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Serial Adultery: Is It Chance or Character?

When does repeated adultery become an issue of character?

In the comments to my previous posts on adultery, one recurring theme dealt with "serial" adulterers, people whose behavior shows a pattern of repeated cheating. This can involve repeated affairs within one committed relationship, or leaving one relationship for a lover, then leaving that person for another, and so on.

This is a great topic, if only because it allows me to tie together several of the things I've discussed before on this blog: adultery, strength, Kant, and procrastination. Wait—huh? OK, I admit, that last one is a bit of a stretch—but I mention it because the way I will look at serial adultery is very similar to how I look at chronic (or serial) procrastination in my chapter in The Thief of Time, which is based on Kant's writings on character and strength.

The basic idea is that to Kant, lapses in character—whether in terms of putting a task off against your better judgment, engaging in extramarital activity, or any other failure to live up to the standards you set or accept for yourself—can be based on two factors. The first is affect, which Kant defines as a sudden impulse or craving which, while potentially very strong and seemingly overwhelming, is nonetheless momentary and fleeting. Understood this way, affect can overwhelm our rational decision-making and "make" us do things we know we shouldn't. (I put "make" in quotes because we still have the choice to resist, but that resistance is more difficult under affect.)

Everyone experiences affect, and everyone succumbs to it at times, depending on his or her strength of will. To Kant, this does not signal or imply any viciousness of character, but "only a lack of virtue...
which indeed can coexist with the best will" (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 408). Even the strongest (most virtuous) person will succumb to passing temptation occasionally, and such an act can be wrong or immoral, but in general this does not make the person less strong, virtuous, or admirable for it—it just makes her human.

But lapses can also be due to passion, which Kant defines as a persistent, steady desire that corrupts our rationality and influences our decision-making at a deeper level. Recall that for Kant, human beings have the ability (and responsibility) to be autonomous in their choices, resisting all external and internal influences until they have been considered and endorsed by their reason. Both affect and passion represent heteronomy (a failure of autonomy), but while affect simply overwhelms a person's reason once in a while, passion actually worms its way into the process of decision-making itself. In Kant's words, affect "produces a momentary loss of freedom and self-control," while passion "surrenders both" (Anthropology, 267).

Given the corrupting nature of passion, then, it has a greater and more lasting effect on one's strength of character. Giving in to affect, the occasional craving or impulse, can leave your overall strength fairly constant, but giving in to passion corrodes your strength by weakening your resolve to resist it—it's working from the inside, so to speak, like a secret agent infiltrating a top government committee. So succumbing to passion not only results in a bad act then, but also makes it more likely that you will succumb to that passion—or another passion, or affect—in the future, because it lessens your strength of will. (Also, it implies some viciousness of character, since your very judgment is compromised.)

In my book chapter, I use this distinction to discuss long spells of procrastination, or "procrastination traps," which are more likely to be the result of passion corrupting one's judgment than a fleeting affect. As we've characterized it, affect doesn't lead to any lasting weakening of the will, so succumbing at one time doesn't make it any more (or less) likely that you'll succumb next time. And if you do, it'll just be another occasional lapse--probably no big deal.

But if you find yourself procrastinating time and time again, in the same circumstances, then it is more likely that passion is the cause; your decision-making has been corrupted so as to allow the passion to influence your choices over time. If you're trying to finish a task, and slip once to watch an interesting TV show, that's probably affect. If you have serious problems with the task because you keep turning on the TV to watch infomercials for blankets with sleeves (even though you already own one of each color—and plaid), then there is likely a deeper problem with your choice process. (This also points out that a "passion" in this sense does not have to be passionate in the normal sense!)

OK, OK—what about adultery? I'm arguing that a similar thing may be going on with repeat adulterers. If a person cheats once, it may have been the result of affect, a strong but fleeting attraction (physical or emotional) to another person. If he cheats twice, it still could have been affect, but there is now some reason to believe that it's passion (now the word makes more sense, huh?). If he does it again and again, then it's probably not (just) that he's attracted to all these other women, but instead he's got a deep passion for something more general, whether that be sex, intimacy, power, and so on. I don't doubt that Tiger Woods was attracted to all the women he slept with, but it doesn't take a trained therapist to guess that he was driven by a desire or need for something more general, and these women helped him satisfy that.

So I would say that serial adultery is an issue of character, that it reflects something inherent in the persons' decision-making process that drives him (or her) to cheat repeatedly. Don't get me wrong—cheating once also reflects on a person's character, and not well. But if it happens just once and never again, his return to fidelity does speak well of his character, and indicates that it was a momentary transgression, a chance temptation to which he chose (that once) to give in—which doesn't make it any less harmful or hurtful, but may give hope to the spouse (or the new love for whom he left his last) that it won't happen again.