship compared to adultery. But even if we doubt the benefits to marrriage of adultery, divorce still does more damage to marriages on the average than adultery does.

If the above is correct (and doesn't leave anything crucially important out), then we can't make a clear-cut determination that divorce is an ethically preferable alternative to adultery. Compared to adultery, divorce is less deceptive (a good thing), represents a roughly equal threat to promise-keeping (a wash), and threatens greater harm to the relationship (a bad thing). So in some cases, divorce may be less ethical than adultery, which goes against (what I take to be) common intuition.

So, is there a right answer? No, not in terms of one right answer for everybody, but each person can come up with an answer that is right for him or her. But, you may ask, in what sense is such an answer "right" if we can't appeal to some higher moral authority for verification? Well, it has to be "right" in the sense that we have reasons for that decision that reflect our integrity or character, which in part is based on our moral beliefs, as well as life experiences, past decisions, and so on. In other words, you have to believe that you have found the right answer, and you have be able to defend that answer to yourself—sincerely, like you're having a conversation with your conscience, not in the sense of rationalization.

For instance, if you value your marriage, the relationship itself, very highly, the fact that divorce poses the greatest threat to that marriage may lead to decide that divorce is not the right answer to an unacceptable marriage (which does not imply that adultery is either, of course, but that's a separate decision discussed in the previous post). Or, if you value honesty very highly, then divorce may be the better way to deal with an unacceptable marriage than adultery is. Or, if there is another factor we have not considered here that is very important to you, such as your religious tradition and what it says about divorce, as well as things we assumed away at the beginning, like children and financial ties, then your right answer will depend on that.

One final question: if what we said above about divorce and adultery is correct, then why is divorce so often regarded as the obvious ethical choice? Does this imply that fidelity within the marriage is regarded as more important than the marriage itself? (Several commenters to the last post focused on this.) People often say, "if you want to have sex with someone else, the honorable thing to do is get a divorce first." Divorce is more honest, true, but it may also give up on the marriage too quickly; after all, many marriages do survive adultery (whether or not they are better off for it).

Here's one possible explanation (and feel free to offer more): Divorce may be seen as more ethically acceptable (outside certain faiths) simply because it is legal. I said above that legality can't settle questions of morality, but it certainly affects our perception of the morality of behavior. Divorce is an institution in Western countries, and to choose divorce is, in some sense, to "play by the rules," whereas adultery represents breaking the rules.

(On the negative side, precisely because it's legal, divorce can more easily be used as a threat—"if you don't do what I want, I'll divorce you"—allowing one spouse to exploit the marital relationship for private gain, especially if the other spouse values the marriage more. It isn't pretty, but it happens.)

All I'm trying to say is that divorce should not be assumed to be always ethically better than adultery—it may be in some cases, but not in all cases. In the end, we must each use our judgment, based on our values and experience, to arrive at what we believe--what we must believe—to be the right answer.**

Let me know what you think!

* I really cannot say enough how much the readers here at PT have come mean to me in my relatively short time here. I've had somesuccess with popular (as opposed to academic) writing before, and I blogged elsewhere, but blogging here provides a level of instant feedback that I've never known before. After the post on the ethics of adultery became so successful—thanks to all of you—I shared the news with some of my academic colleages, who envied the ability that this blog gives me to "reach the people" to such a degree. The current post, in fact, was originally a sketch for an academic paper that, were it ever finished and published, would be read by perhaps dozens of people over my lifetime. Now, publishing it here, it will be read by dozens of people in the first few minutes—simply amazing, and as I said above, immensely gratifying. Thank you.

** The concept of the "right answer" comes originally from the legal philosophy of Ronald Dworkin (particularly from his book Taking Rights Seriously), which I am incorporating into a theory of judgment and character in my scholarly work—more on that to come.