Are You Tempted by Adultery Even Though You Believe It's Wrong?

Are you strong enough to resist cheating?

Posted Apr 08, 2011

In previous posts, I wrote about the ethics of adultery and infidelity, from the viewpoint of different people in an adulterous situation as well as from different varities of moral philosophy. But even if you feel that cheating is wrong, it may still be tempting for various reasons (including evolutionary ones). Of course, it may even be tempting precisely because it's wrong, but let's set that aside for now—I want to stick to cheating driven by something attractive in the affair itself, not the lure of the forbidden. So how do you resist the temptation to sample some emotional or physical intimacy outside of your marriage or committed relationship, even when you believe it's wrong?

To explore this, we'll borrow some moral psychology from Immanuel Kant, who is definitely better known for his duty-based school of morality, but who also wrote extensively on the ability of people to follow the path spelled out in his ethics. (I applied these concepts to adultery previously, in the context of assessing whether someone is a serial adulterer.) Kant recognized that although we are rational beings, we are also physical beings; essentially, we are beasts who are aware we are beasts, and have the power to control our desires and inclinations, a power which he called autonomy.

But while each of us has the potential for autonomous choice, our capacity to exert it can vary; he called that strength or virtue, and it is what today we would call resolve, self-control, or self-regulation. And, similar to the modern psychological work on self-regulation by Roy Baumeister and others, Kant wrote that our strength can be developed through regular "exercise" but can never be perfect—in other words, even the strongest, most virtuous among us can still succumb to temptation, including the temptation to cheat romantically or sexually. (See here for more on Kant, autonomy, and strength.)

Kant wrote of two ways temptation can affect our choices, which are very relevant to the case of adultery. The first is affect, a temporary and passing impulse that can steer us away from following our best judgment. While affect needs to be resisted as much as any temptation, Kant regarded it as the lesser threat to our autonomy, since by nature it is only temporary, and if we lapse in the face of it, it signals a simple lapse in morality, not a tendency toward "evil." The more serious threat is passion, a more pervasive and persistent desire, which worms its way into our judgment, leading us to incorporate the object of the passion into our decision-making and diverting us from what we feel is the "right" thing to do. Given its deeper penetration into the way we make moral choices, passion may lead to a descent into "viciousness," rather than just the simple, occasional "lack of virtue" indicated by succumbing to affect.

How can we apply Kant's conceptions of affect and passion to infidelity? We have to look at the nature of a person's adulterous temptation. For example, take Bob, who has been happily married for years but nonetheless finds himself naturally attracted to women he meets at work and at the gym. Some of them have approached him, flirted with him, and have even made overtures towards him, but he has always managed to say no because he feels strongly that adultery is wrong. Until, that is, he met Jennifer—every fantasy he ever had, come to life in front of him, and making it very clear she wants to be with him. He's never felt like this before; she just pushes every button and fires him up like no one has in years, including his wife. He doesn't rationally consider accepting her offers of intimacy, but he fears that eventually, he will be weak and say yes to her, despite his best intentions.

Should Bob try harder to resist Jennifer's allure? Of course, because he feels strongly that adultery is wrong, and if he keeps this in mind, hopefully he would successfully resist her. He should realize that this temptation, strong as it is, is only temporary and will pass. And if he doesn't resist her, this would signal a certain degree of weakness of will, but Kant would say he is not vicious for it, but merely human—which is not to excuse his behavior by any means, but just to put it in the proper perspective. He is a good person who may occasionally do something he feels is wrong despite his better judgment.

On the other hand, take Jennifer. Jennifer is also married and she too believes adultery is wrong, but at the same time she gets tremendous pleasure or satisfaction from the occasional relationship she forms outside of her marriage. She does try to keep in mind her belief that these relationships are wrong, but finds it hard to deny herself the pleasure she gets from them. So she gives in to the temptation more than she fails to resist it, because she allows the pleasure to influence her decision-making directly. She plans her conquests (including Bob) and presumably rationalizes them, because she wants them deeply but at the same time believes that they are wrong.

To Bob, the prospect of an affair with Jennifer is an affect, whereas to Jennifer it is a passion (in Kant's terms as well as ordinary language). The key difference is that, if Bob does act on it, he is indulging his desire against his better judgment, whereas if Jennifer acts on it, she has changed her judgment to accommodate her desires. As threats to autonomy and ethical behavior go, Jennifer is more at risk, since she has allowed temptation to alter her decision-making, while Bob only allowed temptation to override his when he makes his final choice. Once a person allows her judgment to be corrupted, it is much harder to reverse it—the passion becomes another factor in her decision-making, and over time she will come to accept it and stop fighting it (just as lying seems to become "easier" and more natural the more ones does it).

By all means, switch the roles of Bob and Jennifer if you like, or make them Bobbi and Jake; the last thing I want to do is imply any differences in adulterous behavior or thinking between men and women in general. Or change them to Bob and Jake or Bobbi and Jennifer—adultery can tempt anybody, after all. My point is, if you're facing such a temptation, then think about how the temption influences you. Do you strongly believe that it's wrong to act on it, but nonetheless you find the temptation irresistable? Or do you find yourself reconsidering the immorality of adultery, and perhaps rationalizing engaging in it? Do you find yourself saying "just this once," and then accepting that you are going to do it?

Your answers reveal a lot about whether this temptation takes the form of an affect or passion for you, as well as how you should focus your strength to fight it. With affect, it is "simply" a matter of willpower, whether you exert it directly or use a coping method like avoidance (try to stay away from the source of the temptation) or reinforcement (keep a picture of your significant other on your desk). When I say "simply" I do not mean it is easy, but rather that it is a matter of resisting the temptation only, which interferes with your resolve to act on your best judgment, not your judgment itself.

With passion, you have to recognize the way it has corrupted your judgment, how it leads you to  rationally consider doing something that you also feel is wrong. As I said above, this process is difficult to stop once it starts, but the first step is acknowledging that you do it, and stopping yourself when you realize that you're starting to think like this. Passion is a more difficult influence to resist, but the long-term costs of submission are even greater.

And remember, we may have an evolved desire for variety in our emotional and physical relationships, but we also have an evolved capacity to resist these desires if we judge them to be wrong. But don't let thousands of years of human evolution go to waste—have the strength to do what you believe is right.


I explore Kant's moral psychology further in my soon-to-be-released book Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character (Stanford University Press).


Other posts on adultery:

Adultery: Is It Ever Justified?

Adultery or Divorce-Is There a Right Answer?

Adultery: What About the Other Woman (or Man)?

Serial Adultery: Is It Chance or Character?

Adultery: What Should the Betrayed Spouse Do?

Are You in Love with One Person While Committed to Another?

Adultery: What Counts and Who Decides?

Commitment Can Trump Adultery

Should You Tell Your Friend That His or Her Partner Is Cheating?

On Monogamy, Happiness, and Adultery


You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and The Literary Table

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