What Would a Stoic Do? The problem with infidelity

CheatingA major point of practical philosophy — indeed, the whole point of it, really — is to provide us with tools and guidance to navigate everyday life. This is probably why my recently started “Stoic Advice” column has quickly become so popular. But from time to time I pick my own conundrum and present it to the Stoic community for further thought and discussion, hence this series, What Would a Stoic Do (under these circumstances)? Today we talk about infidelity.

The occasion is provided by an article in 1843 magazine (part of The Economist), entitled “What’s wrong with infidelity?” and written by Emily Bobrow. Her conclusion, based on her interview with psychotherapist Esther Perel, is: not much. My counter-response will be: plenty.

The article begins with the story of Seth (likely not his real name, of course) and his unnamed girlfriend, who each cheated on each other and had been stung by the other’s betrayal. They went to Perel to seek counsel. As the article puts it:

“‘Esther helped us understand that perfection is not possible in relationships,’ [Seth] explains to me. With Perel’s help, Seth and his fiancée have come to embrace a relationship they are calling ‘monogamish’ — that is, they will aspire to be faithful to each other, but also tolerate the occasional fling.”

Well, that sounds reasonable, except that once both partners agree that it is okay to have occasional flings we do not have monogamy anymore, we have a partially open relationship. There is, as far as I can see, nothing particularly wrong with it, so long as there is no betrayal of trust — which is the thing that brought Seth to psychotherapy to begin with.

[In the following I will draw on general Stoic principles as I think they apply to modern life, not directly on what the ancient sources say on the topic of sex, since they vary from “completely promiscuous, do it in the streets” to “only within marriage, only for procreation.” Which to me indicates one area where Stoic thinking needs to be updated for modern times.]

The 1843 article continues: “studies show that even as we have become more permissive about most things involving either sex or marriage — ever ready to accept couples who marry late, divorce early, forgo children or choose not to marry at all — we have grown only more censorious of philanderers. In a survey of public attitudes in 40 countries from the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, infidelity was the issue that earned the most opprobrium around the world.”

However, the numbers tell a different story: “Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by as there are few incentives for candour and definitions vary. Numbers of those in Western countries admitting to some sort of infidelity range from 30% to 75% of men and 20% to 68% of women.” And Perel’s comment is: “People in the States are massively hypocritical, they don’t cheat any less than the French. They just feel more guilty about it.”

Now, when one is hypocritical about something, there are two ways out of the hypocrisy: one, shall we call it the French way?, is just to own up to the misbehavior and even be proud of it. The other, I’m going to call it the Stoic way, is to stop misbehaving, or at the least to do as much as possible to stop. Clearly, Perel and I disagree on which way is best.

She justifies her take in this way: “[Perel] wants us to understand that extramarital yearnings are all too natural, and that affairs are terribly, perhaps even inevitably, human.”

Right, and didn’t the Stoics say that we should live “according to nature”? So, what’s the problem? But of course what the Stoics meant by that phrase was not an appeal to nature — which is a logical fallacy of which Perel doesn’t seem to be aware, or care for — but rather that we should live by taking human nature seriously. And human nature is to be a social animal capable of reason. From this perspective, if Seth and his girlfriend recognize that they each have an urge for occasional flings, but that they’d rather stay in the relationship because they love each other, then the reasonable thing to do is to shift to the model of an open relationship, setting boundaries on how frequent and of what importance the allowed flings may be (for instance, there is a difference between an open relationship and a polyamorous one).

But to argue, as Perel does, that something that comes natural to us — like yearning for sex with multiple partners — is therefore also acceptable is bizarre. We also have natural impulses toward violence and xenophobia, toward systematically lying to cover up our misdeeds, becoming angry at others and even at natural events, and so forth. By Perel’s logic there would, therefore, be nothing wrong in also indulging in violence, xenophobic behavior, widespread lying, and unrepressed anger.

Here is what Epictetus has to say about that general point:

“Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.” (Enchiridion 10)

Back to Bobrow’s article: “Americans have a uniquely narrow-minded take on infidelity, says Perel. ‘Most Europeans see it as an imperfection, and not something worth destroying your marriage over.'”

Well, I’d like to see data about that. I’m European, and I know personally plenty of people who wrecked their marriages or relationships over infidelity. Be that as it may, I don’t think the Stoic counsel would be to quit your partner as soon as s/he does something wrong, including betraying your trust in sexual matters. After all, it was Marcus who said:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

I understand, of course, that Perel is a psychotherapist, not a philosopher. She is concerned with helping her patients dealing with, and possibly overcoming, problems. But the thing about Stoic philosophy is that it is both philosophy and therapy for the sane, so to speak, meaning that it doesn’t substitute for medical intervention, but does help people to think broadly about what they do and why.

In the specific case of cheating, the crucial virtues that come into play are those of temperance and justice, the latter in the specific sense of fairness to others, including, and perhaps beginning with, your partner. The discipline associated with justice is that of action, which teaches us how to behave in the world, considering first and foremost the fact that we are social beings, and that our actions affect others. A Stoic does not cheat, as that is clearly unvirtuous behavior. But there is nothing unvirtuous in seeking the “preferred indifferent” of multiple sexual partners, especially if it isn’t just to gratify oneself (that would be a bit too Cyrenaic, perhaps?), but — as in the case of Seth and his girlfriend — to actually make a loving relationship work better.

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Categories: What Would a Stoic Do?

32 replies

  1. Thank you for your reply Professor Pigliucci.

    Professor I only mentioned Kant to emphasize my viewpoint that within two very important normative ethical theories, Virtue Ethics and Deontological Ethics, infidelity would be deemed to be an impermissible act.

    Professor does not intent play a role in virtue ethics as it does in deontological ethics?

    Are there not times when a virtue ethicist’s actions might have unintended consequences?

    Unless one were to use some serious mental gymnastics by suggesting a scenario where infidelity provided the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, I’m hard pressed to find that within any of the various ethical theories that I have some familiarity with that the act of infidelity would be considered permissible.

    Do you agree with my last claim?

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  2. Ronald,

    Yes, intent, as well as consequences, do play a role in virtue ethics. In that sense, VE blends elements of both deontology and utilitarianism. However, the actual focus of VE is on character improvement and the practice of virtue, not specifically on determining whether a particular action is right or wrong, as in the other two cases.

    And yes, I don’t see any of the three major ethical frameworks somehow justifying infidelity.

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